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Lord of Carrion

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It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. 'But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund's daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.'

The winged creature screamed at her, but the Ringwraith made no answer, and was silent, as if in sudden doubt.

                  —The Return of the King, The Battle of the Pelennor Fields

Shall Undeath know fear? Unlife fear life's loss? —Not possible, as though mortality still held sway, as though only hope of future ages' begetting held forth the chance of a name sustained past mere memory, as though heir never had been sacrificed to hope more great than mere inheritance, scion slain in gift-proof of service to the Unsleeping Eye, price of gift beyond compare, gift pledged to outlast all lifetimes: though burden no less than gift, still none he would ever willingly set down.

The woman who stands before him should not daunt him — he has had women stand in such defiance before him ere now, in the weak days of flesh as in latter days of air and iron, his shadow-fashioned might beyond measuring, and they were red-raging and vengeful, to strike at him in simply-foiled fury, or desperate and despairing, to strike at self with blade sharp-whetted and thus deprive him of his prey ere playing, thus to rob him by robbing self as well.

But she is like to none of those, over the long chain of years: her skirts are the long split mail of cavalryman's hauberk, she stands as tall and straight as any of her bretheren-in-arms, sword as carelessly easy in her right hand as a carving knife at the feasting table, long rider's shield no more weight than a bracelet upon her left arm, seemingly, her face the same harsh high bones of her barbarian breed, no other to his eyes than the fallen warriors about her feet…

(...In her laughter there is an echo of a distant wind...)

—There was a tale told once, in another life, when he was another, Man and mortal yet, in being weaker if no less proud, a tale that he cannot but remember, yet cannot remember full, a tale of a prophecy flouted, a foretelling held forth as a shield, and crushed aside in disdain by Fate—

Impatient with such nonsense, such fancies as common soldiers, living men, might hold, he spurs his shadow-winged mount forward to let the mere beast crush her, make mock of her boasting — it has been nearly a thousand years since such a champion made venture to dare him, heedless of danger — and he has no doubts. Not doubt, for that would be to doubt self, to doubt wisdom in choice of service, hence denial of self, for what is there now that is not the same as the master he serves, when shape is all of will, and will is all of strength, whose source is Sauron…

His mantling mount staggers in its pounce, soul-tearing shriek struck off by the steel that severs it, and as though it has not wit to know its own death it hurtles forward a full pace before folding down like a captured banner, and the fierce fighter who felled it evades its fall, and his, and he must roll and roil like any mortal horseman whose steed is slain, like the king whose steed's flesh his fleet-winged creature feasted on — but his bones and sinews do not break, having no substance but air and anger, and he rises with anger greater still, yet cold as ice, and confident yet of his own victory as glacier's inevitable oncrushing power—

—for she, like the last knight to challenge him, last King of Gondor, riding so proudly to his gates, in answer to his call, after long years of impotent fury at last lured from the shelter of these walls to the lodestone of his foe's stronghold, stolen by strength, is alone—

The black iron rises, like a hammerweight falling, weight of darkness pouring down like avalanche of stone and mere flesh, mere bone, born of flesh alone cannot bear its blow, and bravery is not enough, as it has never been enough, to counter strength of power that knows not pity, and he laughs in the sure fastness of this knowledge, upon which he has founded all his trust, forsaking the ways of mortal Men to take what the Valar would deny him, deathlessness wielding death, and his strength is beyond mortal Man — or woman—

—and she falls, crushed beneath dark iron (beneath dark laughter) as all foes of his great Master have been crushed across the ages—

—and he lifts, poised, straining balanced limbs of air and darkness made, form unborn, his very being a contempt of birth, of blood, mockery of this maiden who, daring to mock him, shall mother none—

—like a stab of ice deep into his own spell-wrought form sinks the blade made to counter him, wielded by scion of ancient enemies long defeated, fallen forgotten at Fornost's hillfort: knowledge pierces him with its edge, its point, as though truth were air to pour in through that small, searing gap in his armour, and visions enwrap his burning eyes, as if woven of air and the long dreams of the ancient earth, as if unrolled by an archivist far greater than any mere mortal or Elven artisan, the memories of long-scorned lore returning—

—the King rides on a white horse, forth to the challenge, forth into darkness—

—yet it is not the last lord of this City, but a lord far mightier, challenging an enemy so far beyond him in might, maker of mountains, and the black iron weight in hand of the dark King dashes pits from the earth as great as the pits dug between them and this rampart, as bright as the ancient is dark, carved alike of mountain's rock, and the bright King strikes with a sword shining as the spires of ice that held the ancient lights that his Enemy mocked, and his vast foe bleeds, and roars, and he strikes again—

—but he is alone, and falls—

—the lord of the Tower issues forth to the challenge, rampaging in form of dread, flame-eyed, shape of nightmare beyond imagining, to where his challenger waits, pale maiden outmatched by monster, failing, falling, before the wolf's onslaught—

—and from behind in ambush leaps the other, fierce fangs striking in duty doubly bound, born of hate — and love — and the prophecy that Sauron dreamed to wield in his own defense, for his enemy's destroying, is the instrument of his own swift downfall—

The words echo in his ancient, ancient memory: No living man — he hears them as his foe rises from the wreck of her defeat, the bright-shining child with steel in hand and eye and heart,  and knows then that his master has cheated him, even as he himself was cheated, has cheated himself, that he has been robbed with words true and true-seeming and yet false, as his lord's vaunted Sight has failed, the Eye blinded, and as the bright sword rises and rives towards him bending, stumbling, falling before her, falling by the hand of friendship that outmatches fear, he sends forth all his dread power to fell her, but what of despair has she not already known? what of pain she has not already known? what of joy can he take from her now—?

—And the steel of vengeance flashes down, and the sword of justice in the hand of the mortal maiden follows the spell-hallowed strike of the halfling thain's son — one not a man, the other not of Mankind — and those whose hope is the King of Gondor set his ancient fathers' foe at naught, and the Lord of Iron who trusted in a changeless power is overwhelmed by those who know that deathlessness is not stronger than death free-given, that what is broken may be renewed, reforged, that the love that his own cruel lord so long has mocked shall indeed cast down the proud, though death shall follow—

—and the wind bears away all that remains of him, leaving but those whose frail flesh, of earth's sustaining, sustained upon the earth still, sustains yet hope unknown…