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infin che 'l mar fu sovra noi richiuso

Chapter Text

Five times re-illum'd, as oft
Vanish'd the light from underneath the moon,
Since the deep way we enter'd, when from far
Appear'd a mountain dim, loftiest methought
Of all I e'er beheld. Joy seiz'd us straight,
But soon to mourning chang'd. From the new land
A whirlwind spring, and at her foremost side
Did strike the vessel. Thrice it whirl'd her round
With all the waves, the fourth time lifted up
The poop, and sank the prow: so fate decreed:
And over us the booming billow clos'd."

[Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto XXVI]

Zimraphel the queen awoke in darkness.
She tasted salt on her lips; she would have wept in her sleep. She dried what remained of her tears with the back of her hand, and sat over the cushions of her empty bed. The curtains were closed, but she could sense that it was still night, with the Moon that shone upon the silent hills of Anadune, cruel and uncaring for the fates and the lives of Men.
Zimraphel tried to catch what remained of her dream. A beautiful, sweet dream for once, not like the nightmares that haunted her since Calion sailed, following a mad hope.
But now that she’s asleep, the dream began to vanish, swift as it had come. All Zimraphel recalled in that dream is that Calion was once again young and handsome like the first time she’d rest her eyes on him, at the peak of his manhood and glory, no more like the old, wretched man that had left her alone in an empty palace, with almost no hope of his return.
And there were two children, she remembered. Their faces were already vanishing in her mind, but she recalled that they had her eyes, and something of Calion’s features. At this memory, her eyes almost filled with tears again.

She hated that dream. She’d inherited the gift -or the curse, she had always thought, bitterly- of her father, to foresee the things that will come. Since when Zimraphel was a little child, she could guess when a new guest came at home, or when the coughing of her nurse would end, simply because she’d seen them in a dream. Other dreams were darker and nonsensical, and let her wake up in the night covered in cool sweat. Her father had always listened her when Zimraphel told him of such dreams, and had caressed and consoled her, and had made her promise that she wouldn’t tell of her dreams to anyone. Father was dead since long time, but Zimraphel had always kept her promise.

But that dream was only a lie, not like the ones she’d had for all those years. Calion was old now, and she doubted that she would see him again. And the children ...

Zimraphel never desired to give birth to a child per se, but she always knew that she had to have an heir. But years passed, and the heir never came, no matter of what she and Calion did, no matter how much he prayed to his new god and how many sacrifices he made into the great golden temple in Ar-Minalêth, her belly always remained empty. And his despair grew more and more.

Zimraphel closed her eyelids, biting her bottom lip. Somehow, it was worse than her current nightmare - the one in which the merciless waves of the cold sea covered her, the water cruelly filling her mouth and her nose until she had no more air in her lungs, until the pain was unbearable, and she could scream no more. Not only because this dream would never become true, but also because it was nothing but the symbol of everything she’d lost, and of everything that she would never had.

She had wept in her sleep, without even realizing it, but she now had no more tears, and so the queen of Númenor remained alone in the darkness, waiting for a rest that hardly came.
**

At the dawn, Zimraphel chased away the last remains of the dream. She washed her face with cold water, silently waiting for her handmaiden to come: she was still the queen of Númenor, no matter if Calion had sailed towards his doom, and if Elendil listened her no more.
She hadn’t to wait long. Her handmaiden, a slim, nervous girl with large brown eyes and light freckles on her soft cheeks, finally came into her chambers, and, after a quick curtsey, began to help her to dress in.
The handmaiden tend to her one of her richest robes, a fine dress of velvet black as a starless night, decorated with golden embroidery, but Zimraphel moved her head:- No- she said.- Not this.

She was used to wear black and gold during her reign, the colours of the new banner of the Kings of Anadûnê, and -so had they hoped once- of the new dynasty that she and Calion had hoped to found. But now … now …
I don’t want to look like a widow, she thought, hardening her heart. Númenor still looked at her like a guide, like at the light of a beacon in the dark. If she showed despair, what could happen to her people?
She couldn’t do that to them. Not after all what she’d done, after all the sacrifices that she made, and the plots that planned, after all what she’d hoped and lost.

-Give me that- she ordered to her handmaiden, pointing at another dress, a silken one, made of shades of blue, who shone like the wings of a kingfisher in the pale light of the early morning. It was a dress intended for a younger woman, but Zimraphel didn’t care. She had liked blue and white dresses, when she was still young and full of hopes, and she had wondered on the shores of Anadûnê.

The girl simply did what she ordered, avoiding her eyes as much as she could. Zimraphel tightened her lips. She wondered if this girl had a family, or a lover, and if she preferred to be with them, instead of being here, complying to the whims of an old queen.
Zimraphel met her gaze in the silver mirror in front of her. Years had passed, but still she hadn’t lost her beauty. She could have wrinkles around her sapphire blue eyes, the same eyes that bewitched her own cousin long time ago, and grey strands in her ravenous hair, and her breasts weren’t no longer high and rich as once, but she could still recognize her look in the mirror, she wasn’t a stranger to herself.

Not like Calion, who at some point was able no more of recognizing himself in the mirror, for all his beauty and manhood had definitively vanished, letting him with only a weak body, and only rage to fill him with.

She silently touched the mirror, and suspired softly. -You could go, now- said the queen to the handmaiden, and the girl swiftly obeyed, letting her alone, with her glare in the mirror as her only companion.

***

Zimraphel watched the sun slowly descending towards the horizon through the glass of the large windows of the throne room. It had been a long, lonely day: few people still ascended to the high court for an hearing. Zimraphel had sensed the despair and the confusion in their eyes, in the rich ones as in the poor ones.

Enough, she thought, hardening her heart once again. I’m the queen. I must be strong for them. She cannot permit to the despair and the defeat to overwhelm her.

At least, she thought bitterly, the Zigûr was no more in the high court. People said that he had never left his temple since the King sailed: they had heard him laughing and talking with his cursed god in the deep shadow under the silver dome of the temple, but few people had seen him, except his strict cycle of acolytes.

Zimraphel bit her bottom lip. There was nobody on the earth that she hated more than the Zigûr. He could burn in his temple for all she cared, and his bloody god with him: it was him that had brought the worship of his dark god from his forgotten lands in the Middle Earth, it was him that had whispered in Calion’s ear for all those years, leading him to the madness, until she was able to recognize the man she loved no more, it was him that had shattered all her hopes.

She saw from the window the courtyard where once the White Tree stood, proud and flourishing through all the centuries in which the line of Indilzar ruled Anadûnê, now empty except for the dark, curved shapes of the servants that still dare to cross it. The soil that once nourished Nimloth was now grey and arid, and no grass grew on it.

She remembered the words of her father. The line of the Kings would perish with the White Tree, he had said. Zimraphel tightened her fingers on the white wood of her throne. It was so, then? she asked herself. Was it true that the Avalôi had cursed her and Calion, leaving them barren and hopeless, and completely alone to face their doom?

She looked at the empty throne near her own, and suddenly anger raised in her.
What I am supposed to do?, she thought. In the tales her mother had told her, long time ago, the princesses who lost their beloved ones usually died of pain or despair, preferring to follow them in the grave instead of living again. She’d no hope that Calion was alive, or to see him once again - and even so, he had stopped long time ago to be the man she loved- but it’s not pain what she felt. She felt only rage, and hate, and an empty, dark hollowness in her heart, in the place where once her husband was.

***

A long time passed before she took her decision. Almost five years passed from Calion’s departure, and no word came from him from the West, and any hope had definitively left Zimraphel’s heart. The curse of the Avalôi lied upon her like a bird of prey, and she knew that the days of the Kings were passed. But if she had to die, Zimraphel thought in the end, she would meet her doom without fear. She was a daughter of Anadûnê, born by the seed of Indilzar and Azrubêl, blood of the bloods of the Kings and the Queens of the Sea.
But before, she had to know the truth. If she couldn’t avenge Calion’s death, at least she wanted to know what malice brought him to death. What strange fate had lead the Zigûr, this eerie creature, on the shores of her lands?
For all she loathed the Zigûr, she had to see him, once again. She didn’t care for the risk. She would die soon, and would it be so different if her life would end by the cold hands of the Zigûr, or by the uncareful hand of Erû?

Zimraphel watched the sky from the window of her litter. It was three years since that it seemed that the sun had stopped to shine upon Anadûnê: since the moment Calion had sailed for Amatthâni, enormous black clouds from the West had covered the sky, so similar to the big eagles of the Elder King. And the rare times in which the sun appeared, it was pale and white like an old bone, and pale and cold was its light, and so the fields of Anadûnê grew properly no more, and misery and famine had spread over the island.

Once Anadûnê was the jewel of the sea, the Land of Gift. This is only that sorcerer’s fault, thought Zimraphel, but while her heart ached, her face remained of stone. Oh, if only she had killed him when she had the possibility, when he was only an hostage without any power. At that time, nobody would have thought that one day he would have so much power among his hands. A poor type of sorcerer indeed, had laughed once the courtesans, their bellies full of wine, when they firstly saw the Zigûr, only for turning into his faithful dogs some years later, once they heard the gospel of his dark god.

But the Zigûr wasn’t one of those fair wizards that used fires and tricks for impressing the commoners, and she knew it too well: she had seen for all those years how he had used Calion’s despair for his own purposes. Calion had always been a man of strong will, but the rumours and the whispers of the smallfolk -that was the curse of the Avalôi, if he was barren and couldn’t sire any living child, for the incest he committed-, the plots of Amandil, who once was his best friend, the brash provocations at his authority had somehow wretched his mind and spirit. And she had seen the man she once loved slipping between her fingers like water, until she could recognize him no more.

Zimraphel saw few people on the streets and the roads of the once proud Ar-Minalêth, the Golden City, the jewel of Anadûnê. Their faces were grey and their eyes tired, and they moved without any energy, as if all their blood had been dropped from their veins.
She knew that some of them had preferred to close in their houses, praying at their new god in the hope that better times would come, others instead had whispered that it was all fault of the new god that the King had brought from the East, and had tried to remember the old ways and how to pray at the Avalôi once again. But nobody could teach it to them now, for all the Faithful had fled since long time, seeking for the protection of Elendil in Rómenna.

She shook her head, bitterly. She hadn’t pray the Avalôi since long time, and anyway, she doubted that her prayers would even been listened now. It was her who had decided to give her heart and body to her cousin, instead of the man that her father had chose for her, it was her that had shared her throne with Calion as well as her bed, and it was her that hadn’t stopped his hand when he had cut Nimloth.

-You’ll see, my dear- Calion had said, while he had raised Aranruth, the sword of the Kings, the sword that had once belonged to Indilzar, and to King Thingol of Doriath before him, a golden ray of the sun had shone on the surface of the blade. - Once, our ancestors were the thralls of the Elves, but now we rule the world: they could call us the Secondborn, but the sun has proved to shine more brightly than their pale stars. A new age is coming, a new age in which our children will be free from the lies of the Avalôi and the Elves. Fear no more the words of your father, my beloved. I don’t care for the prophecies, and I don’t care for the Avalôi and their curses. They’d never right to bind us, to treat us like we were their toys. But now I’ll defy them, and I’ll show that their words matter no more than leaves in the wind.

She had wanted so desperately to believe him. Calion was golden and bright as the sun itself in that moment, the true scion of Azrubêl, and everything seemed possible with him. It was so easy to trust him, so easy to believe that, once the Tree was cut and the will of the Avalôi defeated, she would be haunted no more by her dreams and by the promise she made to her father. It was easy to believe that she would be free, free from those dreams she had always hated, because so often she wasn’t able to understand them, and the few times she could, she had hated them even more, because she knew that future couldn’t be changed. So, Zimraphel hadn’t stopped his hand when Calion stroke the roots of the White Tree with the sword of the Kings, until they started to tremble and crush and shatter, and the Tree, untouched in all those centuries, fell broken to the ground.

Zimraphel closed her eyes. No, there’s no way that the Avalôi would listen her prayers, or think her somehow innocent.

She tightened her lips. She didn’t want to know what her father could think of her now. She had choose her road long time ago, and now it’s too late for turning back, or for regretting what she’d done.

Finally, the litter stopped just before the great stairs of black marble of the temple. The immense silver dome shone no more, for it was now stained with the black smoke of the sacrifices, but its mole still defied the sky, almost piercing the thick strate of the clouds. Zimraphel posed her feet on the black marble steps, and slowly, began her climb towards the large golden doors of the temple. She met nobody in her rise.

The doors opened in front of her immediately, even if she saw no porter or watchman. Within, the darkness was broken only by few torches that shone of a sick, red light, tossing large shadows on the ground of black marble. The air was heavy to breath, still smelling of the blood and the smoke of the sacrifices, a reek that never left the temple, not even when the winds brought new fresh air from the sea.

Zimraphel could do nothing but think of an ancient elven tale that once her father told her, a tale that most of the Adûnâim had now forgotten, the tale of how an elven maiden had walked in the dark stronghold of the Great Enemy for defying him. She could not avoid a grin, even in the grimness of the temple. It had been long time since she had ceased to be a maiden, and surely she’s not an elven-woman, no matter of the name her father gave her.

It was only when she entered in the great hall under the dome, that she could finally see him. The Zigûr gave her his back, taller than any man, his slender form covered in black silk that almost hid him among the shadows of the temple. Zimraphel couldn’t stop herself from biting her bottom lip, her hand that slowly strayed on the hilt of the dagger that she kept at her belt, hidden among the fine velvet of her dress. It would be easy, so easy, lurking at his back and sticking her blade among his ribs and deep in his heart …

But she pushed away that thought. She doubted that the Zigûr would be killed so easily: she remembered too well what happened to a Faithful man whose daughter was slaughtered by the Zigûr in the great temple. The man, driven mad by grief, had waited for the Zigûr one night at the back door of the temple, armed with an axe. Nobody had ever seen what happened to him, but the day after the gory head of the man was found at the bottom of the black-marble stairs.

As if he had heard her, the Zigûr turned towards her. In the faint light of the torches, his pale face seemed almost white as paper, and she could see the ghost of a smile on his thin lips. There was an eeriness in his features, she couldn’t avoid to think, for how the Zigûr didn’t look like any of the Men she had seen in her life, not like the blonde barbarians of the North, or the swarthy Easterlings of the Rhûn sea, or the dark-skinned Haradrim.

-It’s a pleasure to see you, my queen- the voice of the Zigûr was low, still, it reverberated between the walls of the great dome like a mighty thunder.- What brings you to my humble halls?

He bowed in front of her, but it seemed more a mockery than anything else. Zimraphel tightened her lips.

-I want to know the truth- she said. She had no time for politeness, especially with the Zigûr.

-Oh, truth- he moved his hands, whose slender fingers made them look like pale spiders in the weak light. - Fascinating question. Every fool could tell you its own account, and then, how could you recognize the truth among them? I know no truth, but what my God told me.

Zimraphel could listen no more:- My husband is dead- she was almost surprised how her voice sounded toneless in saying those words. - For the so called truth of your god.

Zigûr’s smile opened, the fire of the braziers painted his eerie eyes of a crimson light:- I believed that a Númenorean queen would be more trusting towards her husband. Long are the voyages of the mariners. And a war could take years, and years.

-I didn’t come here to hear you mocking me, Zigûr- she took a deep breath.- If he’s not already dead, he will soon been.- And he was dead to me even before he sailed, she thought, but she didn’t dare say it. - No man could avoid his doom. And no man could do what Azrubêl did. Not even the Scion of Azrubêl himself. I told him that this was folly, but he didn’t listen me. Are you truly so mad to believe that he would succeed?

The Zigûr remained silent for some moments:- It matters little what I believe or not- he said in the end.- I didn’t lie to your husband when I told him that the Avalôi are nothing more but a bunch of cowards. You must know that: what help did they bring to your father? Did they even listened his prayers? Or were they too fearful to pose their hands on this island?

Zimraphel felt the rage raising in her chest, even if she had told herself to be calm and quiet, no matter of what the Zigûr muttered:- Don’t dare to speak of my father- she said. Luckily, her voice didn’t betray her thoughts.

The Zigûr only smiled again, her eerie eyes fixed on her. His gaze slowly descended on her figure in a way that made her feel uncomfortable. It was not even desire, but the mere mocking of it. She had to bite her lips as not to scream.

-You’re avoiding my question- she said, in the end, when she was able to control her breath again.- I want to know the truth, and I won’t go without it. Who are you? Who truly are you? Are you truly nothing more but a king in a forgotten land? The people in the Middle Earth believed you to be a necromancer, or even a god - Calion had laughed at those words, she remembered, saying that, if the Zigûr was truly a god, it was truly a poor kind of god, for he bent his knee so easily in front of the Scion of Azrubêl, and he could be hurted and he bleed like any other man.

The Zigûr raised his eyes and met hers. He hasn’t change in all those years, she thought, and it wasn’t the first time she noticed it. He still looked like the first day I saw him. The Zigûr had said that it was the power of his god, that had permit him to not change in all the years he had passed in Anadûnê.

-I told you who I am- he said, finally.- A servant of my Master: nothing more, nothing less.

-You’re not a mere man- she whispered. It was like, after all those years, a veil had fell from her eyes, finally permitting her to see. And it was like a great weight fell on her, and she felt even more hopeless. She had never any hope to kill the Zigûr, but she hated the utterly sense of impotence that grasped her.
The Zigûr did nothing but laughing, an horrid, harsh laughter that echoed among the thick walls of the temple. And it seemed to her that she could see another face covering the fine, but eerie, features of the high priest: a face of a strange, cold beauty, a face that couldn’t belong to a mortal man, but it was somehow disfigured, for seven large scars spoiled it, and over its high forehead burned something that Zimraphel couldn’t see, for they shone too brightly for her eyes to bear. The vision passed, quick as it came, and she blinked.

-Why? - she continued.- Why did you do this to us? Why such ruthless hate?

The Zigûr ceased to laugh, and only smiled, a smile cold as the neverending ice at the extreme North of the world.- Hate? You speak of hate to me? Ah!- he shook his head.- It was never you personally, for the truth. You wanted to know the truth? Well, I’m telling you that. I loathed all the lineage of Eärendil, no matter of who. But even the hate that I feel for your kin, that’s nothing compared to the hate I feel for the Valar. That’s why your husband agreed with me so easily- he laughed again, a laughter deprived of any true joy.

-That’s all- the Zigûr continued, moving towards her. Zimraphel moved back. Even if she knew it’s useless, she wouldn’t die without fighting. - I didn’t care for neither of you, at least until … - he paused a little, tightening his teeth.- Until your beloved King came, and put iron chains at my hands, at my feet and my neck, and he laughed when I fell on my knees, and he mocked me and treated me like I was a mere thrall. And then … - he took a deep breath. - I saw the way he kissed and touched you when you welcomed him, or the way he looked at you, like you were more precious than all the treasures on this world. Why?, I asked myself.

-Because he loved me- she murmured softly. She didn’t even know why she’d replied him so.

-Love!- the Zigûr laughed again. Despite the fear, Zimraphel found herself asking if he wasn’t gone mad. - Oh, love. And tell me, my gracious queen, what has love brought to you? An empty bed? Being left alone, without even a child to console you? Shattered hopes of a new kingdom, a new dynasty that would never exist?

Zimraphel froze. Those were the words she told Calion before he sailed, the last time she had seen him, the rage that leaded her tongue. He hadn’t replied to her, but simply went away, saying no more.

Nobody but her and Calion had heard those words. She had no idea of how the Zigûr could have known them, but she momently stood frozen.

The Zigûr moved forward her, his long fingers similar to talons when they brushed her. Her heart almost maddened in her chest, and she waited the inevitable death that would come, once that his hands would clench around her bare neck.

But nothing of this happened. The Zigûr’s hands didn’t touch her neck, and it was after a moment of disbelief she realized that the high priest was caressing her hair, as a lover touches the mane of its beloved.

-You’re not still so old for not desiring someone touching you, caressing you, making you tremble of desire and your blood rush in your veins, aren’t you, Ar-Zimraphel? - he murmured, his voice soft and low. For a moment, his hair seemed to change at the light of the torches, turning now red, now silver, now golden. -You still want to feel the hands of a lover on you, his kisses on your breasts, the heat of his body against your own, his seed spilled deeply inside you, aren’t you? - and Zimraphel felt his cold breath on her neck, his lips so near to her skin.- You know, you could even had both me and your Golden King, if you had wanted so.

Surprise and relief soon vanished, and it was the repugnance that overwhelmed her. She wanted to scream, and run away from the Zigûr and his long pale fingers, but she imposed herself to stay calm, for the Zigûr was too dangerous to fight back.

-Do not touch me- she replied, her voice icy and cold like the winter winds that came from the North of the world.- You know nothing of me.

The Zigûr simply smiled again . Zimraphel had never hated him as she did in that moment, because he knew her, he knew how to hurt her with his words, and he had already managed to do that.

-As my queen commanded- he said finally, touching her no more. He moved a step back, his eyes still fixed on her:- Are you satisfied, now? Have you find someone who you could blame for your mistakes, now?

She tightened her jaw. She didn’t want to listen him more. It was true that she had done her mistakes. It was true that she had failed her father, and her people, so that the Faithful now trusted her no more. But she wouldn’t heard anymore the words of such a snake.- You drove mad my husband. We had plans … plans that would bring peace and joy and wealth to our land, and you shattered all our hopes.

-No- he shaked his head.- You’re lying to yourself. I guessed that you knew him better than anyone else. Pride was his master, it wasn’t always so? You’re blaming me for what he did. Worse than that- the eyes of the high priest shine almost red in the dark.- You blame me for what you did. If pride was your husband’s master, indeed yours is arrogance. You believe yourself to be so much better than your father, and your grandfather, don’t you? That you would never again do their mistakes, that you would bring a golden age on this kingdom. You couldn’t content yourself with having the most powerful man of Anadûnê at your feet, you wanted more, you wanted that everybody loving you and bowing beside you and praising you, and none could question your authority. Oh, I think you would enjoy so much the idea of Pharazôn conquering the land of Aman for you, and of ruling the world with him like the Elder King and the Queen of the Stars do, if he didn’t turn cold towards you in those last years.

She wanted to spit in that pale, fine face, more similar to the one of a statue than of an human being. There were enough truth in those words to hurt her, because yes, she had hoped so much that she would remedy at the mistakes of her forefathers, and shine with her own light, instead of simply mirroring her father’s one. She had always wanted to be a queen, and had swore to herself that she would do everything in her power to keep her throne, no matter of how much she had to lie, to plot and to kill for its sake.

Zimraphel couldn’t avoid but think back in time, in those years of childhood she shared with Calion, in the palace of their grandfather. He never cared about those elven tales she was fond of, the few elven tales that still the Adûnâim remembered, because his ears were too filled with the tales of the glory of Azrubêl, or of the great Kings of the past, or even the great heroes of the First Age, longing to be like them.

Aye, Azrubêl was glorious, she had thought several times, and she thought it once more. But who remembers the wife and the little children he had left behind, when they heard the songs about his feats?

Strange are the ways of the fate, indeed, because, for how long Calion had desired to be like Earendil, even claiming to be his heir, Zimraphel had never desired to end like his sad wife, even if she was the mother of her line.

She would hate to admit it, but the Zigûr didn’t lie about Calion. Aye, Zimraphel knew her husband too well. She knew that Calion had always been proud, and ruthless, and, even before the Zigûr came, he would have ruled with an iron grip if she didn’t softened his moods. His lust for pride knew few limits: it was only for a strange irony of the fate if he had become her closest ally and her lover, instead of her greatest enemy.

But she couldn’t think about this more, because, in a moment, she could see. It seemed to her that the walls of the temple and the ground beneath her feet vanished, and suddenly, a vision came to her, a vision that before she could grab, was already gone. But she couldn’t forget what she had seen.

And when she spoke, she knew that her words are true.

-You will fall into the darkness- she said, and her voice, now filled with all the emotions she had hidden in all those years, all the hate and rage and fury that she felt towards the Zigûr. - Your name will be forgotten, and you will lurk into the shadows, like the worm you are. And then, in the end, the Void will swallow you, as it had swallowed your Master, once.

Her voice echoed in the thick silver dome, and the flames in the braziers trembled. It was a moment, a mere moment, but for the first time since she had known him, Zimraphel could see true emotions in Zigûr’s dark eyes, not the mere mocking of them. For a moment, his gaze was lost into the void, not watching her anymore, and he remained silent, as if he was caught by doubt. And she knew that it was fear the emotion that crossed his eyes.

Zimraphel did not wait for a reply. She simply turned her back and walked out of the darkness, out of this damned temple, where not even all the smell of incense in the world could cover the reek of blood. The Zigûr did not try to stop or hurt her: he simply laughed, of the same mad, joyless laugh of before. Why would he bother? It was like she was already dead, for him.

She did not cry, when she returned to the litter and back to the palace. She had no more tears, and there weren’t enough tears in the world for her father, for her husband, for her hopeless people, for Amandil who was no more her friend, and now was lost too, and for herself, who had remained alone with the shattered pieces of her life, and her dreams and nightmares.

And in the end, when the rage of the All-father fell upon the Land of the Gift, and water filled the lands she had once loved, and all get lost under the fury of the cold sea, it was her the worst of her nightmares, that become true.

Chapter Text

Cold be hand and heart and bone,
and cold be sleep under stone:
never more to wake on stony bed,
never, till the Sun fails and the Moon is dead.
In the black wind the stars shall die,
and still on gold here let them lie,
till the dark lord lifts up his hand
over dead sea and withered land.

-- J.R.R.Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

 

It was dark, under the hill. The one who lurked in darkness remembered no more the light of the sun, how he felt the hot caress of its rays on the skin.

His fingers dug into the dirty soil, long and pale and trembling. He could remember, somehow, a time in which he had strength in his arms and body, in which he did not fall under the weight of the gold and the iron he wore, in which he had walked under the sun and had breathed air and had felt the wind in his hair, but that time was forgotten, now, and he couldn’t catch no more than few glimpses, memories that vanished too quickly when he tried to catch them.

He maybe wore an armour, once, but now, the steel was rusted and the gold was stained, and they weighed like chains on him, for he could no more walk with his back straight, but he could only lurk and crawl in the damp mud like a worm.

His eyes couldn’t see no more, in the eternal darkness of his grave, but he had no need for light to know that his hands were pale and stained, more talons than hands, his limbs wretched and deformed. He couldn’t speak no more, but he only cried between his broken teeth and his deformed tongue, and his screams echoed through the stones of the barrow.

He had a crown once, and he had wore it fiercely, but now the gold and the gems had melted into his flesh, and no matter of how much he scratched and itched it, it would never move.

He was young and beautiful, once. Now, he had even forgotten his own name.

He had forgotten so many things. But there’s still a vision, a vision that sometimes he tasted like one of those sweet fruits that he had eaten once, when he was still a true man and not a mere shadow who lurked in the mud, and that sometimes haunted him even more than the loneliness and the darkness and the cold.

He remembered a woman, a woman so beautiful that he still trembled in remembering her, even if his body was now weak and cold. He remembered her fiery ravenous hair, her shining blue eyes, her soft red lips, and her smile, but it was a so frail vision that it vanished any time he tried to catch it. He had forgotten her name, like he had forgotten everything else of his life under the sun, but this vision still returned to him, after so much time.

And when it vanished, bringing with it all its colours and its brightness, he could do no more but scream with his mute lips and his deformed mouth, mourning and crying and weeping for something that he couldn’t feel anymore, because his heart had rotten in his chest since long time.

And it still pulsed, useless, ruthless, now that he desired death more than anything else.

And it was so, buried in the shadows and in the misery of the Caves of the Forgotten, that Ar-Pharazôn the Golden waited for the End of the World.

Chapter Text

‘It reminds me of Númenor’ said Faramir, and wondered to hear himself speak.
‘Of Númenor?’ said Éowyn.
‘Yes’ said Faramir, ‘of the land of Westernesse that foundered, and of the great dark wave climbing over the green lands and above the hills, and coming on, darkness unescapable. I often dream of it’. [The Return of the King, The Steward and the King]

 

Faramir still remembered the first time he had dreamed of the lady.

It was one of his early memories, how he had woken in the middle of the night, panting and sweating, and how he had desperately called for the nurse, until she came and gave him a cup of honeyed milk, and told him to not worry about nightmares. But even though Faramir quickly fell into sleep again, he couldn’t forget the dream, and how much it had shocked him.

Faramir’s life was simple, in those days: even if he was the Steward’s son, he was still too little for fencing with the Guards like his older brother did, or for following Father in his duties, so he spent most of his time in Mum’s chambers. Mum didn’t like stories of darkness or of sorrow, and so, darkness and sorrow was almost unknown to Faramir.

Nevertheless, he always told Mum everything that happened to him, and it was so that he asked her about his nightmare, the morning after that fateful night. Mum stopped her needlework, placed it on a chair, and watched him in a thoughtful way, before saying:

-What kind of dream, my little one?

Faramir told her. He wasn’t very sure of how he could describe it: the dream was full of darkness, and sadness, and rage, all things too heavy and great to be fully understood by his childish mind, even if his teachers always said that Faramir was quick to learn, and smarter than most of the boys at his age.

-It was dark- he said, in an uncertain voice.- I heard the smell of the sea. But the sea wasn’t like it is near uncle Imrahil’s house. It was dark, and terrible, and the waves were so big that I believed they could shatter the world. There was a storm, because I saw lightning and thunderbolts. But I didn’t hear the noise of the thunder, because the sea’s voice was so terrible that I couldn’t hear anything else. It was --- Faramir’s voice broke, because no word of a so little child could describe how he had felt so hopeless before that vision, how he had felt so insignificant and shatterable.

-But there was a lady- he continued. - When I saw her first, I thought she was a mermaid, like the ones in the stories of uncle Imrahil’s mariners. But she was human, and she was alone in front of the storm. She wore a white dress and a crown of pearls, that shone under the lighting. Then I saw her no more, because an enormous wave struck her, and she was taken by the sea.

Faramir realized that he was shaking badly. He still remembered the eyes of the lady, that even if shone like stars, they were full of such sorrow and such pain that Faramir felt almost beaten by it, a mere boy that couldn’t endure the pain of an adult woman, of an entire kingdom.

He hardly knew sorrow at this time, but he could recognize it. He saw it in Mum’s eyes every time that Father went away from Minas Tirith with his army, because of the raids of the Orcs of the Enemy, when she silently cried in her chambers, having sent away all her maids.

When he finished his tale, Mum silently watched him for long time, her brow wrinkled, her lovely brown eyes thoughtful.

-My little boy- she said in the end.- You’ve inherited the gift of your father. I would never have guessed it. But I don’t doubt that you told the truth, and you saw the Fall of Númenor.

As he heard Mum compared him to Father, Faramir suddenly felt his heart warm a little. He had never thought of himself in such terms. For him, Father was a figure as tall and distant as the Tower of Ecthelion, so proud and so strong and so far from him, a little child that still played with his wooden toys.

-Númenor?- he asked. He had never heard the name.

-It’s a long story- Mum took up her needlework again.- And sad, and full of darkness. I won’t speak of it now. If you want to know more, look in your Father’s books.

And then she said no more, and Faramir left her as he had found her: still close to her southern window, her eyes watching the distant horizon.
***

It took time to Faramir to escape from the worried hands of his nurse, and to find a servant who was prepared to show him the library of the House of the Kings.

But finally, Faramir managed to find his way through the maze of the stone tunnels under the House of the Kings, deeply dug into the stone of the Mindolluin, and after a long series of narrow steps, he came to the library of the Hill of the Guard, the hidden treasure of Minas Tirith.

The librarian watched him with curiosity, but led him towards the shelves with the books that he was searching. He told the boy that those books were too ancient and too precious to be handled by little lads, but nevertheless, he had a more recent copy of the book that Faramir was searching for, so that Father wouldn’t be displeased if Faramir accidently blotted it.

-It’s in Adûnaic, but there is a summary in Sindarin- said the librarian, pushing the book towards Faramir, who read the golden letters in front of the book with a mixture of curiosity and awe. - You can read the Adûnaic, can you?

-A little- admitted Faramir. Adûnaic was still an hard tongue for him, even if his tutors said that he was the smartest of the boys of his age. But he was determined in learning it, for how he had often heard Mum and uncle Imrahil spoke in that tongue, when they were alone.

The librarian smiled at him in response. And so, once the old man let him, Faramir silently sat at one of the large ebony tables in the middle of the library. He wasn’t alone, he realized: there were a man nearby, a man that he had never seen before in Minas Tirith. The stranger was old, with a grey mantle, a long grey beard, thick grey eyebrows, and a long nose. He had to be a wanderer, Faramir thought, because the stranger had with him a long walking stick.

Whoever he was, the stranger was so absorbed in his reading - the table near him was full of ancient, dusty books - that he didn’t even notice Faramir when he walked beside him, put his book on the table, and silently began to read.

It wasn’t an easy book, not even with the Sindarin translation. Faramir had to skip some passages, because they were long and boring, full of descriptions of armies and vessels and banners and heraldry, that mattered little for him. He cared mostly for the lady.

But even in that book, there was little about her. And something was wrong. Faramir knew that the lady of that book - of that book that spoke about the history of his people- was the same lady of his dreams, but it was as if the lady he had dreamed about and the lady of the book were two different people. The book didn’t say very much about her, only about her heritage, and when he read about her marriage with the King, he couldn’t stop himself but let out a cry, because no, that wasn’t what he had seen in the lady’s eyes.

He realized his mistake, and put his hand on his mouth, but it was already too late, because the stranger had heard him, and had raised his gaze from his dusty tomes to the boy.

Faramir couldn’t stop himself blushing. The stranger was very old, but there was an energy and a strength in his gaze that made him remember Father, who could see into men’s hearts, and to guess the lies hidden in them.

-Something wrong, boy? - the stranger asked him, and even if his brow, between his thick grey eyebrows, was furrowed, his tone was gentle. Faramir decided to tell him.

-This book- he raised the book so that the stranger would see it- I … Well, something isn’t right.

The stranger looked at the book, then at him:- Elendil’s Akallabêth, written by Elendil’s own hand. Not a book for children, indeed. What is wrong, boy?

Even though the stranger’s tone was still gentle, Faramir hesitated. He knew who wrote that book, since Father told him and Boromir the stories about Elendil a thousand times. And it was Father who told him also that there was nothing more trustworthy than the word of the ancient Kings, for they were the most glorious Men that the world ever knew, filled with the wisdom and the knowledge that made the realm of Gondor great in past days, so great that its glory still shone brighter than the kingdoms of other Men, even now, in the dark times, with the Shadow at their doors, and no king on the throne of Minas Tirith.

Father would never tell him or Boromir anything false, so the ancient Kings couldn’t lie, the ancient Kings couldn’t be wrong: it was Faramir that had made a mistake, surely, taking a strange dream for truth. Maybe the adults would laugh at him, if he told them about that, except Father that never laughed, but he would be disappointed. And Faramir didn’t want to disappoint Father, who was the person most like the ancient heroes of the tales of old.

But somehow, watching in the stranger’s deep eyes, in his wrinkled face, he knew that he would never laugh at him. Faramir felt a little flame of hope rising in his chest, so he dared to tell him what he had felt when he had read the book.

-I feel like … there’s something wrong in this book. It … it cannot be true, of course, because I know that the ancient king - Elendil, the first king of Gondor - would never lie, especially in such an important book. Still … something doesn’t fit - he hesitated, but the stranger was not offended.

-Have no fear- said the stranger, looking straight into his eyes.- I listen everything that a person has to say, and I usually feel that there’s more truth in the minds of simpler people and of children than in the minds of the Mighty. If something doesn’t seem right to you, feel free to tell me!

So Faramir told him. He told to the stranger his dream, about the last, hopeless fight of the lady against the fury of the storm, and about the sorrow he had seen in her eyes. She was sad, he said, but it wasn’t because the King forced her. She had loved him, and deep into her Faramir could see her mourn for him, as he could see the mourn for all the other people that the lady had loved and lost.

-You’ve a great gift, boy- said the stranger in the end, pensively. - A great gift, but also a great burden. In the old days, it often happened that the Men of your people had skills similar to your own, but the years have passed, and the memory of those times is being lost. I guess that even here in Minas Tirith, too few people have your skill.

Faramir thought about the words of Mum, how she had implied that he had a gift like Father. He asked himself if there were other Men that could dream such dreams in Gondor, or there was only himself and Father.

-So my dreams are true?- asked Faramir, once he had thought about it. - And this book … this book is false? My dad-- my Father said that the Kings of old are the wisest men that ever lived in Middle-earth. How is it that they could lie?- his tone was getting higher and higher, and Faramir feared for a moment that he would burst into tears in front of the stranger.

He turned his head to avoid that, and instead focused his gaze on the ceiling, decorated with a fresco representing Elendil, the King of the Kings, standing triumphantly on the shores of the North. His grey gaze was calm and quiet, the cheeks hollow and high under the short beard, and he wore the winged helm that had become his crown. Faramir couldn’t avoid himself to think about his Father, and he had to close his eyes for a moment.

-Boy- the tone of the stranger was still gentle, and Faramir turned again his gaze on him. Their eyes met, and Faramir saw that the old eyes of the wanderer were full of sadness. -It’s not so simple. It was never simple. You see the greatness of the Men of old, and they were great indeed, but you only heard distant voices of the pain that they had to endure, in losing their beloved homeland, the island that the Valar gave them as a gift. It was a pain so hard and so unbearable that they preferred to forget, rather to remember. Forgetfulness sometimes was a bliss. I too forgot so many things, indeed … - he sighed, and was lost in his thoughts for a moment.

Faramir thought about it. He had never heard of Númenor, until he asked his Mum about his dream. His tutors never spoke of such things, and even Father, when he spoke about Elendil, he never mentioned where the Old King came from. He asked himself if it was perhaps not only the Men of old who wanted to forget, but even his own people, the people of nowadays, that preferred to forget than remember.

-But why?- he asked. -Why did they they want to forget so badly?

-For many reasons, indeed- the voice of the wanderer was still sad.- It seemed to them that it was more easy telling lies to themselves, instead of the cruel truth, to forget instead of remembering their lost homeland, and what truly happened on those shores. How could they bear the idea that the Heir of Eärendil lost himself, and fell into the darkness? And how could they bear the idea that her queen, the jewel of Númenor, born from the last Faithful King, turned her back on the Valar? It was so, that the Golden King became the Mad King, and Tar-Míriel was forgotten, a mere footnote on the pages of history, so that she could remain pure and untouched by any evil like the foam of the sea in the mind of her people. But they were only Men, and it was their greatest virtue as much as their greatest damnation.

Only Men, Faramir thought. He couldn’t avoid but think about his Father, his stern face and his stony eyes when he hold the sceptre in the Halls of the Kings, about his Mother, her eyes full of happiness when Faramir embraced her or Father brought her flowers, about Boromir, so brave and strong, the wind of the Mindolluin that ruffled his dark hair, when they played together under the high tower of Ecthelion.

-Mithrandir!- Faramir heard the voice of the librarian beside his back, and he turned his head just for staring at the old man, who was watching in disdain at the grey wanderer. - I’m hoping that you aren’t telling any of your nonsense to the boy. The Steward is graious enough to permit you to come here, but I won’t risk his rage, if he discovers that you’re fool enough to put your nonsense into his second-born’s head.

Mithrandir, the Grey Wanderer. Faramir couldn’t avoid but wonder if that name was truly his real name. He could sense that the old grey man was more than what he seemed to be, more than a scruffy old wanderer with dust on his boots.

-Oh, I could never do that- Mithrandir didn’t seem worried, Faramir could sense amusement in his words.- Especially not when the boy is smart enough to work out for himself what is foolishness and what is not.

-Aye- said the librarian.- Neither the Steward, nor his sons are people to be easily impressed by your tricks, Mithrandir. You may have impressed Lord Ecthelion, and that Captain Thorongil, at times, but now it’s Lord Denethor that rules the city. Better not to forget who he is, and who you are.

-I am who I am- Mithrandir shook his mantle. - And my conscience is clear. If the Lord Steward has a grudge against me, it’s down to him, not me.

-Ah!- the librarian shook his head.- You’re playing a dangerous game, Mithrandir. I don’t know if you’re only a fair magician with an exceptionally cunning mind, or something else, but the Steward isn’t a foolish peasant with a foggy mind like the ones you deal with, he’s an offspring of the pure blood of Númenor, and with all the knowledge of the great Kings of old.
-Aye, he is. Nobody would ever doubt it- said Mithrandir, turning his head and returning to his books.- But the Kings of Númenor that refused to listen the advice of the Valar, and chose to defy them were pure blood of the Line of Eärendil, too.

But it was only Faramir who heard his last words.

***

Faramir understood little of that conversation at that time, but he welcomed with joy any visit of Mithrandir, when the old wanderer had occasion to visit Minas Tirith for a while. The old man was always ready to tell him about his adventures and about the places he had visited, places that Faramir had no hope of seeing any time soon. Mithrandir spoke to him of Dwarves, dragons, golden hoards and even of the mysterious Periannath, all things that sounded so exciting to Faramir’s ears that he hurried to report the tales to Mum, too. She always gave him one of her rare smiles when he told her the new tale of Mithrandir: that was what kept Father, when he discovered about it, from scolding him for giving attention to the words of the ‘Grey Fool’, as he called the old wizard.

Faramir even tried to tell Boromir the stories, but Boromir cared little for such things. Only when he told him of the battle fought in the North by the Silvan Elves, the Dwarves of Erebor and the Men of the Lake against the cruel Orcs, did his eyes show some interest.

It was so that Faramir grew fond of Mithrandir, not only for his tales, but also because he was always glad to give him time, time that Father had never for him. He was always gentle towards him, and always listened the boy when he spoke about the dreams that he had, that continued to frighten and unsettle him.

The nightmare that Faramir had that first night was only the beginning of the visions that came to him later. So many of his dreams were obscure and impossible to understand, and so it was that he looked for Mithrandir’s advice, or in the books of Father, when Mithrandir wasn’t there. Though he had learned that he could find little of what he had dreamed in the books of Elendil. They weren’t the kind of events historians cared about.

He dreamed of Elendil, too, once. He saw the old King placing his foot for the first time on the shores of Middle Earth, his gaze tired and his face marked by the pain of loss, and Faramir knew that he only wanted to forget, and that he desired only that the memory of the deeds of his kin could fall into the darkness with them.

The lady that he had seen in his first dream - Míriel, that was her name- was a constant presence in his visions.

He saw her kissing the man that would became the Golden King in a garden full of roses, her hands entwined with his own, their eyes shining with passion, but they were always carefully hidden from the eyes of her father, the king with the sad eyes and the heart full of unfulfilled hopes.

He saw her under the White Tree, not the dried, miserable tree that still stood in the gardens of the Citadel, but rather of Nimloth, the Tree of Númenor, fair and shining and full of life. He saw her turning her back, and not saying a word, when the Golden King cut it to its very roots, the shadow of the High Priest behind his back.

He saw her as a young maiden of the shores of her island, and he saw her as an aged woman taking the way of the Meneltarma, the earth that trembled under her feet, but she never halted, she never failed her step, not until it was too late, and the Land of the Gift was swallowed by the darkness.

Another time, he saw Mithrandir, wandering on unknown paths, the dust of the road on his grey mantle, and once, even the marriage of his own parents, on the shores of Dol Amroth, with Mum, all dressed in silver and blue and a radiant smile on her face, and Father, with fewer wrinkles of worry on his face, and a tender gaze in his eyes, in each other’s arms.

And it was not only dreams: little by little, he discovered that he could read the hearts of the people that surrounded him, as his Father did. It wasn’t always a good thing, because he could see in the hearts of Boromir’s friends what they thought about him, the youngest son of the Steward, who still played in his mother’s rooms. Faramir had no heart to tell Boromir, for he knew that his brother would only suffer by it. He could see the sadness in his Mum’s heart growing day by day, no matter how many times Father came to her with flowers and gifts and words of love. He couldn’t see the emotions in Father’s heart, for he hid them too well, but he could see the thoughts of the courtesans that, even if they came to him with sweet smiles and pleasurable words, pitied the Steward for the behaviour and the isolation of his wife, and for the way his younger son was still treated as a child at the age in which Boromir had begun his training as a swordsman.

He even heard his parents speaking once about him, even if he couldn’t guess if it was a mere dream or if his gift was even able of making him see his parents in their chambers, so distant from his own.

-My love- it was the voice of his father, low and grave, but tender at the same time. - You know it’s time. You have always known it.

-But he’s only a child- Mum’s voice was filled with emotions, too many for Faramir to distinguish easily. - For all the love I bring to you, my dear, please. Why make Faramir a warrior? There’s already Boromir, and Faramir … he doesn’t have the heart for such matters, and you know that. He is so gentle, such a pure heart. Let him be a poet or a scholar: a kingdom needs poets and scholars as well as warriors.

-Poets and scholars flourish only when warriors secure the kingdom- Father’s voice never diminished his kindness, but his tone was firm.- Finduilas, my beloved. I know that it’s the gentleness of your heart that make you speak so, but in desperate hours gentleness may be repaid with death.

Faramir could almost see his mother turning pale, her hands stopping frozen as she was brushing her long dark hair in the candle-light.

He heard Father softening a little his mood, softly putting his hands on her shoulders.- I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to worry you. But Faramir is growing up fast, and time has come to begin his sword-training. And those are cruel times, in which kindness is mistaken for weakness, and there is no pity for the weak. One day Boromir will be the Steward of Gondor, and Faramir will be at his side as an adviser and protector. We can only do the best we can for our sons, and this is the only way for grant them safety. And - his tone was harder, now. - No-one will question my sons’ heritage. No-one will call them weak.

Mum turned towards him, her hand gently cupping one of her husband’s cheek.- My love, please- she whispered. - You think that I don’t know? You see so much of yourself in Faramir, and you don’t like that. But you aren’t weak. Nor is Faramir.

-I hope you are right- Faramir heard a swish of cloth, and knew that Father had embraced her. - I only want them to be safe. Nobody should be able to question their right, not even if that Thorongil would return from the shadows where he came once, stealing my father and my people’s affection. - there was a steel in Father’s voice, in pronouncing this name, that Faramir had never heard, not even when he spoke about Mithrandir.

-I only hope they will be safe- Mum replied, putting her head on Father’s shoulder. - But sometimes … sometimes I fear that there is no way to keep Boromir and Faramir safe, neither in Gondor, nor in any place on the surface of Arda.

Father posed a gentle kiss on her hair, and then darkness swallowed them, so that Faramir was not able to see his parents any more.

He remembered that conversation when Mum died.

***
Faramir had never felt such pain. It was the first time, in his young life, he tasted the bitter taste of death, the sourness of the Fate of Men. In his innocence, he thought about what he had read in the Akallabêth, about how the Men of Númenor had decided to fight even against the Valar, to suffer death no more.

No more laughter was heard in the Citadel, after the death of the Lady, and the glorious banners of Gondor and of the House of the Stewards remained at half-mast for long time. Boromir cried until his eyes became red, when the coffin of Finduilas of Dol Amroth, Lady of Minas Tirith, their Mum, passed for the last time in the Citadel, covered with the standard of her House, the silver swan of Dol Amroth.

But Finduilas wouldn’t rest in the crypt under the Mindolluin, with the House of the Stewards. She belonged to Dol Amroth, her former home in front of the sea, and she would rest within the crypts of the sea-palace of her family, so near to the ocean she had always loved. So spoke Uncle Imrahil and Aunt Ivriniel, when they came to give the last greeting to their sister. And Boromir and Faramir never saw Mum again.

That night, Faramir slept in his brother’s bed, and his nurse didn’t dare to scold him. It was the first night of many, in which Faramir cried, embraced his brother, until he had no more voice left.

Father cried too for the loss of Mum. Faramir knew it too well, even if Father did it in the secret places of his personal chambers, when nobody could see him, but were few the secrets that escaped the quick eyes of Faramir.

He also knew that Mum was loved in Minas Tirith, and that many cried for her, but there were also people that pitied more the loss of the Steward, such a strong man married to such a frail lady, a lady that couldn’t endure the long winter that was coming.

But whatever people thought of Finduilas of Dol Amroth, after her death, nothing was the same in the Citadel. Faramir heard no more laughter in his house, no more cheerful chatting of the housemaids, and the minstrels sang only sad lays.

Gifted as he was with the ability to enter people’s minds and to discover their inner thoughts, Faramir knew that Father blamed himself for Mum’s death. He couldn’t save her, he couldn’t see her illness until it was too late.

Father may have discovered that he couldn’t hide his sorrow and his guilt from his second-born, because Faramir saw his Father less and less. It didn’t take long for him to realize that Father was purposefully avoiding him.

He started his training as swordsman. Boromir was always with him, encouraging and helping him when Faramir felt tired, or discouraged. He even managed to become a good swordsman, in the end, even if he would never equal his older brother.

The years slowly passed. Faramir learned to draw a bow, and soon became more skilled with bow and arrows than with a sword.

Boromir grew up loved by the people of the city, the true heir of the Steward. Faramir was more loved by the librarians and the scholars than by the warriors of the city, who wondered at his love for the poetry and the wisdom of the elderly, so uncommon for a Captain of Gondor.

Father became grimmer and more lonely, his beard and hair longer and greyer. The servants told Faramir that he spent the long hours of the night alone in his hidden room, in the Tower of Ecthelion. Not even Boromir, the only person that Lord Denethor wholly trusted, was able to discover what he did during those long, lonely hours.

The long winter had finally come, and the Shadow rose from the East. Faramir’s dreams were full of darkness, now: the same darkness that he had seen so many times in his dreams swallowing Númenor, the green land covered by the merciless cold sea.

But among the dreams he made, there was one, one that was different from the others. The darkness rose from the East, but a pale light lingered in the West, bringing with it words of prophecy.

Faramir waited long time, before speaking of that dream, until he discovered that Boromir had dreamed it as well. Boromir wasn’t the kind of man that liked to wait: as soon as their father told them that Imladris was the House of Elrond, the great elf-lord that lived in the far North of the old tales, Boromir set out for that road, and never again he was seen in Gondor.

Faramir never forgave himself for that.

***

The darkness swallowed Gondor, little by little, and then it swallowed Minas Tirith whole. But by that time it had already come into Faramir’s heart.

He could only think about how his father was right: he should have gone to Imladris, he should have been dead, instead of Boromir. He couldn’t care more about his life, either, he cared only about the grief and the bitterness that now dwelled in his soul. There was no hope left to him, no matter of what Mithrandir had said to him.

Do not throw your life away rashly or in bitterness. You will be needed here, for other things than war. Your father loves you, Faramir, and will remember it ere the end.

And when the end came, there was only darkness, and fire, the fire of his father’s pyre.

***

Seeing the White Lady of Rohan is like seeing the rising of the sun after the long night.

He had no other words to describe her beauty. All the poetry that he had read, and even written, during his life, now didn’t seem enough to describe her.

But as well as he could see her beauty, he could see her sadness within, and her bitterness; the shadow that had almost swallowed her soul, as it had almost done with his own. It was the same sadness, the same shadow, that Faramir had already seen in his mother’s eyes, and in dreams, in the eyes of the Queen Miriel.

He saw the bitter steel under her soft skin and her blue eyes, and loved her even more for that.

He saw her courage, and her despair, and her anger at being left alone, at being left aside, and he knew that he care for nothing, but to see her happy.

And so, the shadow passed away: the long winter was gone. And the spring came, entwined in Éowyn’s golden hair.

***

It was in summer in Minas Tirith: everywhere, flowers and songs welcomed the new kingdom of King Elessar, for the Heir of Isildur had finally come to reclaim his lost throne, and the White Tree was born again.

Faramir sat together with Éowyn at the nuptial banquet of the King, not so distant from Elessar himself. That night, the air was full of the scents of the flowers and of the roasts, of laughters and songs, and the people of Minas Tirith danced together with the Rohirrim and the Elves under the old White Tree for celebrating the coming of the new Queen in Minas Tirith.

For a moment, Faramir sighed, raising his cup to drink the strong mead. He remembered of a dream he had once, of a barren king and a lonely queen under a dead tree.

But King Elessar was nothing like the Golden King, and Faramir knew that his union with the Queen beside him, Arwen Undómiel, the Star of the Elves, the only daughter of Elrond, would bring joy rather than sorrow.

He was still absorbed in these thoughts, when Éowyn softly whispered in his ear:Come, my love, in a soft invitation. Once that everybody was distracted by the dances and the songs, slipping away from the banquet was so easy.

And then, after they had found a hidden angle of the gardens, with only the shadows of the trees and the stars above them, Faramir barely remembered the dream, when he sweetly drowned into her.

***
It wasn’t simple, to begin with.

There were still moments in which he awoke at the night covered in sweat, having dreamed of the House of Dead under Mindolluin, and of the fire that wrapped his father reams, or of the darkness that covered Númenor, and moments in which Éowyn stood alone in their garden, her eyes fixed on something that he couldn’t see, her fists tightened as she were still holding a sword, silent tears that ran down her cheeks.

But their garden in Ithilien grew up, day by day. It was slowly filled with flowers from all parts of Arda, for the travellers that came to the realm of Gondor brought to the Lord and the Lady of Ithilien, seeds from their country, until Faramir was sure that this was how the gardens of Yavanna in the ancient tales, had looked.

Éowyn flourished like her own garden, and Faramir’s love for her could only increase day by day. She was always the stern, fierce shieldmaiden he had met in the House of Healing, but now her smiles were more and more frequent, and Faramir even caught her singing, when the servants left her alone.

Faramir had never remembered being so happy in his whole life, though they couldn’t forget those who had fallen.

He had a brother and a father to mourn. Éowyn had lost an uncle that was like a father to her, and a cousin that was like another brother.

Faramir knew that the memory of Boromir would never left him, the memory of his warm, comforting smile, of his strong hands on his shoulders, of his dark-grey eyes full of joy, when they shared a laughter on the sun-kissed walls of Minas Tirith. Nor would the memory of his father abandon him, of his stern, tearless face, marked by age and sorrow. His father, who had understood that he loved his second-born at the worst moment.

And neither his brother or his father had a grave to rest in, now.

He was with Éowyn when King Theoden had been buried near his son, when they came in Rohan following King Elessar and the new King of Rohan. A single tear had fallen from her eyes, over the flowers that grew on the tombs of her kin. And later, he had consoled her as he could, in the darkness of the palace of Meduseld.

Some times after their marriage, he went to Dol Amroth, to visit his uncle and his aunt and the place where his mother rested, in the crypt caressed by the waves of the sea that she had loved so much in her life.

Alone in the crypt, Faramir couldn’t fight the tears. He gently touched the stone cheeks of the statue that they had dedicated to his mother, so like her that he almost expected to feel soft skin under his touch. There was peace in those carven eyes, a peace that he had never seen in his father’s eyes, during all those long years.

Faramir couldn’t hold back a sigh. People had spoken, once, of how the Lord Denethor had outlived his frail wife, but now Faramir thought about how his mother had truly proven to be the stronger of the two. Maybe the Valar had been merciful. She had not had to see her firstborn die, or her husband be slowly consumed by the darkness, day by day, like the fire that consumed him, in the end.

Faramir wondered if they were together, now. He hoped so, for how the Mortal Men couldn’t know what Eru had set aside to them, he doubted that the One would be so cruel to keep his parents separated. After all, Lúthien had chosen mortality to stay with Beren, as Queen Arwen had done with King Elessar.

Death was the Gift of Men, not a curse, the wise of old had said.

Strangely enough, the visit to his mother had lightened his heart, rather than add weight to it. It was with a lighter heart that he returned to their palace in Ithilien.

He came into the garden, and saw Éowyn under a tree, her golden hair shining in the sunlight. Faramir sat near her, placing a soft kiss on her forehead. They remained silent, for some moments, until she took his hand, and put it on her belly.

-I’m pregnant- she murmured. He couldn’t do anything but embrace her.

***

-Dad!- Faramir was in his study, when his daughter came running to him, almost crashing into his legs.

Faramir softly laughed, taking her in his arms, and letting her sit on his legs. He ruffled her dark hair, and said to her: - Are you well, my dear Finduilas?

His daughter had her eyes open wide, and her breath was short from running. Finduilas was the only one of the children that he fathered for Éowyn who had inherited the brown eyes of his own mother.

-I don’t … I don’t know- Finduilas embraced him tightly.- I had a dream. I told it to Mum, and she said that I should come to you.

-A dream?- Faramir watched her in sympathy. -Can you tell me what you saw, my little flower?

-I saw a lady- she replied, her eyes wide.- I don’t know if it was a good or a bad dream, but … it seemed so real. I saw a lady, bright against the darkness, alone against the storm. She was on the top of a mountain, and the roaring waters were all around her. What does it means, Dad?

-It’s a long story, my dear- he said. -I must warn you that has some darkness in it, but I think that you’re old enough to understand it. Do you want to hear it?

His daughter nodded, and Faramir softly kissed her forehead, wondering for the umpteenth time why such dreams had come to him, and now, to Finduilas too.

He sighed for a moment, for Mithrandir was sailed long years ago, and Faramir couldn’t ask his advice. But he still remembered his words, after all those years.

But they were only Men.

He wondered if, by some strange fate, Tar-Míriel the queen had known that her own people would forget her, and that she had somehow managed to send those dreams to him, the memory of her across the long flow of time.

If it was really so, he reflected, he couldn’t simply avoid doing anything about it.
She needed to be remembered, to be recorded for what she once was. Maybe, he should write something about her …

Faramir didn’t intend to be disrespectful towards the poem of Elendil: he had seen Elendil too, in his dreams, and he knew the pain and sorrow the old King had to face, why he decided to forget, rather to remember.

But everything was different for Faramir. He didn’t want to forget.

Gondor had forgotten too things, too many things. If someone had remembered about the Palantíri, about the hidden power of them, maybe his father would never became mad in the end, and he would be still alive.

And it was so that, when Finduilas was run away, searching for Elboron, with his ears full of the soft tune that Éowyn was singing in the garden, that Faramir took a pen and a parchment, and began to write.

Chapter Text

Taste of the fruit of the tree that is knowledge
Of good and of evil and all the world's lore
A creature's thought must exceed what its taught
Or who is heaven for?
[Leslie Fish – Lucifer]

In his [of Ar-Pharazôn] earlier days he had a close relationship with Amandil who was afterwards Lord of Andúnië, and he had loved the people of the House of Valandil whom he had kinship (through Inzilbêth his father’s mother). With them he was often a guest, and there came Zimrahil his cousin, daughter of Inziladûn who was later king Tar-Palantir. Elentir the brother of Amandil loved her, but when first she saw Pharazôn her eyes and her heart were turned to him, for his beauty, and for his wealth also. – J.R.R. Tolkien, The History of Middle Earth XII, The Peoples of the Middle Earth

 

*

 

Míriel was always mindful of her duty.

Nobody would dare to say otherwise. When her father, Tar-Palantir, the King of Númenor, had engaged her to the Lord of Andúnië, Míriel had thanked him with a sweet kiss on his cheek, knowing what the alliance meant for him. The House of the Lords of Andúnië was still faithful to the Valar, and they were powerful enough to secure Míriel’s succession to the throne. Few men could provide a better suited husband for the Princess of Númenor than Lord Elentir of Andúnië.

“You and Lord Elentir will create a new dynasty, my beloved daughter,” Tar-Palantir, born Inziladûn, had said to her. “A new dynasty that will follow the ancient ways, and that will respect and honor the Valar, just like the Old Kings did. A new dynasty that will bring Númenor into a new golden age.”

Míriel hadn’t replied. She had thought that she could learn to love Lord Elentir, indeed. Elentir had the dark hair and noble features of the Line of Elros, and reminded her a little of her own father, wise and gentle as he was.

She could surely learn how to love Elentir, as her mother had learned how to love her older, pious husband, feeling admiration and affection for him, and reserving the enthusiastic impulses of her heart for the heroes of the romances she read. Míriel was still a little girl when she had begun to steal those books from her mother’s private library, and still remembered the stories they told: of the lovers and the adventures of Tar-Anárion’s daughters, of the youngest son of Tar-Atanamir the Great, who married a Haradrim princess against the will of his father, of the princess Tindómiel who fell in love with a fisherman. Simple and pleasurable stories, where love conquered all.

But in reality, such things rarely happened. And Míriel surely couldn’t complain about her betrothal, for Elentir was a good man, and a fitting marriage prospect for her.

Still, some part of her, a part that she would never be able to voice properly, had doubts about her father’s hope. She couldn’t forget that most of Númenor’s people had forgotten the Valar and the old ways, and had little sympathy for the Faithful that still prayed to them, and they would never accept easily a Faithful dynasty on the throne. There were already too many whispers against Tar-Palantir, too many people who considered him a weak king, too occupied in remembering the past glory of the Old Kings rather than securing the borders of the Númenorean Empire. There were already rebellions and riots in the colonies, for not all the Men of Middle Earth had accepted so easily the dominion of the Kings of the Sea.

Míriel had decided to silence that voice for the moment. Her father was the dearest person to her heart, after her mother had died, and she didn’t want to dignify the whispers of the smallfolk with attention. Why should the eagle concern itself with the opinions of the ants? Tar-Palantir wasn’t a warrior, certainly, but hadn’t he tried his best for Númenor? Hadn’t he done his best for his country, trying to restore the glorious times of the Old Kings?

Those had been Míriel’s thoughts. At least, so she had thought until the very moment she had met her cousin, Calion.

Míriel took a deep breath. She was alone on the little private beach of the Palace of the House of Valandil, in Andúnië, as a royal guest of her promised.

She loved this place. She had always loved the sea, the great, crystalline expanse of the ocean that encircled Númenor, a green jewel in the deep blue velvet of the Great Sea. Míriel had always loved feeling the humid sand under her bare feet, the taste of salt on her lips, the cries of the seagulls. She had almost cried with joy when Elentir had showed her this place, promising her that she could come here as often as she wanted to, without asking permission of anybody. And so it was that during her sojourn here, she had come to the little shore every time she wanted to remain alone, and let her mind clear.

It was an impressive place, a little beach of white sand set between two high sea stacks, where the Palace of the House of Valandil was placed. Beyond the hills, she could see the city of Andúnië, with its temples and its palaces and its harbour of white marble, all shining under the sunlight.

It was a little oasis of peace where everything seemed so simple, compared to the life of the great city, or of the capital. Where no trouble could ever exist, no pain, no sorrow, no passion.

Míriel took another deep breath, and decided to sit under a solitary tree near the shore. She had brought with her a book from the library, and she was in no hurry to leave the quiet and peace of the beach.

A little part of her knew that this was only the simplest way to escape to her troubles. But she had no other way, no other escape, unless she disguised herself as a sailor and decided to flee on one of the great ships in the harbour of Andúnië, like she had dreamed of doing when she was a little girl. But those were only childish fantasies, and the princess Míriel of Númenor knew her duty too well.

Her duty. She had agreed to marry Lord Elentir, as her father desired, and she had done it with a glad heart, because she knew that her father only wanted the best for her. But now … but now

Everything had changed when she had met her cousin’s eyes, that day on the threshold of the Palace of the Lords of Andúnië.

It was in that very moment that Míriel had known for certain that she felt affection, respect and admiration for Elentir. She felt all of those things for him. Everything but passion.

Ah, Calion! For all his power and his nobility , Elentir compared to Calion was nothing but a candle in front of the splendour of the sun. Míriel had tried as hard as she could to suffocate all her feelings for him, avoiding him as best she could, but it was all useless. She couldn’t truly obstruct her own passion, and it was Calion, not Elentir, that came to her mind when she was alone in her bed, in the darkest hours of the night, when she tried to soothe a little the burning of her desire.

Míriel closed her eyes for a moment. She felt like the exotic animals of the enclosure of the King in Armenelos, entrapped by invisible bars. What she could do? She couldn’t break her betrothal with Elentir, and her father would never accept such a union: not only because he hated Calion’s father, his brother Gimilkhâd, but also because they were too close kin. Such unions had brought only sorrow and despair: in death ended the story of Túrin Turambar, who fell in love with his sister Nienor without knowing of their kinship, and so the story of Maeglin, who lusted for Idril the Fair in the elven city of Gondolin.

And even if she could break her betrothal somehow … who could tell what Calion felt for her? After all, he was still the son of Gimilkhâd, who hated both her and her father. The apple doesn’t fall so far from the tree, her father used to tell her. Yes, Calion had proved to be a more open-minded and tolerant man than his father, but bonding himself to her, such a close kinswoman, was another matter.

She let a sigh escape from her lips, in frustration. And if everything wasn’t complicated enough, there was always the dream.

Míriel had had the dream a few days after her first meeting with Calion, and she could still remember it, for it had been so vivid. She had no doubt it was a prophetic dream: she had had prophetic dreams since she was little, like her father, and by now, she had learned to distinguish them.

The dream had started quiet, almost dull: she was walking on the beach where she used to play when she was little, where she and her mother lived far away from the confusion of Armenelos. The vision was so vivid that she could almost hear the seagulls crying over her head and taste the salt on her lips, exactly like she could feel and taste them in her waking hours, just like the present moment. And suddenly, she was alone no longer on the beach she had known as a little girl: there was a lion with her, a magnificent, enormous, fiery beast with golden fur that shone in the sunlight.

His fangs were enormous, and ferocious, but Míriel felt no fear when those liquid golden eyes met hers, and instead softly called him, like she had called her pet when she was a little girl. And the lion came to her, and laid his fiery head in her lap, letting her caressing his golden fur.

She had no idea how much time had gone by – years could have passed like mere moments, all spent together with the lion that played with her and licked her hands with his rough tongue – when suddenly, a black snake appeared on the beach, its fangs stilling poison. Before Míriel could do or say anything, the black snake swiftly planted its fangs in the lion’s golden paw, and in a heartbeat, the lion turned old and weak, his golden eyes foggy, his golden mane sparse and thin. And in the end, the great beast suddenly fell on his knees, and didn’t move anymore, despite the cries and the pleas and the caresses of Míriel.

She remembered that she had woken up in haste, her heart heavy with grief and her eyes full of tears. What does this dream mean? she remembered asking herself, and she could do nothing but think that sometimes, her ability to dream the future was more a curse than a gift.

Míriel had lost no time, but written to her father as soon as the dawn illuminated her room. And she did not have to wait long for a reply. Not even a month after she had sent that message, she could read what her father had written back to her:

I understand the trouble of your heart, my beloved daughter. You had dreamed of both good and terrible things. I think that your dream means that you’re supposed to marry a great lord, of the noblest lineage and of good heart, and there’s no man nobler than Elentir in the whole Númenor. But you must be careful, for indeed we are surrounded by our enemies. I heard that my brother’s son is in Elentir’s house, too: respect your betrothed’s kindness, but beware of Calion, for there’s too much of his father in him, and I don’t doubt that he has inherited Gimilkhâd’s malice and lust for power. Beware of him, lest he poison you and your future husband like the snake of your dream, my dear.

She had treasured her father’s words, but she wasn’t sure that her father’s interpretation had been correct.

Míriel was still lost in her thoughts when she heard the sound of broken branches at her back, a sound getting nearer and nearer. She quickly raised herself, only to find herself face to face with Calion.

She couldn’t avoid blushing, and she was glad her cheeks had already been reddened by the heat of the sun, because blushing like a naive maiden was the last thing she wanted.

“My lady,” Calion’s green eyes met hers. “I – I didn't know you were here. I’m sorry if I have bothered you in some way.”

His tone was strangely uneasy, almost awkward: a feeling almost unfitting for him. Míriel wasn’t naive, and even if she hadn’t heard the rumours that suggested that her cousin slept with both women and men, she had already noticed the glances that the housemaids of the House of Valandil threw at him, and the way he looked back at them.

“You aren’t bothering me,” she replied. She couldn’t avoid noticing the way his golden hair shone under the sunlight, and how broad his shoulders were, shaped by years of training. “I was reading, and I got myself lost in my thoughts”.

“I hope they are good thoughts.” Calion approached her, moving with an almost feline grace, and Míriel could do nothing but think about the lion of her own dream. Once again, she wondered if her father hadn’t been wrong in interpreting it. “May I ask you what were you reading?”

She showed him the book she was holding, which she had taken that morning from the private library of the Lords of Andúnië: “The Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth. Do you know it?”

“I must admit it, my knowledge of the Elven tongue is a little … rusty.”

Míriel caressed the cover of the book. “It means Dialogue of Finrod and Andreth. It’s a very ancient text, a text that came from submerged Beleriand, before Númenor rose and the great Tar-Minyatur was born, when Elves and Men lived side by side.”

“Ah, now I remember it. Even if I must admit that I had always little attention for the old tales of the Faithful Kings, when I was younger, if you remember.” Calion’s tone was pensive, but a little smile appeared on his soft lips, like he was lost in pleasant memories.

Míriel remembered. In the few years that they had spent together, before their fathers split up and Gimilkhâd moved into the colonies of Middle-earth with his son, their tutors had agreed about the fact that Míriel was a quicker learner than her cousin, especially when it came to the old lore. Calion, for his part, had always said that he preferred to have a sword in his hands rather than a pen, and he had also said on more than one occasion that learning the Elvish tongues was useless. Míriel had paid no attention to his words: even if she was nothing but a child of thirteen winters, at that time, she already knew that Calion was only repeating his own father’s words. And then, he somehow envied the ease with which she spoke the Elvish tongues.

“Aye, I remember those times.” Míriel smiled back at him, an open smile, like she rarely did. She remembered also that their grandmother, Inzilbêth, had hoped to mend the strife between their fathers by making Míriel and Calion grew up as siblings, in the hope they would become fond of each other. But then Inzilbêth had died, and her will had been forgotten after a particularly violent argument between Inziladûn and Gimilkhâd, that had ended with Gimilkhâd leaving Armenelos for the colonies with Calion. Míriel hadn’t seen her own cousin for years after that, until the very moment their eyes had met on the doorstep of the House of Valandil.

Oh, the wicked irony of that, she thought. Her grandmother had hoped she would one day grow fond of her cousin, but it hadn’t happened in the way she had intended. Míriel would never have imagined that she one day would fall in love with Calion, her cousin, and the son of her father’s greatest enemy.

Not for the first time, she wondered if there wasn’t something wrong in her, something cursed that made her feel such ill passion for her own cousin. Was it some fault in her, because she had been born when her father was already growing old, and his seed was less strong? Or was it due to the fact that in the veins of the Kings of Númenor ran the same blood of the ill-fated Túrin Turambar, who fell in love with his own sister?

Calion interrupted her thoughts once again. “May I ask why you were reading this tale particularly? I admit that my memory of it is rusty, but I remember that it wasn’t a happy tale.”

She took some moments before replying. How could she explain to him how she felt in that moment? How could she explained to him how the sad story of Andreth Saelind, the Wise-woman who fell in love with an Elven prince, and of their ill-fated love, had touched her heart? Calion wasn’t an Elven prince, indeed, but she knew too well she had no more hope than Andreth of seeing her passion fulfilled.

Even if she wasn’t betrothed to Elentir, even if they weren’t related, Calion had never showed much interest in her besides being courteous towards her, exactly like Amandil, Elentir’s younger brother, was with her. Míriel had asked herself if Calion truly didn’t see her more like a sister, as her grandmother had once hoped.

“It’s one of my favorite tales.” She was glad that she had been able to conceal her own thoughts since she was little, because she would never forgive herself if her voice betrayed her inner emotions. “It speaks of the destiny of Men and Elves. I think it’s interesting to see how in this tale the story of the Fate of Men had changed from the Tale of Adanel.”

Calion made a step towards her, and took her hand in his own, a gesture that almost made Míriel shiver. It was the first time he had touched her hands since their first meeting, since it wasn’t a proper thing for him to touch an engaged woman, even if that woman was his kinswoman. And so, Míriel couldn’t help noticing that Calion’s hands were calloused, like the hands of a warrior had to be, but that there was an inner tenderness in the way he touched her, that she knew for certain would haunt her in the loneliness of her nights.

“Now I admit my ignorance.” Calion’s tone was now more playful, and he laughed. “I’m sadly a warrior, and not a scholar, so I remember very little of what my tutors so patiently tried to teach me. Poor them, to have their time wasted in such ways! But I guess that a lesson heard from the lips of my dear cousin would be less forgettable! If you desire to tell me about that, of course.”

Míriel laughed again. She was starting to feel like she was a little girl once again, full of joy and hope, free of all the issues that troubled her. “Oh, it will be my pleasure. Can we take a walk on the water’s edge?” she asked, and took off her sandals.

“For sure.” Calion tossed away his boots, and rolled up the cotton breeches he was wearing. His skin was golden-brown in the sunlight, and Míriel couldn’t help but notice his tall, athletic figure, his perfectly shaped body with hard muscles that appeared under the fine linen of his thin tunic. Calion had truly the body of a warrior.

Some part of her knew that for an engaged woman it was a rather improper thing to walk barefoot on a beach, alone with a man who wasn’t her betrothed, but she shooed away the thought. After all, Calion was her own cousin, and a dear friend of Amandil: nobody could truly complain about that. And nobody knew her true feelings for him.

“You truly don’t remember anything of the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth?” she asked him, as they walked side by side, the sweet waves of the sea caressing their bare feet. “Well, I admit I’m not very surprised. I remember that my father tried to read it to us once, but you spent the whole time yawning.”

Calion laughed, a pleasant laugh in his low, velvety voice. “Yes, I was a very lazy child. But I admit … I always find Andreth a fascinating figure, despite her sad destiny.”

Míriel simply stared at her cousin, this time without trying to hide her surprise. She had never thought that Calion would share her interest. After all, learning the old lore of the Elves was an unusual thing for the Heirs of the Kings, as Gimilkhâd had complained at the time, when Inzilbêth had insisted that Míriel and Calion be raised together, nothing but a fanciful whim, a useless legacy of the past. And his son had always seemed to share the same opinion.

“She had the strength and the will to reply to the lies of the Elven prince, despite falling in love with one of them. A cursed union indeed.” His beautiful mouth twisted for a moment. “Even in the times of old they knew that the unions between Elves and Men bring only sorrow to us. They’re too blessed to treat us like peers.” His voice now was tainted with heavy sarcasm, the playful tone gone. “The Faithful can tell all the stories they like about the Elven blood of our ancestors, but what about Andreth and the Elven prince? He took everything from her, and gave nothing in return. Did it matter at all to him, the way she died, following the fate that the Elves even dare to call the Fate of Men? And she, for all her wisdom, for all her free spirit, for all that she resisted the poisonous tongue of an Elven prince, she was only remembered for being refused by an Elf! That’s how they see us. How could someone find this just?”

Again, Míriel didn’t reply. She was able to hide it, but Calion’s words had somehow touched her heart. How would posterity one day remember Tar-Míriel? As a glorious, great Queen, or as a mere footnote in a history book, a simple pawn in the politics of her father and of the House of Valandil?

“I admit I never thought about her in such a way,” she replied in the end. “Even if I always found her a fascinating figure, too. So much wisdom, and such a willful mind, despite her sad life. She had the spirit of a Queen, and such she would have been, if only she was born a little later.” Míriel could have giggled at the wicked irony of it, of Calion’s hate for Andreth’s troubled love story, when she knew too well how Andreth had felt, entrapped in an impossible love.

“About the Fate of Men you talked about, there was more than one version,” she continued. “Have you ever heard of the Tale of Adanel? It was an ancient tale, even more ancient than the Athrabeth itself, a tale that our forefathers used to tell before they met the Elves of Beleriand. It was transcribed by Adanel, a Wise-woman, and a kinswoman of Andreth herself. It says that we once were immortals, fair and joyful like the Elves, but that Eru, the One, deprived us of our immortality to punish us when we started to worship the Lord of Darkness, and committed atrocious deeds in his name. This is very unlike the Athrabeth, where it’s said that we Men are created to be mortals by the One.”

Calion started to laugh. It wasn’t a pleasant laugh, unlike the one that Míriel had heard before. “Of course! Any fat, rich merchant could go to a poor beggar, and say to him: ‘This is your destiny, you’re born to be miserable!’ But what could an Elf know of the fate of Men?”

Without thinking, Míriel grit her teeth in discomfort. She had never heard Calion speak in such tones. She had always known that he cared little for the Elven tales, but she had always thought it was out of mere disinterest, or due to his own education. She had never imagined that Calion could bear any hatred against the Elves.

Calion noticed her reaction, even if Míriel hadn’t said anything. When he spoke again, his tone was gentler: “My lady. Did my words hurt you in some way? I mean no offence to you, or to your reading.”

“I’m fine,” she replied, quickly. “I admit that I never gave much thought to who was right or who was wrong, about those tales. They’re simply tales that tried to explain what happened to us, why such fate is the fate of Men. But in the end, we all die, and it would matter little to me if it’s a divine punishment, or simply our own nature.”

“It matters to me.” Calion’s voice remained gentle, but Míriel could sense the iron beneath. “My dear cousin. Have you never lost a dear one, and desired that that person would return back from the dead, and known for certain that they never will, and heard tales about how the Eldar are even supposed to return from the dead, even after what they did, even though the Kinslayer was one of them?”

Míriel looked him straight in his eyes. “My mother died ten years ago. You don’t have to explain to me how I felt in that moment. Yes, I felt all those things, but what I could do? We cannot fight an invisible enemy, Calion.”

It was Calion’s turn now to remain silent for some minutes. Then, he replied: “I fear no foe, no enemy, but this … this is beyond my control. And if it truly was the punishment of a god, how I could accept it? A punishment for a sin committed in an age long gone by? Made by ancestors long forgotten? And if it’s our own nature, how could a god be so despicable to give us such a destiny, and yet make the Elves immortal, even the ones that belonged to the Kinslayer’s kin?”

Silence fell again on them. For some time, Míriel could only hear the cries of seagulls, and the waves that fell on the sand.

“You know that I worship the Valar, like my father,” she replied in the end. “When my mother died, he simply said to me that Eru, the One, had plans for us, plans that we couldn’t even conceive. That one day we will be reunited with my mother, beyond the confines of Arda. He wanted to comfort me, but I remember only how my heart felt empty all the same, even after that, a heavy hole where once my mother had been. And I remember that I asked myself: ‘Where are the Valar now?’”

Míriel let the air fill her lungs. She had never told such things to any living soul, and she suddenly felt lighter, like her heart had been relieved of a heavy boulder.

“Amandil said similar things to me, once.” Calion smiled a sad smile. “I think I sometimes envy him for that. Everything seems so easy to him. But you … you’re different, Míriel.” It was the first time that he had pronounced her name since the start of conversation, and he said it slowly, like he was tasting a sweet wine. “I’ve heard so many things about you, my dear cousin … so many things, and despite all, you’re still a mystery to me. Oh, I could enumerate all of what they told me about you … a brilliant mind, a quick learner, devoted to the Valar, truly the daughter of your father, and even more beautiful than the queens of old … but who are you truly, Míriel?”

Míriel suddenly realized they were too close. Only one step, and they would have kissed.

Instinctively, Míriel backed away. She feared what she would do, if Calion truly tried to kiss her. She feared that she couldn’t stop her own desire, and that she would end up giving herself to him on that very beach, rolling on the sand with him, the cries of the seagulls above them …

She shivered, chasing away the thought: “I’m Míriel of Númenor, trueborn heir of Tar-Palantir. And I’m truly all the things you said, but what do those things matter? If I was born male, I would have made a fine scholar-king like Tar-Meneldur once was, and nobody would have questioned my power. But I’m not, and my beauty mattered over everything else, so that I could ornament the house of some high lord. Because I am what I am, and I’m not even allowed to choose the man that will rule by my side.”

Míriel knew that she was speaking too much, that she should stop herself before saying something she would regret, but she couldn’t – and wouldn’t – stop all her emotions that she wanted so much to hide, and especially her rage, the rage she felt in her heart and that she had tried to repress in any way she could. All the rage she had felt any time someone had complained that the king couldn’t generate a male heir, the rage she felt at her uncle’s laughter, her uncle who had always been so proud of his son, the male heir that her father never had.

Wasn’t he a more fitting heir than her, the female heir of a Faithful king? Númenor hadn’t had a Ruling Queen since the time of the Old Kings, and why return to the old traditions that the new kings wanted to forget?

How could she be a fitting heir to the throne of Númenor, she who had even fallen in love with the same man that could have easily been her greatest enemy, if Calion had been more like his father than he had proved? Her passion would clearly doom her, if someone ever managed to discover it.

“You don’t love Lord Elentir?” Calion’s surprised tone shook her from her grim thoughts. He seemed genuinely shocked by that, and for a moment, a strange light appeared in his green eyes, a reaction that Míriel wasn’t able to understand.

Míriel hesitated a little. She knew that she had gone too far, that she had revealed more than she should. She trusted Calion, but there was still the possibility that he could tell that to his father, and Eru forbid what Gimilkhâd could do with that information.

“I respect and trust him,” she replied, in a cold tone. “Isn’t that enough? Love is something that belongs to the romances, or to the old tales. And sometimes, ruin was brought because of love. Weren’t we talking about what love had done to Andreth?”

Silence fell again on them. At the end, Calion said: “Anyway … about what you said before, about the fact that people think that your beauty matters more than something else… I admit I never thought about your situation in such a way.”

“Of course. And why should you?” Míriel’s tone was bitter, now. “You’re the perfect male heir that your father always wanted, and that my father never had.”

It was Calion’s turn to take a deep breath. “Yes, the perfect male heir … the perfect male heir my father wanted … at least, until I started to have my own ideas. If it would give some consolation about your own condition, my dear cousin, you’re not the only one entrapped in a situation you can’t escape. Sometimes, I think my father wanted more a pawn than a son … a pawn, after all, can’t fraternize with the Faithful, or with his brother’s daughter.”

A pawn couldn’t fall in love with the wrong man, either, thought Míriel. She had never thought that Calion could ever understand her in such a way. After all, he had always been her rival, since they were little, and it had always been clear to her that he would be preferred over her.

“It seems that we share more than people usually think about us, cousin,” she simply replied.

Calion laughed this time, a more heartfelt laugh, this time: “People can be stupid, my dear cousin. I don’t care about what they think. As I don’t care for what my father said, when I told him that I was going to spend my time in the house of Amandil. I’m not his tool and I will never be. And you? You, my dear Míriel, do you care about what people think of you? Or your father?”

“People can say stupid things, aye. But remember that my father is your king too, my dear cousin.” She crossed her arms. “And yes, I do care for what he said. Why shouldn’t I? My father is the dearest person to my heart.”

“Truly the daughter of your father, after all,” Calion sighed. “Nevertheless, you’re here, speaking with me, even if you know how your father despises me. And I’m asking why. Why, Míriel? What do you think of me?”

Calion watched her, his eyes full of a joyful light. Míriel couldn’t avoid thinking that in that moment Calion truly looked like Eärendil born again, like the King’s Men claimed him to be, with his long, golden hair blurred by the gentle breeze, his strong jawline raised, his soft lips tightened, and his eyes more shining than the Silmarils of the ancient stories. This is how a King of Númenor ought to look, she thought.

“Because Amandil loves you like a brother, and I trust him,” she replied. It wasn’t all a lie, after all, only a little part of the biggest truth. “For my part, I think you’re a better man than your father, Calion. You’ve proved it, or you wouldn’t be here, talking with me. Maybe, one day, if we ever manage to overcome our fathers’ strife, good will come out of it.”

“I wish it too,” Calion smiled at her, a flash of white teeth beyond his soft lips. “After all, we aren’t our parents. We aren’t obliged to follow their paths, if we don’t want to. No matter if my father thought of me only as a mere tool in his revenge against his brother, or if your father – whatever trouble you have with your father, dear cousin.”

Goddamn schemer, she thought, half bothered, and half flattered. Míriel was glad that she had been trained from youth to recognize courtly plots, because a lesser mind than hers would have been easily manipulated by Calion’s overwhelming charm. She knew that if Calion was sincere with her, it was because he knew too well that she could sense if he lied to her.

But despite everything, he had been sincere with her, and she couldn’t deny that his words had touched her heart. She had told him things that she had never revealed to anyone.

“Whatever trouble I have with my father, it’s my own business,” she replied. “But you’re right. We aren’t destined to follow their paths, or to make their same choices … or their same mistakes. We can do better than they did, we can be better than they were.”

Calion simply took her hand again, gently holding it. “Míriel, my dear cousin,” he said, and his eyes shone again. “Your fame is truly deserved, indeed. You have no idea how happy I am to have talked with you.”

“And you have no idea how happy I am to have talked with you of such things, too,” she whispered.

And so it was that later, when Calion accompanied her to the House of Valandil, after their long walk together, and gently kissed her hand on one of the doorsteps of the palace, Míriel could do nothing but wonder how she could one day marry Elentir, kiss him, sleep with him and carry his children in her womb; how she could do that when she knew that Calion existed, and he wasn’t hers.

Because despite being always mindful of her duty, despite wanting to make her father happy, despite knowing why he wanted that alliance in the first place, despite knowing what was best for her, Míriel had fallen in love with Calion, and nobody, not even Eru Himself, could change that.

Maybe it was truly a curse that the Valar had brought upon her, to punish the mistakes of her ancestors. But if it truly was so, what fault had she in that? She had never chosen to fall in love with Calion in the first place.

And if it truly is a curse, why curse me, when I’m innocent of the sins of my forefathers? And if I shouldn’t feel these feelings in the first place, why is he the only one that could fully understand me? she wondered.

Míriel, princess of Númenor, threw a last glance to the descending sun beyond her, its light that coloured the sea and the mountains of Andúnië red. She knew that far, far away beyond the sea, there was Aman, the land of the Valar. Her heart was full of many, too many questions.

And she feared that all her faith in the Valar, all she had ever known and learned from her father, and her grandmother, all she had always known that was just and incontrovertible for all her life, couldn’t answer those questions. Not anymore.

Chapter Text

Oxford, 7th Age, 1987, 12 June

It was a normal, quiet morning.

Alwin Arundel Lowdham, Arry Lowdham to his friends, raised a distracted gaze from the newspaper he was reading, sitting in a café near the university. The roads of Oxford were full of people welcoming the upcoming summer with joy and relief, and their chattering filled the air, joining the soft tunes of the pigeons and sparrows that populated the roofs of the city. Ordinary sounds, for an ordinary morning of a upcoming summer day.

He was still lost in his thought when he heard a voice, right before him, speaking to him: “Good morning, Mr Lowdham.”

The surprise was so great that Alwin Arundel Lowdham stopped for a moment, his cup of tea still in his hand. The voice was not a normal voice. For one thing it was totally unknown to him, but more than that, it wasn’t the sort of voice he would expect to hear here, on a quiet, normal morning in the Oxford centre.

No, that was a voice that should belong to an ancient bard of the old times, a bard who should be singing lays of runes, and rings, and dragons and golden hoards in front of his athelings, in the golden hall of a palace illuminated by a fireplace, with darkness beyond the doors. It was a voice that should belong to the strange dreams he sometimes had, not to the real life of his waking days.

He lowered his newspaper to regard the speaker. He was a tall, strange man, who wore a long black coat. His features were fine, with full lips and a Roman nose, but there was an eeriness to them, something that Alwin Arundel Lowdham wasn’t fully able to grasp or describe. The stranger had short hair, black as the wing of a raven, that showed some silver strands near the temples, but no wrinkles creased his face. Arry Lowdham thought that the stranger might be about forty, as he was himself, but it was impossible to say for certain.

“Good morning,” he replied, folding his newspaper. “I suppose you must be a friend of my friends? I cannot recall having had the occasion to make your acquaintance, sir.”

“Me neither.” Once again, that vibrating baritone timbre. It was the kind of voice in which kings and warriors of old would have longed to be celebrated, nothing less. “And I fear that I don’t know your friends, but consider me a friend all the same. May I sit?” asked the strange man, pointing at the empty chair beside Arry Lowdham.

“Y-yes, of course.” Lowdham made a broad gesture toward the chair, indicating permission. “I wasn’t expecting anyone, sir.”

“But I was expecting you, Mr Lowdham.” The stranger’s tone was calm, his sharp grey eyes revealing no emotions. “Or maybe I should call you Ælfwine Éarendel Lowdham?”

Arry Lowdham went still for a minute, then recomposed himself. “I admit …” he said, in a careful tone, “that it has been a long time since someone had called me that. A very long time, indeed. May I ask you who gave you that name?”

“I knew your father.” The stranger smiled a little, and placed a large paper box on the table. “A remarkable man, indeed. You remind me a little of him.”

“Nice to hear that.” Arry Lowdham scrutinised the stranger’s face once more. He seemed to be in his forties, maybe even a little younger – definitely too young to have known Edwin Lowdham, lost in the sea forty years ago. “A very remarkable man, indeed, even if, as you must have noticed, a little strange in his choices when it came to naming his own son. A man has more freedom in naming his ship than his own son these days, he used to tell me.”

“Maybe.” The stranger smiled a sad, strange smile. “But I think that your name fits you, Ælfwine Éarendel Lowdham, in many senses.”

“Maybe.” Arry thought about his dreams. “May I ask how you came to know my father, sir?”

The stranger shrugged. “You know that your father was… ah, interested in Anglo-Saxon and Norse tongues. His research brought him to the strangest places, and into contact with the strangest people. You know that he was particularly interested in the true meaning of the name Éarendel.”

Arry was silent for a moment. The first thought that crossed his mind was that this man, whoever he might be, had managed to eavesdrop on his conversations with his friends at the Notion Paper Club, because he was definitely too young to know Edwin Lowdham. The other explanation was simply too absurd to consider.

“Yes, he was.” Arry Lowdham nervously drummed his fingers on the table. “He was particularly careful about names. Speaking of which, I still don’t know yours, sir…?”

“Even if I told it to you, I fear it would hold no meaning for you, sir,” replied the stranger, a note of iron in his baritone voice. “I know about your dreams, and they have little to do with me.”

Despite it being a pleasant day in June, Arry Lowdham suddenly felt cold. “If this is a joke, sir, it is not funny. What do you know about my dreams?”

The stranger took a deep breath, and then declaimed, in his deep, musical tones:

Kadô Zigûrun zabathân unakkha
Êruhînim dubdam Ugru-dalad.
Ar-Pharazônun azaggara Avalôiyada
Bârim an-Adûn yurahtam dâira sâibêth-mâ Êruvô
azrîya du-phursâ akhâsada
Anadûnê zîrân hikallaba.

For a moment, it was like all of Oxford had disappeared, and Arry Lowdham was far, far away. He saw nothing but mist, and he heard a distant voice, crying in despair: Desolate is Minul-Târik, the Pillar of Heaven is forsaken!

It lasted only an eyeblink, and then Oxford reappeared in front of him with its streets full of people and voices, and with it, the stony face of the stranger, whose expression hadn’t changed one bit.

Arry Lowdham took a tissue from his pocket and managed to clean the cold sweat from his forehead. “I know those words,” he said. How he could forget them? He had dreamt them that very night, and once he had woken up, he had tried as best he could to fix them to paper, so as not to lose them, for they were already disappearing into the mist of his memory. “I’ve dreamt of them. I have had such dreams since I was ten … fragments of words, phrases that suddenly come into my mind, no matter if I’m awake or I’m sleeping. It is absurd, but I think that you might believe me if I tell you that I’ve come to the conclusion that…” he shook his head. “They cannot be mere products of my imagination. I believe that what I hear inside my head are words of a long-forgotten language, a language of a lost people.”

The stranger remained silent for a moment. Then he said: “I think you would not be surprised if I told you that you’re right, Ælfwine Éarendel Lowdham. By some strange fate, your mind recalls the words of a long-forgotten language, a language spoken by people whose kin exist no more. With some exceptions, of course, like you.”

Before Arry Lowdham could reply, the stranger pushed the paper box towards him.

“This is for me?” Arry Lowdham asked.

“Aye,” the stranger replied. “If you still have some doubts about the veracity of your dreams, well, there’s a proof that will put all your doubts to flight.”

Without answering, Arry Lowdham began to open it. He caught a spark between the folds of paper, and when he finished, a crown sat in the box.

It was an object of exquisite make, and one that looked nothing like any ancient crown that Arry Lowdham had had the pleasure of seeing in his whole life: not like the Anglo-Saxon crowns, or the Langobard ones, or even like the Greek and Roman ones. It was without a doubt an ancient crown, to the trained eyes of Arry Lowdham, for it looked consumed, and it possessed an aura of old-time that no modern crown could have; and Arry Lowdham knew, in the depths of his heart, that this crown belonged to the same place that he had dreamt so many times.

It was a tiara of pearls and corals, all finely woven together like the branches of a tree, and it possessed a delicacy that most goldsmiths could only aspire to, and envy. Arry Lowdham stared at it with awe, hardly daring to touch it.

“It’s – it’s marvellous,” he managed to say, at last.

“Aye,” replied the stranger, in a flat tone. “But it matters nothing to me. I would gladly give it to you. I’m sure you will make good use of it.”

“I hope so,” replied Arry Lowdham. “But – but how did you managed to find it? What is it? Who are you, sir?”

“A question, for once,” said the stranger. “This is the crown of Tar-Míriel the queen, wife of Tar-Calion. You know his name; you have heard it in your dreams. It came to me across the fury of the sea by some strange fate I cannot tell, and I kept it, but it doesn’t belong to me. I’ve decided it’s time to give it to the last descendants of the Númenórean kin, as it must be.”

Questions crowded Arry Lowdham’s mind, but he was only able to mutter: “Tar-Calion … Tar-kalion. Yes, this name returned in my dreams. I guessed it was some king’s name, and it seems I was right. So, it belonged to his queen, did it?” he asked, without daring to touch the relic. He couldn’t do anything but think of all the times the name of Tar-kalion had come to his mind, a name whose meaning had always escaped him; and yet now, after so much time, the proof that everything he had dreamt of existed lay in front of him. It was too much to bear.

“Aye,” was the stranger’s only reply, and he closed his eyes for a moment in a strange silence.

“Anyway,” continued Arry Lowdham, eager to learn more. “You have answered this question, but you’re still avoiding my other questions, sir. Your name, for example, and how you managed to find me.”

“I told you that: I knew your father. I was … ah … occupied for long years, so I never had the chance to meet you personally, but it happened that our paths crossed, through some will of fate, and here we are.”

“Well,” Arry Lowdham said. “May I ask who you are? My father never talked about you, as far as I can remember.”

“Indeed.” The stranger smiled again that same distant, sad smile. “Have you not figured it out for yourself? I told you that I’m a friend of yours, Ælfwine Elf-friend.”

Arry Lowdham, who had thought that nothing could surprise him after the revelations he had already had that day, found himself struck speechless by that.

“You’re an elf,” he managed, eventually. Then he laughed a little: “Well, you’re different from how I imagined your kin, but at least, I’m happy to confirm that you are nothing alike the debased post-Shakespearean sort of creatures that my contemporaries associate with elves. I surely cannot imagine you flying over the flowers, if you permit my saying so, sir!”

The stranger – the elf – raised an eyebrow. “No, I surely won’t fly over the flowers. I’ve lost many things in my life, but I’ve still my pride. And I don’t doubt that I’m different from how you’ve imagined my kin, indeed, but such is the effect of long years full of pain. The long defeat had taken its toll on me for a very long time.”

For a moment, the light of eerie stars appeared in the stranger’s eyes, and Arry Lowdham shivered, wondering how he could have mistaken him for a normal man.

“I mean no offense, sir,” he replied, respectfully. “But if you will allow me, I would ask your name again? Maybe I’ve heard it in my dreams, and I’ve forgotten it.”

“Maybe,” replied the stranger. “Or maybe not. I’ve met some of your ancestors, but not the one who shared your name, Elendil Elf-friend. I’m not used to giving my own freely, since, as you will know too well, names are important.”

“Indeed.” Arry Lowdham shrugged. “But I swear to you that I won’t reveal your name to any living soul, if you wish it so.”

“No need for an oath,” the stranger said hastily, and for a moment, his melodious voice seemed on the point of breaking. “My name is Maglor Fëanorion, Elf-friend. Use it wisely.”

Arry Lowdham’s first reaction was to furrow his brow, for that name recalled nothing for him. If he had ever dreamt about it, he must surely have forgotten it, like all the other things he had forgotten of long-lost Númenor under the sea.

His second reaction, though, was to listen to the way that name sounded in his own mind, and suddenly, Oxford disappeared once more, replaced by the distant calls of seagulls, and the soft cries of a child…

The vision lasted the space of a heartbeat, and Arry Lowdham took a long breath, and drank some of his tea, now cold.

“An interesting name,” he commented, but when he raised his gaze, the stranger was already gone, as swiftly as he had appeared.

Arry Lowdham leant back in his chair. He might easily think that the conversation that he had just had with the stranger had been nothing but a dream, a phantasmagoric vision of the past, too far away for him to grasp easily – if it weren’t for the open box on the table, and the crown inside of it, whose pearls and corals still captured the sunlight of that quiet Oxford morning.

 

***

 

Maglor Fëanorion could hear the cries of the seagulls.

The people of Oxford paid no attention to the mysterious stranger in the long black coat, even though he was standing in the middle of the road, his face upturned toward the sky. And it was so that Maglor clearly saw two seagulls flying over him, their cries piercing the air, silencing for a moment the chattering of the people.

Of course, it wasn’t a rare thing to see seagulls in the middle of the land, for they could easily fly upriver, but that didn’t keep a little smile from appearing on Maglor’s lips.

His gaze turned towards the West, and he wondered if the Straight Road was still open for him. After all, if Edwin Lowdham had truly managed to find it, why shouldn’t he?

It was the Seventh Age, now. The world was remade and changed, the Elves had long vanished from it, those who had sailed for Valinor as well as those who had decided to remain, and the name of Fëanor was long forgotten. There was nothing, now, that still kept him in the Mortal Lands.

The time of the Elves had ended a long time ago. Everything that had happened after that to Maglor had only been a long, tiresome epilogue.

He had no idea why he had kept the crown of the last queen of Númenor for so long time: maybe it was a whim, something so irrational he couldn’t really explain it even to himself. Or maybe, it was because he knew that in the blood of the woman who had worn that crown had run the blood of Elros, his long-lost adoptive son.

Perhaps that was why he had decided to keep the tiara, instead of dumping it into the sea, when he had found it on the beach he inhabited, washed up in its sealed box, having miraculously survived the rage of the gods that fell upon Númenor, after the doomed night in which the Land of Gift had ceased to exist. He had always wondered if fate itself hadn’t sent that crown to him, if only to make mockery of him and his misfortunes.

But even that could no longer tie him to the Lands of Mortals, not now that he had found Ælfwine Éarendel Lowdham, and given him the crown of the last queen of Númenor, whose blood still ran in his veins. He could look for the Lost Road now, and find it, or die in the attempt. In any case, he would be reunited with his kin.

He wondered what had happened to his wife, and to his mother, in all this time. Did they still hope for his return? Or had they forgotten him?

He wondered if, in the end, the Valar had decided to allow the return of his brothers from Mandos. After all, seven ages had passed since they had sworn their Oath. Maybe the Valar had changed their minds, and had forgiven them in the end. Maybe they were already waiting for him in Valinor, in the green fields of Tirion where he used to play as a boy …

And so it was that Maglor, his long coat waving in the breeze, walked towards the dying sun, a dream-like smile on his face and his heart full of hope, softly humming a song that he had composed a long, long time ago:

I'm a lonely minstrel,
A traveler on a road to nowhere
I sing a song to lighten the day
So come along as I walk away.

Chapter Text

Who is the bringer of the coming storm?
Who is the last victim that we now condemn?
Who is the demon there in human form?
That's kneeling down in worship to the requiem...
Who is the serpent of the paradise?
Who is the snake tongue that now joins the requiem
for the locust swarm?
[Falconer- Locust Swarm]

There are too many people, thought Árillë. She slowly fanned herself, for the heat of the summer was already getting strong.

And the audience seemed to last forever. The throne room was filled with people, commoners and high lords alike, a long queue of people waiting only for the moment when they could bring their demands to the King and the Queen of Númenor.

Árillë’s gaze, looking for a distraction, went from the gigantic golden pillars that supported the roof of the room to the black and silver standards that barely moved in the soft breeze, to the high windows of stained glass, decorated with the shapes of flowers and strange beasts, whose vivid colours drew rainbows on the white marble floor. She was just on the lowest steps of the throne, her proper place as one of the Queen’s handmaids.

Her position was an honored one, she told herself. There were plenty of ladies in Númenor who wished to be in her place. She could see them right now, among the large crowd, their faces painted with red and white makeup, wearing expensive clothes of the finest silk and fanning themselves with big, coloured fans, trying to chase away the summer heat.

But all the same, any time that Árillë’s grey gaze fell on the dark shape of the Zigûr, right beside the throne of the King, a cold shiver ran down on her spine.

How had that necromancer managed to become the King’s shadow? She still remembered when he had been brought to Númenor, helpless and chained. And now, here he was, just to the right of the King’s throne.

The Zigûr barely moved or spoke during all the audience, but it was impossible to not notice him. Taller than any man, with long shining hair that almost reached his waist, the fine features of his face covered by a golden mask, clothed in a long black and red mantle, he stood like a tower among the people in the room.

Árillë remembered the very first time she had seen him, and how she had thought that the Zigûr was the most beautiful man she had ever seen in her life, more beautiful even than Ar-Pharazôn himself, who wore the resemblance of Eärendil. That thought sent a cold shiver along her spine.

Aye, the Zigûr was beautiful, but his beauty was as much a mask as the golden one he wore in that moment. Árillë might be the granddaughter of Lord Amandil of Andúnië, the King’s Counsellor, but a mere word from the Zigûr would make her a hostage rather than a handmaid. And despite her grandfather’s name, she had no true friends at court, except for Inzilômi.

For a moment, she felt sick. It was all too much: the heat, the chattering of the people, the almost blinding light of the sun. She missed Andúnië more than anything else, its white shores caressed by the gentle breeze of the sea, the fresh woods that covered the high cliffs.

She closed her eyes for a moment, continuing to fan herself. If only Inzilômi was here, she thought. A friendly face, among this sea of unknown people, would make her feel better.

When she opened her eyes, nothing had changed, except for a soft breeze that blew for a moment on her face. She breathed it in gratefully.

Seeking distraction , her eyes fell on the two golden thrones that overlook the room, where the supplicants came. The King and the Queen seemed untouched by any kind of discomfort from the heat, or from the noise of the people, like gods that do not care for the human misery.

Ar-Pharazôn the Golden sat straight on his throne, a benevolent smile on his face, his hand sometimes raised in a sign of blessing for the supplicants that required it. He wore a heavy robe of gold and purple without any sign of fatigue, and the winged crown of the Númenorean kings was posed on his golden hair.

Beside him, Tar-Míriel – no, Ar-Zimraphel, Árillë corrected herself – shone like one of the stars of Varda. She was clad in silver and blue, colours that made her eyes look even bluer, and a tiara of corals and pearls was posed on her thick raven hair. Ar-Zimraphel wasn’t simply beautiful, she had the kind of beauty that courtly poets never grew tired of singing about, the kind of beauty for which people lost their heads.

Maybe they didn’t look like gods, Árillë thought, but nobody could deny that they wore the resemblance of Eärendil and Elwing of the ancient poems, those poems her father used to tell her and her brothers when they were nothing but little children.

But all the same, she couldn’t avoid thinking of what could have happened if Ar-Zimraphel had married Elentir, Árillë’s great-uncle, as Tar-Palantir had wished her to. Maybe it would have been him sitting on the very throne of Ar-Pharazôn, at the side of Tar-Míriel, and Grandfather Amandil wouldn’t have to look over his shoulder, and Árillë would still be in Andúnië, with its gardens and its shores, hunting and riding with her own brothers.

She chased away the thought. Such thoughts could be dangerous if spoken openly in the golden court of Armenelos. Árillë knew too well that she had to keep them to herself, and she didn’t even dare repeat them to Inzilômi, in the secret of the darkness of the bed they shared.

***
Árillë found Inzilômi in the Queen’s chambers, hours after the audience had finally finished.

“Where have you been all this time?” she whispered to her, when they found themselves near the bathroom of the Queen. “The audience was hours ago. You’ve missed it.”

She wouldn’t be the only one to notice Inzilômi’s absence, for sure. Inzilômi’s father might be a King’s Man – a minor lord of the Hyarrostar – but her mother was an Easterling princess, the daughter of an Easterling chief who had paid tributes to the Númenorean Empire. Inzilômi’s presence in Armenelos had been no less a cause of rumours than Árillë’s, especially when Inzilômi’s swarthy complexion and black eyes made her stand out in the court of the King.

Inzilômi raised an eyebrow. “I was following the Queen’s orders, if you must know.” Her voice lowered to an almost imperceptible whisper. “She sent me to a woman that she knew in a low quarter of the city, who she believed could give her some herbs that would help her to conceive.”

Árillë merely nodded. The King and the Queen were still childless, and an heir was necessary. My father is next in the line of succession, she thought, but she chased away that idea. She had her doubts that Ar-Pharazôn would name Father Elendil his heir, despite Grandfather Amandil being his own counsellor.

How I could hate the Faithful, when my own beloved wife is Faithful-born? Ar-Pharazôn had once claimed, to the whole city of Armenelos, but that hadn’t changed the looks of suspicion that the King’s Men gave those who still worshipped the Valar, or prevented the riots and scuffles against the Faithful that had ended in blood. The Faithful were scared to walk freely on the streets of Armenelos.

Árillë wondered what Ar-Zimraphel thought of it: after all, the Faithful were her own people, and she was the daughter of Tar-Palantir. But she had heard the rumours that claimed that Ar-Zimraphel had ceased to worship the Valar, abandoning them like she had her former name, and even if they were just rumours, she couldn’t help but think that maybe there was a seed of truth in them. After all, Grandfather Amandil had told her that, when Ar-Pharazôn had proposed to forsake the Meneltarma, the Pillar of Heaven, and to forbid any ceremony in it, she had voted in favour of that proposal.

But even so, Árillë didn’t need such rumours to know which direction the winds truly blew. “I’ve heard of your brother Isildur,” a highborn lady with her face covered in powder had once said to Árillë. “Such a fine warrior, and a proud commander, exactly like the King was in his youth. He could have been such a fine Heir, what a pity that he was born a Faithful!”

Árillë was shaken from her thoughts when the Queen emerged from her bathroom, immediately followed by a herd of handmaids to hand towels to her. Árillë lost track of Inzilômi for a moment, surrounded as they were by a mob of girls helping the Queen to dry herself and put on a silken nightgown.

Árillë escorted Ar-Zimraphel to her dressing table, and obediently began to brush the Queen’s still half-wet hair, a long, luscious river of curls black like the wing of a raven, and fine as silk. Luckily, the Queen had only to prepare herself for the night, so there was no need for Árillë to help her with one of the complicated coiffures that could take hours, only to remove the tangles. She did it in a delicate manner, careful to not accidentally tug too hard, which would bother the Queen.

She still remembered the first time she had seen Ar-Zimraphel, who had come to visit Andúnië when Árillë was nothing but a little girl. She had stared in awe at the Queen, so radiant in her white silks and silver crown, and how she had asked her mother if Zimraphel wasn’t an elven-queen, because she had never seen a woman so beautiful in all her life.

Árillë remembered how her mother had frowned, saying nothing. It had been her brother Isildur who later took her aside and told her that Zimraphel had once been meant to marry Grandfather Amandil’s older brother, Elentir, who had died long before she was ever born. Árillë remembered how surprised she had been, for she had never heard before of Granduncle Elentir, or of his love for the Queen.

Inzilômi emerged after a while, holding a steaming cup in her hands. “The infusion you asked for, my Queen,” she said.

Ar-Zimraphel nodded, a slight motion of her head: “Very well. Put it on the table, Inzilômi.”

Inzilômi did as the Queen asked, and her gaze for a moment sought Árillë’s. Árillë did not dare to return her glance: in the golden court of Armenelos, it was always safer to pretend not to know.

Árillë wondered if the Queen thought she would be able to sabotage her chances of conceiving a child. Árillë would never be able to do that – she knew too well that any wrong move on her part would make her a hostage rather than a handmaid – but she couldn’t help but wonder if the Queen had grown suspicious of her. After all, if the King and the Queen ended up having no children, Elendil her father was next in the line of succession, and her brother Isildur after him. Even if Árillë highly doubted that Ar-Pharazôn would make them his heirs, his welcoming words towards the Faithful notwithstanding.

Ar-Zimraphel silently drank her infusion in little sips, Árillë, still working through the damp tangles of her hair, was careful not to make any move that might cause the Queen drop the precious infusion. What if, she asked herself, the infusion worked, and Ar-Zimraphel conceived a child? What would that mean for Árillë’s situation? Would Ar-Zimraphel still keep her in court, or would she not risk the presence of Elendil’s daughter so near to her child? Árillë had no answers. But she hoped for the second possibility: she missed Andúnië, and being sent home would be a bliss, not a punishment.

The only good thing about those lonely, exhausting months in Armenelos had been Inzilômi’s presence. Sometimes Árillë thought she might have gone completely mad, alone and without a single friend, if not for Inzilômi. Inzilômi, who exchanged kisses with her in the dark secrecy of their chambers, whose soft hands crept under Árillë’s gown, who shared her confidences when they lay side by side in the same bed.

Inzilômi too was tired of the court, tired of the men who called her an exotic beauty in the vain hope of winning a smile from her, and of the chattering of the ladies, how they glanced at her and how they spoke of her Easterling mother, whom her father had married out of love – or rather out of lust, as they claimed in the court. Árillë had told her in turn how she missed her home, the jasmine smell of the gardens of Andúnië, and swimming and hunting with her brothers.

It had been a long time since her family had last visited her in Armenelos. Her father had sailed for the North with a small crew: officially, to reclaim tributes from the blond barbarians of the North, but she wondered if there weren’t other reasons behind his voyage. After all, it was he who had told Árillë that Elves still dwelled in the North, far from the long hand of the Númenorean Empire.

But she hadn’t told that to Inzilômi. For all that she loved her – a starving, desperate kind of love, born in long months of solitude – she couldn’t risk telling Inzilômi about her father’s purposes, not even after what she and Árillë had shared together. Armenelos was full of ears and eyes, and who could tell her that she wasn’t guarded night and day?

A decisive knock sounded at the door of the dressing-room. Ar-Zimraphel sent a maiden to the door, who returned shortly after, in a hurry.

“The King is here,” she said. Immediately, the voices of the handmaids rose together in a cacophony of giggles, comments, and shouts to hurry up, like the buzz of a swarm of bees, while they helped the Queen to prepare herself, passing each other perfumes and toning lotions. Árillë finished brushing her hair, and pinned the Queen’s hair with a hairpin decorated with gold and emeralds.

As soon as the King entered the chamber, the noise of the handmaids stopped. Ar-Pharazôn had changed the purple and silk clothes that he wore at the audience for more comfortable clothes, but he was still a King in every inch of his body, tall and powerful in his golden nightgown. His eyes met Ar-Zimraphel’s, and a smirk appeared on his face.

Árillë could see a faint blush appearing on the Queen’s cheeks. But when she spoke to her handmaids, her tone was resolute, and her chin raised high: “Your duty is ended now. I need to stay alone with my husband.”

A bustle of giggles arose among the handmaidens, but they hastily let the Queen alone, almost running towards the door. Árillë had just enough time to grasp Inzilômi’s hand before they left the dressing room.

They moved to their chamber, not too distant from the apartments of the Queen in case she needed her handmaids, but far enough to not permit them to eavesdrop on what the King and the Queen were saying to each other.

The chamber that Árillë and Inzilômi shared was dark, illuminated only by the pale light of the moon filtering in. From the window, Árillë could see a portion of the courtyard where the White Tree stood, its pale branches made almost silver by the rays of the moon, and far away, far over the golden roofs of Armenelos, the solitary summit of the Meneltarma, the Pillar of Heaven, still snow-covered in the middle of summer.

A thought struck Árillë, and she asked Inzilômi, who was beginning to prepare herself for the night: “Is it true that the King and the Queen have decided to forbid admission to the Pillar of Heaven?”

Inzilômi’s brow furrowed for a moment. “So I’ve heard,” she replied, her voice uncertain. “The Queen said it costs us too much money, and that too much time has passed since the last time the Minultârik was climbed, before Ar-Pharazôn was crowned as King. Long before we were born, too.”

It was true, but still Árillë couldn’t shake away the cold she felt in hearing those words. What will become of the Meneltarma? she asked herself. What will become of us?

“Maybe it costs too much money, aye,” she replied instead. “But no King in the entire history of Númenor has ever thought of forbidding the Minultârik. It was a holy place for Faithful and King’s Men alike, for it was there where Indilzar the First King was crowned by the Herald of Avalôi.”

Árillë stopped herself before saying anything more. She had spoken without thinking, driven by her own feelings, because she trusted Inzilômi enough, but in Armenelos, a wrong word in the wrong place could be fatal.

Inzilômi didn’t reply right away. She took her time undressing herself and donning a nightgown – letting Árillë catch glimpses of her generous bosom – before looking at her straight in her eyes, her long black hair loose on her bare shoulders: “Maybe. But Ar-Zimraphel has said that a lot of things will change in the kingdom that she and her husband want to settle.”

Aye. But not necessarily for the best. What will it mean for us Faithful? Árillë asked herself. If Ar-Zimraphel had truly turned her back on her faith, hard times were going to come for them all.

“You know that I worship the Valar.” Árillë returned Inzilômi’s dark gaze, deliberately using the Quenya name for the Powers.

Inzilômi raised an eyebrow: “Yes, and? Ar-Zimraphel is one of the Faithful, too.”

I’m not sure about that anymore, Árillë thought. Not when she has even forsaken her Quenya name.

But she replied: “When the King proposed to close access to the Minultârik, my grandfather voted against it. The Queen voted in favor.”

Inzilômi merely shrugged. “I told you: she said that it’s become too expensive to maintain, and that it has been too long since the last person climbed the Pillar of Heaven. Maybe she’s right about that.”

Silence fell in the room. Árillë did not reply, because she wouldn’t dare to say openly what she really thought. She trusted Inzilômi, aye, but she was still the daughter of a King’s Man, and some topics would sound different to her ears. Árillë merely began to undress, searching for her nightgown.

At the end, it was Inzilômi who broke the silence: “I always wonder: why do you worship the Avalôi?”

Árillë hesitated for a moment. That was unexpected. And not an easy question to answer.

“Because my parents worship them, and my grandparents before them. Because in the ancient lore it’s said that they listened to the call of Eärendil and that freed us from the Darkness.” Because it’s the right thing to do. “Because when I feel alone or hopeless, it is to Varda – you’d call her Avradî – that I address my prayers. It helps me to feel less alone, less powerless, knowing that Elbereth can somehow see me and guide my hands. You don’t feel the same?”

“When I was little, I used to pray to my mother’s gods, the gods she worshipped in the lands across the sea.” Inzilômi crossed her arms. “I still remember their names, and the way she prayed to them … but when I grew up, it was my father’s beliefs that put their roots into my mind. If the gods exist, why they don’t show us? Why do they leave us here at the threshold of the Blessed Realm, forbidding us to enter in their lands? Why they don’t let us enjoy the same bliss and the same joy they enjoy?” her voice became a whisper. “The people of my mother used to pray to their own gods, but that didn’t stop the Men of the Sea from overcoming them. Where were the gods, both the Powers you worship and their own gods, in those moments? Do they care for Men, or they are deaf to our prayers? And if they care, why did they do nothing for us? Why do they let war, pestilence, misery, and ruin exist?”

“We cannot judge the gods.” Árillë hoped that she sounded firm, though she felt that her voice might start trembling at any moment. “They’re meant to rule the world in place of the One, and their will is too far above us to be comprehended by a mere man. Can the sheep truly judge the shepherd?”

“But what if the shepherd was a bad man, and didn’t care for his sheep?” replied Inzilômi. “The Zigûr said that the Powers were unjust towards us. That we were meant to be glorious, even more powerful than the Nimîr, but the Avalôi crippled us, and punished us with death. What if he spoke truly?”

“But you cannot trust the Zigûr!” said Árillë. She remembered the tall figure of the sorcerer at the audience, clad in black and red, and the way the light of the sun shone on his golden mask, and a shiver descended down her spine. “He’s a necromancer.”

“Necromancer? You speak like one of the smallfolk.” Inzilômi shook her head. “They name as necromancy everything that they don’t understand. Have you ever heard of the projects he presented to the King and the Queen? I’ve heard of flying ships, of towers and beacons made of iron that reach the sky, even of men made of metal. The Zigûr isn’t a necromancer, he is an inventor and a genius. A mind like that has never existed among the Adûnâim.”

“Aye, but how did he obtain that knowledge?” Árillë exhaled for a moment and sat on the bed. “I don’t trust him, Inzilômi. I –” for a moment, her voice cracked. “I fear him. There’s something dark in him, something that makes me shiver whenever I see him. Don’t speak to him, please. I say it because I fear he can harm you.”

Inzilômi looked at her as though surprised by her words. She sat on the bed near Árillë, and gently wrapped her fingers around her own.

“I’m grateful for your concern,” she said. “I won’t talk with him, if it makes you feel better … but I think that you have nothing to fear from the Zigûr. My father spoke with him once, and he said that the Zigûr is a wise man, the wisest he has ever known. He spoke words of wisdom, not of darkness.”

“What did he say to your father?” Árillë wondered why the Zigûr had felt the need to speak with Inzilômi’s father. He was a nobleman, aye, but not a High Lord like Grandfather Amandil.

“The same things he said to the King. He spoke of a golden age, where there were no Adûnâim, no Easterlings, no Haradrim and no Northernmen, just Men, all one people. We were immortal, and joyful, and even more blissful than the Elves, and we worshipped one god, the same god the Zigûr speaks for. But the Avalôi envied us and our bliss, and they accused us of a crime that we didn’t commit, and stripped us of our immortality. Then they divided us, letting us wandering roaming on the lands, thus causing the strife between the peoples. But that golden age isn’t lost forever. We can return to it, thanks to the knowledge and the wisdom of the Zigûr. Ar-Pharazôn and Ar-Zimraphel always said that they want to guide us into a new age of the story of Anadûnê.”

Árillë thought about a tale that her father had once told her and her brothers, a tale written by a woman long dead, about how the First Men had stained themselves by committing a horrible crime, a crime that equaled the Kinslaying of the Noldor in wickedness, when they had started to worship the Darkness. She shivered again.

“Do you believe him?” asked Árillë. “Do you believe the words of the Zigûr? We cannot say if he is telling the truth. We’ve nothing but confused accounts of what happened to the First Men. But I can’t believe that the Valar ever did such things to us. They were always wise and full of compassion, in my father’s tales.”

Inzilômi didn’t reply for a long time. When her eyes finally met Árillë’s, her gaze was fierce: “In your father’s tales, aye. But what have we had from the Powers in those centuries? Nothing but mere voices, and the way for Amatthâni is still forbidden. So why I shouldn’t believe the Zigûr? What have they done for us? It’s said that they freed us from the Darkness, but when the Darkness came again for the Men of Middle Earth, they did nothing about it. No, I tell you,” her voice lowered for a moment, “the gods don’t care about us. And they care even less for the Men of Middle Earth, for my mother’s people. So why we should care for them? Let them be forsaken! They’ve forsaken us.”

Árillë felt her eyes burn with tears that threatened to fall. She had never heard Inzilômi speak this way. She didn’t want to consider what would happen if she truly had committed an error, if she truly had bound herself to someone who would never accept her faith.

“Inzilômi, please,” she begged. “I want to hear your words from your mouth. Your words, not the Zigûr’s, not Ar-Pharazôn’s. Think about it. Is the Zigûr truly worthy of your trust?”

Silence fell again in the chamber. Inzilômi turned her head so that Árillë couldn’t see her gaze.

“Aye, the words of the King,” replied Inzilômi, dryly. “And where does your loyalty lie, Árillë?”

Árillë didn’t reply, not immediately. She had suddenly realized that she was speaking too much, too hastily, without considering her words. And Inzilômi’s reply had not been just a bitter remark, but a way to warn her that she was speaking too much, without thinking. When she spoke again, she measured her words.

“I’m loyal to my family,” she said. “And my family is loyal to the King.”

It was the truth, of course, to an extent. Grandfather Amandil had always been loyal to the King, despite what happened between them years ago, long before Árillë and her brothers were even born, when Ar-Pharazôn had married Ar-Zimraphel.

“Then I don’t understand your concern.” Inzilômi crossed her arms. “You may not like the Zigûr, aye, I can understand that, but, despite worshipping another god, he has never spoken ill against the Faithful. And why should he? Ar-Zimraphel herself worships the Avalôi, and she rules side by side with Ar-Pharazôn. And I told you what I believe, Árillë. Why I shouldn’t trust them? Is it not said that they are meant to be Azrubêl and Gimilroth born again? I want to live to see an age in which Faithful and King’s Men can live together, side by side, in which we could live in peace.”

“I fear that it’s not simple,” Árillë sighed. “There is too much strife between our people to live in peace. Some wounds will never heal.”

“I could say the same about my mother’s people.” Inzilômi smiled a sad smile. “And they were never meant to be blessed by the long life of the Adûnâim. Have you noticed how the courtesans still watch my mother, every time she comes to court? And yet, her love for my father was able to overcome that. And what if the Zigûr is right? What if there’s a way to live again in the golden age of bliss that our ancestors had?”

“I have little hope of that,” said Árillë. She could see that Inzilômi was sincere in her words, in her hope for a better world. Despite all, despite the fact that she had met no less difficulty at court than Árillë, she truly believed that Ar-Pharazôn and Ar-Zimraphel could change things for the better. And what could Árillë say? She couldn’t – she didn’t want to – strip her of such hope, not after what they had endured together. “But if you have such hope, I can’t speak ill of that.”

“I’ve hope.” Inzilômi moved towards her and gently began to untie her auburn tresses. “There’s always hope, Árillë. Even when you aren’t able to see it, hope is always here. Even in the darkest nights the stars shine.”

Hope, Árillë thought. The Men of Númenor, Faithful and King’s Men alike, worshipped the Gil-Estel, the radiant star of Eärendil, and called upon it when they felt hopeless.

She merely rested her head under Inzilômi’s soft hands, enjoying every moment of her touch in her hair. Árillë herself often done the same for Inzilômi, every time Inzilômi felt alone or hopeless or simply longed for her home in Hyarrostar, the large farm full of horses and sheep where she had grown up with her brother and sisters. Árillë would embrace her, and untie her black braids, and softly dry any tears with kisses whenever Inzilômi felt the pressure of the court weigh too heavily upon her, with their whisperings and their glances and their false smiles.

“You’re right,” said Árillë finally, and took Inzilômi in her arms, resting her head on her shoulder. “You know that I love you.”

“I know. And I love you too,” said Inzilômi, softly caressing her head. They remained together in that position for a long time, until silence fell again between them, and Árillë felt Inzilômi softly disentangle from their embrace. She made no more sound, and when Árillë turned to look at her again, she saw that Inzilômi had fallen asleep on the bed, a calm expression on her beautiful face, her bosom falling and rising with her breath.

Árillë decided to let her sleep, and went to the window, still open. A faint scent of nocturnal flowers wafted into the room, and she could see, far above the palace, the dark shape of the Meneltarma dominating the golden city of Armenelos. It will never be climbed again, she realized, and the thought stopped her breath for a moment.

There is always hope, Inzilômi had said. Could it be that she saw something Árillë couldn’t? That Ar-Zimraphel, despite her forsaking her faith, hadn’t forsaken her people, and truly wanted to help them, and give them a better future? After all, it couldn’t be merely coincidence that Ar-Pharazôn and Ar-Zimraphel looked like Eärendil and Elwing reborn. And maybe Ar-Zimraphel prayed no more to the Valar, but still, Grandfather Amandil was at her side, and, as the King’s Counsellor, he could advise and help her. Could Árillë and Inzilômi truly live together one day, side by side, without worrying about their different faiths? Árillë could almost see it: a little cottage beside the sea on a white shore, far away from plots and politics, the rumours of the court replaced with the cries of seagulls and the noise of waves against the beaches.

Father Elendil would never marry her to a man if she didn’t want to, Árillë thought. Aye, Elendil maybe wouldn’t approve her daughter’s choices, but Árillë wasn’t supposed to keep high the name of the dynasty like her brothers, was never meant to command armies and fleets. Having a woman as a lover wasn’t such a risk in Númenor, where people were used to lying and keeping secrets, and looking the other way.

The true problem was that Inzilômi was the daughter of a King’s Man. Árillë knew too well her father’s opinion about these kinds of bonds: they were doomed to fail, he used to tell her. Grandfather Amandil had been a great friend of Ar-Pharazôn, but their friendship had come to an end when the King had married Ar-Zimraphel. The marriage between Ar-Gimilzor and Queen Inzilbêth had been an unhappy one. Ar-Pharazôn and Ar-Zimraphel seemed to love each other, aye, but the Queen seemed to have forsaken her original faith, too.

That thought interrupted the flow of her thoughts like a stone interrupting the flow of the waters of a river. No, she told herself. Árillë had never wanted to be another Ar-Zimraphel, someone who would make the wrong choices for the sake of love. Family came first, she had always told herself, and she repeated it once again in her mind, to remind herself that she would always choose her family above all, no matter how strong her feelings for Inzilômi might be.

But this wasn’t simple. Deep in her heart, she knew that letting Inzilômi go would be difficult, maybe impossible. She had never dared to think about that moment: in her dreams of returning to Andúnië, her separation with Inzilômi had always been temporary. And she couldn’t help but postpone the very idea of a definitive separation, in the vain hope that she would never truly face it, that she would never truly have to choose between Inzilômi and her family. She wasn’t Ar-Zimraphel; she wouldn’t dare to forsake her family, her faith, everything that had been her world for her whole life.

There was always hope, aye, but her hope was a vain one. She knew too well that the wind was beginning to blow against the Faithful, against her family, and that she was nothing but a faint, little candle that would sooner or later surrender to the force of the wind.

Árillë could only gaze upon the high peak of the Meneltarma, eternal and unmoving, and, without even realizing it, she murmured: “Desolate is Minul-Târik, the Pillar of Heaven is forsaken!”

Her words echoed in the chamber, and for the faintest moment, Árillë had the impression that someone was with her, hearing those words. But it was only a moment, and it was only the wind that replied to her.