"Am I the first back?" Khamul asked as she strode into the Barad-dur. Sauron sat waiting for her on his black throne. Orcs moved silently and stealthily in the shadows, hoping not to be seen by the powerful lords.
"Aica and Ringe returned a few days ago," Sauron said. "They destroyed several small outposts of the elves. Gil-Galad will not be pleased."
Khamul snorted. "A few outposts," she sneered.
"You did more?"
"I am surprised you haven't heard of it already," Khamul said.
"That great?" Sauron asked, grinning. "Tell me."
"But first tell me of the rest," Khamul said.
"Together Metima and Yanta have nearly driven the Numenorean settlers out of Middle-Earth," Sauron said. "Most are hiding in the hills. Far more than are dead, which is displeasing. But still, there will be no more settlements for a long time."
"I have done far better," Khamul said. "Umbar has fallen."
For a long moment, Sauron stared at her in silence. "You are joking," he said at last.
Khamul shook her head. "The Easterlings, Haradrim, and Variags razed it to the ground. Only one ship escaped to tell the Numenorean king of our might."
"You destroyed Umbar," Sauron whispered. "Razed it to the ground."
"There is nothing left but ruins," Khamul said, "and the Haradrim are our allies."
Sauron smiled. "This is a great triumph!" he exclaimed. "We may not need cunning to defeat Numenor after all! Umbar was their second-greatest stronghold in these lands save the Pelargir alone, and they have been scattered. Numenor has lost its foothold in Arda!"
Khamul grinned. And now, she thought, you will promote me to chief of the ringbearers. Forget some Numenorean lord and give me command over all the rings.
"This is beyond all belief!" Sauron said. "I knew there were many nomads in Haradwaith, but I had no idea there were enough to overthrow Umbar!"
"My lord!" Vorea exclaimed, walking into the throne room of the Barad-dur. "New Haven has fallen!"
"It just keeps getting better!" Sauron laughed. "First the settlers scattered, then the elves in an uproar, next Umbar lies in ruins, and now New Haven has followed suit!"
"The hill people burned it with my aid," Vorea said. It is ashes and smoke now."
"Excellent," Sauron said. "Numenor has lost everything now."
A small orc crept into the throne room, quivering with terror.
"What is it?" Sauron asked. "Speak your news, quickly."
"My lord," the orc squeaked. It glanced from Vorea to Khamul, then shivered and seemed to shrink.
"What is it?" Khamul thundered.
"A great fleet has been sighted," the orc said nervously.
"A fleet of ships, my lord," the orc repeated. "They are coming out of the west. They will be on the shores of Middle-Earth in two days."
"How did this happen!" Sauron roared, leaping to his feet. "What ship did you let escape?" he asked Khamul.
Valar damn it all, Khamul thought. "It was filled mostly with townspeople," she said. "Save for one lord."
"A lord of the Andunie, he called himself," she said.
Sauron hissed. "They no longer have the ear of the king, but they command a great strength themselves!" he snarled. "Still, no matter, no matter, this is what we want," he whispered to himself. "This is what we want to happen."
"What shall we do, lord?" Vorea asked.
"Withdraw all forces to behind the Morannon," Sauron said. "We're going to wait for them to land."
"And spring some sort of cunning trap, lord?"
"No. We're going to surrender."
Vorea simply looked stunned. The orc's mouth fell open and it passed out on the floor. Khamul had seen this coming, and merely raised an eyebrow.
"Don't just stand there!" Sauron yelled. "Move!"
When the fleets of Numenor sailed up the Anduin and landed near Cair Andros, they were surprised. No armies waited for them. There had not even been a single arrow from an orc throughout the journey up the river.
Suspiciously, the Numenoreans crept forward across the land, jumping at every shadow, shooting at every snap or crunch in the forest they walked through. And then the vegetation fell away and all was dead and barren. Before them iron gates rose high, their towers wreathed in cloud and smoke. They had reached the Morannon.
Ar-Pharazon himself rode forward, surrounded by his guards. The king's golden cloak rustled in a foul wind from Mordor.
"I like this not," he murmured. Not an orc was to be seen on the ramparts of the gate. It was a trap. There was not a doubt in the king's mind about that.
"What shall you do, sire?" his standard bearer whispered.
"He has abandoned his lands," Pharazon muttered. "I cannot believe this."
"My king, trust not the Maia! It is a trap!"
Pharazon's eyes narrowed. "Sauron!" he yelled, standing up in his stirrups. "Your forces stand not a chance against the Numenoreans! We will have your blood for the destruction of Umbar and New Haven! But surrender and we will spare your people!"
"My lord, is clemency such a wise idea?" the standard bearer asked.
"It does not appear that he is here anyway," Pharazon muttered. "Damn!" he cursed. "He must have heard that our fleet was approaching!"
The standard bearer was about to reply when the Morannon creaked and groaned and began to open slowly.
"My king!" the standard bearer gasped. "We should return to the army!"
"No," Pharazon said. "I do not see an army."
The king stood alone with his standard bearer, the rest of his guards having fled back to the safety of the Numenorean force.
No mighty force issued froth from the Morannon. No raging trolls or rabid ogres lumbered out, eager for blood and slaughter. The gates seemed to open for no purpose at all. But then a single figure walked forth. Completely alone, surrounded only by the bleak landscape of Mordor. Behind him, Pharazon could see Orodruin spit fire and ooze lava in impotent rage at the army of the West that stood before its gates.
"Who are you?" Pharazon demanded as the figure stopped some ten feet from him. He looked slightly elven, the king decided. He was tall, slender, and dressed in black. His midnight hair fell to slightly below his shoulders. His eyes were as dark as the very pits of long-gone Angband.
"I am the lord of these lands," the man said.
"Do you speak for Sauron?"
"I am Sauron."
Pharazon frowned. Could this be the Maia? Surely not… Maia were terrifying creatures, nearly as great as the Valar. Still, there was no one else.
The man who called himself Sauron held up his hand. On it shone a single gold ring. "I forged this in the fires of Orodruin," he said. "This is the One Ring. Rumor of it has reached you, yes?"
Pharazon nodded slowly. He looked at the man again. Yes, he could see darkness there in his eyes. It wasn't just that it looked like the pits of Angband. He could see the smoke of Thangorodrim and hear the howls of orcs and cries of slaves.
Shaking his head to clear the images from his mind, Pharazon stared once more at Sauron. "What kind of trap is this?" he hissed.
"No trap," Sauron said. "Your forces are simply too mighty for me to battle."
"There were rumors of a hundred thousand Haradrim."
Sauron chuckled. "Rumors, great king." He knelt down on one knee. "Spare me, great king. Take me back to Numenor to do with as you please. Execute me, whatever you wish, but not on these shores."
"And why not?" Pharazon asked.
"My orcs are fleeing into the hills," Sauron said, "but if they see me stricken down, they may turn and fight with fierce savagery. You can lose not a single man if you kill me on the white shores of Numenor."
Pharazon considered this. Now that he looked, he did see a cloud of dust clearing in the east. He had mistaken it for a herd of wild horses or other animal earlier. No, he thought. Orcs. Thousands of fleeing orcs. It wouldn't do to have to fight all those creatures. No, I'll just kill him on Numenor. It's not like his very blood is cursed.
His cowardly guard and returned, looking sheepish as their king glared at them. "Bind him," Pharazon snarled, pointing at Sauron. "We return victorious to Numenor!"
Sauron was bound hand and foot and placed in a locked room in the hold aboard Pharazon's ship. The king had expected orcs to pour out of the mountains as soon as their ships were on their way. But Sauron's words were true. Pharazon did not lose a single man in his expedition to Middle-Earth. There were no orcs, no ogres, nothing. The weather was fair and a fierce wind blew them with haste towards Numenor.
As they sailed out of the Anduin, Pharazon came up on the deck to watch as the shore disappeared, and then to watch the west for when Numenor appeared like a glistening gem in the distance. Seeing movement, he glanced in the water and saw a small fishing ship perhaps half a league away sailing towards the west.
"They will turn back soon," Pharazon muttered. "They will soon encounter Numenorean fishing boats, and then run back to their pathetic continent."
The fishing boat did not disappear though, but kept pace with the fleet, albeit from a distance. Finally, when Pharazon was about to order his men to shoot flaming arrows at it, the small boat turned towards the south and vanished in the mists that were shrouding the sea with the approach of night.
"I like this even less than the north!" Khamul snarled.
"Keep rowing!" Vorea hissed. "We cannot waste any time! The storms of this season are strong and violent. Immortal we may be, but I do not care to spend eternity on the bottom of the sea!"
"There is a strong wind, and Sauron will keep the storms at bay until we land on Numenor."
"Until he lands on Numenor. He expects to be there by then."
Khamul muttered curses under her breath and kept pulling on the oars. Of all the ringbearers, Sauron had told her and Vorea that they would be accompanying him to Numenor. He neglected to mention the fishing boat. While they were away, Metima and Yanta were in charge. Khamul shuddered to think of the damage the two would cause, but hoped that Metima's good sense would prevail.
"I can't see anything in this fog," Khamul muttered.
"That was the king himself staring at us," Vorea said, nodding in the direction of the ships which were only visible because of their lights. The little fishing boat was as quiet and invisible as a ghost.
"He would have caught on that we were following him, so we had to turn to the south."
"He'll find out soon enough in the morning."
"We have been following him from a distance ever since he left the Anduin. We are very near to Numenor now. We can land wherever we wish on Numenor. The king will not know we are there."
"And then we'll have a long walk through an unfamiliar land," Khamul said. "I look forward to that nearly as much as more rowing."
"We are fortunate we do not need sleep," Vorea said. "We are making good time this way."
It started to rain early in the morning, just as the sun was rising. The mist and rain made it impossible for the large warships to see the small fishing boat following them. And then, just when Khamul was beginning to think they were heading for the Undying Lands, there was a loud cry from the decks of the ships.
"What's going on?" she asked, looking around. Sharks? Had they spotted them? Had Sauron done something?
"It's Numenor!" Vorea exclaimed, pointing towards a line of land and a tall mountain.
"Almost there," Khamul said with a grin. "Come on! Keep rowing!"
They left the ships near noon as they circled round to dock at Romenna Harbor. In the interest of stealth, Vorea insisted they dock the ship at a small cove, which was hidden by a large rock.
"No one will look here," she said as they dragged the boat onto the sand.
"I couldn't take another minute on that boat," Khamul said. "I'm damn glad we're off it."
"Should we hide the boat, or destroy it?" Vorea asked. "I doubt we will be leaving this land the same way we came."
"Hide it," Khamul said. "You can never be too sure."
"Excellent idea," Vorea said, nodding.
The two woman dragged the boat past the high-tide mark and into a forest where they covered it with leaves.
"Looks very convincing," Khamul said, nodding. "A giant leaf pile."
"I doubt anyone will come this way," Vorea said. "And if they do, perhaps they'll think it was left there by the tide last summer."
Khamul snorted. "I doubt it," she said.
"Where are we?" Vorea asked as they walked through the forest.
"I have no idea," Khamul said. "Barely even heard of Numenor. Never seen it before, never looked at a map."
"It seems we are lost then."
"Yes, it does."
Vorea put her helmet on and adjusted her breastplate.
"What are you doing?" Khamul asked.
"I am making myself appear as a knight of Middle-Earth."
"And why are you doing that?"
"Because no land is safe from bandits and I do not wish to be fighting brigands all the way to the capital simply because they mistake us for two helpless women all alone."
"Good idea," Khamul said. She adjusted her cloak and belt so that it displayed her sword more prominently. "They'll think twice now."
"But I doubt little more than that. We will still have many fights."
"Fine by me."
"I do not want our arrival to be heralded by stories and rumors caused by the slaughter of bandits," Vorea said.
"Then we leave none alive," Khamul said.
"Then we will attract the attention of the authorities."
"Look, let's just find a road and start walking down it," Khamul snapped. "We'll deal with the brigand problem when we get to it."
Vorea nodded. "It seems wise," she said.
"Good. Thank you."
After about half an hour of searching, the two came across a large paved road through the forest, worn with wagon ruts.
"I think this is a major road," Khamul said, looking up and down it. "Strange though, no one seems to be on it."
"All the better for us," Vorea said. "We should walk on the side though, in case some speeding rider comes along."
"Yes," Khamul said, nodding. "I don't want to be run over by a horse and then have to explain why I'm not dead."
"Where shall we head for?"
"How about down the road?"
"That would take us to that mountain, I believe," Vorea said, pointing to the enormous mountain that was in the center of Numenor.
"I think that's where Sauron said the capital was," Khamul said. "So that's where we want to go."
"And that is where we shall go," Vorea said.
They walked through the night, and around noon the next day, a rider approached from the mountain.
"Hail, friend!" Vorea called, leaping onto the road and signaled for him to stop.
"What are we going to do, ask him for a ride?" Khamul grumbled.
"I shall ask him for directions," Vorea said.
Don't know if that's such a good idea, Khamul thought, following Vorea onto the road as the rider came to a stop.
"Who are you, warrior?" the rider asked, glaring down at Vorea and ignoring Khamul.
"I am a famed warrior from Enedwaith," Vorea said. "I have come to these great lands to challenge your mightiest fighters in order to test the mettle of Numenor."
The rider snorted. "You will find us far mightier than you," he sneered. "Besides, what kind of warrior could you be to travel with that creature there," he said, gesturing to Khamul like she was some kind of distasteful monster.
"You know what?" she muttered to Vorea. "I've got a better plan."
Five seconds later, Khamul was holding the reins of the horse, trying to calm it as the rider's body followed his head towards the ground.
"I do not know if that was strictly necessary," Vorea said. "The lord said not to slay more than we had to."
"It was completely necessary," Khamul said. "Scum like that doesn't deserve to live."
"Ah!" Vorea exclaimed, holding up a map she had found in the rider's saddlebags. "We shall now know where we are."
"Yes, yes, that's all well and good, but what are we going to do about the body?" Khamul asked.
"Dump him in the forest?" Vorea suggested.
"You really are getting the hang of this," Khamul said. "Come on, come on, we've got to hurry up."
Once the body was safely hidden, Khamul and Vorea examined the map.
"It's a star," Khamul said.
"It is said that Earendil guided Elros and the other displaced Edain to Numenor," Vorea said.
"Earendil is the morning star."
"Oh. So where are we?"
Vorea looked at the map, and then at the compass drawn on it. "We came from the east, and we saw the two spits of land, and we sailed towards the closer one, which would appear to be Hyarrostar. We then landed right on the tip, where we could find a suitably hidden place."
"So where are we?" Khamul asked.
"Here," Vorea said, pointing to the tip of Hyarrostar.
"And where do we want to be?"
"Here." Vorea pointed at a large mountain in the center of the map.
"It can't be that far away," Khamul said. "I can see it from here."
"This part of Numenor is very flat," Vorea said. "The mountain is higher than any in Middle-Earth, and so it sticks up though it is very far away."
"It's going to take a long, long time to get there," Khamul said. She looked out to sea and saw storms gathering. "Sauron will be landing soon."
"We need to get to Armenelos as soon as possible," Vorea said.
"The capital," Vorea said, showing Khamul the map again. "On the slopes of Meneltarma, the big mountain, there is the capital; Armenelos."
"What's that there?" Khamul asked, pointing to the other side of the island.
"Andunie? I do not know," Vorea said. She frowned. "Isn't that the title of the lord whom you allowed to escape Umbar?"
"Yes," Khamul said. "So he's lord of that, eh? I wonder if we'll run into him."
"I doubt you will let him escape a second time."
"Yes, I doubt it very much myself," Khamul said.
Taking the horse of the dead man, the two made good timing across the lands, encountering no danger and less interest, much to Khamul's disappointment.
"If this is all Numenor has to offer, I am exceedingly underwhelmed," she grumbled as they passed another small, quiet hamlet nestled between hills.
"I am sure Armenelos is a hotbed of intrigue," Vorea said.
"It better be or I'll go back to Middle-Earth and send Yanta instead," Khamul warned. "What's that on top of the mountain?" she asked when she glanced up.
"I believe it is a temple to the Valar," Vorea said, looking up. "It is the highest point in all of Arda, I believe."
"Except for those mountains in the Undying Lands."
"The Pelori? Yes. And Taniquetil. That is the highest mountain of them all. I wonder if it is meant to be an imitation of it," Vorea mused.
"That's damn appalling arrogance if it is," Khamul said. She frowned as a disturbing thought surfaced. "That rider was pretty damn arrogant as well."
"Yes, he was quite full of himself," Vorea agreed.
"Do you suppose all Numenoreans are like that? I mean, Pharazon would have to be some great puffed-up fool to think that Sauron isn't up to something clever and devious."
"I suppose a goodly number must share this hubris," Vorea said. "What of it?"
"Three of them will join us," Khamul said. "And one will rule over us all. What if he's some fool like that man I killed?"
Vorea nodded. "He, or she, could be a great imbecile, yes. But I think Sauron would be careful to pick a suitable candidate."
"He better," Khamul muttered. "Or else he'll find himself short one ringbearer."
"And maybe another as well."
Khamul glanced sharply at Vorea. "I thought you were into loyalty and honor and all that," she said.
"I am," Vorea said. "So long as Sauron is a lord I can respect and honor, I will follow him to whatever end."
Khamul nodded slowly. "Yeah," she said. "Yeah, me, too."