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Full of Wisdom and Perfect in Beauty

Chapter Text

 

“O Tyre, you have said, `I am perfect in beauty.'
Your borders are in the heart of the seas; your builders made perfect your beauty.
They made all your planks of fir trees from Senir; they took a cedar from Lebanon to make a mast for you.
Of oaks of Bashan they made your oars; they made your deck of pines from the coasts of Cyprus, inlaid with ivory.
Of fine embroidered linen from Egypt was your sail, serving as your ensign; blue and purple from the coasts of Eli'shah was your awning.
The inhabitants of Sidon and Arvad were your rowers; skilled men of Zemer were in you, they were your pilots.
The elders of Gebal and her skilled men were in you, caulking your seams; all the ships of the sea with their mariners were in you, to barter for your wares.

Persia and Lud and Put were in your army as your men of war; they hung the shield and helmet in you; they gave you splendor.
The men of Arvad and Helech were upon your walls round about, and men of Gamad were in your towers; they hung their shields upon your walls round about; they made perfect your beauty.
Tarshish trafficked with you because of your great wealth of every kind; silver, iron, tin, and lead they exchanged for your wares.
Javan, Tubal, and Meshech traded with you; they exchanged the persons of men and vessels of bronze for your merchandise.
Beth-togar'mah exchanged for your wares horses, war horses, and mules.
The men of Rhodes traded with you; many coastlands were your own special markets, they brought you in payment ivory tusks and ebony.
Edom trafficked with you because of your abundant goods; they exchanged for your wares emeralds, purple, embroidered work, fine linen, coral, and agate.
Judah and the land of Israel traded with you; they exchanged for your merchandise wheat, olives and early figs, honey, oil, and balm.
Damascus trafficked with you for your abundant goods, because of your great wealth of every kind; wine of Helbon, and white wool,
and wine from Uzal they exchanged for your wares; wrought iron, cassia, and calamus were bartered for your merchandise.
Dedan traded with you in saddlecloths for riding.
Arabia and all the princes of Kedar were your favored dealers in lambs, rams, and goats; in these they trafficked with you.
The traders of Sheba and Ra'amah traded with you; they exchanged for your wares the best of all kinds of spices, and all precious stones, and gold.
Haran, Canneh, Eden, Asshur, and Chilmad traded with you.
These traded with you in choice garments, in clothes of blue and embroidered work, and in carpets of colored stuff, bound with cords and made secure; in these they traded with you.
The ships of Tarshish traveled for you with your merchandise. "So you were filled and heavily laden in the heart of the seas.
Your rowers have brought you out into the high seas. The east wind has wrecked you in the heart of the seas.
Your riches, your wares, your merchandise, your mariners and your pilots, your caulkers, your dealers in merchandise,

and all your men of war who are in you, with all your company that is in your midst, sink into the heart of the seas on the day of your ruin.
At the sound of the cry of your pilots the countryside shakes,
and down from their ships come all that handle the oar. The mariners and all the pilots of the sea stand on the shore
and wail aloud over you, and cry bitterly. They cast dust on their heads and wallow in ashes;
they make themselves bald for you, and gird themselves with sackcloth, and they weep over you in bitterness of soul, with bitter mourning.
In their wailing they raise a lamentation for you, and lament over you: `Who was ever destroyed like Tyre in the midst of the sea?
When your wares came from the seas, you satisfied many peoples; with your abundant wealth and merchandise you enriched the kings of the earth.
Now you are wrecked by the seas, in the depths of the waters; your merchandise and all your crew have sunk with you.
All the inhabitants of the coastlands are appalled at you; and their kings are horribly afraid, their faces are convulsed.
The merchants among the peoples hiss at you; you have come to a dreadful end and shall be no more for ever.'"

 

 

(Ezekiel, XXVII)

 

 

Author's Note: #1 This fic is very long. And I mean very, very long. It´s divided by arcs, and covers the reigns of the four last kings of Númenor before the Downfall (Ar-Sakalthôr, Ar-Gimilzôr, Tar-Palantír and Ar-Pharazôn).

#2 The historical and cultural elements of this fic have been a) invented, b) adapted or c) transformed from a certain number of civilisations. However, I am not trying to mirror any of those civilisations in a total sense (obviously, since this would exclude the others) or even in a partial one, with the faithfulness of an historian. I am just using their elements for my own purposes.

#3 The most “obvious” of those civilisations (or at last the one that will become more obvious at a later point) is one I think was very much in Tolkien´s own thoughts for a number of reasons. AFAIK, no one has ever reached this same conclusion, though I could be wrong.  So feel free to be shocked and disagree with me.

#4 The Thorny Canon Issue: First and foremost, yes, I am following canon, at least a good 98% of it. There are some changes, and one or two divergences. The main one is no doubt the date and nature of the exile(s) of the Faithful, an issue that wasn´t too clear in Tolkien´s own mind. The second is a divergence from the Akallabêth (the nature of the relationship between Ar-Pharazôn and Ar-Zimraphel), but it follows the information given by Tolkien in HoME XII: The Peoples of Middle-Earth.

Otherwise, I have built personalities for the characters, filled historical, religious and cultural gaps, and found solutions for the problems that Tolkien´s text presented for me as a writer. All those are my own, and might feel a bit unusual at times.

#5 Completion: I have written many chapters already, and planned everything until the end. However, I have been on and off this for 13 years now, and it is still not finished. I have abandoned the story for years, then returned to it. I promise I will finish it, but I cannot promise when or how.

Warnings: there is sex (sometimes of debatable consent), incest, murder, suicide and human sacrifice.

Disclaimers: The Silmarillion, The Unfinished Tales and HoME XII belong to Tolkien.

 

Chapter Text

“Elwen! Elwen!”

The Elf-woman stood up, closing her eyes to take a deep breath of the salty breeze of the Sea. Then, tenuously, she opened them again, and took everything in her sight.

The sand under her feet shone with a faint luminiscence, covered by a spreading white foam whenever a wave overtook her steps. Huge treetops loomed in the distance, emerald green and red from the fruits that hung upon their branches. Birds of many kinds sang in clear tones, calling for their mates and flying from one tree to another.

Tears flowed down her cheeks. The intensity of the colours dazzled her. She came from a fading world, and now she couldn´t look at any of those brilliant things without a searing-hot feeling of pain. In the morbidness of a single moment, a thought crept inside her mind, I will not be able to live here anymore.

“Elwen!”

The man finally reached her, and threw his arms around her shaking body. She pushed her head against his chest, searching for a refuge in the comfortable darkness.

“You came...”

“I came.” she nodded, smelling the scent that she had almost forgotten in her long years of solitude, a pale shadow lingering in Middle-Earth for the sake of a kin who had been too stubborn for their own good. “I missed you.”

His head moved above hers, and she imagined that he was nodding. Feeling like a little child, she allowed him to manouevre her and guide her blind steps towards the welcoming warmth of the shore. There, they sat upon a mound of fine sand, and Elwen dared to open her eyes for the second time.

Blue. An onslaught of blue assaulted her, dazzling blue, and white. She turned towards him, and saw that his eyes were shining as he laid them upon her. Did hers shine still, as well? Or had their spark been quenched, like the bright colours of the world beyond those shores had dimmed under the breath of the Shadow?

Shaking still, she rested her head against his shoulder.

“You were delayed.” he muttered, caressing her hair. A memory began to pierce through the haze in her mind, and she pulled closer to him.

“Yes.” she nodded. “I was.”

Almost against her own will, her glance became lost in the distance, but there was no trace of a star-shaped island in the horizon. He frowned curiously. His hand touched her neck, and the frown increased.

“You do not wear it anymore.”

“No.”

“What happened?”

Elwen could no longer keep her remembrances at bay. Slowly, she fixed her eyes on his, and laid her hands over his before her lips curved to utter a single name.

“Inzilbêth.”

The images began to flow.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

The wind had already started blowing harder before the island was in sight. But it had been only after Númenor fell to her left that the sky darkened.

Elwen had never seen a tempest in the Great Sea, and the spectacle frightened her. Giant waves towered over her small boat, and the wind howled in her ears even after she covered them with her hands and huddled upon the wooden planks, seized by an unknown and shameful kind of panic. The Noldor had fought the Shadow, but the wrath of Ossë did not even leave her the small mercy of a sword to defend herself with.

One of the waves crashed inside the ship, with a roar of foam and darkness. Elwen was thrown overboard, in spite of her attempts to grab anything solid within reach of her blind thrashing. Her cries were smothered by water, as the ship that was never meant to collapse continued its voyage, drawing farther and farther from her.

Terrified, she struggled not to be engulfed by the fathomless depth under her feet. She prayed to all the Valar that she had once forsaken to keep her alive, but the current pulled her away like a broken toy, swiftly, inexorably, and it was too late.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Solid. There was something solid under her back. Gratefully, she leaned back as hard as she could, and realised that it did not move.

Ground. She felt cushioned, safe. The embers of a fire cracked softly somewhere in a near distance. A hand touched her forehead, and she shook in surprise.

Inmediately, the hand pulled back. With great efforts, Elwen opened her eyes, and forced them to focus while feeling the painful throbbing in her head.

It was a cave. She was in a cave, faintly lit by a small hearth that lay almost at an arm´s reach from her couch. A girl was staring at her from a distance, shaking and looking like she was ready to bolt away. In her eyes, however, widened by fear as they were, Elwen was  able to read an overconsuming curiosity, and she knew that she would stay.

Small and dim. The girl was not an Elf, but one of the Secondborn. She should be one of the folk of Númenor, the proud island where no Elf was welcome, but there was no malice to be found in her. And she had tended to her wounds, she realised as her eyes fell upon a bandage in her chest.

“You will not... kill me. Will you?” her saviour asked. Elwen´s glance betrayed a faint surprise, but it disappeared as she perceived the ardent hope in her tone and in her whole being, coming to her in waves. Where could such an  intensity come from?

“I will not kill you, child of Men.” she muttered, her voice hoarse and weak. The girl stared at her in amazement, then smiled warmly and relaxed.

“I know. I always knew. You are not evil.”

Elwen leaned back, inviting her to come closer again. She wanted to bask in her warmth, and forget the sudden images of dead Telerin mariners thrown over the seashore.

The girl obeyed at once, as if pulled by a strong, enchanting force. Slowly, she lifted her hand, and hesitantly touched her forehead.

“I... I found you unconscious, on the shore. If you... stay with me, I will take care of you.”

“Will your people attack me if they find me?” the Elf asked, guessing her thoughts. The girl shook her head, avoiding her glance.

“Nobody comes here.” she muttered at last. And then, shyly. “My... name is Inzilbêth, Fair One.”

The Noldo smiled at her. She had never seen such innocence in this marred world before, and it reminded her of what she had been once, in Valinor. She felt drawn towards the girl, small and insignificant as she was.

“I am Elwen.”

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

True to her promise, Inzilbêth nursed her back to health, coming every day to change her bandages, bring her food, and watch her eat with a look of sheer wonder in her eyes. She never spoke unless asked, showing the same reverence that the first Men who entered Beleriand had shown the Elves who found them in their path. Every day, Elwen asked her kindly about her family and life, and so learned that she had been saved by the niece of the mighty lord of Andunië, leader of the party of the Elf-Friends on the island. They were in his lands, “and none will ever harm you here”, the girl assured her many times, as if afraid that she would feel threatened and disappear in a whirl.

Elwen, however, did not disappear. Even after her wounds had been tended and she became hale, even after she had built herself a new ship with Inzilbêth´s dedicated aid, she still lingered in the cave, unable to pry away from the innocent eyes of that girl. Though Inzilbêth was not aware of it herself, those eyes were asking for help.

One night, she had a dream where Inzilbêth was swallowed by a wave, crying her name. Elwen tried to stretch her hand and reach to her, but she could not save her from the pull of the current. The morning after this, the girl came singing with a food basket in her hands, and Elwen saw a dark shadow haunting her footsteps. She shivered, not knowing very well why.

One day, the girl ventured to tell her the sad story of the Faithful of Númenor, her features veiled by sadness. Elwen listened in understanding silence, laying a hand over her shoulder.

“They say that Elves are monsters. That they have the power to do terrible things, and that they have done them in the past.” Inzilbêth looked down, in barely concealed anger. “They are so wrong!”

Elwen shook her head, allowing her eyes to become lost in the flames of the hearth.

“We have done terrible things.” she said, after a long pause. The girl turned a bewildered glance in her direction.

“You are not evil!”

The Elf flinched at the desperate edge in her tone. Again. It felt like she needed that belief to carry on, to survive in a world where one belief warred against another. Good, evil. Allies and enemies. Faithful.

Traitors.

“No, I am not evil. I am a Child of Ilúvatar, and so are you.” she said in her gentlest voice, caressing the side of her face as she did so. Little by little, the girl leaned to her touch. “We are free to follow our hearts, and this makes us capable of the greatest deeds, and also of the greatest evils. We, the Noldor, are like you, child of Men, but our deeds are higher and our evil more terrible, since the Creator gave us a greater power.”

Inzilbêth nodded hesitantly to this, her features clouded by the first doubts of a growing maturity. Elwen smiled, though deep inside her heart broke upon seeing the girl´s purity disminished.

That day, she began telling her stories of the First Age, and of the Downfall of the Noldor.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

She had been there for little less than nine months, when Inzilbêth sought her one morning. Elwen did not even have to look at her, before an unbearable anguish exploded inside her mind. She reeled back from the impact.

“What happened?” she asked, laying down the block of wood that she had been carving with a knife. The girl reached her side in quick strides, and threw herself on her arms without saying a word.

“Calm down, child.” Elwen whispered in her ear, willing her tone to be soothing. The girl´s body convulsed with sobs. “What happened?”

After several moments, a muffled voice finally answered her.

“I- I am marrying the King´s son.”

Marrying? The Elf´s body went rigid from shock. But she was a child!

Maybe their customs were different, since they were allowed only a short span of time under the light of the Sun, she tried to reason. And yet...

“And, do you love him?” she asked, touching her dark hair. Inzilbêth shook her head with violence.

“I... I have never seen him, ever! The marriage is a political arrangement... a hateful political arrangement!!”

At these words, the Elf´s heart went out more than ever for the stricken young girl in her arms. Elves married for love- she tried to imagine the bleakness of a life bound to the soul of a stranger, barren for eternity, and failed. There was cruelty in the very concept, like in that sinister old legend of the Elves who were forced to bend their souls to Morgoth and become Orcs against their will. For a moment, she wondered in alarm if Inzilbêth would fade from the pain of the intrusion and leave this world –but the Secondborn could not fade.

They could not even escape.

“Life is a path full of unknown turns. You may learn to love him in time...” she muttered, but her voice came out with a forced tone, devoid of any comforting power.

What did she know? What could she say? For the first time in her life she felt powerless in front of a mortal girl, and she closed her mouth, ashamed.

“He does not like my people. He hates Elves and Elf-friends!”

Elwen shook her head helplessy, and let her cry undisturbed. Two birds were singing in the branch over her heads, their song shrill and clear.

At some point, the girl´s sobs subsided, and she clumsily tried to get up. Elwen withdrew her arms at once, and stared at the small, so very human soaked face, red and puffed from crying so much.

And then, it happened.

First, it was nothing but the song of the birds, growing more and more confuse inside her ear until it turned  into a roar. Then, however, Inzilbêth´s features began to recede, and between them both, she saw a great wave like the one in her dream, rising over hills, mountains and pastures.

A hand grasped hers, as if frantically trying to pull her back to her reality. In an involuntary movement, it brought it close to the girl´s belly, and Elwen felt it grow suddenly cold. An image flashed in her sight, of two serpents that issued from the womb and started fighting each other.

And Inzilbêth´s frightened glance.

“What is it? Elwen! Please!”

Elwen blinked, and grabbed her hand to find a way back. She must have gone pale.

“I saw...” she began, but then let her voice trail away and shook her head. She could not tell her what she had seen. She was not even sure herself.

And still...

“Take this.” she said in an impulse, taking the silver chain from her neck and offering it to the girl. The silver was wrought with an emerald, and it had been crafted by her husband when he asked for her hand. She had worn it while she crossed the Helcaraxë, as well as in Beleriand till the end of the War of the Jewels, relishing in the warm comfort of the love that had made it. When it came away, she felt cold and bereaved, but still she pressed it against Inzilbêth´s hand.

“I... cannot accept..” the girl protested weakly. She shook her head. She knew that she was doing the right thing, even if the reasons escaped her own comprehension.

“Take this, Child of Men.” she repeated, trying to banish the dread that had clouded her fëa when she had looked into her eyes.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

This was the last time that she had ever seen Inzilbêth. When the girl did not return, Elwen understood that she had been claimed by her inevitable fate, and fled the island in the boat that she had built with her help. A pair of oars allowed her to travel far from the shore without displaying conspicuous sails, and once that Númenor was left behind, a swift current began pushing her towards Tol Eressëa.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

He stared at her, in thoughtful silence. His hands travelled down her neck, absently drawing the shapes of his lost handiwork.

“I will make another one for you.” he finally offered, sealing his pledge with a kiss.

She nodded with a small smile, but soon tore her eyes away from him, to search the horizon again for the island that now lay beyond her sight. She imagined a pair of lightless eyes at the other side of the Sea, looking at the same waves without joy or hope... and behind them, a greater wave of growing darkness.

Danger.

“Be safe, Child of Men.” she muttered, joining her hands as if in prayer.

 

Chapter Text

Year 3033 of the Second Age- 2nd year of the reign of Ar-Sakalthôr

 

Too young. Not ready to meddle in politics and much less to do it effectively. As a spy there wasn´t much she could do, as well –not like this, cut away from her relatives and their lackeys.

Inzilbêth seemed to notice that he was watching her from the other side of the hall, because her small fingers began fidgeting nervously with the flame red veil that covered her face. Next to her, her uncle was talking to a couple of courtiers, who nodded in silence to everything that he said.

“Those fools would not even have looked at him two years ago.” a scathing voice remarked at his side. Gimilzôr gave a brief bow to the tall and lanky figure of Ar-Sakalthôr, and repressed the sudden urge to frown.

“Indeed, my King. Indeed.”

Last year, as his father became King, Gimilzôr had reached the much contested decision to restore the Lords of Andunië to their old lands. Worrying news were constantly coming from the East, of plots and sedition and exchanges of treasonous messages with the king of the Elves, and he had thought that to have Eärendur and his family back in Armenelos, though humiliating, would enable a closer form of control over their actions and tear them away from their support. To this day, father and son had not wholly reconciled over that move, and when he had decided to marry the niece of the man in question –a convenable façade for the unexpected change of politics, asides from a hostage for the Palace-, the King had resolved to oppose the match and even refused to attend the wedding.

Gimilzôr shook his head, remembering how they had fought back then. His father had refused to see the logic in his actions, and told him that the greatest fool was the man who was fooled twice over while thinking himself clever. Gimilzôr had listened patiently, then said that he would do as he pleased in this matter or leave Númenor to its fate in Ar-Sakalthôr´s hands. It had been the first time that he had allowed himself to directly threaten the King in this strain, but he was certain that he was following the correct path.

The same morning of the ceremony, however, as he went to pay his customary visit to his father in his gardens, he had found him tending to his vegetables, and in quite a friendly mood. A carefully prying conversation had convinced Gimilzôr that he could take the risk of inviting him to the wedding again. So in the end he had come, and his son had been unable since the beginning of the evening to leave his side or talk to anyone, watching over him lest he would say something inappropriate in front of the wrong person.

“She is too young.” he was saying now, in a thoughtful tone.

Gimilzôr nodded, distracted. His new wife had been left alone on a chair close to a heavily laden table, and she was staring in silence at the people who talked and laughed around her. Though he could not see her face, everything from the nervous movement of her fingers to her slightly hunched pose, as if she was cowering from an unseen threat of a blow, helped him to picture her uneasiness in a place full of strangers, who seemed to have forgotten about her existence after one or two appraising looks. She had grown up in the forests of Andustar until recently, he remembered  - she might well not be used to company and the refined civilisation of Armenelos.

Repressing an unseemly feeling of sympathy, he looked in the other direction. There, next to the window in the corner, he could spot Zarhâd, lord of Sorontil and the Northern lands of Forostar, one of the strongest allies of the Sceptre. A woman was talking to him, and Gimilzôr assumed it had to be his daughter Zarhil, subject of countless rumours throughout the Island. She owned her own ship, and it was whispered that she had sailed far North, where the ships of Númenor did not go since the times of King Aldarion. He had also heard that she could not stay away from the Sea for long, because she was tormented by strong pangs of sea-longing.

This was certainly a strange trait, if maybe not wholly unbelievable, since she could claim ancestry from Aldarion, Sea-luster, bad husband and even worse King. And yet, Gimilzôr´s curiosity was aroused in spite of himself by all the stories surrounding that kind of she-Elf. After a moment of thought, he made a gesture to one of the courtiers who was standing nearby, and sent him downstairs to summon them – and then, he turned a wary look in the direction of the King.

Ar-Sakalthôr was still sitting on his throne, drinking from a goblet of wine. A shadow had fallen over his features, and his son could perceive his morose mood from afar. His eyes stared stormily at those who were merrymaking under his feet, but he did not say a word.

This meant that soon he would wish to retire, Gimilzôr thought in relief. He had always liked solitude, which had helped his son enormously in last year´s endeavours to make the people of Númenor believe that they were ruled by a capable man. Those who lived in distant lands received the decisions of the Sceptre without asking who was behind them; the people of Armenelos were kept away from the palace, and the lords´s inquisitiveness had been tightly controlled by Gimilzôr´s set of complicated protocol rules, which had also enabled him to control the Court as no crowned head had done before.

Unwilling to leave him wholly unsupervised, however, even in this state, he took the precaution of calling a chamberlain to keep the King company. That man seemed somehow to have a soothing effect on him, maybe because he shared his love for gardening. He would keep the old fool busy enough with some talk about turnips.

Immediately after thinking this, Gimilzôr shook his head, and cursed under his breath. He did not –could not- think of his father in those terms. It made everything even more difficult.

Sometimes, if he tried, he was able to summon some foggy remembrances of a time when Ar-Sakalthôr had been a capable man, a strong person that his young son could admire and rely on. The eccentricities had begun at some point, he supposed, even though he couldn´t clearly remember when, ever growing in folly and intensity until they couldn´t be rationalised anymore. And then, the fits...

Ar-Zimrathôn, Gimilzôr´s grandfather, had been the first to give it a name, even as he struggled in his bed against the Doom of Men. As soon as he had known that he would lose the battle, he had summoned him to his side, and told him that his father´s spirit was posessed by a Curse, and that he would have left the Sceptre to Gimilzôr if the laws had allowed and the scandal could have been averted. At the same time as the heavy responsibility of ruling in someone else´s stead had fallen upon his shoulders, Gimilzôr had thus learned that his father´s strange behaviour had a name –a Curse, the doing of the evil spirits of the West.

“The lord of Sorontil waits for leave to approach the Throne.” a whisper took him out of his moping. He gave the bowing man a nod.

“He may approach.” he said. His glance fell down to the feet of the stairs, where Zarhâd and his daughter were waiting for his permission, and appraised them as they came closer and bowed, she three feet farther than him.

“You may raise your head.” he told them. At once, she sought his look, and his eyes widened slightly in quickly repressed surprise.

That woman seemed to feel uncomfortable with refined ceremonials, and overdid every movement that she copied from her father, but there was no coyness in her glance. And, what shocked Gimilzôr even more, there was nothing in her of that famous morbid Elvish blood that wasted away pining for the sea. She was plain-looking, almost like the wives of the barbarians of Middle-Earth. Her skin, hardened by the elements, provided a strong contrast with her silk green dress, and her movements were brusque and ungainly.

“We humbly offer our best wishes in the auspicious event of your wedding day.” her father recited. He was a strong and battle-hardened man, and the Prince could see that his features were similar to his daughter´s. But then, -unless one was talking about Elves, of course- what was unusual for a woman looked quite natural in the countenance of a man.

She nodded.

“Might you be the Lady Zarhil?” he inquired, addressing her directly. “I had heard much about you, but I had never seen you myself until today.”

Zarhâd looked a bit flustered at those words –could he think that, after fulfilling his duties of alternate attendance in Armenelos for five years his daughter´s reputation had not reached the Throne?

“That is certainly true.” she replied, with another nod. She seemed about to add something else, but his father looked at her and she fell silent.

Gimilzôr was more curious than ever.

“Is it true what they say, that you have inherited the sea-longing of King Aldarion?”

Now, it was the lord of Sorontil who seemed at the brink of opening his mouth. If he ever began to form a word, however, it was immediately overshadowed by his daughter´s loud laughter.

“Sea-longing!” she repeated, shaking her head. “Now, that´s a big word if I ever heard one!”

“Zarhil!” her father muttered, scandalised.

“I have been to places where no one has been since Aldarion´s time.” she continued, encouraged by Gimilzôr´s silence. “I have seen islands made of ice in the North, and the sun rising in a blaze of green light. That is why I like sailing, not because there is a... strange sickness inside me. I apologise if this offends my lord the Prince, but those rumours are bullshit.”

Zarhâd´s face had gone almost as white as the ice islands his daughter had mentioned.

“If I may, I would wish to apologise for my daughter´s insolence.” he said in one single breath. “It is the first time that she comes to Armenelos, and she is not used to...”

“Never mind that.” Gimilzôr cut him with a gesture of his hand. Far from offending him, her attitude almost wrung a smile from the usually expressionless mask of his face. He could not believe how the people who had whispered those things could be so foolish: now that he had heard her speak, it seemed to him that she possessed enough common sense to make light of seven Curses. And this was something that would certainly come in handy for the people who inhabited the Palace those days.

For a moment, he even pondered briefly the idea of persuading his father to remarry and make her his queen, in spite of the daunting age difference that would reduce the gap between Inzilbêth and him to a mere trifle.

“Is the... King faring well?” Zarhâd immediately asked, still a little out of his depths. Gimilzôr turned his head towards the throne, where Ar-Sakalthôr had already stood up to take the door to his chambers, side by side with his chamberlain –fortunately, without staggering under the influence of the wine.

“He is well.” The people downstairs hadn´t even realised yet that he had left. “But a good King cannot forget matters of governance because of a mere party.”

“I see.” the man nodded immediately. Gimilzôr made a gesture of dismissal.

“I am glad to have met your worthy daughter. Tomorrow we expect you at the Council.”

The lord of Sorontil bowed and took his leave, obviously a little too relieved. As soon as they had left his vicinity, Gimilzôr saw a heated argument break between him and the lady Zarhil.

Glad that the coast had been cleared, he allowed himself a moment of weakness in which he took a deep breath, and then told a servant to summon the lord of Andúnië.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

“I plan to retire in short, and I intend my wife to come with me, as it is natural.” he explained, as soon as Eärendur had reached his side, bowed, and dared to ask the reason for the summons. Behind him, Inzilbêth advanced a careful step, and almost tripped over the folds of the veil. “So I will finally see if there is truth in the rumour that she has a star-shaped black birthmark over her face.”

Eärendur chuckled at the joke, as comfortably as if they had been friends for all their lives. Gimilzôr had already become used to interviews with him during the past year, and reserved for them the pleasant, jolly mood that would have made an intelligent man´s blood curdle in his veins. And yet Eärendur always picked the cue and followed it easily enough –so easily, in fact, that he often surpassed him at his own game, his sea-grey eyes gleaming with sparks of nearly genuine mirth. Like all his ancestors, he was a master of deceit.

And too clever for their own good, Gimilzôr added in his mind as he recalled the full history of the Lords of Andúnië. Since the reign of Tar-Atanamir, those opportunists had been Elf-friends –a commercially if not socially advantageous course at the time-, and amassed a fabulous wealth from their monopoly of trade with the Elven realms. Until, soon enough, it became apparent that it was political influence they really were after. By their wealth and lineage, they became leaders of the men who had been cursing the name of the Kings in secret for a time, but who hadn´t done anything of notice before they were there to direct them and offer them a safe haven in the lands of Andustar to conspire against the royal designs. It had been a very habile move; to use a minor disagreement over languages and religious policies to become a major political force. Purposefully they kept bestowing ancient, raspy sounding Elven names on themselves, and claimed the title of preservers of true tradition. Still, their perfidy had recoiled from the highest treason, until Ar-Abattârik´s death had given them the chance to seize the Sceptre that they had been yearning after for so long.

Ar-Abattârik had been married to a Queen from the line of Elros, beautiful yet barren. No offspring had come from their union, and yet the King had sired a son on another woman, one of the Palace´s maids. It would seem natural that he would be the heir to the Sceptre, but the Doom had crept over his father unnoticed, in his sleep, and it had been custom in Númenor until that day that a King would name his successor before he died.

Discord raged in the Palace and the Council of Armenelos for months after the royal burial. The Lord of Andúnië stepped out of his hypocritical meek role and claimed that the existence of a bastard was abhorrent according to the Laws and Customs of the Elder Race, which Númenor had honoured since the times of their first king. The son of the King was therefore unfit to rule, and upholding Tar-Aldarion´s laws on female inheritance the legitimate successor was Ar-Abattarik´s eldest niece, the Lady Alissha -an Elf-friend like them. Civil strife ensued, cleverly disguised under religious pretences. All the hidden Elf-friends came forth and rushed to the support of the would-be usurper, many others were seduced by her Elven riches, and the rightful heir, devoid of support and alone, would have perished were it not for his natural resources and bravery of spirit. Refusing to surrender to his powerful enemies, he took their cue instead, and learned from them how to fight that war with their own weapons. He proclaimed that Númenor was a kingdom of Men and should be governed by the laws of Men, who had bastards when they couldn´t produce a male heir by their wives. Through incendiary speeches, he made the people in the capital and the whole of Mittalmar understand the dangers of letting the Elf-lovers seize the throne, destroy the temples and persecute all those who prayed to the gods of the men of Númenor. Seized by a religious zeal, the courage of those men had finally awakened, and they expelled and defeated the Elf-friends from Armenelos.

Retribution had been swift after those disorders. The new King, who gave himself the name of Ar-Adunakhôr and proclaimed proudly that there was no other Lord of the West than the King of Númenor, had deprived his enemies of their titles, lands, wealth, and seats at the Council, and banished them to the East of the island. He had killed many of their supporters, and banished others to Middle-Earth. His rival was convicted of treason, and imprisoned for life in the Northern region. And, still not happy with this, he established that whoever would speak of anything that the Elves had said, thought, touched or made in his presence or that of his servants would suffer the same fate.

Once that the cancer had been extirpated, Númenor had flourished like never before. True to his promise, Ar-Adunakhôr had passed a new law code, built magnificent temples, spent the lavish sums that he had taken from his enemies in encouraging Adûnaic letters, undertook brilliant expeditions in Middle-Earth, and died leaving a kingdom whose splendour was unparalleled even in the annals of their own people to his day.

And that was why it was so vexing, Gimilzôr could not help but think, that this brilliance hadn´t been extended to the rest of his line. As the King´s descendants had diminished, the Lords of Andúnië had kept their wits intact under adversity, and now he, the great-grandson of Ar-Adunakhôr, was forced to lower himself to keep polite discussions with that snake who had returned from exile barely a year ago.

At least, he thought, he would never lower his guard.

“I assure you that she is quite charming, my lord prince.” Eärendur protested, turning back to look at his niece. Aware that they were talking about her, Inzilbêth had turned back to her fidgeting.

“Come.” he said, extending his hand towards her. She stared at him from under her veil, as if trying to guess what she was supposed to do, then answered his gesture shyly. Her hand was small and pale as ivory. “You are dismissed, Lord Eärendur.”

Nodding with a smile and unscrutable eyes, the Lord of Andunië bowed, and watched them retreat.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

A while later, when he finally entered the bedroom alone, ornamental garments already taken away and dark curls flowing freely down his back, he found her sitting on the edge of the bed. She was showing her back to him, but the veil had been discarded, allowing him to have a glimpse of brilliant plaits of black hair tied over a light dress with silver embroideries.

It had been custom since the times of Ar-Belzagar that a royal princess would cover her face the day of her wedding, so the assembled Palace would not look upon her until she had lain with her husband. Most of the times that he could recall this had been nothing but a mere formality, since the brides had been well-known noblewomen who frequented the Palace, but now, for once, the ritual had been carried to its last consequences. No one, not even Gimilzôr himself, had ever seen her face.

Noticing his presence at last, Inzilbêth gave a little gasp and quickly turned back. As he had his first glimpse of her, he was not able to suppress a start, and she, taken aback by his expression, let her eyes drop to the ground. His blood ran cold for a second.

She is an Elf! was his first thought, already beginning to make the signal of the Hand- but no, what was he saying, she had to be human. Or had Eärendur´s sister bedded one of them in secret, only for the purpose of begetting a child who would be his undoing?

At once, he tried to quench the flow of his insane thoughts. They could not have known back then that she would be his wife. They could not have planned it, and yet her beauty pierced and numbed him like the fiercest of weapons. He tried to search her for the abhorred features of the Western kin, their sea-grey eyes and the beaky nose of a bird of prey, but her nose was small and graceful, and her eyes huge and stirring. Her every feature seemed carefully measured and traced with a minute perfection, diabolical and Elvish.

Gimilzôr was tempted for a moment to turn away from her and leave. He now saw the extent of the trap of Eärendur, and he would not fall for it. He would never fall to the lure of that woman, and suffer his vigilant eyes to be closed.

A raspy, regular noise interrupted his agitation, and Gimilzôr realised belatedly that it was the sound of her breath against her sleeve. He forced himself to blink, to look at her rationally. Here he was, the proud heir of Númenor, facing a scared, defenceless young girl and in sheer fear of her!

The powerful temptress, meanwhile, was looking like she wished she could be anywhere else but in his chambers. They fear you more than what you fear them, his nurse had told him once as a child, when he recoiled from a garden spider.

“Inzilbêth.” he said, and she lifted her beautiful eyes to look at him again. He blinked over and over, as an unknown feeling stirred in his chest like an ache, like a longing for something that he had lost once and didn´t even remember.

Still seemingly unaware of her powers, she stared at him shyly.

“Do I have to... be naked... for this?”

This innocent question brought a rush of new images to his head, unsettling him even further. A part of him burned and rebelled at his own reluctance, as if she wasn´t there for him to take! She was his wife.

He swallowed. It shouldn´t be like this. He should be in control, and not allowing the enemy to confuse his thoughts.

“Whatever makes you comfortable.” he replied with a studied indifference. She contemplated the answer with a surprised blink, then nodded.

“I... will keep my dress, then.” she decided. Her pale cheeks were coloured by a reddish hue. “No one has ever seen me naked before, only my mother when I was little. And she´s dead.”

Gimilzôr nodded back at her nervous ramblings, trying to find a measure of lucidity. He managed to wring his eyes away from her face, and then they came to rest upon a chain that she was wearing around her neck. In the centre, just above her chest, there was a green gem of the same colour as the summer seas, wrought in a silver engraving.

“This, however, will get in the way.” he muttered, extending a hand to take it. Her reaction was as quick as it was unexpected; letting go of a gasp, both her hands flew to her treasure in order to fend it off from him.

When she realised what she had done, her blush increased even further.

“I am sorry.” she mumbled, withdrawing her hand with reluctance. “I... never take it away.”

Gimilzôr took it away nonetheless, now unhindered, and folded it neatly in his hand. This action, somehow, helped him feel better.

The silver around the gem had been crafted in the shape of diminute leaves of great beauty and detail. It was clearly an Elven device... old yet well-kept, surely an heirloom that had escaped Ar-Adunakhôr´s vengeful wrath.

He put it aside, then turned his attention back to her. She was not looking at him anymore, but at the table where he had laid her jewel. The look of mournful loss in her eyes struck him to the core.

He sighed, uncomfortable yet again. He could not even think of her as the enemy.

“Was it your mother´s?” he asked, in a gentler voice. She stared at him in silence, slightly dazed.

“Yes.” she nodded, at last. “It was hers.”

“It will still be here tomorrow.”

And with this he pulled her close and kissed her in the ear, feeling her body first tense in his arms, and then adjust little by little. His hands roamed down her back slowly, underneath Elven silks, proving to him with every touch that it was human flesh he was feeling.

Even the following day, however, as both lay entwined under the sheets and he smelled his own scent over the dishevelled hair of his sleeping wife, he could not wholly discard his unease.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Inzilbêth sighed, as she dipped the quill into the inkpot and gave a frowning glare to the much abused parchment in front of her. The letters were strange to her, large and bold, with spaces between each other and all in the same line.

Aleph, bet, gimel, dalet...

The girl in front of her smiled. The Princess curved her lips in a delicate pout, feeling almost ridiculous. She knew their alphabet well enough, she should be able to do this, too.

“The second letter is not drawn like that, my lady.”

Inzilbêth crossed it out, then realised that she had to start the phrase again for the fourth time. For a moment, she felt tempted to throw it aside and leave the gloom of her chambers for the sunlight of the inner gardens. The scrawl-like, primitive-looking scripture of the folk of Armenelos seemed to elude her in spite of her best efforts.

Repressing a strong pang of nostalgia, she remembered a time when her calligraphy had been beautiful, and the hand that guided hers loving and patient. Sunbeams had kissed her forehead back then, and birds had perched to sing freely in the branches of the surrounding trees, instead of echoing each other´s laments in their captivity under the twilight of the Palace.

Back when she had still been with her...

“Up... now, down... now, there is a circle, and the tehta goes here, see?”

Inzilbêth´s grey eyes widened in wonder, as she saw the mysterious beauty of what they had produced. Those lines could speak and say things, her mother had said.

“What does it mean, Mama?”

“This is Elbereth. The Queen of the West.” the woman answered. “She sits upon the holy mountain of Taniquetil, with stars for jewels.”

Inzilbêth´s wonder turned to rapture.

“I wish I could see her!”

Her mother shook her head at her enthusiasm, smiling a bit sadly.

“We are not welcome in the Undying Lands, my child. The greed and evil of Men took them away from us.”

The child frowned, confused. She did not understand. It was the same thing that she had been told when she had wished to see the mountain of Meneltarma, and the kingdom of Gil-galad in Middle-Earth, and the King´s palace in Armenelos, and her active imagination had built strange images of evil and greedy Men stealing all those places and standing guard around them with sticks and swords. But somehow, this did not work in her mind for what she had heard about the Undying Lands. The Valar lived there, didn´t they?

“How, Mama? How did this happen?” she asked, unable to repress her inquisitiveness. Her mother let go of a deep sigh, and gathered her on her lap.

“Long ago, the King and his men grew proud, and turned to evil. They banned the Elves from Númenor, scorned the Valar and adored cruel gods. Because of them, Númenor is now an unholy place, and the Valar and the Elves do not want to have anything to do with its people.”

“But we are not evil!” the girl protested, shaken. Her mother caressed her hair.

“No, we are not. We are the Faithful, my love. Our people opposed this evil, and kept the friendship of the Elves. This made the King very angry, and he banished them all to a barren place in the East, where they are watched night and day and they cannot escape.” For a moment, Inzilbêth felt her mother´s welcoming body tense behind her back. She turned to look at her, and noticed her quick efforts to regain her smile. “Your grandmother, your uncle, your aunt, your cousin; all your family is there, Inzilbêth.”

“And why are we here, then?” she asked, feeling as if a veil of  deep mystery was starting to unravel. Her mother´s fond smile returned at its fullest.

“It was because of your father. He is kin to the King, handsome and brave. He was appointed governor of the East, and he fell in love with me. He risked his life to take me back with him. “Inzilbêth felt the warmth come back to her at this. “Your father is a great man, Inzilbêth. A great man.”

In thoughtful silence, the girl leaned her head over her mother´s shoulder, and allowed her to touch her hair for a while. The things she had heard that day would need a long time to be mulled over.

“One day, you will find someone like him.” she heard a soft voice mutter absently above her head. “Yes... I am sure you will lead a happy life, my dear, away from darkness and uncertainty.”

“My lady!”

The Princess awoke from her daydream to a young woman´s voice turned shrill from alarm. In sudden apprehension, she jerked away from the parchment, as if her clumsy letters could jump and attack her at any moment.

A huge ink stain fell upon the text, second to the one that had caused the ruckus in the first place.

“Oh, I am- I am sorry for scaring you!” Nidhra muttered hurriedly. “But by Queen Ashtarte the Foam-Rider, the parchment is utterly ruined now!”

“Never mind.” she said, wincing a bit. That woman swore by the cruel gods quite a lot, even though Inzilbêth herself had to admit that there was no other trace of evil to be found in her.

But then, who could have known that the things who had once seemed so easy in her mother´s tales would turn out to be so difficult, here in Armenelos? Even her husband, cold and loveless, had become confusing, the day that she had ventured to raise her face for a moment and seen her fear and disquietude mirrored in his eyes as they lay side by side.

I am not evil. I am a Child of Ilúvatar, and so are you.

We are free to follow our hearts...

“I am not making any progress.” she complained, pushing her failed endeavours aside. The sun... she so wanted to see, and feel the sun. She felt dizzy.

Suddenly, she could perceive it. At first it was nothing but the tiniest stir inside her, but then it evolved into a distinct, sharp yet painless blow to the walls of her womb.

“It is... it is kicking!” she cried joyfully, leaning back on her chair. At once, Nidhra stood up and ran to lay an admiring hand over the Princess´s round belly.

“It is, indeed! Blessed be the Queen of the Seas!” Her smile disminished a bit, and Inzilbêth saw her endeavours to regain the composure that she had lost for a moment. “Who would have guessed that you would give fruit so young, my lady...”

The young Princess and soon-to-be-mother nodded happily. Back when she had first noticed the growth, she had been scared and prayed for it to disappear, but soon all those wishes, images and hopes had burst in in a rush, and her fears gave way to impatience and delight.

She would be mother to a baby. She would cradle it in her arms and teach it everything, and tell it her mother´s stories, and then both would laugh together. She would not be alone anymore.

“... and who cares about those stuck-up old ladies and their ideas.” the lady-in-waiting kept rambling in a lower tone. “Give the baby away to be raised by an old hag, indeed! As if the Princess was not enough to...”

“What?” Aghast, Inzilbêth interrupted her. The happiness left her at once, like a fleeting ray of warmth after a cloud covered the sun. “What do you mean, give the baby away? It is... it is my child!”

“Of course it is.” Nidhra replied immediately, guilty for having upset her. In her distress, the Princess took her hand in hers, and she pressed it comfortingly. “Of course it is, my lady.”

“But then...” Inzilbêth refused to let go. “Then, what does this... talk mean?”

“Nothing at all.” the lady-in-waiting stated firmly. “Some women who have nothing better to do than nosing in the lives of others were whispering that the Princess was too young at seventeen to be fit to be a mother, and since it will be the child of the heir to the throne... But there is nothing to their words. If you can bear it, the point is moot – you are a mother!”

“And the Prince?”

“Probably never even heard those rumours. As most people in Armenelos.” In slow, repeated motions, the young woman caressed Inzilbêth´s hand until she finally felt it go limp in somewhat uneasy relief. “It was nothing else than the idle gossip of a bunch of bored ladies, may the Doom take them. I apologise to your ladyship for having brought them to your ears imprudently.”

“I am the mother. I am the child´s mother.” the Princess repeated intently, as if she wished somehow to engrave the words on her own mind.

Out of an instinct, two protective hands covered her belly, where her yet-unborn child had already stopped stirring and gone back to sleep.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

But the little one was tenacious, and impatient to see the light. Day and night, it moved and kicked with increasing strength, and two weeks before it was due it had already begun pushing to find its way out. Inzilbêth was immediately confined to her bed, as the whole Palace swarmed with rumours and the comings and goings of attendants and midwives.

The young girl had not been prepared for the pain that giving birth would inflict on her. Her body was racked by strange convulsions, and as she had barely managed to breathe and ride them, she felt as if a searing pain had torn her body in two. Blurred images and comforting voices held her by the hands, whispering that everything would go well, but she could not see how anything would ever be well again and wished to die.

“Push harder, my lady. Push harder!”

Leave me alone! she wanted to say, but the only thing that came from her mouth was a groan. Another pang racked her body, and she pressed the hand that held hers so strongly that she heard a yelp.

“Almost... almost there!”

Almost there. As those words managed to seep inside her mind, they gave her a little heart, and she decided to make a last effort. It was almost there.

Her strength focused in the small, terrible spot between her spread legs, determined to pull it out before it killed her. A scream echoed through the busy room, and the last thing she really remembered before pain filled everything was feeling ashamed and appalled at its raw sound.

“A boy!”

Inzilbêth tried to open her eyes, but soon gave up and closed them dizzily. People were running about, doing things and talking. Suddenly, it was as if the world had been reversed; she was the one lying limp in her bed, and the others were moving.

A boy...

A shrill, mewling sound reached her ears from a great distance.

“My child...” she muttered. Even to speak was now pain. “My child...”

“Ssshhh, my lady.” a comforting voice whispered in her ear. “It...”

Then, to her surprise and shock, a male voice interrupted the first from a similarly close position.

“You did very well, Inzilbêth.”

Once again, Inzilbêth opened her eyes. The light hurt a little less now, and as her sight began to adjust, she saw Gimilzôr standing next to her bed, pale and erect. At his left side, one of the midwives was cradling a bundle, and realising what it contained, the young mother extended her hands towards it.

“My child...” she repeated. She wanted to hold it in her arms, but Gimilzôr shook his head and told the woman to leave the bedside. Inzilbêth saw her son disappear, and a cold terror gripped her heart. Forgetting her exhaustion, her body began to fret and try to struggle up in weak motions. “No!”

He was her child, she thought in anguish, her terrified mind recalling and magnifying the rumours about her young age and her lack of abilities as a mother. She wouldn´t let them take him away. He was her child...

“Lay down and rest, Inzilbêth.” he said, and laid an unusually gentle hand over her shoulder. “He will be back soon, and then you will hold him for as long as you please.”

“But...” she mumbled, feeling exhaustion come back to her in waves. Most of the voices had already left the room, but there were two women whispering somewhere near the foot of the bed.

“I must go now.” he said. “The King is waiting.”

With no further word, he turned away and left. Inzilbêth shivered, scared of the new loneliness of her bed. She felt bereaved, as she had not been in all those months in which a little life had been stirring inside her womb.

Instinctively, her hand travelled towards a spot over her chest, and she clasped the gem that hung from the silver chain around her neck. A faint warmth enveloped her at once, growing steadier and steadier until her shivers stopped. She rolled to the side, all her thoughts grown confused and dizzy, and soon fell asleep.

Minutes, or hours later, she awoke with a terrible headache. There was someone in the room again, and she immediately opened her eyes, somehow expecting to see Gimilzôr. But instead it was one of her ladies-in-waiting, carrying Inzilbêth´s child in her arms.

Joy and relief lighted the Princess´s features, in spite of her state.

“Give him to me.” she said. The woman nodded, and leaned forwards to lay him carefully in the space under the young mother´s left elbow. Inzilbêth changed her position to be able to look at him face to face, marveling at his warmth, and stared at him rapturously.

Valar, was the first thing that crossed her mind, how could she have imagined that it would be so tiny? He stirred a bit, and then his face was scrunched up in an unsucessful attempt to repress a yawn. This immediately won her over, and she felt her heart brim with love for the little creature that had grown inside her.

Her child...

With the insatiable curiosity of a new mother, her eyes took his every feature, consigning them to her memory at the same time as she sought for similarities. Happily, she realised that he had inherited the look of her mother´s ancestors, with their same sharp nose and their mouth and chin. A tuft of dark hair grew over his little head, and she fantasized about the strong and beautiful black mane that he would grow in time.

As if he had noticed that he was being held by his mother, the baby opened his eyes. For a little while he squinted, trying, she imagined, to take everything in sight.

Sea-grey eyes, she thought, feeling as if her heart would burst from too much joy. Stretching her neck, she kissed him in the forehead, and the baby let go of a whimper. Afraid that he would start wailing, she quickly stretched a finger in front of his tiny nose, murmuring sweet nothings to calm him down.

The child responded soon, and started to coo and wiggle as much as the covers and the constricting robes allowed him. Inzilbêth felt a warm tear trail down her cheek, but she did not bother wiping it away for fear of hitting him with her elbow by mistake. He loved her, too. And, how wouldn´t he? He was her son. She was his mother, who would give him everything she posessed, lavish all her care on him from dawn till dusk, and protect him against the most terrible things in the world.

For the first time in her life she felt full, and brave.

Carefully picking him up, she laid him across her chest, and began humming an Elvish lullaby that her own mother had taught her as a child.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

“Congratulations, my lord prince.”

“Congratulations, my lord.”

Gimilzôr mumbled something that wasn´t quite at the height of his usual diplomatic speeches, and passed by the group of courtiers in the direction of his own private garden. He felt so overwhelmed, and torn between contradictory emotions, that he thought it a miracle that he had managed to say anything at all.

As soon as he reached his only sanctuary of solitude, he forgot for once all his apprehensions about what was proper and sat upon the grass, soiling his garments. Then, he shut his eyes tightly, and let go of a deep sigh.

As of today, he was a father. His wife had given birth to a male heir, a little child with the eyes of the lords of Andúnië. The very moment that the bundle had been offered to him in that dark room full of sweat, blood and screams, the King´s son had finally seen what he had never been able to see in his wife before: the eyes of the enemy staring at him in his own house. And this while at the same time, the love of a father drew him inevitably towards the tiny child in the midwife´s arms.

Would he be ever free of the shadow that he had introduced in his life? Would he be allowed even a small measure of happiness, of unambiguous, unstained love for a single being in his world? His father, his wife, now his son... between them there would always be mistrust and guarded thoughts, and a secret, unvoiced resentment.

Gimilzôr took a deep breath, appalled at his own emotions. He had endeavoured through the years to get rid of them, only to find over and over that there was some rebellious need that refused to die. His wife he could keep at arm´s length, young and innocent and beautiful as she was.  But his child! His own son, his heir, the baby who did not know yet how to speak, how to fear and how to hate, and who would grow to learn how to take his place in time!

Before he had been consecrated to Melkor and Ashtarte, the new royal prince had been brought to the Seer, who inhaled the sacred herbs deeply and scrutinised the small, wiggling bundle for a while. Gimilzôr had been watching his features intently, and he had seen a shadow cross them after the trance passed away. Worried, he had pressed him for answers, but the holy man had only said that the child would be King, and refused to speak any further.

After this ominous exchange, the time had come to present the child to the King himself. Ar-Sakalthôr had been shown his grandson for inspection, because Gimilzôr had felt apprehensive about letting his unstable father hold the baby. For a while, the King had simply stared at the child in silence, in front of Gimilzôr and the chamberlain who was holding it, until, all of a sudden, it had opened its little eyes wide to stare back at his grandfather. Ar-Sakalthôr´s face had gone deathly pale then. He announced that he would never allow the child near him; then turned back and left a thunderstruck Gimilzôr behind.

What had the Seer and his father seen? Was it the same unease that he felt when confronted with the sharp nose and the sea-grey glance, or was it something deeper, a dark fate that he could not fathom?

Would his own child turn against him?

Gimilzôr shivered. He was a religious man, and experienced in the ways of the divinity, and he had always believed that it was impossible to delay or undo the threads of Fate. As a good ruler, he knew that his duty would be to press the holy man to reveal the truth, threaten him if necessary, and act in consequence before it was too late.

As a father, however, he loved his child. And as much as he might try, he could not bring himself to do it any harm. No- it was unthinkable.

The greatest fool is the man who is fooled twice over while thinking himself clever. You were right indeed in this, father, though you are fey! He had thought he had seen, and taken appropriate steps against Eärendur´s schemes, but now it was brought home to him that he had failed to see the true danger. His son, his heir, with his mother´s blood, his uncle´s features and a destiny buried in shadows, and nothing from his father except a claim to that Sceptre that they had coveted for so long.

No! His very being rebelled against this, and he stood up with fire in his veins. For all his life, since he could barely remember, he had been working for the good of Númenor and the lineage of Ar-Adunakhôr. He could not -would not- allow them to trample over all his efforts. If it must be, he would kill all the Elf-friends one by one, or banish them from the island so none of them would ever meet his son. He would raise him to reverence the true gods and the customs of his people, and respect the example of the father whose sceptre he would one day inherit. Not a single soul who worshipped the Valar or knew a word of that accursed Elven tongue would ever come near him.

He was the King´s son. One day, he would be the King, and ruler of the most powerful people in the world. With that power, even Fate could be averted.

And it would.

Feeling a strong determination overcome his shaken thoughts, Gimilzôr let his eyes trail over the garden. A ghastly light was beginning to spread over grass, flowers and quietly murmuring fountains. The goddess is smiling, he had been told when he was young and stared in wonder at the magnificence of the full moon. Now, he would rather have thought that she was crying.

Shaking his head, and taking a sharp breath, he turned away from her, and walked back into his chambers.

 

 

 

(to be continued)

 

Chapter Text

“Your son is here, my lord prince.”

The man made a nod, and finished the fig that he had been peeling prior to the interruption. For a second, his glance fell upon the woman who sat next to the small garden fountain, working on an embroidery of silver and purple thread. She did not look up from her endeavours, but her lips curved into a smile.

The boy crossed the porch of the Princess´s gardens, followed by a small retinue of nurses and tutors who stayed at the threshold at a gesture of Gimilzôr´s hand. The exuberance that any six-year old would feel upon stepping out of the gloom of his chambers and meeting his mother was restrained by his father´s presence, and he offered them a formal bow.

“Good morning, son.” the Prince said, forcing his usually stiff tone to adapt to the circumstances. Inzilbêth gave her embroidery to her lady-in-waiting and beckoned to the boy, whose resolutions to keep his dignity disolved in a whirl as he rushed towards her open arms.

“Good morning, Inziladûn!”she exclaimed warmly. “Oh, but you look so pale! You should not stay so long indoors...”

Gimilzôr coughed, a little irritated. He was used to her behaviour –as it seemed, an upbringing in the wilds could not be erased no matter the years-, but questioning his own dispositions in front of their son was an extremely unwise thing. The boy had been born with a potential that no heir to the sceptre could afford to waste in idleness, not as Númenor´s frail peace grew stale and brittle.

And still, as both mother and son sobered and let go of each other, he could not help but feel as if there was something not quite right about his anger. Like whenever those two were together, he had the annoying sensation that he was intruding upon something.

“Father?” the boy asked, realising his transgression with a thoughtful frown. “I am sorry for... running, and for hugging Mother so undignifiedly.”

The long and difficult words were spoken calmly and with no hint of a stammer, almost with the inflection that an adult would have given to them. The Prince stared at his son, whose sea-grey eyes were fixed on him, and nodded.

The little prodigy. His tutors swore often that there was no child so gifted in the whole of Númenor, and even looking past their flattery, Gimilzôr had to admit that there was something unusual, maybe even unsettling about the child. There had been times when he had found himself trying to guess the true intentions behind his boyish frowns, as if he was facing a courtier or a member of the Council. This always made him feel extremely foolish.

Behind their backs, Inzilbêth nodded proudly at her son´s words, and picked her embroidery back to begin disentangling the threads.

“Come here.” he commanded.

Inziladûn gave a few steps, until he was close to his father´s chair at the opposite side of the small table. The glance he shot him this time was clearly inquiring.

“Yes?”

Gimilzôr sought for for the most adequate way to start this conversation. Most of the verbal exchanges that he could recall having held in the last month had always started and finished with some matter of governance - excepting a few ones about roots and vegetables, thanks to the King. He had rarely talked to his son, as he detested not knowing what to say.

“Have you studied something of import this week?” he finally chose to ask. Inziladûn´s lips curved a little, and his eyes were suddenly wide and eager. The subject interested him, strange as it would seem for a boy his age.

“I have been learning about the gods of Númenor.” he announced. Gimilzôr saw him struggling to keep a further torrent of words on a leash, and for a moment, a ghost of a smile crossed his face. Amused, he signalled him to continue.

“This week I learned about Ashtarte-Uinen, the Queen of the Seas. She is a goddess, fairer than the fairest woman in the world, like the statue at the Temple of the Sea Cave, and crowned in gleaming silver and pearls. At day she sails the Seas, and at night she sails the skies and we see her as the Moon. She protects sailors, and children, and the... love between a man and a woman.”

Gimilzôr nodded, slightly impressed. The boy walked a few steps backwards and stared at both his parents now, searching for approval. Inzilbêth, however, continued embroidering with a small smile, until Inziladûn finally turned his attention away from her to focus back on his exposition.

“And today I have been learning about Melkor son of Eru, the King of Armenelos. Of how he leads our armies in war upon the lands of Middle-Earth, and takes the people who die with him so they won´t be lost in darkness. And how the Elves and the evil spirits stole his radiant crown by treachery, because they wanted the world to be covered in darkness, but it slipped out of their reach and hung over the skies as the Sun to light our paths by day!”

They are Moon and Sun, Sea and Land, Woman and Man... the child´s song he had been taught when he was his son´s age came back in loose fragments to Gimilzôr´s mind as he heard him speak. Not that Inziladûn would have needed such clumsy rhymes.

Inzilbêth, however, was not smiling anymore. Could she be feeling jealous?

“Why did the..?” Inziladûn´s question wavered in his mouth and died, as he came back from his excitement to realise that he wasn´t in class with his old tutor or playing with his mother. Feeling unusually lighthearted, Gimilzôr encouraged him to continue. The ruler of Númenor was still enough to answer a child´s question - even if the child was as gifted as this one.

“Why did the Elves want the world to be covered in darkness? Is it because they can see in the dark?”

“The Elves live in another world, under the light of glowing trees.” he explained. “On several ocassions, jealous of the beauty and prosperity of the world of Men, they tried to conquer it. The third and last of those times, they headed for Middle-Earth with an army whose extent of power and malice no human or divine eye had ever witnessed. But even then, Melkor did not forsake those faithful to Him. He knew what he had to do, and so, after building a great fire, He threw himself on it. His enemies laughed, but suddenly, in honour of His sacrifice His father, Ruler of All and Creator, spread the flames and created terrible monsters of blood and fire, until the Elves were defeated and their host had to abandon Middle-Earth.”

“And what happened to Him?” Inziladûn had been won by curiosity.

“By his triumphant death he conquered the Other World, and thus became the King of the Dead. Now, he sits there waiting for His faithful souls to arrive, and guides them through the right path so they will not be lost to darkness.” The Prince paused for a moment. “. Those are the great feats that we celebrate in the February festival, which you will soon attend.”

Inziladûn nodded in grave silence, endeavouring to absorb such an important and shocking load of information. Inzilbêth´s lady-in-waiting gave a little sharp cry, upon noticing that her mistress had prickled her finger with the needle.

The boy turned there in anxiousness, but his mother smiled, sucking her injured finger, and signalled that it was nothing important.

“Was this all you were told about Melkor?” Gimilzôr continued, to cover this incommodating moment. Inziladûn mulled over the question, his eyes still darting towards his mother, until he finally shook his head.

“No. I also learned about his favourite animal, the wolf, and the one he hates the most, the dog. There was also a story about that, but my tutor says that it will come in time.” The impression of the old man´s voice had come so naturally and unexpectedly that Gimilzôr couldn´t even scold him for it. “And his favourite tree is the dragon tree... but I don´t know what that is.”

“Nobody does.” The Prince smiled briefly. “It is a tree of legend, with leaves sharp as swords that stand tall and proudly against the sky. Its roots ooze blood when they are cut, because according to a famous story, it grew from the blood of the mightiest of Elvenkings after he, in his folly, dared King Melkor to fight him one on one. He was so strong and canny that it is said that he wounded our Lord´s feet seven times with his sword, but in the end he was shattered by his mace.”

“Grond.” the boy added mechanically. Then, he smiled. “I would wish to see that tree at least once! Maybe there´s still one in Valinor? All the gods come from that land, don´t they?”

Gimilzôr froze. All the words that he was going to say, and the tenuous ease that had been developing during the conversation fled in a rush as he pressed his lips and sent a piercing glance in Inziladûn´s direction.

“Who told you this?”

The boy had realised at once that he had said something wrong. His face went pale, but his confusion was soon smothered behind a mask of forced self-aplomb. The expression in his sea-grey eyes became closed, guarded, and Gimilzôr suddenly saw Eärendur standing in front of him with a false smile and a calculating expression upon his features. His stomach clenched.

“I read it on a priest´s old book.” he replied with the briefest hesitation. Some of the dusty scrolls that were kept for religious purposes contained dangerous things that he had been forbidden from reading. “I am sorry.”

A good attempt, Gimilzôr thought. But behind his back, blood had fled from Inzilbêth´s face, and he knew who was the real culprit.

“Be excused.” he told the child curtly. Inziladûn turned towards his mother.

“Come with me, Mother.” he whispered, unable to keep his anxiety at bay for any longer. “Please.”

“Leave.” Gimilzôr repeated, so coldly that he would have flinched at his own voice. The lady-in-waiting and two servants who were waiting nearby followed him, with steps that seemed a little too eager for Court protocol.

Somehow, as the boy left, his frozen rage, mingled with rising fear became hot instead, and burned in his chest. Belatedly he realised why: what he had felt while Inziladûn lied to him had nothing to do with the feelings of a father for a son, even a son who had done something that he did not approve of. For a second, he had seen the enemy.

The greatest fool is the man who is fooled twice over while thinking himself clever.

He was the greatest fool.

Inzilbêth sat on her chair, clutching her embroidery as if she was waiting for some stroke of doom. When he turned to give her his full attention, she winced.

“It was not his fault.” she mumbled, with a small and rushed voice that he could barely manage to discern. “It was me. I was the one who...”

“I know.” he said, in a cold, low tone. Usually, he never raised his voice, thinking it inelegant and demeaning, but this time he needed a great amount of self-control to prevent himself from yelling. There was some thread he needed to hold on to, when everything else seemed to be escaping his grasp.

Fool. So much care spent in keeping the child away from distant relatives and old books, while Inzilbêth, young, harmless Inzilbêth, was free to indoctrinate him night and day, whispering on his ear while they played! Now he understood why the child had always kept such an infuriating distance from him –whenever he wasn´t feigning, of course. Had she taught him to feign, too?

This had to end. Now.

“You will not see my son again.” he told her, taking a breath. Before he could turn away, and unsurprisingly, he was held back by a hand pulling his robe. With great reluctance, he turned back to face Inzilbêth´s distressed glance.

“No! Please... not this!” she stammered, choking with her own voice as she knelt on the floor in front of him. Gimilzôr had never seen such desperation cross the features of anyone before, and he had to stop in spite of himself. “Kill me if I... if I have displeased you, but please, not this!”

“You have poisoned his ears with the.. tales of the traitors!” he spat. Saying it aloud helped to increase his fury and his outrage. He remembered Inziladûn´s smile, his eagerness, that had seemed so sincere to him before it all disappeared in a rush.

“It was a mistake! I...” She sought frantically for the right words to say, holding to him at the same time to make sure that he wouldn´t leave. So beautiful, she was, in spite of her features distorted by grief. Beautiful like an Elf... like a siren...“It was an old wives´s tale... that I remembered from my nurse. It was about a man of Middle-Earth, Tuor, who crossed the Great Sea in a ship. He... he found Valinor, where the Valar lived, and achieved immortality, but it was just a silly child´s tale and I meant no wrong with it. Please, believe me!” Unable to help herself for any longer, her voice shook with a sob. “I swear that I will never tell him a tale again!”

“And what will come now? Songs?” he asked, sarcastically. “Prayers?”

In spite of his bitterness, however. the flaring heat of his ire was already giving way to rationality, and he gave himself pause to think again. She looked sincere. Oh, yes - she looked sincere, naive, and he had the shameful urge to comfort her and dry her tears and forget that also she, by birth, had been his enemy.

He was so weak. He would lose his bloodline to such an insignifiant woman, and the whole of Númenor to her kin.

All because he had thought there would be a way to escape his duty. Love, cursed love, an inconvenient attachment in a man of state... a mortal danger in a prince.

Her sobs subsided after a while, and she wiped her eyes with a tenuous semblance of serenity. He expected her to continue insisting, but instead she sought his glance with an intent look upon her eyes. Almost fierce, he thought, wondering what else would a mother do to fight for her child.

The answer came immediately.

“Then I swear... I swear that I will never teach my son any song, tale or prayer that does not sing the praises of the greatest of gods, Melkor son of Eru and king of Armenelos.” she said, without a single pause. Gimilzôr, who had never heard her speak the god´s name before, blinked in surprise.

Did her kind care for oaths?

She is my wife!

Aye, she was indeed. As Inziladûn was his son by name, and Eärendur´s kin by blood. If he had been aware back then of the power that a young and ignorant girl could hold over her lineage, he would never have had her, not as a hostage, nor as a pretext or an alliance, but it was too late for that now.

It was also too late to do what he should have done back then. Inziladûn was a prince of Númenor in the eyes of the people, his declared heir – his beloved heir, yes, even now, to his greater shame.

Was there anything he could do, in the slippery terrain of misalliances, affections, lies and oaths where his miscalculation, and then his weakness, had thrown him? How could human eyes see through the souls, and reveal her real heart, his son´s real heart to him?

You chose not to heed the warnings.

The image of the holy man´s unsettled face flashed through his mind. Before Gimilzôr had had the time to recover from the surprise, another vision took its place, of two twin serpents fighting one another over Inzilbêth´s slight, trembling frame. He stood in place, shaken.

He knew what this was.

There was still a way.

It was the only thing he could do, he realised, in the backslash of that immediate and terrible flash of divine insight. One single thing that could save Númenor and the royal house from this approaching storm – and also, if things went wrong, hasten its doom.

Blood curdled in his veins at the decision that he had to make. For a moment, he wished that he could be nothing but a common man, who knew and cared nothing for the complicated paths that he was forced to tread. But alas- that fate had been denied to him, since the day of his birth in a bed of purple.

“Listen to me, Inzilbêth. I will allow you to see him, but there will be a third person present in all of your encounters until I decide otherwise.” he muttered, feeling tired and drained. Without waiting to see the relief in her face, he pulled the piece of fabric away from her grip, and left.

That same afternoon, when Inziladûn bowed in front of him and formally asked for forgiveness for mentioning the Unspeakable Name of the island of the evil spirits of the West, Gimilzôr gave his son a pleasant look, and told him that there was no reason to worry. After the child´s footsteps had waned behind his back, however, the Prince lowered his head, and covered his face with both hands.

Chapter Text

 

“The King has come!”

“He came back from the world of the Dead, and triumphed!”

“Hail the King!”

The sun was already high in the sky, bringing its scalding rays upon the heads of the  multitude that dared to brave them on that unusually hot day of late February. People marched in groups, dressed in light, colourful garments and shouting the traditional proclaims.

Seeking the shade of the smaller streets, those that spread across the older part of the city in an inextricable maze, vendors sang their merchandise: sweet figs, cooled in water, pomegranates –the Númenorean apples-, amulets in the shape of Uinen´s outstretched hand, and light hats made of hay. The haunting odours of spices and perfume that had become the particular scent of Armenelos reached Eärendur´s nostrils in waves, bringing a familiar feeling of unease to his heart.

On this festival morning, as he walked the city towards the temple where he was being expected, he was alone. One of the things he had learned, back when he set a foot on Númenor´s capital for the first time, was that unprotected anonimity was safer than going out of his house as the lord of Andunië with a sizeable escort. He was the enemy here, and would be so forever as far as Gimilzôr was concerned. He could stand in the unholy fumes of the temple a thousand times and watch as many sacrifices to the goodwill of the Dark Foe of the World, and he would still hear the word “traitor” whispered behind him as soon as he turned back

Sometimes, in his darkest moments, Eärendur wondered if there would ever be a justification for his actions that he could offer his father beyond the Circles of the World. The fourteenth lord of Andunië, who lived a life of exile, was not the only person in his family who would not have approved of Eärendur´s policies; some were still alive and full of recriminations. But he had understood it clearly –or thought that he had- long ago: away from their sovereign´s sight, they would always be traitors and enemies. They would never know peace, and they would never have the opportunity of speaking the truth in front of the king.

Still, even Eärendur, who through his life had been forced to learn the virtue of patience, was already beginning to see nothing but despair on the road ahead of him. Ar-Sakalthôr had lifted the ban, yes, but any shrewd observer would notice that the King ruled little those days. His son Gimilzôr held the Sceptre in his hands, not in name but in fact, and as long as he was alive none of the Faithful would ever know peace. Through the years, this tyrant was developing the attributes that would turn man into monster –not cruelty or heartlessness, a will of iron or a murderous, bloodthirsty nature, but a penchant for suspicion. A King in perpetual fear was the worst danger for his subjects, innocent or guilty, and no matter what Eärendur´s heart would tell him, his mind would only foresee bleak visions of the future.

The lord of Andunië reached the last step of the stone stairs that led to the summit of the smallest hill of those upon which Armenelos was built, and paused for a moment. From that vantage point, he could see the enormous bulk of the holy mountain of Meneltarma, towering over the city with its ragged slopes and peaks covered by perpetual snows. Lost in a feeling of religious awe, he closed his eyes for a moment, and wondered sadly at the folly of people who failed to see the true works of the divinity that lay upon their very doorstep, while they rushed in crowds towards a temple built by the hands of man.

“The King has come back from the dead!”

Your King lies in the Void, and he will never come back, he thought, then shook his head and continued his way. At his right, the soft scent of perfume became stronger, and mingled with smells of food as he passed next to the huge marketplace. But today there were no shouts, no crowds of people coming and going with bags of fruit, vegetables and fish. Today, it was the festival of the King of Armenelos, and the smells were nothing but lingering ghosts.

At the other side, upon the left slope of the hill lay the King´s gardens, built by the king whose name was blasphemous. Eärendur had been there often, realising the irony that lay in searching for peace among the running fountains that his enemy and that of the Valar had built, and walking under the shade of the exotic and colourful trees –those with huge trunks and brilliant, unbreakable leaves, or tall like arrows with long and thorny fingers, and the giant red flowers that never died- that he had brought from his expeditions to Middle-Earth. The people remembered him fondly for such acts of civic generosity, and yet Eärendur kept records of times when the Kings were known among the subjects for themselves, instead of for the splendid parks that they built while sitting in the innermost chambers of their palace.

The king whose name was blasphemous had indeed been the first to be touched by the ominous shadow of fear, that now ran like poison in the bastard blood of his descendants. Eärendur stared in the direction of the Southern Hill, upon which the royal palace lay like a city of its own. Sunlight shone over the magnificent, lotus-shaped pillars wrought in gold and the russet tiles of the roofs, blinding his glance until he had to turn his eyes away, as if he had been looking into the eyes of Manwë himself. But behind that brilliance there were walls and fortifications, and guards, and a host of dependences, workshops, cellars, gardens, courtiers and servants that isolated the King from his city, and enabled him to live without crossing his own gates.

Eärendur continued his march. Pearls of sweat flowed down his brow from the heat of the day, but he could not take his cloak off. The crowd around him was beginning to thicken considerably, as he drew closer to the third and last elevation, the Eastern Hill, where the temple of Melkor had its location. It was a complex compound, crowned by a dome painted in hues of golden yellow, and tall white towers at its sides. Around it, there was a row of houses decorated with glazed tiles of many colours, the home of the priests, and the reddish building of the School of Arts and Sciences, also built by the king whose name was blasphemous.

So much evil wrought in a fair appearance, he mused, realising that this could apply to the city of Armenelos as a whole, with its dazzling colours, its sweet smells and proud buildings; with its rare trees and large avenues and small, laberyintic streets, cunningly planned with a slight curve that prevented the gracelessness of the predictable straight line. It unsettled Eärendur sometimes, to see how evil could create beauty in defiance of the teachings of the Valar, and how an insidious sweetness still oozed from the corrupted heart of the first city of Númenor, stealing the heart and enchanting the senses of the most faithful. He remembered clearly the first time that his son Valandil had laid eyes upon the enchantress: after hours of silence, in which no one was able to wrestle a word out of him, he had told his father that even if they had to live ten lifetimes of exile, he would never wish the Wave to destroy such beauty.

Eärendur had not replied, confused as his heart had become through years of thought and pondering. The Wave dream had assaulted his bloodline since the time of their exile, and they had learned to accept that the Creator would not suffer this abomination to continue for long. And yet, his son´s words, in their strong and untainted simplicity had moved him, and he had thought that the day that such a city disappeared from the face of Earth the very stars of Varda would weep.

The avenue of palm trees that led to the temple was full of people, singing songs for their resurrected King and trying to push through the rest of the faithful to have a glimpse of the gates. When had those Middle-Earth heathen cults wormed their way into Númenor through the corrupted Merchant Princes -those bold, ambitious families who had not thought twice about leaving the land of their birth centuries ago, and seek fortune through trade and exploitation in the colonies-, was something that not even Eärendur´s father, master of lore, had known with exactitude, but the king whose name was blasphemous had been the one to give them official character, to serve his own purposes.

A breeze deigned at last to blow over the heads of the crowd, wringing a soft, musical sound from the leaves of the palm trees, and relieved sighs from many. Eärendur pushed his way to a small side gate, about to be crushed a thousand times until he reached a barrier of haughty looking soldiers. Usually he came earlier in the morning, when there were less people around the temple.

“Stay where you are!” one yelled at him. He took the cloak away, and a pair of sea-grey eyes stared at them questioningly. The same soldier who had yelled made a face for an instant, then turned his back to him and left with a signal for him to wait.

Eärendur endured the indignity with patience. Worse was surely to come until he was allowed to reach his rightful place, and at least now the throng had ceased to push around him. He heard whispers behind his back.

As he had predicted, the soldier came back a few moments later, accompanied by one of Gimilzôr´s courtiers. He had probably seen him several times before, and forgotten his face just as many. It seemed to him in ocassions that everybody in that palace shared the same appearance, with rich yet orderly clothes and haughty, expressionless features.

“Excuse me, my lord.” the man said in a formal tone, then proceeded to search him for weapons. Once that he was satisfied that he had not been planning an assassination, he allowed him to enter the temple.

The first time that his son Valandil had been forced to undergo this under the searching gazes of the people of Armenelos, he had not taken it well, Eärendur remembered. He, on the other hand, had ceased feeling anything ressembling shame after several years of alternate attendance –probably the first and hopefully the last in his proud family to reach this state of humiliating resignation. And even he had his own goals.

“Lord Eärendur!”

It was Zarhâd, the lord of the city that lay at the feet of Sorontil, surrounded by several men who proceeded to wash their hands and faces in the ornate fountain of the first courtyard.

“Lord Zarhâd.” he replied genially, bowing in greeting. “It has been so long since the last Council meeting. Is your family faring well?”

The other man shrugged. Eärendur almost laughed at his forlorn expression, and not for the first time, he thought that if they hadn´t been forced by the circumstances, he probably would have liked him. He even suspected that Zarhâd might like him a little.

“As usual. My daughter away on her ship. My son trying to rule in my stead without messing things too much while I idle here.”

“The joys of alternate attendance.” Eärendur nodded with a smile on his lips. Unlike more timid or cunning lords of the court, Zarhâd did not change subject abruptly, but merely shrugged his shoulders and closed his expression a little.

“Well, I do not think it is such a bad idea. My wife is sickly, and the climate of Armenelos does her good. The governance of my lands, on the other hand.... But let us go inside!”

The lord of Andunië nodded, and followed him through the courtyard and into the first gallery, whose shadows blinded him for a moment. The laws on alternate attendance had been passed in Ar-Zimrathôn´s time, but he had always suspected that Gimilzôr had had something to do with them. It seemed his kind of idea, to inflict separation upon families and take lords away from their lands for one year out of two, just so he could feel slightly more at ease about threats of rebellion. And at least the others did not have to suffer the fate reserved for the Lords of the West alone: to leave a hostage in the city at all times, no matter where the lord was or whether the year was odd or even.

The ascension of the narrow, spiral staircase that would bring them to their appointed places in the upper balcony was done in complete silence, and those who had arrived before them were already praying above. Eärendur took his place with polite bows of greeting to the others, who barely interrupted their repetitive mutterings to offer him a bow in return.

Downstairs, the great hall was already filled with people, except for the circle around the altar that nobody dared to tread. The holy flames had been kindled, and their fumes reached the dome, darkening it in spite of the efforts of the priests to paint them anew year after year. A dull chant reverberated across the stone building.

Eärendur tried to fight the sombre feeling that always came upon him as he was made to wait thus. He pretended to be muttering something, too, wondering why he cared to pretend when nobody was looking at him. Maybe he did it just to fill his mind with something that was not the vertiginous voices of the male choir, and the suffocation of the fumes, and Morgoth... who wasn´t anywhere where he could hear anything either.

Not before half an hour had passed, the door behind the altar finally opened for the procession of priests, dressed in white and almost translucent gauzes. The chant´s intensity augmented. Incense was burnt, and the High Priest arrived with the royal family and several men who dragged two confused, spotless black cows.

Further interested, Eärendur leaned slightly forwards to look at his niece and her child. The boy was staring at the comings and goings around him with a mixture of shock and awe –it was only the second time that he assisted to such a ceremony. And it was also, Eärendur thought with sadness, the second time that he saw him since he was presented to the Court as a baby, as Gimilzôr had forbidden him access to his own kin. He wished that the air could be less thick and allow him a better view of the bright, grey-eyed child, the hope and future of the West.

One of the cows mooed loudly, distressed by the fire, and immediately started to struggle in its bonds, trying to kick the men who surrounded them. The High Priest gave orders in a sharp tone, and someone knelt to offer Gimilzôr a knife. Inzilbêth moved out of the shadows like a swift providence, gathering the child in her arms to get him away from the danger.

Eärendur stared at his niece, and froze. At once, he stood up and leaned over the gilded railing, so abruptly that the High Chamberlain and the Lord of the Southwest sent some surprised glances in his direction.

She was gone from his field of vision. Alarmed, she walked away from the fire with her son, and Gimilzôr skillfully killed one cow and then the other after they had been reduced to immobility by ropes and the strength of many arms. The chants changed their rythm as the corpses were given to the fire, in remembrance of Melkor´s sacrifice, and there she was again, walking forwards with hesitant little steps.

She was pregnant.

There was no doubt anymore, Eärendur realised as he saw the size of her curved belly under the rich garments. The sound of blood rushing in his ears was the only thing that he could hear for a moment, and he needed great efforts to relax and sit back in his place.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

How was this possible?  How could the worst senseless fear have brought Gimilzôr to this, to invoke ruin upon Númenor and his own family? To forsake his own child and see him as an enemy?

Inzilbêth does not know anything about this, he mused, letting his eyes lie upon her and surprising a furtive hand that stroked her belly. He could be far-sighted at times, yet now, as much as he tried, the only thing he saw in her was the subdued happiness of a mother who hoped that at least this child would be allowed to live at her side.

For a moment, the lord of Andunië´s heart wept for the fate of his niece, whom he had been forced to sacrifice for the sake of a greater good. He had sacrificed himself as well, yes, but she- what could she have known, the day when she welcomed her kinsmen back with tears of joy in her eyes? He wept for her son, too, young and still too naive to understand what went on in the mind of his own father. He tried to curse Gimilzôr, but in the end all he could do was to curse himself.

No. Never despair. He had sworn this back when he had been nothing but a child living among exiles in a barren land, and saw the families that had lost faith long ago and passed their miserable existences in the apathy of despair. I will not despair. His mind started working quickly.

Everything was not lost yet. The eldest child was at least the heir, no matter what his father did short of killing him. The yet-unborn child could also be female, and the later Kings had forbidden women from taking the Sceptre.

And now it was time for him to warn Inzilbêth, even with a letter that would put him at risk, if it was necessary. She needed to know about the prophecy of the serpents. Whether she had been the one to rouse Gimilzôr´s suspicions or not, whether it had been simply because of her mother´s kinship –but then again, he was having his second child with the same woman, despite the fact that those kings thought nothing of adultery-, or because of something that she had done in innocent carelessness, it wasn´t too late to change the tyrant´s mind. Her unfortunate child had to keep whatever he had left of his father´s love, or they all would be ruined.

The terrible thought crossed his mind that maybe Gimilzôr hated his son not because of his mother, but because of the child himself, for his ill-chosen features and the blood running through his veins. Because he was like them, and Ar-Adunakhôr´s lineage had been defeated by a superior power.

The chants grew louder than ever, in honour of the High Priest of Melkor and the royal family as they exited the hall behind curtains of smoke. A second before the gates were closed after them, Eärendur thought he saw little Inziladûn turn back, and dart a searching stare in his direction as if he knew, somehow, that he was there.

I am sorry, he muttered with fervour, feeling, for the first time since he entered the hall, like he truly was praying.

 

 

(to be continued)

Chapter Text

The young woman lay unmoving, her head upon the pillow. Watching the entrance, she listened intently for the familiar sound of small feet tiptoeing across the corridor.

Soon afterwards, she heard a faint creaking sound, and then a smaller one, sharp and metallic as the door to her inner chambers clicked shut. Her lips curved into a smile, that grew sad even while she rolled aside to make room for the cold body of a child.

“Come here” she whispered, holding the covers open. Inziladûn accepted the invitation mutely, his expression still full of distress, and pressed against her swollen belly in search of comfort. “What was it?”

A short, tremulous silence.

“It was... that one again.” he muttered after a while. “The Sea was coming for me. People were drowning... and I ran, I tried to run faster and faster, but I couldn´t!”

“Ssssh.” she hushed him, caressing his dark hair. “I have you.”

This seemed to calm him to some extent, though his body was still tense minutes later. Since he had been but a baby, he had suffered from an uneasy sleep full of nightmares, and Inzilbêth had blamed the gloom of that palace of cold stone. Most nights, the dreams were so vivid that he dared to brave the shadows of the corridors and the eyes of the servants to slip into his mother´s bed, and she had never had the heart to refuse him before.

She embraced him, forcing a painful knot down her throat.

“What´s the matter, Mother?” he asked. Realising that he had noticed her distress with that precocious perceptiveness of his, Inzilbêth shook her head as she could.

“Nothing, my dear.”

“Is the baby hurting you?”

Her tears almost turned to a choked laugh.

“Of course not. It is sleeping too, at this hour of the night!”

“Lady Masra says that babies do not eat or sleep until they are out.”

“Lady Masra is wrong. Babies sleep in their mother´s womb.”

Inziladûn fell silent again at this, and Inzilbêth assumed that he was pondering the matter with a frown. She wiped her eyes with the hand that was not holding him close.

What would she do when he was not there? She remembered the dreary months when she could only approach him under the vigilant gazes of her husband´s servants. His nightmares had become worse than ever, but he had stopped asking her for songs and tales. Even today, the child she was holding in her arms was not the same that she had left in that garden with his father, and this had caused something like a small, persistent wound to grow in her heart.

Of course, that would not be a concern any longer. She held him a bit closer, and shivered.

“Mother, you are hurting me.”

“Sorry.” she mumbled. He pulled some inches away, until he was able to distinguish her face in the soft glow.

“I do not want the baby to be born.”

Inzilbêth´s eyes widened, and she sought his glance. He was looking intently at her, ever so formal, so serious.

“Why... not?” she asked, weakly.

“Because people say that he will be heir instead of me, and that Father will cast me out when he is born.”

Inzilbêth forced herself to smile, even as the weight of the letters scribbled by a kinsman on a piece of parchment crushed her heart and chilled her soul. The sound rang hollow, almost like a choke.

“This is nonsense. You know that your father loves you, don´t you, dear?”

Inziladûn´s face showed no signs of reassurance at her words. For a moment, a look of raw uncertainty crossed his eyes.

“I don´t know.” he mumbled. Inzilbêth embraced him again in silence, wondering how much he had been able to gather- how much had his sharp glance been able to perceive on its own.

As he laid his head over her belly, one of her hands broke carefully free again, and it sought the familiar warmth of the jewel hanging from her neck. Her eyes closed while she allowed its comfort to seep through her distress –oh, how she wished that time would stop forever at that very moment.

But it didn´t, and a mother could not bring further ruin upon her child.

“Inziladûn... I have something important to tell you. Listen to me with attention.”

Surprised at his mother´s change of tone, the boy stiffened again. His hands grabbed at her nightgown, in an instinctive impulse that made Inzilbêth think, for the madness of a moment, that he had already guessed what she was going to say.

“Because of this child, I will be... sick for a while.” She swallowed. “You will... not be able to meet with me, Inziladûn.”

“How long?”

The Princess forced herself to inhale a large gasp of breath. She had to be strong.

“I... do not know. But you... must not seek me. Do you understand?”

The hands grabbing her nightgown strengthened their grip, as the boy looked up and sought her features. Before she could even have had the time to look away, Inzilbêth felt herself sized up, pierced like she had never had been before by the eyes of anyone. In her shock, she smothered a gasp, and flinched.

The boy, however, said nothing. He simply looked.

“Do you understand, Inziladûn?” she repeated, trying to regain her composure and some measure of authority. He did not nod, nor shake his head. She began to grow frightened.

“Inziladûn...”

“Will you tell me a tale, then?” he interrupted her. “Because I will not be coming for a while?”

For a moment, she blinked in incredulity –sighed in painful relief-, and then tears welled upon her eyes, and she could not see anything in front of her anymore.

“I will.” she answered as well as she was able, nodding many times. “I will.”

Inziladûn´s grip froze. Slowly, she felt him take his hands away, retreating some inches further. Wiping her tears again with a furtive swipe, she found his gaze, and froze in turn.

He was crying. Shaking in silence, with his cheeks full of tears that gleamed under the pale light of the moon.

“Then, it is true.” he sobbed. “You will never see me again.”

“Inziladûn!” she cried, then smothered her voice in sudden fear of someone listening behind the shadows. She tried to gather him in her arms again, but he pulled away from her, and sat upon the edge of the bed.

“You must... understand.” she implored, willing her voice to sound calm and her tears to stay, even though her heart was breaking. “You are your father´s heir. You belong with him, not with... me, and my child´s tales. You are older now, Inziladûn. You must understand!” A sob betrayed her. “Forget about me and pursue your destiny. Learn to be a king of Númenor, and make me proud.”

“No! I do not want to understand!” he shouted. “I do not want to be a king of Númenor!”

“Hush!” she cried, listening for noises on the adjoining room. If Gimilzôr found him here... she thought, trying to grab at the last straws of normalcy until the terrible realisation dawned upon her that nobody would be able to take her son from her again, because she had sent him away herself.

Unable to keep her feelings at bay any longer, she bowed her head, and her body shook with wrenching sobs. The boy stared at her in silence, but when she grabbed blindly at him he did not pull away.

“I love you. “she whispered on his ear. “I will always love you, more than anybody else in the world. Never forget this.”

He accepted the declaration in silence, clutching her nightgown again. Inzilbêth felt a painful pride stir inside her aching chest, at her little child that understood everything like an adult.

And yet, she realised through the blur of her own tears, he was still crying like a little child.

“Come, now.” she muttered brokenly, lying over the mattress again. “I will tell you the tale. I promised... remember?”

Inziladûn let himself be manouevred again without offering any resistance. As his body touched the mattress, however, he suddenly wiggled away from her grasp, jumped from the bed, where he stopped for a moment to look at her –and disappeared into the shadows.

 

 

Chapter Text

“And Zeus said to Helios: “Do you see this child? (...) He is your son. So swear by my Sceptre and by yours that you will care for him above all things, that you will protect him and cure him from disease. For you can see how he is covered in smoke, dirt and cinder, and there is a risk that the fire you once put in him will be quenched, unless you show yourself in full might. I will help you, and so will the Fates. Take care of him, and raise him.”

Upon hearing those words, King Helios felt joy, and happiness at the creature. He discovered that in him still lay a tiny spark of himself, and from then on he protected the child from afar, saving him from bloodshed, the angry mob and the massacre. And Father Zeus told Athena, the virgin born from no mother, to tend to the small child together with Helios.

Once that the boy grew up, and became a young man whose first beard was beginning to show, and whose age was the most enjoyable, understanding the legion of evils that had infected his house and kinsmen he was about to throw himself into Tartarus, horrified at their magnitude. But Helios, in his goodwill, together with Athena the Protectress, plunged him into a a deep sleep that dissuaded him from the idea; upon waking, he retired in solitude. He found a small rock where he could rest, and examined his heart to find a way in which he could escape such great evil, for in that moment he felt as if everything was filled with malice and there was nothing good left in the world. Then, Hermes, who thought of him as a kinsman, showed himself to him in the shape of a young man of his same age, greeted him kindly, and said: “Come here, for I will guide you through an easier and smoother road, once that you have crossed this steep and craggy region where all men stumble and retreat. “

And the youth began his travel, filled with piety, and carrying with him a sword, a shield and a spear, though his head was bare. Trusting Hermes, he advanced through a smooth and untrodden road, wholly purified and filled with magnificent fruits and flowers, all which the gods themselves loved, and trees covered with ivy, laurel, and myrtle.”

 (Flavius Claudius Julianus, “Against the Cynic Heraklios”)

 

 

 

Year 3062 of the Second Age – 30th year of the reign of Ar-Sakalthôr

 

 

His father leaned back with closed eyes, putting the letter back on his table. There was the distinct sound of creaking paper, and then a small breath, like an almost inaudible sigh.

“Father.” he muttered, advancing a step towards him.

The older man gave a vague nod of acknowledgement, but did not move.

“How is she?” Valandil asked. Eärendur shook his head, and his son could see a brief flicker of sadness cross his features.

“She lives.”

Valandil reached his side, extending a comforting hand to lay it on his shoulder. Long ago, they had argued –so fiercely that they had even reached the core of each other, and discovered things that usually remained hidden behind stoic countenances and formal smiles. He had seen an unbearable pain cloud Eärendur´s eyes, and doubt and anguish upon the brow of the man who had always led them without faltering.

Is it necessary?Is it really necessary?

He swallowed, forcing his stare to meet that of his father.

“It was necessary.” he answered his own floating question of years past, in a tone of quiet acceptance. For a moment, it seemed as if Eärendur would show surprise.

Soon, however, his brow unfurled, and his features relaxed slightly.

“He is a fine young man.”

“He must have reached his majority by now.”

“Aye. Next year he will be twenty-eight.”

Valandil nodded, not surprised at his father´s exactitude. He knew that Eärendur followed the young man´s progress avidly from afar, with the full strength of his deep beliefs and hopes for the change, even though he had not been allowed in his presence even once.

And he knew, too, that his father felt in his heart that this situation would not last forever.

“Soon.” he muttered.

Almost involuntarily, both sought the Palace hill from their window, letting their glance linger for a while over the Western Wing. Bathed in the light of the setting sun, the lacquered towers and terraces stood proudly upon the brink of the precipice.

Eärendur smiled.

“Very soon.”

 

 

-------------------

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Year 3063 –31st year of the reign of Ar-Sakalthôr.

 

 

The roar of water was deafening, exploding inside his ears like the rumble of thunder. Under his feet, the constricting pull became stronger and stronger by the moment. He tried to fight it, tried with all his might, but as much as he ran he was always claimed back by the Sea´s giant, gaping mouth.

Anguish filled his very being, and hair-rising terror. He knew it was drawing close at a fulminant speed, but he could not escape. He could not escape.

Ahead of him, a woman was also trying to fight the pull of the current. Her hands were white, and a mane of dark hair fell long and free over slight shoulders. He saw her stumble and fall, and rushed to her side, frantically trying to grab her up, to save her at all costs.

She pulled away from him, and was engulfed by the black waters.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Inziladûn awoke with a start. The first light of dawn was already filtering inside his rooms, though for a while he couldn´t even distinguish the lines of the dishevelled sheets of his own bed. He was covered in sweat and shivering at the same time, his heart beating fast.

The old nightmare again, he thought. And yet not... no, it had not been exactly the same. That woman- he had seen her before, but never with the same intensity as he had now. She was always running ahead of him, silently refusing to let him see her face. And she had always felt distant and strangely dim, with the unreal quality of dreams, not vivid and almost... physical, like when she pulled away from him this time.

Inziladûn shook his head, and left the bed. The chill of the morning air over the warm humidity of sweat made him feel momentarily cold, but he forced himself to pay no heed. He walked towards the empty terrace, barefoot over the cold engraved figures of the mosaics. The sight of the garden, wild yet luxurious, slowly calmed his mind and helped his throat to unclench.

Long ago, Inziladûn had understood that this nightmare was a part of himself. Nobody else shared it, and nobody knew how to help him with it, but some had told him that it would pass over time, and he knew that it wouldn´t. In further attempts to understand its meaning, he had read books and reflected upon its slightest details and how they changed –until he was told by the only person whose advice he really respected that if he allowed this fruitless search to continue, the dark visions would ruin his day as they ruined his night. Then, he had decided not to think about them anymore, and banish their horror from his mind as soon as he woke up.

Now and then, he was assaulted by the distant remembrance of a time when two soft arms would encircle him warmly and calm his fears. This always brought pain, more even than the visions themselves.

Inziladûn took a long breath, and returned inside. There was no time for remembrances today. Today was too important, and if things went well, he might even regain a part of what he had lost. But he had to be in full posession of his wits for this.

A bleary-eyed man, used to his early habits, came in with a washbasin soon afterwards. He laid it upon the table and left with a bow, used too, it seemed, to his further eccentricities.

Such a noble servant, Inziladûn mused idly as he began washing his face with cold water. His father was a powerful man known as the Provider of Washbasins for the Western Wing, or something that sounded just as ridiculous. Both of them would poison him gladly if they could, knowing that the first thing he planned to do as soon as he held the Sceptre was to end this nonsense that had kept growing out of control for the last twenty years. He had certainly been quite vocal about it in the past- and now, the establishment of an uneasy truce did not mean that a lasting peace would ensue.

His father, of course, had been wroth with him, when word reached his ears that his elder son, upon reaching his majority, had refused to admit the people that were sent to dress him up in the morning. He had given him a long lecture about how a prince couldn´t insult his subjects this way, about how a prince should be convenably dressed –he could take care of his own body, thank you very much!-, and then finally gave up and resorted to threats. Inziladûn, usually respectful, had shown that he could hold his own in this department, announcing that if he was forced to accept as much as one of them in his chambers, he would appear naked at the next Council session.

They probably think I go naked already, he snorted, feeling his nightmare dissolve in mist as he threw a plain –but silk- shirt over his shoulders. The contrast between his garb and that of his father and brother was so great that sometimes even he thought he had to be. Maybe it had something to do with the absence of twenty dressing servants trying to make themselves useful around him.

Not long after he was fully dressed, another Palace minister, a woman this time, came in to leave the breakfast tray. He ate it quickly on the porch, regretting that today he could not do so in the garden itself for fear of soiling his clothes. It would be advisable not to push Prince Gimilzôr´s patience too far, and today of all days he needed his father to be well-disposed towards him.

Once he was finished, he fingered through a book -ship building through the ages- to help pass his remaining time. The idea of the many battles that awaited him, however, had already begun to send hectic impulses to his brain, and he felt unable to concentrate on the dreary technical prose.

Eventually, the hour came. Carefully putting the volume in its place, Inziladûn took out the unavoidable purple cloak, and smoothed out its wrinkles. Then, he left his rooms, to undertake a long journey through the Palace´s thousand corridors towards the Council chamber.

As he was about to leave the Western wing through the Red Flower Gallery, he made sure that none of the women who perused the place daily was there to see him, and peeked through the varnished lattice in the direction of the sky. There lay the tall North Wing, with its densely curtained windows and walled gardens. The palm tree garden, the only one that could be seen from his vantage point, was still empty, and its inner doors closed. A smile spread through his features.

Quickening his pace even further –to the fright of some Court ladies that he encountered on the way-, Inziladûn entered the Audience Chamber barely fifteen minutes later. There was much animation in the place, full of gossiping groups, talks and muffled laughs. He saw none of the Council members among this moderate ruckus, however, so he assumed that they had already been given leave to enter the Council Chamber.

Just as he had imagined, some of the most important men in the realm were busy taking their seats around the imposing ebony table at the second hall, while others bade their time in conversation next to the chair of some friend or ally. Only one man among them sat alone, serious and silent, at the end of the table that stood farther from the entrance. It was Valandil, son of Eärendur, and the Council representative of the lords of Andúnië this year.

Inziladûn waded across the chief courtiers, governors, priests and landholders of Númenor, answering their greetings politely though the inner, wilder part of him soon became tired of the slow formality and repetition. When he finally reached his rightful seat, he could not prevent himself from letting go of a brief sigh of relief, and Valandil, who sat close to him, allowed a smile to curve his grim features for a moment.

Inziladûn mumbled a greeting, so shocked at his own carelessness that he even forgot about the condolences that he was supposed to offer for his kinswoman´s death. A bit red on the cheeks, he began arranging the sheets of paper and writing material in front of him, to make sure that they would be handy as soon as he needed them.

Being his father´s secretary was harder than what it seemed at first sight. The Council rarely went past one or two decisions per session, and many words were repeated over and over under slightly different disguises. If he had been allowed to, Inziladûn would have summed everything up in one brief, neat paragraph, but unfortunately this was not the Prince´s preferred method. Gimilzôr expected him to note down every word exactly as it had been said, and to record the name of the person who had said it. Sometimes, Inziladûn wondered if his father spent his afternoons staring at the papers with a frown, trying to decide if each choice of a word meant treason or not.

Just as he was trying to banish this irreverent image from his mind, he heard a sound of footsteps coming from the Northern door, and immediately stood and bowed. The conversations at the other side of the hall froze to a halt, as the Council members followed his example to honour the arrival of Gimilzôr.

The Prince sat at the head of the table, next to his son, and offered them a carefully studied wave of his hand.

“Sit down.” he commanded. Inziladûn obeyed, sending a passing glance in his father´s direction.

As every other day, whether he was going to make a public appearance or not, the Prince was dressed quite elaborately. His purple cloak fell down his back in careful folds, and his dress was made of a dark velvet that made a perfect contrast of hues with the dark golden trimming. Long, black curls fell down his back in seeming freedom, but being seated at a close distance Inziladûn was aware that they had been treated with an oily product that would keep them in place under the fiercest wind. And dyed in brilliant black so the first signs of silver would not shine through, Inziladûn thought, as always marvelling at such vanity.

For a second, his gaze crossed his father´s stony, regular yet fleshy features, the dark eyes and the frown in the pale forehead, but he tore it away before Gimilzôr could notice. The Prince was tense in the midst of his artful majesty, worried about something, and Inziladûn did not need to think too hard to guess why his father was worried. The thought that he might go back on his word and forbide him from travelling crossed his mind for a moment, bringing a pang to his stomach.

That was unthinkable.

A few minutes passed by in tenuous silence, with some sounds of whispering coming from the other side of the table. As Gimilzôr did not move, and his frown increased and turned into a sign of a less deep kind of irritation, Inziladûn became aware of the empty seat at his father´s other side.

Finally, the creaking sound of a huge door being opened and then closed brought everybody´s attention towards the entrance. Gimilzôr glared at his newly arrived younger son, who apologised without looking much embarrassed.

“You are late.”

Gimilkhâd walked towards his seat, among the mostly indulgent looks of the Council members. Inziladûn could not help but shake his head, but his brother did not even look in his direction. Carefully, so the fabric of his clothes would not get a single wrinkle, he sat down with a high chin, a perfect copy of their father in all except the youth on his face and his braided hair.

It had been a new idea of Gimilzôr to allow– force would have been a better word- his twenty-year-old son to assist to Council sessions, so he could start learning the skill of conducting government affairs. Inziladûn, so far, had not noticed any progress, as his brother spent the whole time learning how to stare convincingly at the speaker while his thoughts wandered away. And then, there had been those rumours of a new woman of late....

How could any woman love a man who spent more time on his hair than she did?

Inziladûn bit his lip, wondering why he always had to be so harsh towards Gimilkhâd in his thoughts. They had been born from the same womb, and yet they had not grown up together –while he had been taken to the Western wing, as the heir´s heir, his brother had been entrusted to the care of a lady who had rooms on the Southern wing of the Palace.

The first time that they had actually spoken to each other, he remembered, they had been at their father´s gardens. Gimilkhâd had approached the bench where he sat reading a book, and began staring at him in awe. Inziladûn was nonplussed at the dark-eyed little boy´s lack of manners, and closed his book to look back at him.

Gimilkhâd was frozen in place, though soon his curiosity managed to overpower his wariness. Bravely, he hid his trepidation behind a cheeky mask, and decided to stand his ground.

“Can you really... see what I am thinking?” he asked.

Inziladûn flinched. He hated it when people said that. He couldn´t see anybody´s thoughts, like some sort of Elven sorcerer... anyone could guess at the faces of people who did not bother to hide their emotions.

Your thoughts are obvious enough.” he replied. Years after, as he thought about it, he wondered if it had been the nicest thing that he could have said.

In any case, as they had both grown and they had further ocassions to talk, he had always felt remarkably unable to show any affection, and Gimilkhâd had not tried again. As a boy he had fled him, and he still did, if under a less conspicuous guise –instead of keeping a distance whenever they met in public, now he preferred to cloak his uneasiness under a display of arrogant exuberance. This attitude had endeared him to their father, the ladies and the courtiers, but Inziladûn found it overdone, a too magnificent wrapping to hide a petty fear.

Years ago, he had learned that a Númenorean king had to feel seriously disappointed to have a second son, and that this was unheard of since the time of Ar-Adunakhôr. Not much else had been needed to realise where he stood in the family, but he had never been able to nail the real reason why he was such a disappointment. All that he knew was that he displeased the Prince and the King, and Gimilkhâd did not.

“... session we will discuss our policies towards our Middle-Earth colonies.”

Gimilzôr´s voice took Inziladûn out of his musings, and he automatically started scribbling. And for the next hours this was all that he did, quietly grumbling at the need of so many words to say so little. The King would send inspectors to oversee the works in Umbar, but maybe it would be best to wait until it was time for the desert tribes to pay their tributes. Or not, because then there would be too much to do to waste time in overseeing petty repairs. The Merchant Princes would certainly not object to a delay. And, by the way, what of the latest rumours of barbarian incursions...?

When Gimilzôr decided to put an end to the session, Inziladûn´s fingers felt entirely numb. Relieved, he walked towards the door of the Audience Chamber, where Valandil approached him with a bow.

“Looking forward to tomorrow morning, my lord?”

Inziladûn blinked, taken by surprise.

“I should have told you before”, he apologised, as soon as he could gather his wits. Looking at the older man, however, he was unsettled by a glance of pure, amused serenity, and he almost felt foolish saying the formal words. “My deepest condolences for your noble mother´s passing. It was a tragedy.”

Valandil smiled.

“It was sad, but hardly a tragedy, my lord. She was of very advanced age, and in the right state of mind. Now she has left for a better place”, he added, though there his voice became so low that even Inziladûn had problems hearing it.

Still, his lack of despair was quite genuine, the Prince´s heir realised in shock. No trace of tears, of a sleepless night, no hidden anguish showing in his countenance when the name of the one he had lost to Darkness was mentioned in front of him. Was his father right after all, in thinking that the Lords of Andunië were soft-spoken and unfeeling?

“I have already prepared everything that we will need for our journey, my lord”, the sea-grey eyed enigma changed subject with perfect composure. Inziladûn saw his father and his brother walking in their direction, and suspected this to be the reason. Tomorrow´s shared trip was a safe, impersonal subject to breach in front of Gimilzôr.

“I fear I will not be allowed to do as much as taste your bread, Lord Valandil”, he took the cue in a conversational tone. The Prince, who had already reached their side, arched an eyebrow.

“And why, pray, would there be such a ban on our friend´s food?” His undertone was clear, do not reveal anything in front of this man. Inziladûn smiled pleasantly as the other man bowed low.

“Because the King and the Prince would not allow the magnificence of the Royal House to be outstripped by anyone”, he said. Gimilzôr´s features relaxed a little.

“I plan on sending a sizeable entourage with you, indeed”, he admitted. “In your return way, you will visit the Sacred Cave and present your respects in our stead.”

Inziladûn nodded. To have him take over the royal family´s responsibility of the annual visit to the Sea Queen´s sanctuary had been his father´s way to make sure that his formal condolence visit to Andustar would not last for a day longer than necessary. This, on the other hand, was no heavy burden for him- he had been wishing to visit that place since his childhood.

“And how will he do this, Father? Not even the sacred prostitutes will let him in until he shaves and does his hair properly!”

Gimilzôr frowned at his younger son´s sally, though Valandil smiled out of courtesy. Inziladûn briefly pondered the childishness of telling Gimilkhâd that braids had been an Elvish invention.

“I would wish that you did do your hair properly, Inziladûn”, Gimilzôr said, “but if you act with the required dignity, I shall be content enough. Now, follow me; the hour of prayer is near at hand.”

All three bowed and fell behind Gimilzôr, and they were followed in turn by the Council members who still exchanged the last impressions nearby.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

The subterranean chapel of Ashtarte-Uinen was dark, except for the faint light of torches than hung from the irregular, humid walls. Centuries ago, delvers had found a water well under the very courtyard of the royal palace, and the place, small and damp like a woman´s womb, had become the rightful home of the goddess soon afterwards.

Inziladûn stumbled in the shadows, blinded for a moment, until he set his eyes on the small statue at the front. The Queen was holding a child, whose little hands played with her naked breast. Quietly, he sat down next to Her, and began his prayers while the movements of the people behind him, and of his own father as he burned inciense at the altar became nothing but a meaningless buzz in the distance.

“Queen of the Seas, silver foam, radiant moon....”

The goddess´s serene, loving smile gleamed under the torchlight. Since he had been a child, Inziladûn had liked to believe that She was smiling for him, a mother whose love was too large and powerful to be imprisoned between cold walls.

“...Mother of all, hold me in your arms, protect me...”

Lost in his whispered communion with the Lady, he almost jumped with a start when he felt a hand touching his shoulder. Managing to regain his composure in time, he smothered an irrational feeling of cold and disappointment as Gimilzôr´s dark eyes looked down on him.

“Follow me”, he said. Inziladûn nodded, and with a last, longing glance at the sanctuary, stood up and left the cave at his father´s heels.

The long and laborious ascension through steps carved in stone helped him to return to the reality at hand. Blinded again at the end of the journey, this time by sunlight, he blinked, and saw his father waiting for him with his entourage.

Once that he had taken his rightful place at the front, the whole retinue crossed the centre of the courtyard, cloaks billowing with the soft action of the breeze. At their right stood the White Tree, once the main ornament of the oldest square in Armenelos, before the extension of the Palace in Ar-Adunakhôr´s time had reduced it to a mere obstacle in the First Courtyard of the Main Compound. Inziladûn had read that the extraordinary tree was of Elvish origin, and that the kings of the past who were friendly with the Elves had planted it as a symbol of their alliance. He had immediately believed that story: that tree had to be Elvish, because it roused strange and unknown emotions on him whenever he gazed at it. It made him feel sad.

Others, however, he had soon discovered, were greatly afraid of it. None of the two thousand people who lived in the Palace ever walked in its immediate vicinity, and though Inziladûn´s tutor and friend Maharbal had told him that those were old women´s legends, not even the Umbarian philosopher had allowed the curious child to step too close.

Turning away from the dangerous thing, he followed his father back into the Main Compound and into the Prince´s own chambers, where everyone else was dismissed. There, he found that a table set for two was already waiting for them in the parlour.

“Sit down”, Gimilzôr invited. Inziladûn obeyed, and, knowing his father well enough, was not surprised at the long silence that followed. Feeling his hunger awaken, he fell upon the excellent meal, and put each dish away with quiet shows of appreciation. Gimilzôr detested any kind of talk at the dining table.

Only after he had wiped his mouth with a scented napkin for the last time, the Prince leaned back, and cleaned his throat.

“Inziladûn”, he began. His son nodded, immediately taking his eyes away from the man who was picking up his father´s dishes. “You must know that neither the King nor I feel at ease about sending you to the Western lands for this condolence trip. We would have sent anyone else if it had been possible –but unfortunately, it was not. It would be a sad insult for our majesty to go ourselves, and you are our heir and kin to them.”

Inziladûn cleaned his throat in turn. This meant that there would be no further risk of a last-minute counter decision.

“I understand. And I will do my best to be at the height of your expectations.”

Gimilzôr shook his head, and let go of the softest of sighs.

“You know what I have told you so many times. Those people are cunning and deceitful. They will try to entice you with their charming manners, to lure you with fantastical tales about this island´s legendary past. You are intelligent, my son.” Inziladûn bowed slightly at the unexpected compliment.” But you are also impetuous, and entirely too impressionable.” A shadow came upon Gimilzôr´s features, and for a moment, his son surprised a look that was entirely too vulnerable in his eyes. Posessive... or frightened?

Before he could guess which, however, Inziladûn had to lower his head, and force himself to follow the colourful patterns of the mantelpiece. He knew better than to stare at his father in this manner. Since he grew enough of a brain as to remember, Gimilzôr had taken his son´s piercing stares very ill.

For a while, a heavy silence fell upon them. Then, the Prince broke it with the most agitated tone of voice that Inziladûn could remember.

“You are my son, Inziladûn. My son and my heir. I must trust you.”

Inziladûn´s eyes widened in shock.

“I have never given you a reason to believe otherwise!”

But then, even as he pronounced those words, he knew that this was not wholly true. Ever loyal, mostly obliging, Inziladûn´s thoughts were his own, and even now he was planning something that his father would not like.

And still, he thought, there were no charming manners that could make him forget his obligations towards the Royal house of Armenelos.

“I will serve the King and you to the best of my abilities”, he swore, for once openly locking his father´s eyes into his. Gimilzôr withstood the sea-grey glint for a moment, then frowned and shook his head as if to free it from an unwelcome thought.

“You may leave and finish your preparations”, he dismissed him.

Inziladûn bowed.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

The rest of the afternoon passed away comparatively quickly. Inziladûn had to devote it to the last preparations for his journey, and in spite of the fact that he was not carrying much for himself, long and tedious lists of presents for the Sacred Cave and for the grieving family kept him busy for a long time. His escort, moreover, had a new leader as from the previous day: his former chief tutor Hannon, Palace Priest of Melkor. He had been picked by his father, no doubt with strict instructions to report on all his sayings and doings, and as if this wasn´t hardship enough for Inziladûn, the wretched man had immediately insisted on bringing four carts of “provisions” and a train of twenty-five personal servants with him.

Once that he could say that everything was packed and in its rightful place, the Prince´s heir retired to his chambers, early, he said “so he could be fully rested for tomorrow´s journey”, but in truth because the time was near to carry the plan that he had been carefully mulling for the last days. As he closed the door behind his back, a familiar restlessness began to prey on his mind and body at the vicinity of both risk and reward, yet he forced himself to pick a book and wait until the hour was late enough.

Finally, the hour came. Leaving the book aside –of which he could not even recall the title-, Inziladûn slipped away from his chambers, and walked through the shadows of the deserted corridors. The Red Flower Gallery was empty, with the exception of a couple who fled through a side arch, more worried about being detected than they were of tracking his movements. In silence, he crossed it, and passed by a fountain of golden fishes to enter the palm tree garden.

The first step in forbidden territory, he thought, and the idea caused an unknown emotion to twist around his stomach. He had rarely felt afraid of anything, but what was at stake now was no mere trifle. For a moment, the full awareness of the risk even caused him to consider abandoning the enterprise.

But he couldn´t. It was too important. For twenty years he had waited, crafting impossible plans and learning to calculate directions, angles and distances, and now, at the eve of a journey where many questions could find their answers, it had finally become possible. This had to be a sign of the Goddess, Inziladûn was sure.

Remembering to utter a prayer demanding Her succour, he eyed the house that stood at the far end of the garden with a critical glance. It was the back wall, of course, as the front belonged to an inner courtyard of the North Wing, but it had a window that allowed the lady who lived there to look at the palm trees without having to show herself to the eyes of lesser courtiers. It was the home of the Lady of the Northern Keys, who, after a lifetime of faithful service, had left the Palace this month to look after her mother.

Inziladûn grabbed the bars, testing them at the same time, and pulled until his right foot could reach the windowsill. Then, he hoisted himself up, and stood tenuously upon the narrow space.

In that position, his outstretched hands could find support on the lower part of the roof, and he tiptoed and stretched all that he could to be able to grab a safer portion of it. As he balanced over, trying to land one of his legs on the heights, he knocked the wall a couple of times. In spite of knowing that the house was empty, he felt himself cringe at the noise.

Once that he managed to roll his body over the cold tiles, he lay there for a while, recovering from his exertions and the dull ache in his hands. After a few minutes, however, he forced himself to stand up again, and began climbing the bent surface of the roof to the highest place. From that vantage point, he could already steal a first peek at the inner courtyard, at its fountains and terraces, and yet what commanded his full attention was the building that hung above his head.

That would be the scenario of the most dangerous stage of his plan. Since years ago, Inziladûn had been digging up childhood remembrances, arranging and rearranging them with his own calculations, and decided that the terrace at the back of her rooms had to be exactly there. But a shadow of a doubt still ate at some corner of his mind, and he wondered if he could have been betrayed by a child´s overactive imagination. One less turn, one less stretch of the dark corridors that looked so frightening after a nightmare...

Discarding those thoughts at once, and muttering a new prayer, Inziladûn tested the solidness of the lush plant that climbed over the stone wall, under a bunch of fragrant flowers that showed their full beauty only at night. Most of the stalks were still too young, and unable to support the weight of a grown man, but in his increasingly desperate search, he found their mother: a very ancient stalk that had almost become one with the stone that supported it, wider than his arm and running in zigzag until the balcony was at reaching distance. It was dangerous, but he could do it.

The climbing, in spite of his fears, did not present too many problems. Inziladûn was careful never to look down, and he followed the same stalk patiently instead of being lured towards a more treacherous support that promised a shorter path. Now and then he felt a minor debris of twigs, leaves and flowers fall over the roof of the absent Lady of the Northern Keys, farther away from his feet at each minute .

When at last he could touch the marble railing of the balcony, he almost let go of a cry of triumph. Hurriedly, he hoisted himself up again, and sought the new surroundings with an avid glance.

He saw a porch covered in boughs, filled with blooming, sweet-scented white flowers. One small fountain reflected the silvery gleam of the moon over running waters. A feeling of peace that Inziladûn only recalled from his dreams pervaded the place, filling him with a strange urge to weep.

His conscious mind remembered that fountain among all others, the one where he had fallen as a child as he tried to catch a slippery fish with his hands. And deeper inside, his heart recognised this quiet, ever unchanging and ever mysterious, that he had sought and never found in the shifty and complicated world outside. A strong feeling of loss gripped at his heart with a numbing intensity.

He was home.

Filled with a renewed sense of purpose, he walked the garden paths towards the porch, and knocked softly at the locked door. She was there, lying on her bed like the last time that her small son had sought her in this place. He knew. Nothing he had done or experienced in the last twenty years had truly happened.

After a while, the sound of soft footsteps approaching in some hesitation reached his ears. He swallowed; his heart was beating quicker than ever.

Once again, he repeated the knock. He heard a sharp intake of breath at the other side of the door.

“Princess” he whispered, barely loud enough for her to catch his words. “I am your son.”

For a moment, even the soft sound of her breathing was quenched. Then, there was a quick fumbling for something and a sharp click, and the door slid open revealing a pair of huge, incredulous grey eyes.

“Inziladûn?” she asked, with a little sharp cry. He laid an instinctive hand upon her mouth.

“Ssssh. There must be people in the front. They must not hear me.”

Inzilbêth nodded. As if she was dancing in a trance, she stumbled backwards, until she fell upon an ivory chair. Inziladûn´s eyes distinguished the shape of a lamp on the small table at her side, and with trembling hands he sought for the lighter. The soft flicker of the flame revealed to him a pale oval face, whose features were contorted in an expression that he found hard to decipher, a turmoil of disbelief, fear and longing.

Sure that his own face mirrored her feelings, he took a step forwards, and swallowed the knot in his throat. Her hand darted up and touched his cheek tentatively, as if she wasn´t sure that he could be real.

A smile creased her lips, and a tear flowed down her cheek.

“Inziladûn... You-you have grown so much! But... to come all the way here...”

“I had planned it carefully. The Lady of the Northern Keys was on leave, and tomorrow I will be leaving, so I thought there would be no better opportunity”, he babbled, appalled at his own tone. The smile disappeared, cloaked by sadness and guilt, and she stared at her feet.

“I am sorry. I am so sorry, I didn´t want to... but would you believe me if I tried to... tell you why I did it? Would you understand...?”

Inziladûn forced himself to look into her eyes. Prey to her real emotions, to her grief and love for him, she was much fairer than the Princess who stood away from him in formal ceremonies, her body covered in silks and jewels and a vacant expression upon her eyes. And yet, she was so small... had she been so small, before?

“I would”, he said, grimacing as a painful memory fought its way into his mind. “It was Father, was it not? Back then, he said that it had been a good idea. I always knew it had been him.”

Inzilbêth shook her head, moved.

“No, Inziladûn! It was me... I... I feared that he would grow to despise you. Then, I was pregnant with Gimilkhâd, and I knew... I knew that you would never be in his favour as long as you were my son. I was so afraid that he would harm you!”

Inziladûn knelt on the floor and laid his hands upon her shoulders, trying to calm her down. This movement caused him to be caught in a feeling of unreality –their roles were reversed, and he had found the mother who comforted him only to realise that she had become the child, small and trembling.

Avidly, she grabbed one of his hands with both of hers. Her eyes trailed over its lines, its creases, its new size, and then over his arms and shoulders, his sharp nose, his beard and his sea-grey eyes. Inziladûn suspected that she still believed herself in a dream.

After a while, a laugh broke in her features, soft and full of joy.

“My child!” she cried, sliding down the chair and pulling him into an embrace. She felt warm and smelled good, like the white flower boughs that grew in her garden. Inziladûn felt her hands caress his face over and over, marvelling over each little detail with the hunger of a lover. Then, she laid her head over his shoulder, and lay there for a while in contentment.

Feeling a strong emotion that prevented him from uttering a word, he pulled her body closer. How many times had he dreamed of her embrace, even as he prayed to the Goddess to hold him in her arms?

At last, however, he had to remember his mission. With great reluctance he forced his body to tear apart from hers, and slowly, she also pulled herself up.

“Tomorrow morning, I will leave the Palace”, he whispered. “I am travelling to Andunië with Valandil on a condolence visit for the death of his mother. Father did not want to send me, but there was no other option... and I need to know before I go, Mother.” He took a sharp intake of breath, then looked at her in the eye. “Why did Father take Gimilkhâd and me away from you, and what does your kin have to do with it?”

Inzilbêth wiped away the wet traces from her cheek, trying to regain her composure. She crossed her arms over her chest, as if protecting herself from the cold, and smiled weakly.

“My mother´s kin are Gimilzôr´s enemies. They adore other gods, hold a great influence in the West, and he thinks that they want to usurp the Sceptre. You know that“, she said. “Two years before you were born, he allowed them to return from their exile in the East... and married me.”

Inziladûn shook his head, baffled.

“I never understood why. Why call them back, why marry you if he detested them so much?”

“Because your father, Inziladûn, fears whatever he cannot control“, she replied with a grimace. “I was a naive girl, almost a child when I married him, and I did not understand, either. But I do now. With Lord Eärendur in the Council, his family in the capital, his most faithful followers in the East and I in his palace, he felt that they would not be able to do anything behind his back.”

“A hostage”, he guessed, slightly nauseated. She sighed.

“And then you were born... Since the first moment, you looked like my mother´s kin. You loved me, and listened to my tales. Your father ... believed that I was an agent of Lord Eärendur and that I was poisoning your ears and turning you against him. He decided to have another son, and I was told that this would mean danger for you. So I had to let you go... to protect you...”

Tears gathered again in her eyes, and he tried to comfort her while letting the shocking new piece of information sink inside his brain. So his father had thought that he... even as a child, he had viewed him as one of them?

An agent of Lord Eärendur...

“Inziladûn...” she began. Her hand sought for something on the surface of the table, but in an involuntary movement she pushed the silver lighter to the floor. A sharp, metallic noise broke the stillness of the night, magnified by their fear and trepidation.

Inziladûn was the one who reacted first, while she was still paralysed by the extent of her mishap. With trembling hands, he sought for the doorknob, and ran out to hide in the garden. For a while, he crouched behind a tall flowerbed, keeping still and muttering a prayer.

When the door opened again with a creaking sound, he almost betrayed a start, but then realised that it was nothing but Inzilbêth in a white, flowing nightgown. She stared right and left, in growing desperation.

Sighing in relief, Inziladûn crawled out of his hiding place and waved to her. She ran towards him, in such haste that she nearly tripped over the hem of her robes.

“I thought you were already gone”, she whispered. He shook his head, though this very movement was wrought with a heavy realisation.

“I must go, nevertheless “, he sighed. “If anyone finds me here...”

Sadness creased her features, slowly turning into acceptance.

“I... know. I know you must.” Nodding several times, as if trying to convince herself, she took him by the hand and walked towards the balcony. “You came by this way? But... it´s so dangerous!”

“And yet, it was the only way. It is the only way”, he rectified, looking down and making sure that there was still no one in sight. Even as he was doing this, she threw her arms over him and pulled him into a tight embrace.

“Back then, I kept living because I knew that one day I would be able to speak to you again “, she whispered into his ear. “And now you have grown so much! I am so proud of you...”

Inziladûn swallowed hard. His voice came out hoarse.

“We will meet again. When I come back from this trip...”

“I will wait for you.”

Smiling back, with a gesture meant to reassure her, he climbed the railing and sought for the stalk among the thick foliage. As he let his body slide down, he felt immediately bereaved, as if darkness had engulfed him once again.

The last thing that he could hear was her anxious whispers, as she leaned over the balcony to follow his trajectory.

“They are good people, Inziladûn. Be careful! Listen to what they have to say, give them a chance... do not be like your father...”

I will not, he promised, to himself and to her, while he carefully found his way back through plant, roof and window. When he finally felt the ground under his feet, he resumed his walk down the path of the palm trees, his mind lost in a confused turmoil of musings.

For a moment, he thought he had heard something in the distance, like a faint sound of whispering and rustling of robes. But when he sought the arches of the Red Flower Gallery in alarm, everything was dark and silent, and he told himself that he had imagined it.

 

Chapter Text

The trip was long, and unlike anything that Inziladûn had ever experienced. As soon as their horses left Armenelos behind, glittering like a treasure of white, red and amber gems that lay over the slope of Meneltarma, he already felt like he had entered a new world. Gone were the gardens and streets, the jeweled temples, the markets. In their place, large fields stretched out of his vision, their flawless green barely spotted with small houses painted in white, people who toiled in colourful yet simple clothes, and now and then a village where everybody abandoned their duties for a moment of open-mouthed amazement as they passed by.

This sight was a novelty because of the unusual time of the year and the larger retinue, Valandil told him matter-of-factly on the first day. Inziladûn nodded, still uneasy at the lack of a more grieving reaction for the reason that had brought them to travel. That night, as they both shared a somewhat doughy stew that had elicited a bitter set of complaints from Hannon, he could not help but profit from his old teacher´s absence to satisfy his curiosity. Valandil did not seem offended at his blunt questioning in the least, and, like a man who finds pleasure in satisfying the impertinent queries of a child, had explained to Inziladûn that his family believed that death was no curse, that it brought rest and healing to those that needed it, and that the spirits of the dead crossed the Circles of the World and reached a better place.

He was not able to prove the truth of any of those points to Inziladûn´s satisfaction, but the young man was fascinated by them nonetheless. Later, while he sought a difficult sleep in an alien bed, he thought that maybe the mere belief of a blissful afterlife could make the lives of Men more blissful than they were now, independently from its proved truth or falsehood. The problem was that nothing but a proved truth would be able to convince a doomed soul to abandon its fears.

And yet, those people... they did believe it.

As the journey followed its course, Inziladûn´s curiosity about his kinsman grew even further. During their long rides on horseback, so exhilarating for a man who had been caged in a golden palace for his whole life, and so stimulating for the boy who had always been attentive to the smallest novelties, Valandil was silent, watching his enthusiasm with a small and grave smile. But at nights, with or without Hannon, he became a pleasant conversationalist, able to arouse their interest on any subject and skilful to avoid any controversial topic. The sullen Council member seemed to have been nothing but a ghost created by Inziladûn´s imagination.

They will try to entice you with their charming manners, his father had said, warning him against the dangers that would assail him in this journey. And yet, the longer he travelled with Eärendur´s heir at his side, the more a genuine feeling of respect and liking grew inside Inziladûn´s heart. He liked that elegant gravity, so different both from the noisy exuberance of the people of Armenelos and the coldness of his father. He admired his natural ease at everything that he did and appreciated his conversation, though a strange feeling of outwordliness still assaulted him at times, when he realised that nothing was able to make the light in the man´s eyes burn more intense.

On the noon of a beautiful day, their horses trod over the dust of Andustar for the first time. Inziladûn´s wide eyes drank in every single detail of his beloved mother´s childhood home, from the fertile and mysteriously deserted fields of the South to the rocky, ragged peaks of the North, where birds of many kinds built their nests. Valandil´s eyes still did not change, but for the first time Inziladûn saw something similar to a faint glow in them as they rode side by side through his lands. He told his young companion that the Southern lands were deserted because many of the people who used to till them were now in the East. He revealed that the birds who nested on the Northern peaks were friends to his family, and that the Lords of Andúnië also lived on a nest of their own.

This was an enigma for Inziladûn, until they came to border the coast towards Andunië. Their path had been carved in the rock of a cliff, narrow and as dangerous as steep was the fall. A slight misstep of the horse would throw it together with its master into the roaring waters below, so Valandil advised Inziladûn to have everybody step down and continue on foot, including a dismayed Hannon, who had probably not walked in his entire life. Experienced as the Western party already were, they also dismounted out of courtesy.

“This is a natural fortress”, Inziladûn remarked as they made slow progress through the impressive heights. He could not help thinking a bit further: if his father ever made war against them, he could certainly not bring an army by land to attack their capital. In this case it would be their bay, which had brought them such renown in the past, what would become the cause of their ruin.

As they reached the uttermost extreme of the Southern Cape and the bay came in view, however, Inziladûn´s calculations made way to sheer astonishment. For a while, he thought that his eyes had to be deceiving him, but when he asked Valandil if this was the famous bay of Andunië, he received an affirmative answer.

“But the bay of Andunië is no bay!” he exclaimed. Valandil stared at him, half-curious, half-amused.

“Your eye is truly keen, my lord, as they say.”

Inziladûn merely nodded, too absorbed at the amazing sight in front of them to pay heed to compliments. Between the Northern and Southern cape, which brought safeguard from the might of the waters, there were three smaller cavities. Those on the left and right extremes held nothing but rocks and water, but the one in the middle was almost entirely covered by a giant stone construction stretching from one of its extremes to the other.

It was a great dock, wrought in stone to build an artificial bay under a cliff that was even steeper than the one they were treading now. Above it, a city was perched on the cliff with its grey stone towers, reached by winding flights of stairs carved on the rocky landscape. To the sailors that came in their ships from afar, it would have seemed at first that there was no life in the place, until they sailed closer and the shapes of city, stairs and port began to draw themselves under their eyes.

“This is the Bay and City of Andunië, my lords”, Valandil announced, with a fond smile that held a measure of sadness as he turned towards them again. “Once, it could hold five hundred tall ships at the same time.”

Indeed, while he began to recover his wits from his shocked and avid exploration of the place, Inziladûn realised that this once was what contributed the most to blur the lines of the impressive human buildings, until they seemed naught but shadows over the grey of stone. There was no activity in the docks at present, nor a single ship in sight.

That same evening, they reached a small pier where they left their horses in the care of several, not very enthusiastic looking men –the people of Andustar had never liked horses, Valandil told Inziladûn with a sigh- and were taken by a fleet of small barges towards the Bay. Upon reaching the place, Inziladûn saw that the tall ships of old had been exchanged for humble boats, where fishermen struggled with nets and prepared for the night capture.

“The King has graciously allowed us a fleet of this size”, Valandil answered his unvoiced question. The even, pleasant look that he had shown during their land trip was back on his features, and Inziladûn kept his silence.

The stairs were a renewed matter of complaint for Hannon, who muttered to Inziladûn several times that which kind of forsaken Elf-friends would build cities with such poor access. The Prince´s heir, however, was fascinated. Steep as the ascent was, it allowed him to have a magnificent view of the location, where stunning works of engineery battled for dominance with natural marvels.

When they reached the gates, word of their arrival had already reached the place, and the townsfolk were waiting to welcome them. Inziladûn was not used to be so close to the crowd, and a part of him almost expected hostility from that strange Western folk who kept Elvish traditions and names in defiance of the Kings. His sea-grey eyes and sharp features, however, passed remarkably unnoticed, though his companions were watched with barely dissimulated suspicion as they came in behind him. He heard a whisper in a language that he did not understand.

The palace of the lords of Andunië lay at the highest point of the city. Inziladûn had never seen such a place before: its gardens were outside and around the house instead of inside, and bloomed with a vegetation unknown in Armenelos. They had a delicate quality that the species of the capital lacked, like a softer colouring, and grew in a gentle disorder that reminded him of his own garden.

Falling into spontaneous silence, the party walked a winding path among small trees with silvery leaves that rustled in the breeze. Inziladûn felt a strange unease and a knot in his throat, not unlike the one he felt when he passed by the White Tree in the courtyard of the royal palace. It was almost with relief that his eyes finally distinguished the shapes of Valandil´s family standing at the threshold of the house.

Tall and dignified, the old Lord of Andunië advanced a step to welcome them. Valandil advanced as well and bowed, while Inziladûn stood in place, slightly abashed at the unfamiliar surroundings. But Eärendur bowed, and took him by the hand with exquisite courtesy.

“Welcome to my house, my lord Inziladûn. These are my grandchildren, Númendil and Artanis. We all wish to offer our deepest and sincerest thanks to you for coming here on this grave purpose, and hope that the men of your company will find their stay satisfying. Brief as it might be”, he added with a look at Hannon, who wore a haughty expression that hid his own unease.

Inziladûn nodded in silence to his mother´s uncle, while Valandil kissed his children on the brow.

“Mother could not come. One of us had to stay in Armenelos”, he told Númendil, a youth some years younger than Inziladûn himself who received his father´s words with an uncommon gravity.

“It was kind of the King to allow you to come.” Artanis, a pale young woman with full cheeks and a slight frame bowed to him, as if he had had something to do with the decision. Slightly dazed, he nodded back to her and offered her a greeting. Her voice had a strange accent, ethereal yet charming. “And it was kind of you to come as well, my lord.”

“It is my duty, and my pleasure to offer the comfort of my presence to my kin in an hour of sadness”, he replied, years of training finally surfacing in his mind as he recovered from the feeling of stupour.

“Gracious words. But now, let us enter!” Eärendur invited, waving at him cordially. Inziladûn nodded, and climbed the marble stairs after him. That place was much smaller and less impressive than the Palace in Armenelos, but the details and ornaments in the doors, columns, windows and archways were minutious, an imitation of Nature in skilled and graceful lines. A feeling of elegance pervaded the spacious, sparsely furnished halls, and Inziladûn had the strange feeling that everything, even the book that had been carelessy thrown on a chair, was exactly where it was meant to be.

Forcing himself to banish those haunting thoughts –was he falling into his father´s webs of suspicion?- he saw to the accomodation of all the people who came with him in spite of the polite dismissals of his hosts, and prepared for dinner. As he arrived to the dining-room, a curious place with a large table around which the whole family sat together, he was offered the seat of honour, which he firmly refused in spite of Hannon´s glare. He felt like little more than a child, faced with Valandil´s grave dignity and Eärendur´s lordly welcoming mood.

During the meal, many things were discussed, including the crop on the still inhabited fields of the South, the adaptation of large-scale fishing trade and the incidences of their trip, but no politics. To Inziladûn´s shock, they talked about the dead woman´s last days and smiled fondly at the things she had said. The feeling of unreality, briefly quenched by their warm welcome, arose again as he heard them talk, with voices that, he realised in a sudden flash of insight, were not their own.

What was happening?

“Honourable priest of the Great God.” Eärendur made a signal to a servant, who filled both his cup and that of Hannon. “Would you have a drink with me?”

The fat, round-eyed man nodded, a bit mollified by the treatment, though he waited until the Lord of Andunië took a first sip from his cup to do the same to his own.

“I must admit that this wine is excellent”, he said. Inziladûn swallowed forcibly, wondering why the scene brought him such unease.

A minute later, his tutor suddenly fell over the table, motionless. In a heartbeat, he bolted from his seat, searching for a knife to be used as a weapon.

Nobody else around him moved.

“He is alive”, Eärendur reassured him, with the same tone of voice he had used to tell him that the salad was especially good. Inziladûn stared at him in stunned disbelief, then reacted and sought for the unconscious man´s pulse. Soon afterwards, he found it, but this did not bring him much relief.

Now, he could understand everything. That feeling... it had been a warning, that something unnatural was creeping upon him. But instead of following his heart´s advice, Inziladûn had been irresistibly drawn towards the alien world, seeking to pierce it and discover its secrets, courting danger like a moth drawn to the flame.

“Please, follow me, my lord.”

Inziladûn retreated a step from Eärendur´s beckoning gesture. As if they had been waiting for an unspoken signal, Valandil and his children stood up in silence and abandoned the room, leaving them alone with the sleeping Hannon.

“If you want to kill me,” he hissed, “it would have been much easier to poison my drink as well.”

“Please, listen to me”, said Eärendur, still unmoved. The lack of feelings in his features was becoming disturbing. “You are my kin, and I have no wish to harm you. If this is not enough for the son of Gimilzôr, however, I will add this other reassurance- if I killed you, I would sign the death sentence of my whole family.”

“Then, what do you want? To take me hostage?” Inziladûn insisted. His mother´s uncle shook his head calmly.

“I want to talk to you. It would have been impossible for me to say a few things that need to be said, with your father´s spy standing at our side. Now, would you please follow me, my lord?”

Inziladûn did not allow himself to relax at the reassurance, though deep inside, a doubt was beginning to arise.

They are good people, Inziladûn. Listen to what they have to say... do not be like your father.

His mother, who loved him more than anything, who had embraced him on the night that he left Armenelos, had said those words to him. Wouldn´t he trust her?

Listen to what they have to say...

But, what would they have to say? Finely-crafted words to persuade him to their cause, like his father had feared? What reasons would they give, which further secrets would they reveal about the events surrounding his birth and childhood?

Hadn´t he come for this, to find answers to his questions? a small insidious voice whispered into his ear, that same voice that had always tried to lure him to dark places and unknown dangers. The same voice for which he had braved the heights and the risk of discovery, the night before he left Armenelos.

Still wavering in doubt, the young man performed his ultimate test. Locking Eärendur´s eyes with his own, he looked inside them, searching for signs that would reveal his hidden motives.

There were none. No attempts to flee, nothing to hide, nothing but the same, unwavering patience as he waited for him to make his decision.

“I will follow you”, he said, putting the knife down and entrusting his life to the hands of an enemy.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

“What is it that you want to tell me?”

Maybe it had sounded afraid, or still worse, childish. Inziladûn bit his lip, forcing himself to stay calm as Eärendur led him downstairs, through a dark tunnel and finally into a spacious chamber whose every wall was covered by piles of dusty scrolls. Curious in spite of himself, he tried to take one of them and decipher it, but Eärendur pushed him gently towards a low wooden table with two seats. Before his eyes reluctantly abandoned the exploration of the document, however, Inziladûn realised two things: the written lines were not Adûnaic, but some form of Elvish, and the parchment was old.

Very old.

Out of an irrational impulse, he sought in his pocket for the Hand amulet, and pressed it while he muttered a prayer. But if Eärendur noticed his gesture, he gave no reaction.

“Sit, please”, he invited, with unflinching politeness. Inziladûn obeyed, feeling more and more unsettled by his calm.

“Thanks”, he muttered. “But, lord Eärendur...”

“What do you remember about your mother?”

The beginnings of a complaint died in Inziladûn´s throat as the question was voiced at him. Astonished, he stared at his host, considering its implications.

“You knew”, he said at last, more as a vague, all-encompassing affirmation than a question. For the first time a real emotion, slight as it was, crossed the features of the lord of Andunië, some sadness mingled with – was that guilt?

“Indeed, I do remember her. I saw her the night before I left on this trip. Yes, I did”, he nodded proudly, as the older man frowned in surprise at his revelation. “I climbed all the way to her terrace and met her in her back quarters. There were many –sordid questions regarding my birth that I wanted to ask before I undertook this travel to meet her mother´s kin. She told me that you were good people and that I should listen to you. “Slowly, the flow of his words was giving him back some of his confidence. “You have her to thank for my decision to follow you here.”

Eärendur´s features were suddenly veiled again. To read him like he did others was almost impossible, but now Inziladûn could not help but wonder if he could be feeling attacked.

It was only after a long while of silence that he opened his mouth to continue, his gaze lost in the distance.

“Your grandmother –my sister- Lindorië... she was born in exile, like me.” Inziladûn nodded, encouraging him, somewhat unnecessarily, to continue. Nobody had told him anything about his mother´s kin before. “She was fair and gentle, yet there was strength inside her, like there is for all of us. In spite of the hardships and of everything that we had lost, she never lost her smile. Your mother inherited this trait from her.”

Inziladûn nodded in silence. For a moment, a joyful grin in tired features gripped at his imagination, and he swallowed with effort.

“Her father was Melkorbazer, kin to the King in Ar-Zimrathôn´s time”, Eärendur continued. “He was governor of Sor, close to Romenna, and as such he kept watch over us on the King´s orders. He fell in love with her.”

Not a single sound could be heard when he paused, except for the faint creaking of the flames on the hearth.

“This Melkorbazer was a priest of Melkor, but he was very different from the one who is sleeping upstairs”, he continued matter-of-factly, and without the slightest sign of disdain. “I must admit that it took me a long time to accept that he was a good man, since those long years of conflicts, suspicions and misunderstandings have hardened our hearts to such a degree against one another. I thought that nothing good could come from one of ...them. “He chuckled, a strange and unusual sound. “But he truly risked his life to marry her and have the King lift her ban so he could take her with him. Ar-Zimrathôn took away his governorship, and did not allow him to lay a single foot on the Palace for a very long time. Isn´t it revealing? Before he married Lindorië he had been trusted by the King in spite of the fact that the Lady Alissha had been his kin. After the marriage, he was no better than a proven traitor.”

Inziladûn took a sharp intake of breath. He had heard that story before –how Alissha and Adunakhôr had battled for the throne a long time ago, in a war that had brought the ruin of the Elf-friends.

“Lord Melkorbazer was suspected of many things, among them of allying himself with us to obtain revenge for his grandmother´s sister. After all, he might have been King if things had turned out differently. I feared for him, but there was nothing I could do. And one day... news came to me that he was dead.”

“He was killed?” Inziladûn could not hide his horror at the veiled insinuation. That his mother´s father could have been killed by his father´s kin was almost too revolting for words- but Eärendur just shook his head reassuringly.

“I did not say that. I must admit that I had my suspicions at the time, but now I feel that he simply became sick from despair. He was being robbed of everything that he had always cherished and toiled for, and suspected unjustly. His friends and acquaintances shunned him, and he was forsaken by all.” He made a gesture with his hand, as if to abandon those sad thoughts. “Lindorië and your mother stayed in Andunië, where they were allowed to live in quiet retirement. My sister had the comfort of her daughter and her strong spirit, but there was a moment where grief became too much for her. She blamed herself for her husband´s death, and living alone in those abandoned lands, fallen to decay while her family languished in exile... “His lips pursed in a firm expression. “Your mother was left alone, with no kin until the decree of Ar-Sakalthôr brought us back. And, not even a year after she ran the twenty flights of stairs to meet us at the harbour, she was taken away to marry a man who did not love her.”

The sadness and guilt that Inziladûn had perceived before in his great-uncle´s expression became clearer, starker in a shocking breach from the man´s usual composure. A moment later, however, it was already gone, and Inziladûn felt again unsatisfied.

“Was it really necessary?” he asked, harshly. “Or did the Prince –my father force you to give her away?”

Eärendur shook his head again.

“It was- part of a negotiation”, he replied, shortly. “And it was necessary, Inziladûn. Do you understand? It would be our last chance to have a Prince of her bloodline. To fight the shadows of fear, suspicion and superstition that have run in the veins of the royal line like a venom for centuries. It was our last chance of being heard.

Inziladûn stared at him, trying to understand the implications of those words.

“I am that prince”, he finally muttered, before his forehead creased in suspicion. “So you want power, after all?”

The Lord of Andunië did not even flinch at this accusation.

“The power to save Númenor, yes. But not for me. For you.”

Inziladûn took breath, forcing the buzz of his thoughts to still. So, it had been this. There was no sordid secret in his birth anymore. No enigma in the sufferings of his mother.

Had those people have been driven mad from desperation, as they wasted away in the lands of the East? Such a fantastical scheme- so much suffering, suffering that could kill a person, and all for what? For the mad idea that blood would one day hear the distant call of blood and forsake its other loyalties?

What did those people want? What was so important as to sacrifice their own kin for it? Eärendur had spoken of saving Númenor –but was it power what they wanted, like his father used to say? Vindication for their family? Had they been bewitched by Elves? Or did it have something to do with their beliefs?

He forced himself to find a grip.

“Very well, lord Eärendur”, he said, in the steadiest tone that he could muster. “I am the future King and I am listening to you. “Never be like your father, she had said. “Now, tell me everything. I want to know what drives you. Why you want this power, and its purpose. Why you would suffer for it and have my mother and I suffer for it as well. Because there is more to all this, and I will hear it before I listen to treasonous words any longer.”

A belated awareness that he had said something very offensive crossed his brain, but still he kept his intent expression, waiting for an answer. Eärendur looked at him gravely for a long time –and then, to his great surprise, he smiled.

“You are so right”, he said, then sobered up and returned his gaze. “Very well, let us begin. Son of Inzilbêth, what do you know about Elves?”

Inziladûn did not have to think for a long time.

“They are immortal beings of a great and terrible power. They are Men´s enemies since the beginning of times, since a prophecy told them that they were destined to take their place one day. Because of that, they fought three great wars against Men and their King, the All-Powerful Melkor, and thought they lost the two first, in the third they allied themselves with the Demons of the West and He had to sacrifice himself to defeat them.” For a moment, he could not help but chuckle, a way to relieve the pent-up tension. “I am sure that you have a different tale to tell.”

“I do”, Eärendur replied. He stood up from his seat, and walked towards one of the pile of neatly stacked rolls of parchment. For a moment, he fingered through them with almost religious care, and took one of them in his hands. “Do you know what this is? It is the library of the kings of old, from the times of Elros Tar-Minyatur- or Indilzar in the tongue of Men.”

Inziladûn stared at him in incredulity.

“The oldest scrolls in Númenor date from the reign of Ar-Adunakhôr”, he said, but even while he was still pronouncing those words, the intent left them and caused his voice to trail away in involuntary hesitation. The lines drawn by the teachings of his preceptors had always been so arbitrary. “Did you... steal them?”

“I took them before the King destroyed them. They were hidden here, and stayed undiscovered for all our years of exile”, the lord of Andunië said while he unrolled a piece of parchment over the table. In spite of himself, Inziladûn stood up, and leaned over it avidly.

How many times had he wanted to know more, to read about ages past, ancient kings and the reasons for things, only to be told that those records did not exist, and that the things that he wanted to know were nothing but myths and legends! And now, they were all here, at the reach of his hand...

It was too good to be true.

“I still do not know if I should trust you”, he muttered. But as his knowledgeable eyes studied the parchment´s fabric, he found no immediate grounds to doubts its ancient origins. It smelled, felt old, older than Ar-Adunakhôr even... how much older, he could not even imagine.

And still, the words were written in Elvish script, spidery letters that Inziladûn could not understand or make sense of. A part of him felt overcome with frustration, that he would be so near to a source of knowledge whose scope he would never have imagined in his wildest dreams –and still unable to read a single word.

As if he had guessed the young man´s thoughts, Eärendur unrolled a second scroll, whose Adûnaic letters said “Translated records of the Letters of King Elros Tar-Minyatur”, in an ancient dialect that even well-read Inziladûn could not locate in time.

“Adûnaic and the Elvish tongues have existed together in Númenor since the founding of the kingdom”, the lord of Andunië explained. “The Line of Elros always used Quenya in ceremonies, and Sindarin at home until the land was first shaken by the corrupted beliefs of those who had lived in Middle-Earth under the growing shadow of Mordor. The Merchant Princes of the colonies introduced dark cults, and mistrust for Elves grew in time. A change came upon the land of Númenor, and the ancient wisdom was forgotten and shunned. The Kings used twisted myths to assert their power in their struggles for the Sceptre, and they even forgot their Elven blood.”

“Elven blood?” Inziladûn had the instinct of watching his own hand warily, as if the blueish veins on its palm could be hiding a terrible venom. Then, he shook his head and snorted defensively. “This is ridiculous!”

“Read the letter.” Eärendur pressed him gently. Inziladûn obeyed in spite of his agitation, though the lines took an unusually long time to sink into his brain.

Elros Tar-Minyatur, King of Númenor, to his brother Elrond Half-Elven...

With a gasp of dismay, Inziladûn let the document fall back on the table. A thought crossed his mind that it would be the time to turn back and leave and forget about this whole conversation –and still the need, the accursed need to know was somehow stronger than his dismay.

“Tell me everything”, he demanded again, sitting down. “From beginning to end. I will be here all night, if I must, but do not leave anything out.”

Eärendur bowed slightly, and sat down in turn.

“In the beginning” he said, “as you very well know, there was Eru, Father of All. And He created two generations of children, the Firstborn, or Elves, and the Secondborn, or Men...”

For long hours, nothing else was heard in that room but the soft voice of Eärendur, unraveling the tales of the Beginning and the First Age of the world. Inziladûn listened, shaken with alternate emotions of shock and enchantment, to the story of the corruption of Melkor, the Awakening of the Elves at Cuiviénen, and the marvels of the land of the Two Trees. He was told of the making of the Silmarils and the rebellion of the Noldor, the war of the Jewels and the coming of Men to Beleriand –Uldor, Beren and Lúthien, Húrin the Steadfast, Tuor and Idril, their son Eärendil, and their twin sons, Elrond and Elros. He listened to the account of the plea of Elves and Men to the Valar and the War of Wrath. The expulsion of Melkor, whom Elves and the Men who fought alongside them called Morgoth, and the reward of the Secondborn –the Land of Gift.

“You look so pale”, Eärendur remarked, the first interruption since he had begun the first of the legends. “Do you want a drink?”

Inziladûn shook his head in automatic denial. He saw everything around him in blurred lines.

For all his life, he had been taught to repeat and honour each and every one of Melkor´s exploits. He had stood in the fumes of his altar, filled with religious awe, until his mind grew sceptic and sarcastic about the poor logic of the tales of priests. And then he had been told that those were the myths of the populace, and that the Truth had to be protected and tended like a delicate flower. But what had this Truth been? Had it been a terrible secret, too dark to be unravelled?

Inziladûn had never been satisfied with the scarce tatters of the past, the confusing explanations that he had read and heard. And now that it was all laid in front of him, with a terrible beauty that could not help but pierce his heart, the beliefs ingrained in his brain for all his life were not explained but challenged, distorted and threatened without a chance for conciliation. He had an awareness that he should be feeling something, but instead all around him was numbness, seeping inside him and leaving him to wonder in a daze.

“And that is why we do what we do“, Eärendur concluded. “You dream of it as well, don´t you? The Wave... the Downfall.”

“How do you know that? No one, ever, could tell me...!” Inziladûn´s voice came out so hoarse that he would have felt ashamed of it if he had been able.

“Because we all have that dream in my family. You inherited it from us, Inziladûn. It is a warning of what will come one day, if we forsake our heritage and inflict pain over others in our pride. We alone were granted this vision, and that is why we will sacrifice anything to save the island of Númenor, its wisdom, and its beauty. Do you understand our motivations now?”

Did he? Inziladûn had been absorbing information for hours, and now his mind was reaching the breaking point. He tried to put an order in the swarm of thoughts and ideas, to reach the ultimate meaning of everything. He wondered if he was being enthralled with carefully wrought lies, yet his heart told him that it was true. The Wave was true.

The Downfall was true. He saw it every night. And they didn´t.

He shivered. The wish to run towards the door and flee this archive of ancient and dangerous memories became strong once more, almost to the point of overpowering every other consideration for a brief instant. Fortunately, he was able to master it, and keep the barest threads of his composure together no matter the pressure, as his tutor Maharbal had taught him to do since his earliest childhood.

What would the old man think if he saw him now? Which scolding, or advice, would he have to offer to him in this situation?

He sought Eärendur´s glance.

“Please, let us leave this subject for tonight”, he asked, as politely as he could manage. “I am tired and unable to profit from our exchanges anymore. And... there are also many things that I must think over carefully in the solitude of my chambers. If you will excuse me.”

His great-uncle let his eyes trail over him in appreciation. A warm smile graced his features after a moment, and Inziladûn surprised a glow of pride in his glance.

The Prince´s heir stood there, shaken to the core by this not least than by anything else. Pride was something that he had only seen in his mother´s face when she looked at him. Hannon and his circle were as pompous as they were insincere, Maharbal thought that praise would make him grow self-complacent and vain, while his father´s features were always veiled by mistrust, and as for the King – the King had shunned him from the day of his birth.

To be proud of himself had been Inziladûn´s only respite until now.

“You are incredibly strong, son. You have surpassed my greatest expectations“, the lord of Andunië said in a soft, vibrating voice.” Now, go and take your rest –I will wake you for the funeral ceremony tomorrow.”

With a mute nod of thanks, Inziladûn stood up, and staggered towards the door.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

It was not towards his chambers, however, that his errant footsteps carried him, but the gardens. The cool, salty breeze of the sea helped him ease his dizziness, and for a moment he just stood at the gate with closed eyes. There were drops of sweat upon his brow.

After a while, he finally felt recovered enough as to walk a bit through the place. The silence was eerie, only broken by the distant rumble of the sea. He tried to bathe in the soothing balm of the beautiful plants that covered his path, but there was something strange about them, an uneasy feeling of light and mist- was it a whisper?

Holding his forehead with his hands, he tried to come back from the spell. He felt lost in an Elvish enchantment, ensnared by a greater power who would destroy him as soon as he lowered his guard. At the same time as he had that thought, however, he recalled Eärendur´s tale, and the weight of what had just happened finally sank on his mind.

People of the Stars... deliverers of evil.

Inziladûn sought for the comfort of the Hand amulet. He pressed it against his hand, but it felt cold and strangely unresponsive. Distressed by this, he let it fall back on his pocket, and turned away from that inviting yet fearsome beauty.

I will find no rest here, he thought. Images haunted his head as they never had in the luxurious safety of Armenelos, of a dark wave falling over their fragile peace and engulfing everyone that he loved. Cold spirits of the West, a fallen god– his grieving heart still wanted to believe in the love of the Queen´s sweet face, but what if she was nothing but a fair creature of men?

What, indeed, if it was true? Would there be deliverance? He remembered his disgust that one time, when the city of Armenelos celebrated the massacre of a helpless tribe of Middle-Earth under the fumes of Melkor´s altar. Now that He is not there, we must protect them as He once did, he had been told, but hadn´t they just been robbed of their food and riches before their misery brought them to war? And he had justified it in his heart, but could he live with the knowledge of those stories of the past, and of proud beings who had fallen to the whispers of the Shadow while they were at the peak of their glory?

As he was having those thoughts, Inziladûn realised that he had wandered into a place that he hadn´t seen before. The garden had stretched into a clearing, where a circle of trees gleamed under the light of the moon. Astonished, he stopped in his tracks to admire their mysterious beauty, and saw that the leaves in their outstretched branches were the colour of silver, holding fruits of pure gold.

Was this an Elven tree, then? If so, Inziladûn thought, nothing indeed in the world of Men could compare to the beauty of the Firstborn. He tried to imagine the forests of Doriath, where Beren, his ancestor, had lain in an enchanted dream with the most beautiful creature to ever exist in this world...

A soft sound of footsteps interrupted his thoughts. Still shaken, he turned back with unaccustomed violence, and his eyes met the pale figure of a maiden, walking towards him with a slight smile. The billows of her white dress stirred under the breeze.

Inziladûn swallowed a knot on his throat, and slowly came back to reality. She was no Lúthien, but the daughter of Valandil, who stared at him with warm and clear sea-grey eyes.

Behind her, yet more footsteps disrupted the quietude of the clearing, as her brother followed the same path. They both looked quite similar, pale and grey eyed like Elves, but his features were softer and shadowed by a strange, dreamy expression .

Malinornë”, she said, looking at the trees. “Grandmother´s favourite tree.”

“She used to come here everyday and stay for hours, doing nothing but stare at them”, Númendil recalled with fondness. “I hope there will be trees like those beyond the Circles of the World.”

“Or else she might come back and complain”, she joked, with a chuckle.

Inziladûn stared at them, once again taken by the unreality of their exchange. Their Adûnaic was accented, and beyond this their every speech, their every show of emotion seemed tightly measured, somehow always falling short from the full emotions of a man. There were never full laughs for those people, or anger, or an unleashed sadness. He wondered whether this was the bearing of an Elf, or of an outcast hardened by necessity.

“I am disturbing your mourning”, he muttered, unsure of whether this was even the most adequate wording for it. But he felt the need to leave them to their business.

“Oh, no, please!” She bowed. “It is us who are disturbing you, my lord.”

“And we would wish to disturb you for a little longer”, her brother added. Surprised, Inziladûn cleaned his face roughly with his right hand, and took a deep breath.

“What do you want?”

“Sit with us”, Artanis said, pointing at the soft grass at her side with an inviting gesture of her chin. “Please.”

After a moment of hesitation, Inziladûn did what he was told. He had no valid reason to refuse, and those people were his hosts.

Still, when Númendil began to stare at him, he could not help but feel incommodated.

“Yes?” he asked. The younger man smiled, a bit shyly, and looked away.

“He is jealous of your beard”, Artanis informed him, combing back her mass of black hair. Inziladûn´s puzzlement increased by the moment.

“You must be the only one, then. It is... not very popular in Armenelos”, he added cautiously, then had the urge to smile at the bemused frowns of the siblings. What strange people, he thought. “But you could also grow one, if you like.”

Númendil shook his head, mournfully.

“Alas! I have tried.”

“The Elven heritage runs strong in him”, his sister explained. Inziladûn nodded slightly, tense again at the remembrance of his earlier anguish. To his surprise, both Númendil and Artanis seemed to notice his unease, and they exchanged grave looks that soon turned to compassion.

“I am sorry”, she apologised. “You have just... talked to Grandfather.”

“Never mind”, Inziladûn muttered. He was not used to be pitied, and even less to be read. Was his guard so low after the night´s emotions? “Do you also dream of the Wave?”

Artanis´s expression darkened a little, as if she was remembering something unpleasant.

“We do.”

“I have the dubious honour of being the only member of this family who sometimes gets to drown”, Númendil added, with some forced cheer. “Do you?”

Inziladûn shook his head. In a way, and in spite of the gloom of the situation, it was comforting to be able to talk about it with someone for the first time. He even felt compelled to talk about things that he had never disclosed to anyone before.

“I see a woman drowning sometimes, however.” His voice lowered, as his glance became lost in the glimmer of the silver leaves. “I think it might be my mother.”

A long silence welcomed his words.

“Do you think that it would be so near? That... Downfall, I mean.”

Númendil shook his head vehemently.

“No. The Creator loves us still. He has to give us a last chance to redeem ourselves. That is what I believe”, he added, turning to his sister for confirmation. She nodded.

“He only has to wait for a while longer. When you become King, things will change.”

Inziladûn felt a knot on his throat again, as those sea-grey eyes –so similar to those of his mother!- were set on him in boundless faith.

“Many things might still happen yet”, he mumbled. “I am only the King´s grandson.” And I am not even sure that I will not wake up tomorrow and see reality.

Fortunately, the mysterious and erratic sense of tact of the siblings did not press the issue any further. Instead of this, Númendil fumbled with his clothes, and took out a bunch of folded papers.

“Here”, he said, presenting them to Inziladûn with a look that reminded him vaguely of the cheekiness of a young boy. “An apology for disturbing you, my lord.”

Curious, Inziladûn unfolded the papers, and looked over the first one. The writing was Adûnaic, but the letters were clumsily drawn, as if by the hand of a child who was learning to write.

“These are the Princess of the North´s letters to Grandfather”, Artanis explained, leaning over his shoulder to take a better look.

“Her written Adûnaic was not good at all”, Númendil commented, doing the same. “But she spoke it far better than me, or so Father loves to tell me whenever he has the opportunity.”

“This...” Inziladûn´s voice died in his throat, as he felt a strong emotion grow inside him. His mother´s letters... the words that he had never been able to hear –that she had never been able to tell him in the loneliness of her exile. He forced his voice to come out steady. “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

“According to Grandfather, they are full of accounts on the marvellous progress of baby Inziladûn”, Artanis commented with a chuckle. Númendil patted him on the shoulder.

“If you ever wondered why there is a Palace clerk who stares at you in a funny way, be sure that this was the one in charge of reading her letters before they were sent.” Belatedly aware that he was being teased, Inziladûn blushed a little. He could not be angry at people who had given him such a valuable gift, however, so he merely shook his head with indulgence.

He thought of Eärendur, and the shadows of guilt behind the mask of his composed expression. A gift, or an apology?

A stronger breeze rustled over the brilliant leaves of the Elven trees, wringing from them an unearthly concert of chimes. As he listened to them in wonder, a distant feeling came upon him, as if everything, his home in Armenelos, his father and brother, the altar of Melkor and the tales of the remote past were so far away from this place that their lines were blurring in his sight.

He was tired... so tired...

“Lay down here, my lord”, Artanis´s soft voice penetrated the haze of his mind. Her face leaned over him, and he saw his mother´s eyes looking at him in loving concern. “We will wake you when the time comes –we promise.”

Feeling bereaved of the strength to protest or suspect an Elven spell, even unable to feel repelled at the idea of sleeping outdoors, Inziladûn did as he was told. Soon afterwards, his eyes were closed, and he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

But when he found himself in darkness,
in the earth's awful depths,
with a group of unholy Greeks,
and bodiless figures appeared before him
with haloes of light,
the young Julian for a moment lost his nerve:
an impulse from his pious years came back
and he crossed himself.
The Figures vanished at once;
the haloes faded away, the lights went out.
The Greeks glanced at each other.
The young man said: "Did you see the miracle?
I'm frightened, friends. I want to leave.
Didn't you see how the demons vanished
the second they saw me make the holy sign of the cross?"
The Greeks chuckled scornfully:
"Shame on you, shame, to talk that way
to us sophists and philosophers!
If you want to say things like that,
say them to the Bishop of Nicomedia and his priests.
The greatest gods of our glorious Greece
appeared before you.
And if they left, don't think for a minute
that they were frightened by a gesture.
It was just that when they saw you
making that vile, that crude sign,
their noble nature was disgusted
and they left you in contempt."
This is what they said to him, and the fool
recovered from his holy, blessed fear,
convinced by the unholy words of the Greeks.

 

(K. Kavafis, “Julian at the Mysteries”)

 

 

 

The next morning, Inziladûn´s face was gaunt, and he wore dark circles under his eyes as he took part in the ceremony. Nobody mentioned anything about this, however, not even Hannon, whose own misadventures with wine had made him unusually indulgent towards his charge.

In the afternoon, the hospitable family planned other activities for them. They visited the stone city, perched in its nest atop the cliff, and walked the harbour from one end of the Bay to the other, empty except for the presence of fishing boats tied to wooden poles. Now and then, Inziladûn caught himself staring at the Western horizon in disquiet, wondering about the land that stretched beyond their sight. He remembered Eärendur´s words about his forefather Eärendil, who had reached the Undying Lands with the Silmaril upon his brow and never returned.

To his dismay, there was no further chance to start another long conversation with his intriguing hosts, with Hannon dogging his heels all day. Only the following morning, as he watched how the light of dawn tinged the surface of the Sea with rosy hues, regretting his impending departure, he heard a familiar rustle of robes behind him. Turning back, he saw the two Elvish siblings standing behind his seat, twin enigmatic smiles upon their faces.

“It is better this way”, Númendil said. “You will have time to think things over, my lord, without us pestering you.”

Artanis laughed, a soft, rippling sound like the murmuring of the sea. Her pale hand reached his side, and produced a small, well-worn book from the folds of her dress.

Inziladûn took it in silence, and examined it with a frown.

“Will you do it alone?” she asked. It was full of texts in the Elven tongues.

Thankful, and heartened by this gift, Inziladûn nodded. This little book would be the key to explore the elusive truth with his own eyes, the ancient scrolls and the forbidden legends of the Elder Days. He wondered if there would be others that he did not know, sparse and hidden in dark vaults of the Palace of Armenelos.

If he only could find them...

“I will”, he assured her. If he was set to it, he would have mastered those languages in a few months, he thought. He was aware that his mind was quicker than most.

The young woman smiled at his answer. In an unexpected motion, she  tiptoed to his front, and he felt himself suddenly pulled into a light embrace that smelled of flowers. Surprise paralysed him, and he barely had time to relax before she pulled away again, as gracefully as she had approached him.

“May the Valar guard you, my lord”, she said, bowing in unison with her amused brother and turning back to leave the room.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Inziladûn´s next journey would begin by crossing the Andustar again, and then following the coast South until he reached the Forbidden Bay. This would have meant a six day ride in normal circumstances, though the carts and provisions slowed the process down to almost two weeks.

For those two weeks, the young man became taciturn and self-absorbed. He rode at the front, away from the rest of the party, and paid little mind to the surroundings that had fascinated him so much in his previous trip with Valandil. During their night stays at the resting points made for travelling nobles, not even Hannon´s exuberant conversation was able to wring more than two or three polite responses from him before he retired for the night.

Only when they approached the Bay, Inziladûn was forced to put a momentary stop to his musings to admire the beauty of the place. This was Eldalondë the Green, stretching before the dazzling blue of the Sea, where –according to Eärendur- the ships of the Eldar used to come at will and scatter their gifts for the benefit of their mortal friends.

Before the Great Estrangement...

Sweet and varied scents reached his nostrils from the sacred grove. As they ventured inside, he saw trees whose branches sagged under the weight of scarlet globed fruits, the Fruits of the Goddess as the later Númenoreans called them. The silver and golden trees that he had admired in the home of the Lords of Andunië grew there at will, too, a glittering forest hanging over the heads of the astonished pilgrims as they made their way through the carved path.

Those people believed that such marvels could thrive in that land because it was the home of the Goddess. Lost in a dream of Elvish making, they reached the sacred beach and the Cave full of religious fervour, and knelt upon the steps of the altar to pray to her statue. Inziladûn had once wished more than anything in the world to do so, but now this wish had turned to apprehension and fear.

What would he see, when his eyes were set upon the Queen of the Seas? Would vacant eyes stare back at him, devoid of the comfort that she had given him since he was a child? The illusion was now broken, the lingering faith that came from his past need shattered by too much knowledge. Inziladûn did not regret knowing the truth about Melkor, but the goddess, his goddess –sometimes during his journey, the thought had brought him a searing pain, and he had wondered if, once again, his imprudent curiosity had destroyed one of the most precious things he had.

For all those reasons, Inziladûn would have preferred to never lay a foot in her cave. And yet there he was, and there was no way in this world that he could flee his obligations.

Before they had even reached the seaside, the path through the forest became a road, full of pilgrims who came in groups, singing songs and carrying their offerings to the sanctuary. The first few, scattered vendors who stood at the sides selling all kinds of merchandise became full stalls and stands, offering meals, safe and cheap trips back home, little pieces of rock from the Sacred Cave, shells and pearls of the goddess, and even, to Inziladûn´s shock, hair and fingernails to gift her with. Everybody stared at them as they passed by with their train and the carts loaded with the King´s presents, and even as they stood aside to let him pass, Inziladûn heard a rumbling buzz of murmurations, and was subjected to the more irreverent stares of curiosity that he had encountered in his whole life.

As they finally reached the gates of the splendid Sacred City that had grown around the grounds of the sanctuary –the home of priests and merchants, joined in a single people by the community of their endeavours-, a sizeable delegation came to greet them. At its head was Lord Itashtart, Governor of the Forbidden Bay, who bowed and helped Inziladûn to dismount with an unwavering hand. He was a proud-looking man of prominent chin and dark eyes, and tight muscles that showed under his priestly robes. Head Priest of the sanctuary of Ashtarte-Uinen by title, he was kin to the King, and above all a general of the troops which were established further down the Bay in several encampments of a permanent nature. His true role was to prevent an uprising of his once fearsome Northern neighbour, and looking at him, Inziladûn could not help but be shaken by an involuntary emotion as he remembered what his grandfather Melkorbazer had been once.

No, he said to himself, glad for the comfort that this train of thought brought to his mind at the very threshold of that place. He could not regret what he had learned that night.

“I am glad to welcome you, Inziladûn son of Gimilzôr”, the man said to him formally. “Our humble city is proud to receive a royal prince in his first visit to the Goddess.”

Feeling at last in his own element, Hannon undertook most of the dealings about the gifts, and how they would be brought to the cave in procession and stored in their rightful places. Once that everything was set to everybody´s satisfaction, they accepted Itashtart´s hospitality, and were led to his palace through the wide avenues of the city. Compared to the Palace of Armenelos the building was small, but its architecture already felt more familiar to Inziladûn, with its gold and blue façade and shady inner gardens with running fountains.

After the meal, some polite and veiled insinuations of the High Priest convinced the Prince´s heir of the impossibility of delaying the visit further. The crowd had already gathered on the beach at the West end of the city, and as close to the cave´s entrance as they were allowed by the soldiers, eager to catch a glimpse of the royal visit. Dressed in official purple, pale and taken aback by the interest of the multitude, Inziladûn thought that he had to be giving a bad impression indeed, to all those people who were used to his father´s easy majesty.

This shore, though also bathed by the Western sea, was very different from the Bay of Andunië. All traces of the ancient harbour had been erased when Ar-Adunakhôr consecrated that land to Ashtarte-Uinen by means of an official ceremony, and the direction of Eressëa was pronounced forbidden. Now, all that remained in the place was a beach of brilliant, golden sands, full of scattered shells of various shapes that the sea had thrown upon the coast. Waves broke freely upon it, leaving a trail of sizzling white foam as they slowly retreated.

The cave was South of the city, carved by the might of the ocean on the base of a rocky mass that stood, alone and impressive, facing the sea. Inziladûn realised, in surprise, that it was red like the tiles of the roofs of Armenelos, and the last sunrays wrung strange hues from their surface that reminded him more of precious stones than rock.

Dismounting from his horse, he covered the last stretch of the procession on his feet. The crowd had stayed behind, and Lord Itashtart stopped and made a signal to the guards who had followed them to retire as well. Left alone, Inziladûn swallowed deeply, and lay a foot upon the divine threshold.

The place smelled of humidity, not like the small sanctuary of the Armenelos royal palace, but a different kind that felt strong and salty, like the Sea itself. It was so dark that he needed to blink several times to become accustomed to lamplight.

A metallic glitter was the first thing that he saw, forming curious shapes under the veil of shadows. He stared at them in curiosity, and noticed that the walls were covered with piles of precious objects and gems of every kind, the presents that the princes of the land sent every year to rival each other in magnificence. Slowly, he advanced among them, his footsteps silent against the colourful mosaics of the stone pavement.

His eyes could already distinguish the figure on the altar, and his heart started beating quickly inside his chest. Stopping on his tracks, he willed himself to be calm, to approach the altar with the required serenity.

The statue of the Goddess was made of pale ivory, and dressed in blue silks with silver thread embroideries. Raven black hair flew freely over her shoulders, crowned by a delicate diadem made of pure silver. Her chest was bare, and a child was feeding from her breast, not playing with it like the one held by the Lady of Armenelos. Under her feet, a crescent moon engraved with pearls gleamed under the faint light of torches.

Letting his glance trail further down, Inziladûn saw the altar, drowned under a mass of evergreen boughs of Return, vowed to the Goddess by grateful captains after successful trips or dangerous ventures. Only one, spread in a prominent place for everyone to see, made a strong contrast with the others: it had withered, and his leaves were brittle and dry.

An inscription said that it was the bough of Return of Aldarion, who, according to a legend, had felt the wrath of the goddess for taking a forbidden path to the land of the Elves. Other popular lore that Inziladûn recalled, however, stated that the reason of the goddess´s anger had been his disregard for his wife, the Princess Erendis. For many in Númenor both traditions had melded into one, the double sin of the impious Aldarion against the majesty of the goddess in her consecrated dominions of sea and love.

Approaching a step further, Inziladûn saw that there were silver letters following the curve of the crescent moon. They were verses of the most famous litany of Ashtarte-Uinen, which he had learned as a little child:

 

Daughter of the white foam

Fairer than silver

Fairer than ivory

Fairer than pearls

Mother of All”

 

Inziladûn swallowed, and dared, for the first time to look at her face. Her beauty surpassed that of her sister in Armenelos by far, finely carved by the famous Abdashtart, greatest of the sculptors who had ever graced the land of Númenor. For an instant, he felt her gaze upon him, but this time he did not allow himself to lower his head, overwhelmed by the intensity of his feelings. He kept his glance steady, and studied her carved features searching, almost wishing for the familiar signs of love.

Just as he had feared, there were none. She was nothing but a beautiful statue, devoid of life or feeling. This realisation should have brought him peace, but instead he felt strangely cold and bereaved, like the night when his mother had closed her doors to him forever.

And then, Inziladûn felt a new understanding dawn in his mind. The child had needed his mother, and his fancy had woven her in the features of this silent goddess of ivory. The sailors who had cut those green boughs had needed her protection from the dangerous mercy of the seas. She bestowed healing upon the sick, comfort upon the grieving, love upon the forsaken.

Her image had been wrought from the wishes and dreams of Men, and this had been the source of this inert statue´s boundless power.

Shaken, the young man turned aside from her. Two dark eyes met his, patient and unflinching.

Realising for the first time that he was not alone, Inziladûn tried to sober up, and stared at the intruder who sat upon a finely woven rug on the floor. It was a woman with a diadem of pearls upon her brow, whose dark hair flowed down her back in a cunning imitation of the goddess. Precious jewels hung from her neck and arms, and she wore long skirts of blue silk; her breasts, however, were fully naked. Her skin had the pale colour of someone who had consecrated her life to a place of shadows, and her lips were curved in an inviting smile.

Inziladûn´s chest clenched. He knew why she was here, and he did not have the heart for it. And yet, he had to. He had been sent on the King´s stead, like his father so many times before him. With forced steps, he reached her side and knelt in front of her, and, unexpected and graceful as a serpent, she took his hands with her own.

Even back on the day of his majority, when he had been forced to undergo this ritual for the first time, Inziladûn remembered having felt torn about it. In his mind, the Goddess was a mother, and the carnal aspects of love that she patronised felt to him like a revolting contradiction. Now, he felt more unprepared than ever, almost violently pulled away from the raging turmoil of his feelings and reflections by that woman´s arrival.

Slowly, yet skilfully, the High Priestess of Ashtarte-Uinen undressed him and scattered the clothes upon the rug. Noticing the tension in his limbs, she smiled again, and laid her soft hands over his shoulders, letting them trail down his skin with feathery caresses. As Inziladûn closed her eyes, he had a sudden vision of the warm fondness in Artanis´s features while she pressed her body against his, and he was shaken.

Regaining his composure as he was able, he laid back on the rug, and forced himself to surrender to the might of the goddess. The High Priestess crept over him, light and swift, in total silence. The dim lights of the ceiling, and the spark of a challenge in her eyes were the only things that he could see now, towering over his face. One of her hands moved downwards, and for the first time, he had to take a sharp breath.

The sacred prostitutes, servants of the goddess, were renowned for their extraordinary abilities throughout Númenor and the colonies. There was no woman or man who could boast of equalling their knowledge on more than a thousand ways and branches of physical love. They liked to compare themselves with the soldiers who honoured Melkor in battle and spread the King´s renown with their skills: they were their female counterparts, whose mission was to have all bow to the power of the Goddess.

This particular woman, due to her position, was hailed as first and mightiest of those who honoured Ashtarte-Uinen with their bodies, and Inziladûn soon discovered that there was much more to her than what he could have imagined. His rigid limbs began to relax and unclench under her hands; his unease and uncomfortableness gave way to a thin, swiftly growing ache of desire. With her expert touch, she brought him first to the deepest abysses of misery, and then to the highest peaks of pleasure. She revived his vigour time after time, until he collapsed, exhausted, in her cradling arms.

Soon afterwards, he closed his eyes and fell asleep.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

As was usual in him, his sleep was light, and disturbed by vivid visions that succeeded one another in an endless procession. He saw the dark eyes of the priestess, and heard Artanis´s sweet laugh caressing his ears in the void. The statue of the goddess took life and beckoned to him, but when he embraced her it was his mother that he was holding in his arms, and he felt complete for the first time since he had been a child.

Then, there was a shift, and he felt himself sink to a dark place. He was treading the stone floor of the cave, but there was no lamplight to show him where he was going. In front of him, something gleamed softly, and he realised that it was Ashtarte-Uinen, holding the child with graceful hands of ivory. He rushed forwards, wanting to embrace her again, but her eyes were vacant.

Inziladûn...

Frightened by the voice, which seemed to have echoed in his mind, the young man turned back. A dazzling radiance blinded him, and he fell to his knees covering his face with both hands.

Inziladûn...

Blinking his tears away, a deep instinct compelled him to look again. In front of him there was a woman, whose every single finger, every single hair was perfection. She had eyes like stars, hair like gold, and a crown of woven light upon her brow. Her lips were curved in a smile, but one that didn´t comfort him or give him warmth. It made him sad instead, with an unbearable anguish that ripped his chest.

He wanted her to hold him, and yet he knew that this was not possible. Her hands were made to hold stars in the sky, and her eyes looked through and past him, encompassing the whole world. And the smile in her lips was lost to him, lost forever in this marred land of shadow.

Star-kindler, he muttered, knowing that his voice would never be heard. For the first time he felt the ache, the loss of this lineage of immortals trapped in mortal bodies, who could never reach the Undying Lands. And then he knew why the men of Númenor had built their false gods and chosen to live in darkness, because true light was cruel and beautiful, and hurt them too much.

Just as this thought crossed his mind, he awoke upon the floor of the cave. He felt cold, and his hand sought the space at his side, but the woman had left somewhere during his sleep. Shivering strongly, he reached for the rug, and wrapped his naked body with it.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

This trip had changed the direction of his life. During the days of his ride home, and above all when he caught the first glimpse of Armenelos, the royal palace over the hill, and the domes of the temple of Melkor, Inziladûn was forced to ponder this truth in his mind. A confused and rebellious young man who had wanted –needed- to know the answer to many questions had left this city not even a couple of months ago; now he was back, and the dangerous knowledge of too many things haunted his steps.

As they entered the First Courtyard of the palace in a clatter of hooves, however, Inziladûn´s grim musings gave way to surprise. Except for the soldiers who had opened the gates, there was no one there to greet him. Only the White Tree –Nimloth- stood in its corner, haughty and abandoned by those who lived in fear of its memories.

“This is strange, my lord”, he heard someone mutter at his left. “They were notified of our coming.”

Inziladûn dismounted, the first thrill of a premonition growing within his heart. Without waiting for anyone to follow, he walked towards the gates of the Main Compound, and almost bumped into a group of men who were talking in agitated whispers with a woman. As soon as they recognised him, they all stopped talking and bowed.

“What is the meaning of this?” he asked. Nobody answered him.

The premonition became stronger.

“What is the meaning of this?” he repeated. After a while, it was the woman who advanced a step.

“Something –I am not sure what, but something has happened in the North Wing, my lord. I was trying to...”

But Inziladûn had already left. As he dazedly stumbled through the labyrinthic corridors, past many groups of people who gossiped and whispered and bowed to him, a persistent vision flashed alone through his mind –of the giant wave, engulfing the woman who lay curled on the ground at his feet.

The guards of the North Wing stood aside as they saw him come, and made no comment when he passed them by. It was the first time since Inziladûn was a child that they had not held him at the threshold, denying him entrance. The crumbling of those eternal walls, the casual brushing aside of so many days and nights of misery only served to turn his anxiety into dread –it was as if the order of his world had come to an end at that very moment.

As if to corroborate this fear, the first halls and gardens that he crossed lay in a heavy silence. No proud ladies, no bustling attendants, no sound except for the echo of his swift footsteps on the floor. Taking a sharp breath, he undertook the ascension of flights and flights of stairs, and finally found some signs of life at his mother´s level. A young lady ran past him with a frightened expression on her face.

Now, he could hear the first sounds, of women voices echoing each other´s laments, and the light sound of feet running and silk rustling. As he turned around a corner, he found himself face to face with his brother.

“What happened?” he asked, unceremoniously. Then, however, he sought his face and his heart sank. The younger man had gone completely pale, and behind the pallor there was a horror, a fear that struck Inziladûn almost physically.

Before he could recover, Gimilkhâd pushed him aside, and left in a rush.

Throwing aside the last semblances of propriety, Inziladûn ran towards his mother´s chambers. A crowd of ladies blocked the door, and he made his way among them without even bothering to tell them to move aside. As they recognised him, they pulled back, gazing at him with expressions of the deepest compassion.

The first thing that Inziladûn could see was Gimilzôr´s figure, standing like an abhorrent contradiction in the middle of the sanctuary of his childhood. Quickly, his eyes darted towards the bed, and there he could see his mother in a soft violet dress, lying with closed eyes and both arms stretched at her sides.

Dead.

“... and she was there, sitting in front of the window...” the voice of the lady Nidhra, choked by sobs, reached his ears as if from a great distance. “She had taken to doing that of late... used to stay there for hours, until I told her it was time to eat or sleep... I... I called her... She did not hear me.... I touched her arm, and it was cold....She fell from the chair...” and back again to the loud, gasping sobs. “She... she fell...”

Inziladûn advanced towards the bed, like someone who has been possessed by a spell. He lost no time wondering if his father would have been surprised at his sudden appearance, or if he would be angry at his repeated breaches of protocol. She was dead. How could she be dead? She was healthy. She was young.

She had promised.

“What did you do to her?” he hissed, turning to face Gimilzôr. His father´s eyes widened, too shocked at his words to show an immediate reaction. Ignoring the laws of prudence that had been engraved in his mind throughout the years like a second nature, Inziladûn seized the opportunity to look into them, in search of proof of his guilt.

At once, a wave of pain shook him. It was a smothered, twisted and complicated pain, yet intense and sharp as the edge of a knife. He tried to find more, but Gimilzôr regained his composure, and his shock became a terrible anger.

“Grief has made you forget your place”, he stated, dignified and regal in spite of everything. Anything before losing his composure in public... even if his wife´s corpse was lying in front of his eyes. “Because of this, I am willing to forgive you this time.”

Unable to look at him any longer, Inziladûn forced himself to regain a grip on his senses, and fell to his knees in front of his mother´s bed. She was so beautiful, even in death. No - even more in death; she was now fairer than she had ever been in life. Her features were at last free of the shadow of grief, in an inert semblance of peace.

Where could she have gone now? Had she passed beyond the Circles of the World as Valandil had said, and what was there for her to find? Inziladûn tried desperately to hold on to the belief that she was happy, but the uncertainty of it all tore at his insides.

Images flooded his mind, of a sunny garden, the soft scent of an embrace, a smile and a whispered tale. He saw her, young and grieving, curled upon her bed while her body shook with sobs. Her joyful smile, a tired face and a whisper in his ear.

I will wait for you.

He felt broken. He was lying in the dark, unable to understand for the agonising span of a moment. Why had she broken her promise? What had taken place between those stone walls while he rode to the West, free to discover the world?

Had hope deserted her as she languished year after year, away from all those that she loved?

Inziladûn recalled the words of Eärendur, as they both talked of the past in a secret library of dusty scrolls. A last chance to have a Prince of our bloodline... to fight the shadows... the power to save Númenor, the sacrifice of everything for the sake of this sacred mission. First, he was overcome with anger, as he realised that without those high-flowing concepts, Inzilbêth would have still been alive, smiling with the rest of her kin under the trees of malinornë. And then, he felt the need to laugh like a madman, because Inzilbêth´s greatest sacrifice had had nothing to do with the lords of Andunië, or Númenor, or the Valar, and deep inside, he suddenly knew.

I knew that you would never be in his favour as long as you were my son.

A woman´s strength breaking down, a small, trembling child in his arms.

She had done it for him. For him, so he would be heir to the throne of Númenor, and King, and be one day free from the shadow that had engulfed her.

Swallowing the knot in his throat, Inziladûn took her hand, cold and rigid like the ivory statue of the Goddess, and as lost to him as the Star-Kindler who sat upon the sacred mountain of Taniquetil. Then, he bowed deeply, and forced the words to come out of his mouth in the shape of a trembling whisper.

“Thank you, Mother. Thank you.”

Suddenly, a powerful flash of a smile upon an oval face crossed his mind. Something slipped into his grip, warm and unexpected.

After he made sure that his father had not noticed, Inziladûn gathered back his silent, raging defiance, and hid his mother´s most precious jewel under his sleeve.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Nor can the Valar take away the gifts of Ilúvatar. The Eldar, you say, are unpunished, and even those who rebelled do not die. Yet that is to them neither reward nor punishment, but the fulfillment of their being. They cannot escape, and are bound to this world, never to leave it so long as it lasts, for its life is theirs...

Inziladûn paused in the laborious reading, forcing his hands not to fidget in an excitement that covered more shattering emotions. The page was old and worn out, and he had to hold it with reverent care as he deciphered the ancient texts scribbled in its margins with the spidery script of Fëanor.

As he became acquainted with Eärendur´s book, back when he considered it a triumph to make sense of an isolated word in a paragraph, the first thing that struck him had been how the mysterious names of the ancient kings, words that he had seen in scrolls, and even words of everyday salutations that he had trouble to learn as a child because of their raspy, alien sound, had suddenly acquired a sense in the tongue of the Elves. Eär, the Sea. Mir, the Jewel. Cir- the Ship.

Eru- the Creator.

Then, as he had progressed, he had realised that it was not just the names. He had devoured the legends of Beleriand, and found reflections of their own myths, the ones he had been taught as a child and later found irrational and contrived, restored to their real significance. The duel between Melkor and Fingolfin had taken place, but the Elf King had not been sly and arrogant; he had made a last, desperate stand for his people. The “flames unnumbered, and creatures of fire” had really sprung from Melkor´s power, in the battle known as the Dagor Bragollach. That story which was referenced in such extensive detail, most beloved of Elves and Men, of Lúthien and Beren and their struggle for a love that was forbidden by the laws of the kindreds, had been reduced in Númenorean lore to a mere tale for children, where a man sought for his lost wife in the Realm of the Dead. And, though he had won her through his song, in the end he had lost her again- a proof of the loss of faith of later men.

In Inziladûn´s days, the very name of Elves was despised by the men of Númenor. And yet in the past, it had been the ancestors of those same men who had slept in exhaustion after escaping the dark lands, and were befriended by an Elf who came to them under the dim light of the campfire. Before the Elves had taught them, showed them their magnificent cities and the beautiful works of their hands they had been nothing, known nothing at all. Inziladûn compared this to something he had heard about a successful goldsmith of Armenelos, who refused to acknowledge his master, pretending in his pride that nobody had taught him his technique as a boy. And yet, he had to wonder if those Men who built taller than the palaces of Beleriand had really learned everything that the Elves could teach them.

The Elves, as he understood them, had to be creatures of a mysterious perfection. They lived with the Valar, and the Valar, according to the Ainulindalë, sprung from the Great God himself. Purity could not be tainted by immundice, -this was a basic philosophical principle-, and a Vala would not lay eyes upon something as imperfect, changing and drawn to base desires as a mortal man.

This was why they had summoned the Elves, and the Elves, in turn, had been assigned the role of intermediaries, transmitting those teachings to the Secondborn who could not lay a foot on the Blessed Realm. The Elder Spirits had mingled their blood with that of Elves, and Elves had mingled their blood to that of mortals. And from their union a race had been born, higher in perfection than the others, who had subdued almost the entire world of Men –such should the extent of Elven power be!

Still, all those legends had been written by no Elf, but by a Man of Númenor, maybe one of Eärendur´s ancestors, thousands of years after the real events. Sometimes, Inziladûn doubted that the man had really understood the scope of what he was writing, the real essence and motives of the beings who took part in the stories or, alternatively, that he had not changed things on purpose to a language that Men could easily understand. Some contradictions had left him baffled, like the account of the rebellion against the Valar. It was shocking to believe that the Valar would have left the race of Men forever in darkness, and that the Elves had left Valinor against their will.

In time, he had reached the belief that it had simply not been the time, that those elusive natures had felt the claim of fulfilment before it was their due. If the course of events had been properly followed, the Valar would have imprisoned Melkor again, -as indeed they did-, but instead of waiting for their action the Noldor had rushed to fight him themselves, trusting their own greatness. They had not been able to wait until the world was in peace and free from the shadow, and they were free to pass their teachings to the younger race.

And now, in turn, those valiant Noldor had been forgotten and despised by the fickle and proud minds of the men of Númenor. It had been a matter of shock and disgust for Inziladûn since the beginning, when he discovered the extent of Men´s ingratitude and forgetfulness. The Elves had done no evil to them: indeed, they should have been ensnared by the shadow of Melkor that still lay in Middle-Earth in order to believe such a thing. This had made them grow too prideful to acknowledge their masters, jealous of their immortality and the primacy of their race. Proud Kings had consigned the old scrolls to oblivion, and all those people, whose lives were like falling leaves when measured to the immortality of Elves, had forgotten and believed in lies.

Immortality... That this had been a word first whispered in their ears by the insidious shadow of Melkor became apparent in the chronicle that he was reading now, an account of the messengers from the Valar that came to Tar-Atanamir. And yet those evil Elves had given their lives away freely in the past, both to join their fate to that of Men and to help them. There were some among them who even wished they could be allowed to die, like those who suffered from the power of the Unbreakable Oath.

But who would tell that truth to the crowd that gathered year after year in the sanctuaries, singing songs of praise for the Enemy of the World –he shuddered-, begging him to give them years of life, and to preserve their immortal souls in the Void? Would he be believed if he yelled the words aloud, if he showed them the texts and proved how their customs, their legends, their language, were distorted shadows of the world of Elves, who were their ancient teachers, friends, and allies?

This had been his first impulse, when Eärendur´s words and his first readings brutally tore away the blindfold, and showed him a world whose existence he had not been able to suspect until now. Those people had been left in ignorance, yes, even his family, who ruled over them. If he showed them the truth, how could they fail to understand?

Then, however, he thought about the lords of Andünié, and how they had been exiled and persecuted for their beliefs, and his naive ideas dissolved in smoke. Ar-Adunakhôr had officially established the cult of Melkor in all the lands of Númenor, after he had obtained his throne by invoking his name. There were too many matters of power, legitimacy and pride involved in the triumph of the Gods of Men.

Melkor would never relinquish his hold so easily.

This brought him to the last, and more chilling thought. The Wave that was sent to him in dreams was not a nightmare, but a warning of some kind of misfortune that would befall Númenor if they continued to ignore their ancient sources of learning and virtue and turned to the enemy of all gods. And yet such a warning had been sent only to his grandmother´s kin and to him, not to the King´s line as it would have been proper.  The words of the forbidden chronicle at the end of the little book were not enough to explain this strange circumstance. According to the writer, probably Eärendur´s father or grandfather, the blood of the Kings had been weakened and foresight had been lost to them, but his own father was an expert in the art of visions, and he had even mastered the skill of provoking them himself with the sacred herb. Maybe Eru, or whoever of His intermediaries had chosen to send that particular vision to them, had seen in their divine clarividence that the lineage of Ar-Adunakhôr was definitely lost to them, that they would never do anything to fight against the many shadows –of Melkor, of darkness, of oblivion and of human despair – that had brought them to hold the Sceptre.

That he would.

This had been hardest of all to accept: that the strange plans of Eärendur had been, indeed, laced with foresight. Inziladûn had grown to be true to their blood, and not, as it would have been expected, to that of his father and forefathers. Twenty-eight years of shadows had not been enough to turn him into a descendant of Ar-Adunakhôr, to the despair of his kin. He had doubted, he had been skeptical, he had not accepted things that should have been upheld as part of his inheritance as heir to the throne of Númenor. He had not loved Melkor, or the smoke and smell of sacrifices. Ritual had made him impatient, men´s adoration made him awkward, as well as the luxurious artifice that had slowly lulled the conscience of the ancient Elven Allies asleep. And his only fall into error, his love for the Sea-Queen, had been the love for a ghost created by his own desires.

Now, at times, he felt as if the years of searching and feeling unsatisfied had been precious time wasted in darkness. He had been chosen to show the people that their wishes were not gods, and that their past lay hidden from them. Once that he became King, nobody would be able to persecute or exile him for speaking the truth; as Eärendur had said, with him the blood of the Western lords and the power of the Sceptre would unite. He would be the only one able to dispel the clouds of ignorance, and free Númenor from the oppressing rituals of gods and courtiers so it could become again what it once was, the land of joyous seamen and adventurers that was so captivatingly described in the pages of the chronicle.

At other moments, however, the weight of this mission fell upon him as heavy lead, rather than vivifying wine. He remembered his father´s mistrust and cunning, his decision to give him a brother and his mother´s fears, and wondered if this could be merely a first indice of what Gimilzôr was capable of doing if he felt that his son had escaped his grasp. He counted the years that he would have to wait, pretending to share their ignorance, to worship their altars while in fear of being betrayed. And he wondered if another man would one day rally the people who were besotted by lies of greatness and immortality and take the Sceptre away from him in the name of Melkor, as Ar-Adunakhôr had done.

Would they want to accept the truth after so many years of darkness?

Inziladûn took a sharp breath, and closed the book upon the table. There was always that point in his studies, when the conflicting pangs of eagerness and terror faded to a foggy feeling of impotence and confusion. He felt as he did during the vision that he had been granted in the Sacred Cave, trying to look into gleaming eyes that encompassed the whole world.  Years, decades, stretched in front of his imagination like furious waves, filled to the brim with the manouevres and dangers that he would one day have to face, while his body remained imprisoned between the narrow walls of his chambers in the Palace.

A strange sort of hallucination came upon him, and for a moment he wondered if his fate would be to fade away before his time instead, leaving his promises unfulfilled as his mother had done.

Inziladûn shivered, recalling that pale, limp face that stared back at him from the bed. And then, again, Eärendur´s words that night, in the subterranean archive.

It was necessary, Inziladûn.

Shaky hands grabbed the edge of the dusty wooden table, until he felt able to struggle to his feet. Shadows danced in front of his eyes, and he forced himself to focus in the dim light of the candle.

He had to breathe some air. Or else, he would become insane.

 

*     *     *     *     *    

 

That same evening, Inziladûn decided to pay a visit to Maharbal, his old tutor. The son of the Prince had always felt awkward in the company of courtiers and airheaded young men of his own age, and this old man had been the closest to a friend that he had had in his rather solitary life. Nobody else in the Palace understood what could there be in common between the young heir and a low-ranking Palace servant of obscure origins, who prided himself in having made his life quite difficult as a child – but Inziladûn´s respect for him was so great that he even refused to summon the old man, preferring to walk to his modest quarters himself.

If there was someone who could listen, it would be him.

As every other time, he received a warm welcome, and was immediately offered his customary seat in front of an ebony low table. Muttering a word of thanks, he sat down, while Maharbal told a round-faced elderly woman to bring two cups of Umbarian herb tea.

“It has been so long since you last came”, he remarked as they were left alone, in a tone of slight reproach. Inziladûn nodded in silence, but this answer did not seem to satisfy the old man. Shaking his head, he pointed an admonishing finger in his pupil´s direction. “Your features are pale, and there are circles under your eyes. This is not good, neither for your health nor for your spirit. A wise man should mourn his loved ones with moderation.”

The prince shook his head. That familiar, severe frown in the dark and wrinkled face almost managed to make him smile. Almost.

“It is not mourning what keeps me awake at night”, he began, with some hesitation. Before he could speak further, the red beads of the curtain doors made a tinkling noise, and the woman came back with a jar that smelled faintly of jasmine. “I.. am studying”, he continued, with a prudent half-look in her direction.

Maharbal did not even blink.

“In this case, you must know that, though I have always been the first who has tried to make you understand the importance of focused effort, there are limits even to a student´s zeal.”

“I apologise”, Inziladûn said calmly. “But there are things... worrying me of late.”

The old man´s eyes followed the woman´s motions as she served the tea, with an absorbed interest that had provoked his pupil´s curiosity in the past. Once, he recalled, he had even risked sounding stupid to ask him for the reason, but Maharbal had merely laughed and told him that tea was sacred for the Umbarians. The austerity of that man was legendary and almost outrageous for the refined courtiers of Armenelos, but to surround himself with things that reminded him of the city of his birth had always been the only luxury that he allowed himself.

Inziladûn´s eyes wandered through the dark, foreign-looking place which had become so familiar to him. The shelves that did not contain dusty books were full of clay pots with aromatic plants, that Maharbal used to tend everyday with care. Bead curtains hung from doorframes and windows instead of the velvet and silk that was usual in the Court, and the floor under his feet was entirely covered in rugs.

Still, the strangest thing of all, which had unsettled him since he was a child, were the statues that lay upon the windowsills. They were bronze images of the gods, of an uniqueness that bordered on blasphemy. One of them showed Ashtarte-Uinen fully naked, with a multitude of breasts hanging from her chest –the Old Protectress of the Southern colony, Maharbal said, though Inziladûn wondered if she was not rather a goddess of the desert barbarians, from whom slanderous tongues had the old man descend.

Several others showed Melkor, whose representation for ritual purposes was forbidden in Númenor. One of them, especially fascinating, pictured the moment of the Sacrifice, with a long serpent crawling away from his burning feet. And in the centre, the greatest scandal of all, stood a representation of Eru himself, sitting upon His throne.

Maharbal had always professed to be against irrational superstitions, and yet he kept those Umbarian statues in his own room. Considering what he had come to tell him, Inziladûn could not help but watch them in a newfound apprehension for a moment. But then the old man´s eyes sought his, and he could see nothing in them but the wisdom he had always admired.

He swallowed deeply.

“Things that worry you since you came back from Andünié?”

Surprised at his old tutor´s perceptiveness, Inziladûn needed a second or two to react and nod. Maharbal made a gesture to the waitress, who bowed and left them alone.

“How do you know?” the prince asked, feeling childish. The old man shrugged.

“I was told that the Lord Hannon,” at this, he made a slight gesture of respect in honour of his superior” remarked that you had been unusually quiet and absent on your way home. You were even about to lead your horse down a cliff, he said.”

“He did?” Embarrassment gave way to puzzlement, and then to a slight alarm. “And the Prince heard it?”

“You should have no doubt about that”, Maharbal nodded dryly. “You knew that his mission was to follow you close.”

“Still...” Inziladûn began, then interrupted himself. Of course he had known – but, engrossed in the conflict that those first revelations had stirred in his soul, he had grown careless. He cursed between his teeth.

“I did not teach you to utter those horrible words in public or private”, the old man scolded. Then, however, his severe tone showed a slight waver of doubt at his next words. “Have you come to tell me things that... those people said to you back then?”

Inziladûn bit his lip. Now or never. He gathered all his courage, intent on phrasing what he had never dared tell anyone before.

“There are, indeed, some things that I do not understand”, he ventured, carefully. Maharbal took a hearty sip of his tea, and gave him an encouraging nod. “Some people in Númenor believe that Melkor... the Great God, is not as we think he is.”

“That he is the incarnation of Evil”, the old man completed, to Inziladûn´s renewed shock. “Indeed, this is the belief of the Elf-friends, who were exiled by the King.”

Inziladûn drank from his own tea, feeling his confidence grow at this unexpected show of knowledge.

“You will maybe say that they are traitors, and that they have turned their backs to Melkor because he is the King´s god”, he started, more enthusiastically. “And yet, where does our faith come from? Has anybody ever seen the Great God? How could we know how he really is?”

“Priests say that they can”, Maharbal objected, matter-of-factly. “The Prince, your father, can.”

This observation did not cool the fire of the young man´s skepticism. His eyes trailed briefly across the monstruous serpent of bronze, and he shook his head rebelliously.

“But we are not priests.”

For a moment, it almost seemed that Maharbal was going to frown at his impudence. Only after a while, his wrinkled features relaxed with an indulgent snort.

“You have been like this since you were a child”, he said. “Always mistrusting everything that you could not see with your own eyes, or explain to your satisfaction. I must confess that I cannot very well believe that you have been won over with stories of Baalim and Elves.”

I have seen the Valar, Inziladûn thought, remembering his vision in the cave. And things have been explained to my satisfaction, for the first time in my life.

Still, he had to keep a semblance of prudence, so he kept those thoughts to himself.

“The context does not matter. I do not relish the thought that I might be worshipping an incarnation of Evil –that is all”, he said instead. His attempt at flippancy was not very successful – he had always been argumentative.

Maharbal shrugged, somewhat impatiently.

“Such big words! Young men such as you often fail to see things in perspective. No, I have never seen the Lord Melkor. Does this matter to me? Our prayers are answered, whether we are worshipping correctly or not. Númenor is prosperous. People are happy. Though they would never admit to such a thing”, he ironised. “I will try to explain it to you with other words, so you might understand it better. I do not think there is such thing as a good or evil god, like this, in our absolute human terms. A god is good if he fulfils his obligations towards his people, whether he has fought against other gods, broken their lamps” Inziladûn´s mind caught the allusion, and he was forced to blink, “or antagonised the Elves.”

“How can you say such a thing?” The young prince was appalled. “You always told me that I should set all my efforts in perfecting my character, no matter what other people thought about me.”

You are not a god. Or so I often taught you to remember”, Maharbal replied.

Involuntarily, one of Inziladûn´s hands was raised to caress the raspy coarseness of his beard. His old tutor had been the one who had encouraged him in his decision to keep it, when the others expressed their disapproval – and he had said that keeping a beard was a good way for a man to remember that he was as close to the animal as he was to the god. Which you, of all people, may have need to remember one day, he sometimes added, sententiously.

“But I rever a god as an image of perfection! How would he deserve our worship if he had committed crimes like the most vile of men?”

Maharbal let go of a sharp sigh.

“For a man who complains of not being able to see Melkor with his own eyes, you seem to be sure of quite a lot of things!”

Inziladûn shook his head in frustration.

“You are deflecting my arguments!”

The old man´s eyes narrowed in warning. At last, the prince thought, he had managed to touch a chord of his pride.

“All right. You wanted me to give you an argument, and I will ,“he announced, drinking what remained of his tea. “We are men, and, as you rightly pointed out, not even priests. We will never lay eyes upon a god, feel his presence, or know the truth about him. This is why, what matters in our relationship with the divine is the things that we can grasp – the favours that we receive, and the rituals that we offer to him for the good of our society. Because for us, there will never be anything beyond this. It is infinitely more productive for us to worry for our own virtue than for the virtue of a god that we cannot even see.”

For a while, Inziladûn forced himself to reflect on those words, staring at the cold green liquid that remained on his cup. They were wise – and their power of conviction was almost fascinating, inviting him to let go of the turmoils that assaulted his mind and go back to the simple routine of giving and receiving. And still, something in his heart refused to surrender to this escape path.

“On the contrary, I feel that the god´s virtue is of great concern for our own. “he argued. “An evil god, even if we cannot see or understand his wickedness, will seek to corrupt us and our society. Back in the old days of our kingdom “he continued before the old man could interrupt him again, “we were friends with the Elves. I know this. Our Kings had Elven names, the Elven-tongues were spoken in the Palace, and we followed Elven customs. And we were happy. There was a great joy in living and travelling, and discovering new things, and exchanging gifts with the other kindreds. The barbarians of Middle-Earth revered and loved us, while now they only seek to break our dominance through war. We talked face to face to each other, like equals, like friends, while now we must lower our faces and bow, and mumble empty formalities through a chain of intermediaries! We only worshipped Eru in the pure snows of the Meneltarma, and were content with it, while now we beg on our knees for the slightest needs of our daily lives, and swallow pestilent fumes!”

Vaguely conscious that he had lost his restraint, Inziladûn felt a pang of warning in his stomach, and forced the torrent of imprudent words to stop. Maharbal´s eyes widened for an instant, and his hands increased their grip over the empty cup. For the first time since he had met him as a child of five, the young man surprised a shadow of fear crossing his features.

He had betrayed himself.

“This is... well, a point of view”, the Umbarian finally replied, though his argumentative ardour felt a little forced. “Not everybody would share this opinion on things, if asked. How many Númenoreans would tell you that they preferred toiling for the products that they need for their daily lives, instead of receiving the imports from the colonies and the tributes of the barbarians? How many inhabitants of the cities would give away their luxury, the refinements that they can buy in the markets, the splendour of the palaces and temples in benefit of a simpler and more virtuous life? Would they choose to greet a king wearing a ridiculous beard in the streets, over the magnificence of the Court processions? “He shook his head, somewhat sadly. “Alas, my friend! This is not so obvious.”

Inziladûn swallowed, a little affected by the discomfort that he felt oozing from the older man´s soul. Gruff and strict as he was, there had never been another father figure in his life, but this discussion was piercing the thick skin of the Umbarian.

Had he hurt him?

Did he feel disappointed in him?

He felt a painful sensation of abandonment, crossing him like a cold shiver. Was this how Eärendur, how Valandil had to feel at every moment of their lives? All those broken statues, dead mothers, lost friendships.

He was alone.

“I am sorry for disturbing you”, he muttered, making an attempt to stand on his feet. Immediately, and with a quick movement that seemed almost impossible in a man of his age, Maharbal´s hard hand pressed against his shoulder.

“Look at me, please.”

Inziladûn had never heard his tutor plead before. A bit reticently, he obeyed - and as he met the old man´s eyes, a wave of sadness shook him to the core.

“Maharbal...” he began. But he did not know how to continue. He did not know the words that were needed to make this man understand and accept, or even bring him comfort. Suddenly, he was at complete loss.

“Before you leave, I want you to know one thing, and to promise that you will never forget it”, Maharbal interrupted him, saving him the embarrassment. His tone was so intense, so passionate that it made his stern countenance look briefly like a contradiction. “My life is old and worth nothing, and I would gladly give it away a thousand times before any harm could come to you.” He fell momentarily silent, and the thunderstruck Inziladûn could hear a slight choke before he was able to continue. “But you must be careful with what you say and do. Much more careful than this. The priests of Melkor are powerful, and they would be very alarmed to hear a future heir to the Sceptre talk in this strain. And Inziladûn, my lord prince...  please, do not make me say it.”

The young man felt a knot gather in his throat, and nodded. A warmth was seeping inside him, in response to the man´s quiet distress.

He felt humbled.

“Forgive me. I... will be more careful.”

Maharbal accepted this answer in thankful silence. His thin lips curved in a slight smile, dark as the desert sands.

I am on my own, Inziladûn thought, as, minutes later, his feet brought him down the corridors and galleries in the direction of his own chambers. But not alone.

Not yet.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Sometimes, in my dreams, I see her face. Her features are sharply chiseled and haughty, like those of a gull perched on the sea-battered cliffs of Andúnië, and she looks at me with disdain.

She was beautiful, they say, with huge and stirring eyes. Her face was soft and her smile kind, but never for me. Never in my dreams.

Maybe I have imagined it.

The first face I can remember in waking life, out of an early blur of severe ladies with silver on their hair, is that of a man with black eyes. For years he watched me, loved me, turned me into what I am now –an imperfect mirror of perfection, never worthy enough; a shadow of his powerful reign.

Was he ever a shadow of him, too? Did he ever learn his secrets and carry his every bidding, in a distant day before I was old enough to understand? And if he did, how did he break away and shatter the silver prison of hopes into a thousand cutting shards? What did he do to fill the black eyes with fear and loathing, to deny their love until it turned into hatred?

He is the conspirer, the traitor who befriends Western enemies with gull features behind the King´s back. The apostate who smiles in soft disdain as he kneels at the feet of the gods of Númenor, while he surrenders his soul to the foul spirits of the Western shores. The sharp glance that tears apart the minds of men, the temerity that climbs to high places in the dark hours of the night. He is miles ahead of me, the keeper of precious secrets, and he will not even turn back and look at those whose respect he does not need.

And this is why I hate him.

Tonight, I will throw a last party before my departure. I will sing and dance, and share my wine with my friends until I am drunk, and later I will share the bed of a lady whose features I will not be able to remember afterwards.

At dawn, I will not be at the courtyard of the Tree with my escort at the appointed time, and his disdain will maybe turn briefly to annoyance for the delay before he turns his back to me and rides to the front with his friend. They will exchange accomplice glances, marvelling at my stupidity and my extravagance, and still, I know that one day we all will be taken by our doom, and then I will be remembered as nothing but a shadow.

But beware of shadows, Inziladûn. Beware of shadows.

Chapter Text

Year 3083 – 51st year of the reign of Ar-Sakalthôr.

 

First, he turned his gaze to the West. He stood firmly, in silence, feeling the aching brilliance of a sundering sea pass him by and disappear in a vertiginous blur. He saw a white shore, and there was a radiance that emanated from the sand the instant before a wave covered it with its foamy embrace.

A pair of naked feet, carved with a mysterious perfection, trod upon the shore to meet the Sea. He followed them in mindless fascination, then felt the danger and forced himself to look aside. For a brief moment, his soul shook with the agony of bereavement, but soon his shivers surrendered to the warmth of triumph. He had defeated temptation.

Surer of himself now, and confident with this power, he looked towards the East. Armenelos was there; an altar of beauty veiled by the fumes of iniquity and the chants of ignorance. He saw a mighty king who held a sceptre of rubies and commanded more ships and soldiers than there were grains of sand upon his shores, and who hid in the darkness of his chambers in fear of his gaze. His back was guarded by the terrible arms of the greatest harbour ever wrought, outstretched in the sea like jaws that tried to engulf the land of Middle-Earth.

Then, there was more water. Stormy and dangerous, this one, whirling in dark pools and exploding in jets of white in a capricious sucession. And then another coast, lone and barren except for two jewelled standards driven into its heart by the hands of foreigners. One of them a mighty city, terror of the enemies of the Númenoréans, full of soldiers and merchants and dark practices. The other, a city without land, floating on the waters with its thousand white towers, in quiet disdain of the barbarian mainland that it faced and faithful only to the island that had once been its mother, whose lines were lost behind the horizon.

But he did not stop here, either. His glance sought further, for blurred silhouettes that escaped even the comprehension of his own people. He saw tribes who lived in caves and rough cottages, of dark-skinned people with painted bodies and fair-skinned people wrapped in furs. He saw proud chieftains who sagged under the weight of the gold, gems and jewels of the bright-eyed foreigners, while they allowed their own people to be enslaved in their mines. Some resisted and fled, and became ferocious tribes that lived on the peaks of the mountains and survived through rapine. Others undertook a long journey without return, and after escaping the far-reaching shadow of Melkor they became tied in a worse darkness, behind the mountains of Mordor.

Mordor...

Yes, he would go even there, in spite of the whispers that he heard behind his back, asking for caution. Past the iron bulk of the Black Gate, an army of mutilated beings was growing in the darkness of caves like a swarm of murderous  insects. Sitting on his black tower, the Enemy waited.

And far beyond, untouched by the stain of this marred land, a kingdom of light stood still, draining its last days in the slow harmony of forgotten memories. Its beauty was dim and vivid at the same time, like a dream of Men, and he felt the need to weep. Once again, he sought for control.

His gaze focused on a palace that stood above the rest. It highest tower shone under the sun, delicate like crystal but hard like diamond. And inside this tower was a creature of light and wisdom, fair and noble, a hero of legend.

Grey eyes, old as mountains, sought his with an unvoiced question that shook his soul. His hands increased their grip, their knuckles white as he was forced to lower his head as if he had been blinded by an intense radiance.

Slowly, however, he became able to master this emotion, and forced himself to stare back into the eyes of the king of the tower. He swallowed the knot in his throat.

I am Inziladûn, son of Gimilzôr” he said, in a voice that came out firm and proud, without a hint of a stammer “heir to the throne of Númenor.”

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

As soon as he was finished, the dark hall echoed with an almost imperceptible sigh. Inziladûn stared at the pale faces of Eärendur and Valandil, and saw a great tension dissolve into looks of newfound admiration and relief.

Eärendur moved towards him, and laid a hand on his shoulder.

“You were magnificent. We were not wrong to hope.”

Inziladûn nodded in mute thanks. He felt shaken by the feeling of euphoria that had run through his veins like a river of molten lava, and this subterranean place felt cold and humid in comparison. Shivering, he tried to force his body and soul back to normal, until he reached a semblance of stability.

“... Must leave now.” he mumbled. Then, in a steadier voice, “We... may be discovered.”

Eärendur shook his head.

“Sit down. You are tired. Númendil is with him.”

A part of Inziladûn, the part that felt bereaved and cold, wished to surrender to those calming words. They knew what to do, they were wise and experienced. But the fear and the urgence tore once again at his insides, the risk was too great. Gimilzôr had not sent his favourite son to the lair of his enemies so he would quietly enjoy his time next to his brother.

He took a sharp breath, filling his lungs with the humid earth and the salt of the sea. Then, he stood up, and gave a tentative step. A faint dizziness was still over him, but as he walked his second circle around the room, it began to disappear.

“I am leaving.” he announced, in a tone that allowed for no discussions. Valandil´s eyes widened for a second, but Eärendur´s lips curved in a slight smile, and he shook his head in defeat.

“As you wish, then. No one can accuse you of carelessness, that much is certain. Besides” he added, turning to his son, “we have been informed of enough worrying tidings by our royal kinsman here.”

Valandil seemed to reflect on this for a moment, then gave way and nodded somberly.

“This establishment of close ties between the Royal House and the Merchant Princes of Middle-Earth is a matter for worry, indeed.” he said, with a grim look. “Alas! Such an alliance would have been unheard-of even in the times of the blasphemous king! I hope it will not bring danger to our family again.”

Eärendur sighed.

“I always told you to keep in mind that our return home was a temporary measure.” he scolded lightly. “Have a good night, my lord Inziladûn.”

Inziladûn nodded in acknowledgement, and left father and son to speak of their worries together. As he took the stairs to return to the surface of the gardens, he felt the cool breeze wash the last remains of his befuddlement away.

Again, he could not help but muse, again the gardens at night.

He had never forgotten that other time, twenty years ago, when a new knowledge tore him open as he wandered aimlessly around the Elven trees. He had never again felt so lost –so uprooted as that young man who had not yet found his place, and chased after elusive ghosts created by fancy.

On his way, he passed through the clearing of the malinornë trees, whose silver leaves were being cradled by the wind. He stopped for a moment to admire them, and realised, in surprise, that he was not alone.

“I have seen you like this before.” a soft voice whispered behind his back.

Inziladûn turned towards Artanis with a silent greeting gesture. The woman, however, passed him by, heading instead for the centre of the clearing. As she reached her favourite place, she sat down on the grass and beckoned to him.

He shook his head, suddenly feeling bothered.

“I must leave.” he told her. “Gimilkhâd...”

“Númendil and Emeldir are both with him.” she replied before he could end his sentence. “They are playing chess. Númendil has defeated him seven times and he is quite determined to get the better of the crafty Elf-friend at least once.”

The chuckle was brief and tense, and it didn´t even reach his eyes. For a moment he stood there, thinking of what he could say, until it dawned upon him that he had no real excuse to leave, now. So he sat next to her.

“I wish him luck, in spite of the odds.” he joked. Intellect was not among his younger brother´s main strengths - they both knew that.

Artanis considered him with half-closed eyes. A small, sad smile spread through her graceful features, reflecting the silvery light of the starlit leaves.

“Do you remember?” she asked, after a thoughtful pause. “It was here where we first met.”

“Not quite.” Inziladûn answered, in a rigurous and –so he thought almost at the same time as the words escaped his lips- vain concern for exactitude. “It was upon the threshold of your house, when you came to greet me and your father.”

He saw her bit her lip, in a brief flash of anxiousness. But there was no anger, or even annoyance at his correction.

Still, her next words were strangely muffled, and came only after a long while.

“So you are going to marry upon your return.”

It was not a question. Inziladûn shook his head, feeling again the need to clarify.

“Not yet. I am going to- find a wife. Or, which is the same, my father will.”

Her eyes sought his in curiosity, though her features remained veiled.

“Do you know who she will be?”

“I have no idea.”

Artanis smiled.

“Many women must be already planning to poison their rivals.”

Inziladûn snorted at the ridiculous idea.

“Not many. Only those of the royal line. And among them, only those who can stomach an overdose of hair.”

“I find your overdose of hair quite- attractive.”

“Really?” He arched his eyebrow. “And where is your poison?”

Artanis did not answer. Instead of this, her eyes became lost in the distance, in a renewed silence that first Inziladûn interpreted as thoughtful.

Then, however, he caught the reflection of a tear, glistening over the surface of her cheek. His surprise became shock, and then realisation, and cowardice, and a brief, strong need to flee that he managed to master.

Finally, what he did was to lay a hand on her shaking shoulder, searching her eyes with an honest expression of regret.

“I am sorry.” he said. She shook her head, and wiped her face with the points of her fingers.

“So you knew.”

A long sigh, turning to a tremulous smile.

“And still you said nothing.” he realised, with increasing bewilderment. “Why?”

A raspy laugh escaped her throat convulsively.

“So penetrating for most things, yet so blind for others!” she exclaimed, rolling her eyes in a poor semblance of humour. Inziladûn nodded slowly, accepting the rebuke.

Indeed, he should have known. It was something that he had been well aware of since so many years ago, since before he had even seen her for the first time, or admired the unreal, quiet grace of her movements.

“My father would rather marry me to a Middle-Earth woman”, he finally voiced it, shifting slightly in his sitting position. She let go of a forced smile, wiping her eyes again.

“I hope it will not have to come to that! I heard that they barely outlive their wedding feasts.”

“Less chances of begetting another inconvenient heir, then.”

Artanis nodded, falling in a silent mood. The sea breeze blew through her hair, dishevelling it, and she embraced her knees for protection against the chill.

For a brief second, Inziladûn felt the full, anguishing weight of the impossibility of his situation. There was nothing that he could say either to make her happy, or to apologise for something that was not his fault. He could not give her hope, and yet an ominous voice whispered in his ear that this would be the last time that they would see each other alone.

A rustle of silk at his side alerted him to the fact that she was back on her feet.

“Wait.” he said, before she could flee to the safety of her chambers. Artanis paused, but did not turn back. “You have always been very dear to me, Artanis. “He swallowed, for once in his life feeling clumsy in his choice of words. “You... have my mother´s eyes.”

Slowly, the woman gathered enough courage to face him again. There were no tears on her face anymore, but the wet radiance on her cheeks still remained.

She was smiling.

“It is quite an honour,” she mouthed, with a deep bow, “to be compared to what you most loved.”

Then, she swallowed deeply, forcing her eyes to look into his.

“I do not blame you, Inziladûn.”

With this, she bowed and left, tiptoeing across the garden clearing. Like a ghost of another age among billows of white, the unbidden thought came to his mind, and he felt a strange melancholy seize him.

 

*     *     *     *     *     *

 

When he finally reached his chambers in the guest wing of the house, Inziladûn was not in the mood for conversation. His dismay was therefore great as he realised that there was someone else in his antechamber, a hunched figure leaning on the windowsill to look at the gardens below. Dark, unbraided curls fell down his back, in striking contrast with the blue of his cloak.

The first course of action that offered itself for this situation was to ignore him. His brother had never sought him for any good purpose –in fact, he had rarely sought him for anything at all.

But, as he was about to pass him by and retire to the privacy of his bedroom, it was Gimilkhâd himself who turned away from the window, wrinkling his nose in faint distaste.

“That strange light that glows among the trees... it cannot be natural!” he mumbled, touching his Hand amulet as if to ward off something unseen. Inziladûn shook his head in irritation; the superstitious streak was among the things that his brother had inherited from their father.

“They call it starlight.” he mumbled, deliberately cutting in his demeanour. Before he could reach the doorstep, however, his brother´s voice called to him again.

“Wait!”

Inziladûn took a sharp breath. The Seeing Stone had left him exhausted -Eärendur had been right back then, though he had downplayed his words with the help of the energies that the feeling of duty had lent to his body- and the tears of Artanis haunted his conscience. It was not his fault, as much as it had not been his choice, and still an insidious voice in his mind wondered if this resigned, accepting coldness had been all that she had deserved.

“What is it?” asked, forcing himself to keep a steady tone. His brother pointed him towards a seat, and when he did not follow his invitation, his mouth thinned in an ominous line.

“I know where you have been just now.” he announced. Inziladûn felt his heart sink for a moment, then caught himself before a sign of weakness could betray him. He quickly thought back – when they were finished with the Seeing Stone, he had been told that Gimilkhâd was in the company of Númendil and his fiancée. So there was only one valid option: he had somehow managed to get wind of his escapade with Artanis.

He cleared his throat.

“You must be glad to learn that I am human too when it comes to women.” The brief, forced lightheartedness turned to a frown. “But it is none of your concern.”

Gimilkhâd´s eyes widened in surprise. For a while, he stared at him, as if searching for some kind of untold secret embedded in his countenance.

Had it been a bluff?

Finally, his brother´s features hardened again in a determined expression.

“Do not play games with me.” he hissed. With somewhat theatrical movements, he took a paper note from under his cloak and put it in front of his eyes. This time, Inziladûn really froze – it was the Sindarin note that he had been slipped that very afternoon.

Once again, his exhaustion was forcefully expelled by sharp alert, his well-honed instinct of survival.

“I know nothing about this.”

“It was in your room.”

So he had been searching his things. On their father´s orders, no doubt.

“This room is not my room. I am no more accountable for the books and papers that you may find in it than you are for the unnatural light that filters through your window.”he snorted derisively. “And in any case, you are certainly not welcome to it.”

With this he turned back, intending to finish the discussion. As he gave his first step in the direction of his bedroom, however, he felt a hand pulling his cloak, and was forced to turn back again to face Gimilkhâd´s furious expression.

“Do you know what it says?”

“I do not.”

“How did it go? Let me remember... whatever the King cannot understand is treason, were those the words?”

Inziladûn curved his mouth in a show of disdain.

“Do not try to quote Ar-Adunakhôr at me! You never bothered to even learn his history!”

His brother snorted, a raspy, irate sound. Then, he let him go, and began to pace in nervous circles.

“Oh, of course not.” he spat. “Because you are so clever and I am such a fool, isn´t it so?  Or this is what you seem to believe, at least, treating me with contempt and engaging in treasonous activities under my very nose! You think I am such an idiot as to ignore what you do while you send your accomplice to keep me distracted with a stupid chess match?”

“You are a bad loser.”

Though he endeavoured to smile, by now Inziladûn was beginning to feel worse about the situation. Gimilkhâd knew something else. He had discovered some sort of evidence, powerful enough as to give him such an unflinching confidence in face of his brother´s derision.

And he resented him, too. His very eyes were glowering with a vindictive light as he set them on him. For most of his life, Inziladûn had been vaguely aware of his brother´s mistrust and envy, but until today he had not been able to measure their scope.

He swallowed.

“I do not know what this note says, Gimilkhâd.” he assured him, with a serious tone devoid of any flippancy. The younger man smiled, but it was a dangerous smile of confirmation and triumph.

“Well, then...  maybe I might enlighten you myself.”

Inziladûn blinked, taken by surprise.

“Do not be absurd! Of course you cannot. This is some form of Elvish!

“You think you are the only one who knows things that normal people do not know? It certainly would suit your arrogance.” Gimilkhâd replied. “But I will let you know that Father knows Elvish well enough, as well as this Ar-Adunakhôr, with whose history you are apparently much better acquainted than I am. The Kings are less stupid than what you and they think, Inziladûn. You may forbid everything that you cannot understand, but your power will be greater if you do understand it. And even greater if they do not know that you know, I might add.”

The shock that Inziladûn felt was briefly mingled with a stubborn rest of hurt, that he still hadn´t managed to discard through years of private schemes. To tell this secret to Gimilkhâd while he was left in ignorance –yet another evidence of his father´s cold mistrust of him.

Mistrust that he had not always deserved.

My lord Inziladûn, we will be waiting for you this evening in the hall of Seeing. Make sure you are not followed.” Gimilkhâd took the paper and read, flawlessly. As the final realisation slowly sunk into Inziladûn´s mind, he was filled with horror.

His brother knew Elvish. His brother, their father´s less brilliant shadow, was learned in the Ancient Tongues.

His mind raced quickly. If Gimilzôr learned of this, and read this note with his sharp suspicion, he would find grounds to exile Eärendur and his family again, if not worse. He too, would not escape unscathed. And if the Sceptre got wind of the existence of the Seeing Stones of the Elves...

His pallor did not pass unnoticed to Gimilkhâd´s eyes. Inziladûn could feel the gloating behind a thin mask, as he, too, had ceased to care about the fragile laws of propriety that had always ruled their exchanges. For the sake of something so important, he thought, he would be ready to sacrifice his pride and beg, but as things stood he doubted that he would find any mercy from his triumphant brother.

And what if he resorted to threats? Gimilkhâd knew that he was alone among enemies, and very far from the protection of Armenelos and Gimilzôr...

Almost as soon as he had conceived this thought, he discarded it, appalled. Eärendur had undergone all sorts of humiliations to convince the King that he was not the enemy. Would he shatter his efforts in a single second of folly?

Of course, soon there might not be much left to convince the King of anymore.

Inziladûn had never felt so trapped before. The feeling was one of suffocation, of an excruciating impotence. And that it was Gimilkhâd of all people who had put him in this situation, his vain and airheaded younger brother who never cared for anything besides women, fashion trends and superstitions!

Could he have been deceived for all those years, when, blinded by pride, he refused to acknowledge the abilities of his brother?

Could the Elf-Friends, Númenor be doomed because he, the far sighted, had never cared to see?

At the brink of losing his dignity, he forced himself to regain a grip. He regrouped his thoughts. Everything was not lost yet, he tried desperately to remember. Gimilzôr knew nothing of this yet. There was still time.

Time to act. To protect.

Well aware that the lives of his friends could very well depend on his cold blood now, he looked into Gimilkhâd´s eyes, searching for a weakness he could prey upon. An onslaught of conflicted feelings assaulted his mind at once, similar to what he had felt the day that he dared to read his father in a second of open defiance, but raw and unrestrained.

Hate. Revenge. Fear...? Envy because Inziladûn had been loved by their mother, because he had known her. A refuge in his father´s jealous pride... and deep inside the hidden roots of a quenched wish, the wish to be like him instead, the wish to rebel and be feared instead of used by a father who had claimed possession over him since the day of his birth.

Inziladûn was shaken. So many things, that could now bring ruin to their cause. There was a thin memory, magnified and aggravated by years of mulling over its details, of a young boy who had been rejected by the brother he secretly admired. Then, he saw rage and vindictiveness explode in a blinding haze, and red flowers... but before he could see anything else, Gimilkhâd pulled away from him.

“Stop using your Elvish witchcraft on me!” he yelled, his self-confidence momentarily gone in a rush of panic. “It will avail you nothing!”

And yet we must use our weapons, Inziladûn thought, suddenly more sad than frightened. Because this is war, dear brother. Haven´t you noticed yet?

“What is it that you want, Gimilkhâd?” he asked, in a calmer tone. Gimilkhâd´s anger did not diminish at his conciliatory attempt, yet it slowly adopted a different shape: from fearful, visceral rejection it took a controlled edge, a mask of petulance.

“So you will even try to buy me, the Prince´s loyal son? Your treason knows no boundaries,”

“Maybe.” Inziladûn did not move, intent on checking the effect of his words. A dangerous plan began to quickly unfold in his mind, and he cringed. “But you did not do this out of loyalty, either. If you had been the Prince´s loyal son, you would have reported this note to him instead of telling me about it now. Wouldn´t you?”

His brother opened his mouth to protest, but Inziladûn did not allow for the interruption.

“No. You did it because you want something from me. You always have.”

Gimilkhâd stopped for a moment, then snorted to cover his surprise. Inziladûn took good note and continued, feeling his confidence grow.

“I must confess that I have always held you in small worth. Tonight, however, I have discovered that you have a will of your own.” he said, with calculated contempt. His brother jumped at once, but he did not let himself be interrupted. “And you want to hold power over me. To defeat me. To humiliate me.”

“I am loyal to the King!”

But not even a thousand protestations of outrage would be able to hide Gimilkhâd´s growing interest in his words. In spite of the striking resemblance between him and their father, Inziladûn saw that there was still some innocence in him, a small streak of involuntary sincerity of feeling that the Prince had already managed to kill in himself before his sons were born.

He was an immature foe.

Muttering a final prayer to the Allfather, whose final mercy towards Númenor was blindly trusted by the Elf-friends, Inziladûn took a gold ring away from his finger, set with a ruby encircled by serpent. Then, he lay it in Gimilkhâd´s hand with solemnity, his movements followed by two curious and bewildered eyes.

“If you should come one day and give this back to me” he pronounced, slowly and carefully, “anything you may ask from me shall be yours. So I swear by all gods, Númenorean or foreign, evil or good, true or false.”

Gimilkhâd retired his hand in disgust. Still, Inziladûn noticed that he kept the ring in his grip, and was heartened.

“Why should I let myself be ensnared in your schemes, and become your accomplice?” he asked. “Why should I look aside while you... conspire with traitors?”

“Because one day I will be King, whatever you or Father feel about it.” Inziladûn replied without skipping a beat. The morbid, ominous thought that Gimilzôr could find a way to disinherit him if he managed to craft an accusation of treason crossed his mind, but he discarded it. The strength that allowed a man to impose his beliefs on others came from believing them himself, or so he had learned after his first, youthful attempts at politics. “And if then you are brought to trial for causing the ruin of innocent kinsmen out of a mere whim, at least you will have this ring to protect you.”

Even at the same time in which he said those words, Inziladûn cursed himself. He should not become aggressive. Swallowing again, he moderated his tone before Gimilkhâd could find an excuse to explode.

“Let us not be enemies, if we cannot be friends.” he sighed, gravely. “You have the knowledge that I am bound to you and your desire, and the assurance that I will not underestimate you again. But do not fall to the error of underestimating me.”

Gimilkhâd stared at him, with a mixture of fascination and aversion, and then back at the ring with raw longing. Inziladûn himself was appalled at how the fallacy he had crafted had managed to escalate to the point where his brother was the one being cornered, instead of him. Briefly, he wondered if Gimilkhâd would have the courage and skill to shatter it.

His brother, however, balled his fist around the ring until his knuckles were white, as if unable to let it go in spite of his better judgement. With a last, angry huff, he turned back and strode out of the room.

“I will think about it!”

Inziladûn saw him disappear into the shadows of the corridor, and winced. Dazed, he sought for the first sitting place within his reach and collapsed over it, feeling the fire leave his body and mind and bring him to a state of stupour.

He shivered. He had done what he could to save his friends and their cause. For this, he had forced his skills to the utmost, thrown every other consideration aside, and Gimilkhâd´s final, lost look gave him good reason to hope. And yet, somehow, he did not feel proud of himself.

A little, dark-eyed boy approached him, staring at him in quiet awe.

“Can you really... see what I am thinking?”

Slithering in the darkness that had engulfed his brother´s trembling, irate form, two serpents watched each other with the wary eyes that preceded the strike.

 

 

Chapter Text

Long ago, as he was trying to make sense of his own feelings, Gimilkhâd had thought of an adequate description for the two pairs of eyes that sometimes plagued his existence. He decided that the grey ones were terrible because they only cared to take – to rip him apart and dissect his better guarded feelings, while showing a flat and emotionless surface in exchange. There had maybe been a time or two when he had touched at some of their depths, but the treacherous euphoria had made him too blind to look further.

The others, however, the black ones, were used to give and never to take, and at moments he thought that this had to be even more terrible. They trailed over him, scrutinising his every feature, but they did not see him. They bore hopes, disappointments, expectations that sometimes even he did not understand, and whose burning weight he had tried alternatively to escape and to embrace, both to no avail, since he had been a child.

Now, as he waited for Gimilzôr´s reaction in his father´s chambers, he thought that those two pairs of eyes had tightened the noose too much in the last weeks. He felt suffocated, but still forced himself to keep a blank expression.

“Nothing.” The Prince drank sparsely from his wine cup and frowned, repeating the word as if he couldn´t quite understand its meaning. “Nothing.”

He shook his head.

“No. They received us courteously, and with the honours that we deserved.” In spite of his efforts, he had to swallow before he continued. “I did not get wind of anything suspicious.”

Gimilzôr let go of a sharp breath. His displeasure was evident.

“So you did not find anything suspicious? You must have been a poor observer, then. It was your brother´s third visit in twenty years, and I doubt very much that they would waste their time in pleasantries!”

“Maybe they never intended to...” Gimilkhâd began, but his father did not let him continue.

They never intended to?” he hissed. “Did I teach you to be so gullible? They intended it since before he was even born. They watched over him like carrion birds since he was a baby, and then infected them with their sacrilegious... their treacherous poison!”

The Prince´s younger son stared at him in badly dissimulated shock. It was very rarely that his father allowed his composure to fall apart, and though he had never made a secret of mistrusting his other son, it was the first time that Gimilkhâd heard such a raw confession. The insidious thought crept inside his mind that, in spite of everything, it was still Inziladûn whom Gimilzôr seemed to feel more strongly about.

This, somehow, had the virtue of throwing his resolutions into a new spiral of disorder. He felt the weight of the ring under his robes; his hand trailed over its cold hardness in sudden doubt. Words formed in his mind, pressed against his mouth about what he had seen and heard back then – the incriminating note that would be able to make the expression in his father´s features change.

“I...” he began, then stopped. The eyes filled his whole mind, again.

You want to hold power over me. To defeat me. To humiliate me.

And it happened. For the first time since they had made that deal, the whole extent of his shame came crashing over him. He had accepted that ring, and with it, he had become an accomplice of the betrayal. Inziladûn had known that he would fall in this trap – that he would be tied by the horrible fear of his father knowing what he had done, and afraid of breaking his word.

But this was not all. With a shudder of revulsion at himself, he realised that he already craved the feeling of the ring against his fingertips. He had wanted to hold power over him –and he still did. He wanted those eyes to be wary of him, instead of laden with contempt. He had tasted the feeling briefly that night, and had liked it too much.

If he kept his silence now, he would still keep this power in the future, while if he tried to destroy him now, he would lose it all. The war, maybe even the battle.

Because one day I will be King, however you or Father feel about it.

And it was true, he realised, with a clarity that he was almost tempted to attribute to that elusive far-seeing quality of his blood that he had not inherited. He recalled his father´s words of mere seconds ago, their intensity, and his suspicion. Less clearly, and coming from a more distant time of his life, maybe ten or fifteen years before, he recalled an unvoiced question that had tormented him as his father taught him to be a beacon of light and protect true religion and the lineage of Adunakhôr in times of darkness.

Gimilzôr had not killed Inziladûn back when he had been born a child with the features of a Western fiend. He had not killed him, or even disinherited him when he had grown up to despise the gods of Númenor, nor after he consorted with traitors.

Because he could not do it.

Suddenly, Gimilkhâd felt powerless, unable to grab at anything, and had to take the ring to regain a measure of relief. It was there. It was real. He had control over this, at least.

He forced himself to smile.

“I think he had an affair with the daughter of Valandil, however. They were out in the woods at night, and they both came back upset.”

Gimilzôr´s features tightened in alarm.

“He knows that he must marry soon.”

“Precisely. She is of the blood of the Kings, is she not?”

The Prince shot him a warning look, and he forced himself to sober. Still, this new kind of anger seemed inoffensive, as if he had finally managed to swim away from the deep waters.

“His bride is already chosen. I will summon him tomorrow to discuss this affair with him.” The tension faded away a little, and for someone who was as experienced as Gimilkhâd at reading his father´s features, his new expression transmitted some kind of tiredness. “You may leave now. I am sure that your friends must be glad of your return.”

They will be gladder of the banquet, he thought a bit caustically, but nodded. His father was not looking at him anymore; he had already become engrossed with one of the papers over his desk.

Gimilkhâd remembered when he had been younger, and these sudden indifferences had hurt him. Back then, he did not have so many turmoils to hide, so many reasons to want those eyes to be focused on anything other than him.

Quenching this last thought, he offered a deep bow and turned back to leave. Before he had even come in sight of the servants that stood at the door, he heard a voice calling him.

 He stopped in his tracks. His father was looking at him again.

“Yes, my lord prince?”

Gimilzôr seemed slightly incommodated for a moment. Then, he shook his head.

“You are still my son, even after... going to that place. I never doubted you would be, of course. And yet, it makes me glad.” he said. Gimilkhâd stared at him, until he realised what he was doing and lowered his glance.

Something strange twisted a knot in his stomach. He felt the need to turn away, afraid of his conflicting emotions.

“I will always be loyal to you.” he muttered, in his retreat.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

“Long live the King, favourite of Melkor!” The young man who sat next to the door, whose cheeks were flushing crimson, raised his silver cup high. “And may the incredulous believe that divine protection is also upon his family, now that the Prince of the South has come back from the demon-infested land!”

His words found a hearty echo at once. Even those who were discussing animatedly between themselves –such as the grandson of the Great Chamberlain and the son of the Lady of the Cellar Keys, who gestured so much with his hands that he had already caused the demise of a fine porcelain plate and a dozen eels-, or trying to steal the musical instruments from the women who played and making more or less clumsy demonstrations, looked up and drank from their own cups in discordant unison.

Gimilkhâd smiled, drinking as well. The wine, even as it was heavily mixed with water and honey, was starting to spread its merry effects around the concurrence. In the brief span of an hour the level of voices and noises had grown loud and disorderly, a swift and unstoppable spiral of joy that would culminate in a wild drowning of everything. This was the moment that he liked best – the time when he felt as if an alien spirit had taken hold of his body, and his actions and thoughts flowed like water. There was no room for second thoughts anymore, for subtleties, responsibilities or skilled manouevres. Only the Goddess, guiding his steps.

Merry and splendid as this feast was, however, he had found that it was also laden with a certain unreal quality for him. The first time that someone had sung, the first time that someone had laughed, the sounds had entered him like the point of a dart. Back in Andúnië, when he was deeply immersed in that phantasmagorial world, he had not been able to nail the source of his suspicions and discomfort, but now that he could touch life again with both hands, he felt as if he had come back from the dead. Dim images drew their strange shapes in his mind, of feet that did not make noise against the floor and cold eyes that no emotion could touch.

Sometimes, he wondered if he had not dreamed everything.

“Were there things that could make “warm blood run cold in your veins”?” the young Priest of the Chapel quoted, as he downed a honey pastry with so much skill that none of his words was affected by it. The grandson of the Great Chamberlain stopped his discussion for a moment to nod with vehemence.

“There are many stories about the land of rebels.” The son of the Lady of the Cellar Keys interrupted him with a halfhearted “They are the King´s allies!”, but Gimilkhâd shook his head. It had to be a matter of time until his father threw them back where they belonged. “They say that they can summon the spirits of Elves to their aid through magic rites.”

“And drink the blood of the holy priests.” the brother of the Gate General added, with a quick hand gesture to ward off evil.

“And their women rule the house, and men cook for them!” One of those who had already drunk the most –Nahastart, from a family that held a seat in the Council-, interrupted a passionate kiss with a musician to take part in the conversation. Confused, and also somewhat drunk already, the young woman fell back upon the floor.

“And they can command their souls to sever ties with their bodies!”

Gimilkhâd laughed.

“The did not do any of those things while I was visiting.” He drank, again, forcing the wine to dispel the remembrances of the otherness that he had touched there. Here there was light, and laughter, and he plunged into their core. “They hid their Elves in my presence!”

“Oh, they would flee in front of a true descendant of Adunakhôr the Great!” the grandson of the Great Chamberlain cried. “As in front of the King of Armenelos himself!”

Gimilkhâd nodded.

“Long live the King of Armenelos!” he cried, exultant. Everybody cheered this time, and he threw the empty cup aside to stand on his feet. Gesturing towards his foster-brother Ithobal, the son of the Lady of the South, he walked towards the centre, and both began to dance while they sang an old warrior song.

“Lord of the Island

King of the Dead

Lead us to glory

Gallop ahead

With the Bright Crown

In your proud head!”

Soon enough, a ring of dancers had been built around them. They moved in circles, following the rythm of the music with their steps. Most of the front row musicians were coaxed into putting their flutes aside and joining the mêlée, and their faint protests were drowned under a chorus of laughter.

One of the last to join hands with the courtiers was a young woman of dark skin, whose light-brown, almost golden curls crowned her head like a halo. For a fraction of a second, Gimilkhâd stopped to look at her, impressed at her appearance.

She had obviously been brought from Middle-Earth, from the land of the barbarians. And still, in spite of her exotic look, there was something regal about that body of ample and powerful curves. Even barbarians had queens; maybe she had been one once.

Taking advantage of a chance that he had to draw closer to her, he took his banquet crown, woven with myrtle, and laid it upon her head. She paled a little, lifting one of her hands towards it. Her mouth opened to mumble something in broken Adûnaic, but then the multitude around them erupted in daring remarks, and she was swept away again by one of the evolutions of the dance.

“Lady of Night

Bring us delight!” Nahastart sang, with malicious intent. Another voice echoed.

“Show us your might

Help in this plight!”

“Until the day´s light!” Gimilkhâd completed with a laugh, heading back to the middle of the circle.

A long while later, as he felt his feet starting to become heavier, he sought her again, and found her sitting back with the musicians. She took his proferred hand with reluctance, but he was past the fineries of courtship and simply swept her off in his arms. Her grip tightened in alarm, then tenuously relaxed.

As they abandoned the hall, wading across dancers, drinkers and impromptu couples, some shaking cups were raised to them.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Looking towards the floor did not fail to bring dizzyness, and the ornaments of the bedchamber shifted a little around him, yet he was sober enough to wish to enjoy the rest of that night thoroughly. He undressed her with all care, closing his eyes and touching the soft fabric of her dress, the harsher surface of her tanned skin –so different from that of the ladies of Armenelos-, and even the curls upon her head, which had been soaked in oil in an useless attempt to tame them. He also made her undress him, and relished in the feeling of her hands roaming over his body and awakening different sensations. She smelled of perfumed ointment, with an acrid touch of sweat and wine.

As he pressed against her firm limbs upon the couch, he looked at her face, and saw her brown eyes darken in some endearing sort of calculating wariness, then widen in pain, and finally narrow in pleasure. An odd, warm feeling of triumph stirred inside his chest, spreading through his limbs like fire.

Later, as he lay over the dishevelled bedcovers in heavy sleep, he saw those eyes again wandering in and out of his dreams. But there they became grey, and black, and sometimes vaguely accusing.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Clang. Clang. Cling. Clang.

This sound, sharp and persistent, roused him from his drunken haze some time later. Groaning something, he tried to hide under the dark quiet of the pillow, but the nuisance did not stop.

Cling. Clang.

“Shut the fuck up!” he yelled, in a voice that came out hoarse - and slightly ridiculous. A hurried cling grated his ears; then everything became silent once more.

In relief, Gimilkhâd curled against the covers, and tried to find his way back to the blissful depths of sleep. But somehow, he realised, he was not able anymore to reach that tenuous stage of perfect unawareness that he had lost. Frustrated, he rolled back and forth, further and further awake at each passing second.

Finally, he had to surrender, and opened his eyes to the light of the day. Blinking several times, he touched the space at his left – of course, empty. The woman had left at some point during the night.

As he rolled to his other side, and braved the sunrays that burst through the lacquered window lattice, he could distinguish a human silhouette, sitting in front of a table. He blinked several times, until he became accustomed enough to the light as to meet the elegant powdered face of his foster-brother.

“What are you doing here?” he mumbled, irritated. Ithobal gave him a bow, and began to gather the small silver balls he had been playing with in a red velvet bag.

“I bribed your servants.” he replied. There were no signs of the night´s excesses on his expression; his dark brown hair was neatly gathered on a single braid that fell over his back, as it was fashionable now in Armenelos. Gimilkhâd muttered a curse between his teeth – that bastard had always had that skill to avoid unpleasant after effects.

“They will hear me later.”

The last silver ball fell in the bag, and Ithobal laced the knot with a fastidious slowness. His eyes fell upon the table.

“That woman...”

“The musician?”

He nodded.

“She is married.”

The news took a while to pierce through Gimilkhâd´s current daze. As they did, his eyes widened, and he sat upon the edge of the bed so brusquely that his head hurt. He cursed again.

“And what the hell was she doing in that banquet?”

Ithobal shrugged.

“Oh, I am sure that she took the Killing Seed, just like the others. And still... do you need help, my lord?”

“I am fine!” the prince snapped back, combing his hair with his hand. If there was something that he hated, it was to look dishevelled. “It was the Lady´s doing.” he added, petulantly. “She brings those sudden passions upon us, and all we can do is submit to her power.”

“And yet she loves those who exerce moderation.”

“If you are going to lecture me, you may as well leave my chambers at once.”

All traces of openness in Ithobal´s face vanished with practiced ease, leaving the look of deference of a true courtier. He stood up, and bowed.

“I will leave if that is what you wish.”

Gimilkhâd frowned. He did not want to be alone, either.

“Stay.” he ordered, motioning to the edge of the bed next to him. Ithobal bowed again, and sat at his side. “After all... you are my brother, I suppose. Who better than you to talk about those things?”

“Merely a foster-brother, Noblest.” the other man answered quickly. Gimilkhâd wondered if it was a note of faint alarm in his voice. On the rare times that he had felt somewhat emotional –always after drinking-, people seemed to skirt around him like around a heap of red-hot coals.

It irritated him.

“I wish you were my brother instead of that Elvish fiend.” he proclaimed, to increase Ithobal´s embarrassment. “You should have seen them! They do not laugh like us. They do not sing, or party, or grow angry, or anything. They are monsters with no emotions, and he is just like them. They ignore you. Look right through you, and then smile as if they had suddenly seen the day of your death.” He sighed, feeling the uncomfortableness prey on him again. “I want to ask you something.”

Ithobal´s brow furrowed in an inquiring expression, which had something of veiled resignation.

“Yes?”

“Imagine that there is a thing... a mission that you have been taught to fulfill and rever above all things since you were born. No, I am lying... imagine rather that you have been born to accomplish that mission.”he began. He did not even wait for Ithobal to nod back. “And then there is something that you have always wished you could have, more than anything else in the world. Suddenly, you have to choose between those two things... what would you do?”

If Ithobal had been embarrassed before, the expression that crossed his face now was rather one of puzzlement. Still, he was skilled and well-experienced –a hereditary gift of his mother, the fearsome Lady of the South who had raised Gimilkhâd since he was a baby-, and managed to keep his cool.

“I would say that duty should be above everything else at all times.” he ventured. The prince frowned. “And yet, I also feel that wishes are closest to the core of one´s being.”

Gimilkhâd pondered this answer in silence, staring at the bright coloured flowers behind the window. He viewed the scene in his mind again, the ring offered to him in the dark of the night, those eyes - considering him with a tantalising, grudging respect.

You are still my son.

Tonight, I have discovered that you have a will of your own.

Burned again by the remembrances, he rebelled.

“Closest to the core of my being? “he snarled. “Then why does it feel like my soul was ripped in two?”

Ithobal froze in shock. Little by little, as he felt the weight of this new silence, Gimilkhâd began to realise what he had said, and turned back towards the other man with a look of sudden wariness.

“My Prince... what has happened?”

He opened his mouth as if to say something, then closed it as a familiar sensation hit him on the gut. Ithobal´s eyes were prying, searching for a clue in the lines of his countenance.

Curious.

“Leave.” he hissed, and looked aside to hide the pallor of his face from their inquisitiveness.

Chapter Text

Centuries ago, when the name of the city had first been noted down in a literary scroll, it had been but a small dot of land in the horizon, signalled by flocks of white seagulls turning around in protective circles. As the illustrious mariner had sailed closer, however, leaning on his prow and narrowing his eyes, strange lines had slowly begun to reveal themselves to his awed eyes, until a full Númenorean city had appeared in all its glory, with its gardens, white-towered houses and temples.

The chronicler had confessed that his hand trembled at the very impossibility to describe in adequate words what he had felt back then. A city in the water, with the sea for a field, and tall stone houses whose foundations were driven through the heart of the shifting lime!

Approaching the strange prodigy further, he had counted two channels that came to die on sea waters, one crossing the city like one of its avenues and the other, larger, tearing it apart from another island that stretched on its Eastern flank. There, on its farthest end, lay the unfinished structure of a great temple, covered in ropes and scaffoldings. Wondering which god might be the one whom this strange colony had invoked as their protector, he wrote, he ordered his sailors to put their prow to it.

Things had changed little since that day, and the sailor who entered the Bay still felt a flutter in his chest at the first glimpse of Gadir, the Silver Pearl of Belfalas. Like that illustrious mariner had done, Zarhil lay upon the prow of her ship, and left to others the confuse ruckus of orders and manouevres while she devoured the sight with her eyes.

The city ressembled a huge ship, she mused in an uncommon bout of lyricism, floating over the waters with its white towers for sails. She imagined how the nearby mainland barbarians had once stared in astonishment at this piece of Westernesse that had suddenly grown in front of their eyes, that city that refused to enter their world and remained haughtily anchored, unmoving, in the middle of the Bay.

As they rounded the cape and headed for the inner harbour, seagulls overtook the ship with a pandemonium of joyous cries. Zarhil saw them head towards a building painted in colourful patterns of red and white, and turn a circle around one of its four towers. Then, they sped towards the harbour, and, flying over the heads of the multitude and the masts of ships, they plunged into the waves to emerge, seconds later, with struggling fish in their claws.

In contrast with the silence of the sea, the animation of the docks was almost deafening. Ships came and went from the mainlands, loaded with sweet water, fresh vegetables, and pieces of red fruit that the vendors exposed to the appreciating sight of customers upon boxes of wood. As Zarhil´s Aphtaroth was expertly anchored on the Southern end of the crowded harbour –with the help of a couple of commissioners that barked their instructions from the docks- the fragrant smells reached her nostrils in waves.

“This is the last port.” a man´s voice announced behind her back. “Now it´s done.”

Zarhil nodded to Malko, her mate, and let go of a wry smile.

“We buy the offerings for the Temple and we leave.”

Malko frowned. Behind him, some sailors were still busy tying the ropes.

“Leave? I thought we would be spending the night here. The men need a bit of fun.”

“My family has summoned me. The last thing I want is to have them accusing me of delaying my route on purpose again.”

“I understand. “A smile creased his features, darker but softer than her own. “You might receive important news.”

Furiously red, Zarhil walked towards the wooden ramp and tried to drag it alone towards the exit. Shaking his head, Malko called two men over to help her.

“I grow weary of... your... ignorant teasing.” she admonished him, though her gasps of effort spoiled the effect of her irritation. “And you forget your place!”

“My apologies.” he said with a bow. Staring at him with a frown, she shook her head.

“I will have no further word on this subject.” she hissed. Then, dismissing him, she raised her glance and gestured to the rest of the men. “Men! We will be boarding here for awhile. The time to buy....”

“The Lady Zarhil, daughter of Zarhâd of Forrostar?”

Surprised, the woman turned back to the strangely accented voice that had interrupted her speech. A man, dressed in rich yellow clothes and wearing a pointed red hat on his head stood behind her, bowing with a courteous smile.

“Hey? Where the hell did you come from?” a sailor cried, as nonplussed as she was at his sudden appearance. She forced herself to swallow an expletive, and gestured the men to keep silent.

“Oh, as soon as the fair Aphtaroth´s sails appeared in the horizon, the great Magon sent this humble servant in his name, to welcome such a powerful lady to our city.”

“So you came running all the way here and jumped into the ship before the ramp was wholly set?” Malko muttered, still in disbelief. The Gadirite just smiled.

“The great Magon´s house is not far from here. Would my lady grace him with your presence?”

Zarhil blinked.

“Are you inviting me?”

The man nodded.

“If this is your ladyship´s wish.” he added, courteously.

“I am sorry.” she muttered, shaking her head. The last thing she had in mind was to end trapped in the house of a Merchant Prince. “I am here for a brief visit before heading back for Númenor.”

“To buy offerings for the temple of Melkor.” the man completed with an irritating certainty. “Alas! You will find none of that until next week. We are in the middle of our Winter festival.”

“Winter festival?” Zarhil did not believe her ears. Was that man mocking her? “The Winter festival is not until next week!”

His glance had a condescending air as he shook his head.

“The Winter festival of Gadir begins earlier than that of Armenelos. It is also... significantly divergent in other ways. But if my lady is in a hurry, there is a solution.”

“No, thanks.” she growled. “We leave, then.”

This announcement was not received with enthusiasm by the other sailors, who began muttering things among them with surly looks. The words “rest”, “storm” “long travel” and “festival” reached Zarhil´s ears among the undistinguishable blur, and she sighed.

“What is this... solution?”

“If my lady accepts Magon´s hospitality, he will be very glad to provide all the needed items. He is the greatest importer of the colonies, and his storehouses are filled with the finest products of the Island and the mainland.”

“So I could leave tomorrow?” she asked, a bit mistrustful.

“Of course, my lady. Or when you wish. Magon´s hospitality....”

“All right, all right.” she growled. The intensity of mumbled complaints had disminished, and she turned towards the sailors with an admonishing expression. “You may have fun tonight in the festival. But be sure that if anybody fails to board this wretched ship tomorrow morning, he will have to buy himself a passage in the next ship to Sor!”

Then, she turned towards Malko, who was trying to hide a smile.

“And you will come with me.” she added. “Lead the way.”

The Gadirite bowed with an unscrutable expression, and descended the ramp again. Zarhil followed him, trying to ignore the bothersome feeling of unfamiliarity that assaulted her as her feet touched the firm pavement. She sent a last, longing glance in the direction of her ship.

“I hate those quick-thinking bastards.” she whispered to Malko, who raised an eyebrow.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Next to the harbour lay the channel that cut the city in a half, spread between two avenues and as many rows of tall houses with balconies, which provided a good view of the boats that kept continuously crossing under their feet. Their guide –Uhar was his name- hired a small boat, and made sure with polite obsequiousness that Zarhil was comfortably seated in the middle.

“Will he worry about my robes getting wet?” she grumbled in annoyance. Her outfit was plain and grey, and a thick layer of salt covered its faded golden hem since the storm that had surprised them up North. Malko, who seemed to find her plight very funny, made a show of staring with horror at a small water stain over her knee.

As they advanced up the channel, at the slow rythm of the rower´s splashing oars, they first became aware of a strange silence. At the other side of the railings, large groups of people were crowding around something, though there was no visible sign of what they could be looking at. After a while, Zarhil heard an echo of voices singing in the distance.

“What is this?” she asked Malko. “You have been to this city many times, back when you were in the Sorian navy.”

“It is the festival.” he replied, with a mysterious shrug. “Our guide was right, it is slightly - divergent from ours in certain ways.”

Unfortunately, the end of the traject was a mere twenty metres farther from them, and as the boat stopped at the last step of the stone stairs, Zarhil lost the opportunity to ask for details. At the feet of the Sacred Cave there were no crowds in sight anymore. Everything looked dispirited and lonely, except for several vendors who sat in front of their sacrificial merchandise.

“Two turtle doves.” she demanded, to a sleepy-looking woman who rubbed her eyes and blinked at the unusual appearance of her customer. Malko paid after her.

It was a difficult thing to grow used to the darkness of the place after so many hours of braving the sunrays. For a while, Zarhil stumbled downstairs, hearing nothing but the flapping of wings of the two birds in the wooden cage that her companion held in his hands. When she finally became able to distinguish the lines, she advanced with slow and careful steps.

The image of the Goddess looked dim in the distance, lighted only by perfumed candles and the flames of the altar in the corner. At her feet lay countless offerings of local and foreign sailors, over a pile of evergreen boughs of return.

At this sight, her devotion arose in a blaze, remembering the many people that Ashtarte-Uinen had saved from the waves. She, also, had owed her life to the Goddess in several ocassions, and felt her loving protection upon her many more.

Since little Zarhil had stepped inside her first ship, she liked to believe that the Lady had been the one who had covered her with her silvery mantle, and taken all her girlish fears away with the love of a mother. She had claimed her as her child, refusing to let her go even when she was on land.

“Forgive me, Lady of the Seas.” she muttered, ashamed at the meagreness of her sacrifice. “Tomorrow I will offer you a precious gift, worthy of my love for you.”

At a sign from her, Malko took the turtle doves out, and burned them in the fires of the altar while she knelt to pray. The strong smell of flesh mingled with the scent of perfume, making them both dizzy for a while.

After she had finished the long litany, Zarhil stood up from the cold floor. The shadows danced in front of her eyes, and she would have fallen again if it hadn´t been for Malko´s timely assistance.

“Can you walk upstairs?” he asked with sollicitude. She nodded, pulling away from him.

“Our hunter is waiting outside for his prey.” she joked in a hoarse voice. For the last time, she turned towards the image of the Ashtarte-Uinen of Gadir, and made the holy sign thrice. “Let us go.”

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Magon´s house was at the same side of the channel as the Cave, and thus it did not become necessary to take another boat. Zarhil had made some brief scales in Gadir before, and knew of its people´s passion for walking, so she was not surprised when Uhar guided them across the slightly curved streets on foot. The shock came upon finding the crowded groups again, pressing in mysterious silence around a doorstep or a corner.

“My lady...”

This time, she barely realised that Uhar was taking her arm and gently guiding her away from that place. Their walk became an odyssey through many other streets of increasingly tall houses, now and then turning in circles to avoid the crowds. Through pressed arms and shoulders, between heads raised in anticipation, she saw drunkards in priestly costumes, men dressed as women, and heard sneers and witticisms about the mainland barbarians, their own citizens, magistrates, and even the royal family. A song about Prince Gimilzôr´s lack of love life became stuck, to her horror, inside her head.

At last they reached Magon´s doorstep, where Uhar had stopped to wait for them. Judging by the briskness with which he ushered her inside, she felt that he was afraid of her coming in contact with some sort of unpleasantness.

The courtyard of the house was as colourful as the front was sober. A portico with columns surrounded a white-marbled square, in whose centre stood something ressembling a well, covered by a brilliant green lid of magnificent metalwork. Ceramic pots with rare flowers and plants lay scattered around the floor and on every corner, - artificial gardens in an artificial city-, and the walls behind the porticoes were ornated with glazed tiles of blue, yellow and green patterns.

As they stood there, admiring that secluded place and dazzled by the contrast with the noisy disorder of the streets, a man and a woman rushed downstairs to meet them. She was a young matron of ample curves, who wore a robe of rich green silks that dragged behind her steps, and silver bracelets over her bare arms. Her smile was sweet and welcoming, but slightly more reserved than that of her husband.

He was the first to bow, with an open look of delight. His yellow robes were covered in intrincate silver embroideries, and a strange effect of the sunlight on his fair skin made him briefly appear like a golden statue. Zarhil stared at him, and her eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly.

Was this the famous Magon of Gadir? The ambitious Merchant Prince who traded with Sor, the mainland barbarians and the faraway Umbar? His hair was short and curly, and he did not look a year above thirty.

“Many stories had reached my ears about her prodigious sea travels, and yet she had always refused to stay in an islander´s house.” he said, fluently and without a trace of the strong accent that she had perceived in the popular singers outside. “May I now have the honour of welcoming the lady Zarhil of Forrostar to my humble abode?”

Zarhil swallowed, her brow slowly unfurling as she became aware of her lack of manners. The continuous sucession of surprises had affected her.

“I am... glad to be received with such courtesy by a stranger.” she quickly improvised, determined to stand her own against the rhetorical  torrent of the merchant. “I am Zarhil, and this is Malko of Sor. Your city –and your house- is as beautiful as I was told.”

“And you are as beautiful as we were told.” he replied, so enthusiastically that for a moment she was sure that he had to be making fun of her. “Beautiful and brave, to have reached the confines of the world with your ship in so many perilous travels. Allow me to introduce myself as Magon of Gadir, your humble servant. And she is Iolid, my wife, also at your service.”

A humourous spark was dancing –ominously- in Malko´s brown eyes. Fortunately, he seemed to understand the convenience of following the given cues, and did not make any comments.

“Stories about me tend to exaggerate. I have not found the end of the world yet, unless it is made of an endless sucession of ice mountains.” She shrugged. “If there is one, it probably cannot be reached by ship.”

Magon and Iolid smiled.

“Everything can be reached by ship. This is why we Númenoreans rule the world.” she sentenced. Then, her lips widened in another smile. “But I am sure that you must be exhausted. How rude of us, to keep you standing at our front courtyard!”

“We are holding a musical dinner this evening, in your honour “he bowed “and for the pleasure of several associates who are currently staying at our house. We would be extremely happy if you both attended.”

“We will.” Zarhil nodded, trying to hide her disgust at the perspective of the endless rounds of polite exchanges. She had never liked this, maybe that was why she relished in the simple life of her ship so much – and merchants were not much of her liking.

Iolid clapped her hands. Immediately, as if they had been waiting in the shadows to be summoned, four young women dressed in silver and white flanked her.

“Please, allow me to show you your chambers. Those women will be at your service for the time of your stay.”

“Thank you.” Zarhil gave a slight nod to Magon, who bowed in all ceremony. Right before she turned her back on him, she had the uncomfortable sensation of being measured with a veiled feeling of amusement.

Malko´s cold fingers pressed against her arm, in discreet warning.

“After all, they are also Gadirites.” he whispered in her ear, as they followed Iolid upstairs.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Gadirites! Humpf.

At least, there was nothing she could object to the room she was assigned. Not even in the Forrostar Palace of Armenelos had she ever seen such luxury – a huge bed half-hidden from sight by a red veil with embroidered golden stars, soft cushions, ivory chairs and a bathroom whose floor and walls were entirely set with glazed tiles. Iolid and Malko left here there with the women, after many concerned inquiries about her needs that she downplayed as patiently as she could. As soon as they were gone, she told the surprised women to leave –she used to feel touchy about her privacy when not at home, maybe because she was usually surrounded by men-, and without even disrobing herself, she sank on the soft mattress with a groan of relief.

When she woke up, it was night already. The new darkness disoriented her at first, and as she struggled to sit upon her bed, she realised that she had a headache. Served her right for sleeping at day, she thought with a muttered curse, but she had been tired as a dog.

Somehow, the noise that she had made alerted the accursed women of the fact that she was awake, and they quickly entered the room with solemn bows. If she had felt a little less sleepy, Zarhil would have wondered if they had spent all afternoon listening to her snores from the other side of the door.

“Your bath will be ready in an instant, my lady.”

“I do not need a bath.” she mumbled, realising the impossibility of keeping the lie even as she uttered the words. She was positively reeking of dirty salt, and there was that dinner that she had to attend.

A dinner with Magon and his associates. She sighed.

“Well, maybe I could need it.” she conceded. “But leave me alone.”

The young women stared at her as if she was some strange object that had just fallen from the sky.

“But...” One of them, the most spirited, bit her lip and dared to brave her glance. “We were told to... tend to the Lady´s needs....”

“How are we supposed to do this, if the Lady doesn´t want us to be here?”

Their eyes became mournful, almost imploring. It was almost as when her small nieces begged for a favour. With her mind still partly clouded by a sleepy haze, Zarhil felt herself relent.

“Do what you will, then.” she sighed. Relief lit their features, and each set to their tasks in a show of perfect coordination. Two were in charge of bringing the water, another of mixing the perfumes and the salts; a fourth knelt to undress her.

As she became accustomed to the feel of their hands upon her skin, Zarhil realised, to her surprise, that there was a kind of pleasure in surrendering to their ministrations. The water was warm and smelled like roses; nothing like the cold basin where she washed her face while she was on the ship. She closed her eyes, feeling sleepy again.

After the bath, two of them began to show her sets of robes, as gaudily magnificent as those worn by her hosts in the courtryard. People would stare at those at the Armenelos court, she thought in a brief flash of distaste, before she armed herself with resignation and pointed at a green and yellow dress that at least was only embroidered at the hem.

The girl who was holding that dress beamed, as if it had been on her merits that it had been chosen. The others ran to take the rest away, while she extended it upon the bed and elaborated on its magnificences and the most appropriate jewel combinations. Not understanding anything at all, Zarhil let her babble on, nodding to everything she said.

When she was at last dressed, there was still her hair left. After an animated discussion, the women smoothed her coarse plaits with some oily product and allowed it to fall down her shoulders. On her crown, they made two small braids and fixed them with golden ringlets, and clapped hands at the result.

Nonplussed, Zarhil wondered if she should have encouraged them by being so compliant. They might remind her of her small nieces, but at the moment she reminded herself of her nieces´s favourite doll. If Malko dared to laugh at her, she would throw him overboard the next day.

“You are radiant, my lady.” the Girl-of-the Dress exclaimed. The others nodded in approval.

“Please, allow us to escort you to the banquet room!” Daring-Girl implored. Zarhil nodded –it was too late to escape, after all, especially if it implied running with that outfit in front of the insolent populace of that accursed city.

What was it with those people, and their habitude of carrying their guests in tow everywhere?

Distractedly smoothing one of her braids, Zarhil sighed, and prepared herself for a very long evening.

 

*     *     *     *     *     *

 

Dinner had already begun without her, in a room whose walls were covered with mosaics that depicted all the types of fish that were known to exist in the ocean, swimming in ethereal waves. Some people sat in ivory chairs; others lay on cushions, and their attention barely shifted from the heavily-loaded table where ceramic plates of the most rare and exquisite seafood battled for space with jars of mixed Belfalas wine.

In a first moment, the lights and colours and the noises of conversation made her feel dizzy again, but then she began distinguishing faces. Malko was already there, lying on a couch in animated conversation with a tanned man who wore dark-green robes. He had also been made to discard his usual clothing to don the fine silks of their guests, and his head -which he usually shaved clean before his travels, and had acquired a raspy crop after the two last months- was covered with an elegant red turban that fell over his right shoulder.

Being the first to notice her presence, with a quick and alert glance, Magon rose from his seat and commanded the attention of his guests. Next to him was his wife and another woman, Zarhil realised in some curiosity. In the colonies, men and women only ate together in informal circumstances, as in front of guests they would imitate the protocol of Armenelos and the central regions – but not here, it seemed.

“This, dearest guests, is the lady Zarhil, whose name you have already heard from so many mouths. “he announced. Now that the lights fell on him, the golden hue seemed to be part of his skin instead of an optical illusion. “Since the times of our ancestors and the founders of this city, we have been valiant mariners, who conquered the seas and built our very home among the waves. And she, a woman without equal, is the best embodiment of this spirit!”

“Indeed we have heard much about you, my lady.” a thin man in yellow who sat at the women´s other side nodded. “I was told that you had reached the end of the world, but Magon here told me this evening that you choose to deny it.”

“This is Himilkar, a local associate” Magon introduced him, “and soon brother-in-law.”

The man bowed in answer, and his clear brown eyes met those of the woman next to him. Both smiled in unison.

“This is Abdeshmoun, an Umbarian associate,” Magon continued, beckoning briefly to the merchant who had been talking with Malko, before passing over to a fair-skinned man who wore orange robes and long dark braids, “and this is Azzibal, of Sor.”

Zarhil nodded politely to everyone, and received their deep bows in return. In answer to Magon´s welcoming gesture, she sat down, and immediately a servant offered her a glass and filled it with wine.

The men, especially the Umbarian, were considering her with deep interest. She drank, feeling somewhat shy under his stare.

“A woman in love with the Sea.” he finally muttered. “I had never heard of such a wonder elsewhere.”

“Oh, but this wonder might have an explanation. “Iolid intervened, turning towards her with a bright expression. “The lady Zarhil descends from the kings of old, and one of them was Aldarion, the Sea-lover.”

Zarhil blinked. She would not have expected knowledge of her lineage´s intrincacies in merchants.

“Indeed.” she replied to her nonetheless. “We descend from Anárion, who was Aldarion´s grandson.”

“And this is no mistake.” Malko intervened. “She is a seaman –seawoman- to boot. You should have seen her in the middle of the raging gale!”

“Were you caught in a storm?” Azzibal asked curiously. Zarhil had to prevent herself from glaring daggers at her mate.

“Just before we reached Aiboshim. It was not too bad.” she answered.

“Aiboshim? Then you come from far up North!” Himilkar deduced.

“I had visited some friends.” Zarhil sipped some of the wine very carefully, and realised that it was good. “Barbarian friends, who live in houses made of ice and worship the white bear.”

“She has a bunch of quite extraordinary acquaintances, you see.” Malko smiled. How much had he already drunk?

“There is nothing extraordinary in the story.” she replied, with a slightly cutting tone. “In one of my first trips, I was taken by the youthful wish to go farther than anyone. I found the ice, and then I ran out of provisions for the return home – the whole coast down South being infested with Elves, and all. Those people helped me back then, and for that I am very grateful.”

“And you continued visiting them for years?” Magon asked, fascinated. Zarhil nodded.

“They are always glad to see me. I bring them gifts, and they give me something that they consider to be very precious – the oil of some kind of sea-monster.”

A spark of realisation flashed through the eyes of the Gadirite merchant. He exchanged glances with his associate Himilkar.

“Sperm oil.” the second muttered. “Is it good quality?”

Rudely awakened from her tale, Zarhil had the definite sensation that she had talked too much. She cursed to herself for allowing their polite interest to lure her into lowering her guard.

“I would not know.” I am not a merchant, she thought. But Magon did not seem ready to let it go.

“Would you sell us a quantity, my lady? We would pay you well. We have a connexion with the Southern whalers, but it is a tenuous one at best, and there is high competence...”

“I am sorry, but the oil is a gift. It is not for sale.” Zarhil replied, dryly. Deep inside, she was seething – pay well? What did that man think she was?

If Magon was disappointed at her answer, he did not allow it to show in his face for more that a second.

“Then, as a hospitality gift, I would wish to ask you for a sample –if you give your consent, my lady.”

Caught in the middle of his change of strategy, the woman only managed to nod. After all, she had no valid reasons to oppose that request.

“Certainly. If you come and get it tomorrow morning before we leave, that is. We... are in a hurry.” she added, hoping it would sound a bit less rude. But Magon merely smiled.

“Then it is done. By the way, this reminds me of something....”With a gesture, he summoned a man who was standing on the door, and whispered in his ear. Zarhil frowned, wondering what else would her host surprise her with.

Before her guessing could carry her very far, however, Azzibal´s conversation with Malko caught her attention.

“You are leaving tomorrow already? Has the Festival scared you away?”

“Do not ask me. She is the captain of the ship.”

“The captain of the ship has family business to attend to.” she cut him, picking a crab´s leg from one of the ceramic plates. “And no, the festival has not scared me away. I wonder, however, how is it that you can suffer this sort of thing to happen every year.”

This comment immediately caused a buzz of conversations to start anew. The Umbarian whispered something in Malko´s ears, nodding many times with his head. Himilkar arched an eyebrow with what Zarhil was already learning to identify as Gadirite disdain, and Azzibal laughed.

“Because this is the best they can do!”

“Sometimes it does get a bit trying, however.” the Umbarian grumbled, with his mouth half-full. “I come here all the way from Umbar to see a decent musical spectacle, and then I find that all halls are closed because of that cursed festival!”

Iolid interrupted her conversation with her sister-in-law, and gestured with her chin towards a corner. Following her glance, Zarhil noticed for the first time that five people were sitting there, holding instruments upon their laps.

“If you excuse me for a moment, good sir, two of our musicians here are stars of the public theatre.” she said. “While you are staying as a guest in our house, you will not miss anything that our fair city can offer.”

The Umbarian offered her a bow.

“Many thanks, lady, and I apologise to Magon for my words.” The Gadirite merchant shrugged goodnaturedly, and sipped some wine. “And do not think that I am looking down on your customs. In fact, even this Festival would be welcome in the pestilent sewer where I live. Adunakhôr the Great´s Magnificent Colony of Umbar! “he snorted, raising his glass.” Full of useless sects of philosophers who spend their days in contemplation of the Greatest Good, and harebrained soldiers getting drunk at daytime. And the populace would not have such a refined sense of humour –oh, no, those half-barbarians only know how to revolt whenever there is an infection in the dog-meat they eat. If it wasn´t for us merchants, there would be nothing more than ruins in Umbar today!”

“The Gadirites knew since the beginning how to keep the barbarians at arm´s length.” Azzibal nodded with a smile. “And effectively, I might add. They do not even feel offended for not knowing how to swim.”

“And yet Umbar has its own fields, and people to till them, while we depend on others to feed us.” Himilkar objected, disguising his obvious pride at their insularity under a veil of modesty. Malko sought for Zarhil´s glance, and his lips curved in a grin.

She let go of a sigh, somehow glad to be ignored for awhile. Her social skills had never been good, and those people had a way to make one feel stupid all the time.

And still, as she was about to pick another crab leg, the door opened in full for a sucession of servants, who came towards her carrying all kinds of objects of luxury.

“My employee told me that you wanted to buy offerings for the temple of Melkor.” Magon explained. She stared at him, surprised –was he actually thinking of selling things to her during dinner? “A wise course of action, obviously- as you well know, my lady, the Great God of the Island tends to be angry at ships who head for Númenor before paying their respects.”

Realising that what she considered to be so strange was rather the rule among those merchants, Zarhil left her wine aside with a longing glance, and focused on the things that Magon –a professional seller- showed her with all the ponderings of an expert. Painted ostrich eggs, cloaks dyed with the purple shell of Belfalas, jars of coloured glass, necklaces where gems alternated with glass beads painted in the shape of eyes – Magon had everything.

A bit overwhelmed, she did nothing but nod at the things she was shown, choosing one or two to look at them closely, until he picked the last of those items, a delicate bough sculpted in silver adorned with pale blue gems.

“What is this?” she asked. Magon stared at it appreciatively, then shook his head.

“No. Not appropriate. My mistake.”

“What is it?” she repeated. She had seen a similar thing somewhere...

“The Great God of the Island would not like this as gift.” he explained. “A very old legend says that, when the ships of the colonisers arrived to this island for the first time, their leader, grateful for having escaped the perils of a tempest, offered his bough of return to the Lady and forgot to honour Melkor. Angry at this oversight, the Great God caused an earthquake, threatening to sink the island under the waters. “He made a pause to eat a bite, then continued. “A woman that came with the expedition immediately had a fire built, and offered to throw herself into the flames to appease Melkor´s anger. She would have perished if it had not been for the Lady, who does not forget those who honour her. When she saw the fire, she unleashed a storm and quenched it as many times as they tried to lit it anew. Thankful at her intervention, the woman´s family had five of those silver boughs made. They were distant ancestors of mine.”

Fascinated in spite of herself, Zarhil stared at the bough with a frown.

“And this is one of those?”

“A family heirloom, yes. I would gratefully sell it to a noble lady such as you.” At the other side of the table Malko, who had heard this, rolled his eyes. “But it would never do as an offering for the God of the Island.”

Zarhil shook her head. Maybe he was lying – and still, if there was an ounce of truth in his story, she had found the best present for her beloved Goddess.

“I will buy it, and offer it to the Sacred Cave tomorrow. I have a deep devotion for the Lady.” she added, in a lower tone. Magon´s features creased into a smile –the golden tinge had never been so evident in them as now.

“Of course, there is no need for you to pay now, my lady. My associates will have it from your family on their next trip to Númenor, or however it might be more comfortable for the Lord Zarhâd of Soronthil.”

Zarhil shook her head. His father had told her that those people loved to have illustrious names on the list of their debitors –for them, it was a form of prestige.

“There is gold on my ship. I will pay you tomorrow, when yor men come to get the sample of oil that I promised you”, she established firmly. In some disappointment, he nodded, and ordered the servants to leave with both the chosen and discarded items.

At the other side of the table, meanwhile, the conversation had shifted towards the topic of an impending official declaration of war against the desert tribes near Umbar. Himilkar had changed his seat for the couch that lay next to Malko and Abdeshmoun, and Magon´s sister was resting her head against his shoulder. Her curly brown hair fell down her back, mingled with some paler locks that looked like the effect of some outlandish dye.

Only Azzibal remained with them, savouring a dish of raw oysters with lemon.

“Do you find them to your liking?” Iolid, always the perfect hostess, inquired. The Sorian nodded as he chewed.

“I had not tasted something as good since... well, at least since I stayed at the palace of King Xaris three years ago.”

Iolid and her husband exchanged ominous glances at this. Xaris was the leader of the barbarians of Belfalas, who had achieved a commendable degree of civilisation from their centuries of contact with the Númenoreans. Before Zarhil had had time to realise what was going on, Magon stood up, and gestured to the servants.

“Bring the sturgeon eggs and the sauce!”

Azzibal snorted, taking another oyster.

“Those brave islanders! In their infinite wisdom, their ancestors passed a law restricting the height of towers – if not, they would still be measuring the work of the others and adding inch after inch until they reached the sky!”

“Oh, years ago, there was that tree competition.” Iolid said, sharing in the joke good-naturedly. “They brought trees of all kinds and places to the squares and gardens of Gadir, from the uttermost East and South. Few of those took root- a real pity.”

“Ah, I remember.” Azzibal nodded. “The most celebrated were those giant trees that came from an island in the Far South. By the way, Magon, which one did you bring?”

Magon shook his head in affected disdain.

“I was deep in talks to bring the White Tree of Armenelos to the gardens of Gadir.”

Zarhil stared at him, astonished, but her shock subsided when she saw Iolid and Azzibal begin to laugh. Still, some puzzlement remained there, refusing to die –one could never know how much of what those slippery people said was intended as a joke.

“Always the ambitious Magon of Gadir.” Azzibal muttered, fondly.

In the other conversation, the tone had been raised, as all three men heartily agreed that a war against the desert tribes was the worst idea that the King could have had at that very moment.

“Now that we were attempting to restore the trade, they want to scare our customers away! We cannot tolerate this!” the Umbarian exclaimed. Himilkar shook his head.

“Indeed, we cannot tolerate this.”

Magon took an oyster from Azzibal´s dish, and smiled.

“Then, our weapons industry will suffer from an unprecedented crisis this year. Deal?”

Somewhat placated. Abdeshmoun raised his glass.

“Deal. But keep your promises this time, Magon.”

Vaguely aware of what had just taken place in front of her, Zarhil´s face went pale, and she fixed her glance on the half-empty cup that lay upon her lap.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

“I cannot stand those people. I cannot! Their very deference is arrogant. Did you hear them ... striking bargains to sabotage the King´s policies?”

Malko shook his head noncomittally, as if her words were nothing but the ramblings of a drunkard. This made her even more furious: it was true that she had drunk a little more than what she should, but he was the one who was having difficulties trying to walk back to his rooms in a straight line.

“Now, what do you say?”

He shrugged.

“They are arrogant, that much is true. But they are powerful, and that is true as well. So frighteningly fuckingly powerful. “He shook his head, watching the lights of the coutryard from the corridor windows. “The greatest of lords has no authority beyond the boundaries of his vast lands. But those... those merchants, those people, who do not own an inch of land, rule over the seas and control the trade of whole realms, many of which we do not even know about. Who would put a boundary to this?”

Zarhil shivered, whether because of the cold or the disgust, she was not sure.

“Stop... talking in this strain. You are wrecking my resolve to go back to Númenor, if it will be to marry one of them!”

“What?” Slowly, the impact of the news triggered a reaction on Malko´s alcohol-abused mind. His lips began to curve into a smile. “So it was true...”

Zarhil blushed to the roots of her hair. The wine had made her careless.

“I know of no other possible reason why my family would send ships all the way across the Great Sea to summon me back.” she grumbled. “And just congratulate me, and I will have you thrown overboard at the exact middle point of our return journey. The noblest families of Númenor do not want me, and I have no idea which kind of ambitious commoner will settle for an ugly, eccentric... and maybe even barren woman.”

“You are lovely to my eyes.” he muttered, after weathering the storm with the blissful level of calm that only wine could bring. Zarhil kicked him on the shin, and turned away with a huff.

“You disgusting flatterer! “ she hissed. But then she seemed to relent, and sighed. “I knew I would have to marry one day. That I could not remain like this forever, whatever the choice. But to see those people today... I do not want to be a high-born trophy for any of them!”

Malko shook his head, kneeling to rub his leg on the spot where she had kicked him. In Zarhil´s current state, even his silence was infuriating.

“Go and sleep it off.” she growled.

Before she could leave definitely for her chambers, however, he heard his voice behind her again.

“You are an extraordinary woman. And you will not be a trophy for any man –that much I know.”

Zarhil turned back to stare at him, searching for signs of mockery in his tone. Finding none that would give her an excuse to yell at him, she took off at a brisk pace, and started muttering things under her teeth.

Extraordinary- indeed.

That night, she dreamed that she was in the Palace of Armenelos, singing the song about Gimilzôr´s love life. Outraged at her irreverence, the priests tied her up, and conjured the fire of Melkor to fall upon her. She was afraid and desperately prayed to the Lady for deliverance, but there were no signs of rain in the sky.

Finally, it was Magon and his associates who poured basin after basin of water over her until she was delivered from the flames, and then he asked for her hand in return.

 

 

(to be continued)

 

 

 

Chapter Text

She was waiting for him on a low seat, staring through the window with an unreadable look. Her black hair was firmly braided over her head, yet there were some rebellious strands bristling behind her ears. She had darker skin than anyone of the line of Elros that he had ever met, marinaded and hardened through long years by the sun and the sea winds.

When his footsteps alerted her of his presence, she seemed to come back from her musings with a blink, and promptly stood up to greet him. Inziladûn thought at first that she was frowning, then realised that her forehead had a conspicuous wrinkle in the space between the eyes. From staring into the horizon for prolonged amounts of time, he guessed, remembering all the rumours.

“My lord Inziladûn.” she bowed. Her voice was deep, and also somewhat hoarse. Inziladûn answered her greeting with perfect politeness, and studied her closer.

As he had feared, though a stubborn part of himself had still dared to hope, there was not a single thing in common between this woman and his cherished memories of Artanis, with her soft skin and quiet grace. This woman was plain, uncomfortable in her green and golden velvet dress. She had a harsh face with marked lines, and grey eyes that stared at him without love.

“I am pleased to meet you at last.” he said, forcing his voice to sound sincere. “Sit down, if you wish.”

The woman sat down, asessing him sharply at the same time. Inziladûn followed her example, choosing a chair that was next to her own seat. He felt a brief current of hostility coming from her, and blinked.

As if his dismay had not escaped her attention, her lips curved into an exaggeratedly pleasant smile.

“This is not the first time that we meet.” she corrected, and a nervous chuckle escaped her throat. “On the day of your public consecration, I held you in my arms. You yanked at my hair very hard, and I told my mother that it was just as well that I did not have children, since they did not seem to like me very much. “A frown of thoughtfulness creased her forehead even further for a moment. “I am not very likeable.”

Inziladûn swallowed, appalled. Either her hostility towards him was too strong to bother with pretence, or she was the least diplomatic person that he had ever met.

As he looked at her hair, he realised that there was already a tinge of silver on one of the sides of her head. Unbidden thoughts haunted his mind, and he was forced to remember that this woman was older than his mother.

“You are uncomfortable.” she suddenly threw at him, without bothering to turn it into a question.

He shook his head in silence. What had his father been thinking about?

“The lady Zarhil is the daughter of Zarhâd of Forostar, descendant of King Anárion, and a lady of many merits.” Gimilzôr said, guessing the displeasure under his son´s briefly shaken mask. Inziladûn barely had time to swallow before the words came to his mouth in a rush.

“But...”

“Contrary to what you might think, this is a gift.” Gimilzôr interrupted him. “I hold this lady in the greatest esteem since even before you were born, and I deem her the only woman in Númenor who might have enough resilience to manage your family.” Giving his son a pointed look, he frowned in advertence. “Fail to make her happy, and I swear to you that I will not be as lenient as that spineless king Meneldur.”

For a second, Inziladûn was tempted to ask him if he was supposed to treat her like Gimilzôr had treated Inzilbêth. Fortunately, he managed to swallow the dangerous words in time, and silently bowed to leave.

“I...” he began, searching for one of those uncompromising sentences that could be recited flawlessly in awkward moments. But while he had never been at loss for words in interviews with princes of the realm, priests, courtiers and even Merchant Princes, he felt incapable to recall them now in this woman´s presence.

His future Queen.

“Nice weather, isn´t it?” she said, with a pointed look.

Inzuladûn knew that he was being ridiculed. Repressing a growing exasperation, he forgot all ceremonies, and stared at her hard. She seemed a bit surprised at his sudden action, yet withstood his glance like she would have withstood the sunrays upon the prow of her ship.

As he had partly guessed, there was a great irritation boiling inside her. She had been taken away from ship and seas, and travels to distant lands. Without telling her beforehand, her family had betrothed her to a much younger man with a reputation for all sorts of unnatural behaviour.

Then, the obvious dawned upon him, and his anger would have dissolved in an impulse to laugh at the situation if it had not been so serious for both of them. Because, in fact, their irritation was of an exactly identical nature.

He coughed several times, in order to clear his throat.

“If you would be so kind as to listen to me for a moment.” he began. Her eyes narrowed, and he realised that he had her attention. “We have been both forced to renounce to our pursuits. We have never seen each other in our lives. And this ignorance of ours has been seasoned with quite... interesting stories about our respective selves, I will dare to presume.” Her stare turned to sheer incredulity, and he felt encouraged.” Because of this, we are feeling angry at each other, and naturally so. And yet, I may propose another way to deal with this.”

“Another... way to deal with this?”

“Indeed. None of us decided this marriage, and therefore none of us is to blame. We could be friends and allies to each other, and direct our discontent towards our noble families, who decided to put us through this situation.”

Zarhil´s eyes had widened in shock, and for a moment she studied him as if he had gone mad. Inziladûn felt incommodated, wondering if he might have simply confirmed her fears about his sanity.

As he was about to open his mouth again, though, the tension contracted her features, and exploded in a powerful laugh. The man stared in fascination as she almost doubled over from unleashed mirth, until she sobered up and raised a reddened face to meet his.

“That was... well, an unusual betrothal speech.” she gasped, letting her glance trail over him in a newfound admiration. “So... it is true that you see into the hearts of people!”

“So they say.” he muttered, uncomfortable as whenever this topic was breached in his presence.

Still, in another recess of his brain, her sudden change of mind about him heartened him a little. She accepted his logic. Maybe things could be... manouevred into some sort of comfortable arrangement, after all.

“You are right, they told me you were strange. The son of the King, who has the eyes of an Elf and the beard of a barbarian,” she quoted, with a more comfortable smile. He smiled, too, darkly amused at the comparison.

“And I heard of an Elf-woman who wanes and dies if she spends a month ashore.” he retaliated. Just as the words left his mouth, however, her features were suddenly clouded by a veil of melancholy. He cursed.

“I am sorry.” he offered. “We... could travel to the seaside, from time to time, if duty allows.”

She shook her head, and made a sharp gesture of denial with her hand.

“You should not mind me.” she grumbled, closing her eyes only to open them again with a sigh. “I am past eighty already. My years of freedom have been fulfilling, and I have enjoyed them for a longer time than you did. If someone has to apologise, it should be me.”

For a while, both of them just sat there, in a decidedly bleak silence. Then, Inziladûn shook himself out from his reverie, and made an attempt to lighten up the mood.

“But we are talking as if this we are facing was a death sentence! Our married life will surely not be as terrible as Eternal Darkness, though it might be close enough at times. And I am not going to shave.” he added jokingly.

Zarhil smiled a little.

“And I am not going to dye my grey hairs, though my mother already suggested it. Each of them was well-earned, indeed.” she replied in the same vein. “As for the beard, to shave on a ship is unheard-of for most sailors, and yours at least is better kept.”

“I see.” he nodded, amused. So she had a sense of humour, too.  “Things could always be worse.”

“Like they say when you get caught up in a storm and then someone finds a leak.”

Inziladûn stared at her, remembering the things he had heard about this woman since he was a child.

“You must have many tales to tell.” he assumed, in a tone that, for the first time in the whole exchange, contained a vague admiration. She creased her features in a gesture of dubious meaning.

“I suppose. I have done some... odd things.”

He snorted.

“And my father said that you would supply our marriage with common sense!”

“Did he?” She looked genuinely surprised, and maybe a little flattered. “The Prince is too kind.”

“He likes you.”

Zarhil mulled this over for a moment. Standing up, she paced towards the window, and became absorbed in the view of the Blue gardens.

“I would have needed to guess as much.” she said, after a long pause. Her voice was strangely regretful. “You know that I may... well, that old saying about my family.”

Surprised, Inziladûn looked up.

“What?”

The woman seemed to notice his shock, and tensed. The ease that they had been building for the past minutes dissolved in a rush, and she turned back with a blush.

“You have never heard?”

Inziladûn shook his head in denial, his alarm growing by moments.

“The women of the Northern line do not bear sons. “She seemed pained at her own words, as if she was going to be shamed for them. “People like to say that those things are nothing but superstitions... and still....”

The man stared at the ivory table in front of him, refusing to look at her as he forced himself to put his thoughts in order. The first idea that came to his mind was that Gimilzôr had to be aware of that saying. The second was that his plan was probably to have Gimilkhâd succeed him by depriving him of heirs, and thus make sure from an early date that his elder son´s dangerous influence would not last.

The third was that he did not believe in superstitions.

“Nobody can know that about a woman.” he said, meanwhile, in an attempt to ease her discomfort. How could she have imagined that his father would forget to tell him about such a thing?

“Many people believe they do.” she muttered. He shook his head in dismissal.

How much worth could a superstition have, anyway? His father was one to believe in all those things with unquestionable faith –superstitions, prophecies, visions. Inziladûn had been visited by those powers from a very young age, and could make more sense of them than most. He knew when they were real, and when they were nothing but the effects of an imagination run wild. And would Eru suffer Inziladûn´s heartfelt attempts to have Númenor regain its purity to be foiled in such a crude fashion?

He bit his lip, full of a warm, renewed defiance. For a moment, he remembered Gimilkhâd´s expression as he handed the incriminating note to him, and refused, against all the expectations that his father had held since the day of his birth, to bring ruin upon their kin of the West.

He would not be defeated that way.

“I do not.” he said to her. Invitingly, he stretched his right hand, and she stared at it for a while before advancing several steps. “And my father, who is a wiser man than most, did not even think twice about such a superstition.”

Zarhil´s hand finally touched his. It shocked him at first how hard it felt from its calluses, a little like tanned leather.

“I do not know.” she sighed. Her eyes met his, and brightened up somewhat. “But thanks for encouraging me.”

He arched an eyebrow, softly pressing her fingers to explore the new feeling.

“I was also encouraging myself.” he added flippantly, before quickly changing subject. “Now, would you care to take a walk through the gardens? I think it will be - expected of our first meeting.”

Without further ado, she gave a step backwards, and helped him to get up with a pull. He saw the lean yet strong muscles of her arms, and, once again, blinked.

“Let us go, then.” she nodded.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

For the next years, Inziladûn set his mind to discover and list all of Zarhil´s good traits. She was a strong woman, an adventurous sailor in a family of warriors. The magnificence of the Palace of Armenelos and the flattery of the courtiers meant little to her, and she felt uncomfortable with the ostentatious displays of Gimilzôr´s court- in which she was of like mind to Inziladûn himself.

Another thing that he discovered was that all her forwardness hid a rather shy core, and that she did not like interacting with people. Both at home and in Armenelos, she had no friends other than the men she took in her ship. Once that he earned her trust from assiduity, however, it struck him that she was a friendly companion, and an excellent storyteller. Many of their afternoons together were spent with Inziladûn listening in quiet awe to fantastical tales about floating islands of ice, strange animals that ran over the water or followed ships with open, hungry jaws, and fire mountains that spat frozen lava.

In those ocassions he would look at her, and she would suddenly appear different to him; a creature of legend, a hero of tales like the king Aldarion son of Meneldur. And then, even the pronounced wrinkles in her forehead, the hardness of her skin, the dark colour of her face and the shadow of silver in her hair would gain a new meaning, and seem beautiful.

There were other, less pleasant things to take in account as well. In spite of her efforts, Zarhil could not hide her dislike for the gilded prison of Armenelos where she would have to spend her life, and some part of Inziladûn could not help wondering how long it would take for her to resent him for it. Her difficulties to adapt to court life were much greater than those of Inziladûn himself. Seeing how she reacted to her new duties, he realised for the first time that his own shortcomings in that field had stemmed mainly from his own wilfulness, and not from any real incapacity. And the courtiers did not forgive breaches of protocol, so soon the whole Palace was swarming with witticisms, jokes and rhymes about their shocking new Princess.

All this, however, was not as worrying to Inziladûn´s mind as other things that escaped public notice. For example, there was Zarhil´s deep devotion to the Queen of the Seas, who had saved her from so many dangers. His indifference on this matter hurt her, and he foresaw greater complications when he became King –or when they had children.

He tried not to think of Artanis, though she was often in his thoughts. In spite of the fact that he had grown to like Zarhil, there were times when he could not prevent himself from comparing her natural grace to Zarhil´s clumsiness, the soft ripple of laughter that came from her throat to the other woman´s raspy chuckles. He remembered the warmth of her embrace, that morning when his mind had been tangled in cold conflict, and how she had always read in his mind, with the mysterious power of an Elf, what she needed to say or do to give him comfort.

He remembered the first night when she had seen her, the billows of her white dress flying with the breeze as she walked under the trees of malinornë, like Lúthien in the forests of Doriath. And then, her last tears as she left him alone, under the same trees, her heart broken in exquisite silence.

She knew that we could not have possibly married, he said to himself, trying to banish her from his mind and focus on the woman that his father had chosen. And yet, in his most unguarded moments she still haunted him, when he lay on his bed awake or deep in the world of dreams.

Two years after they had met, sitting on the grass of his own garden with a mountain of fig peelings between them, Inziladûn asked Zarhil to marry him. She stared at her incredulously and laughed –the right answer to his involvement in this long farce of their betrothal.

Gimilzôr took the news very favourably. It puzzled Inziladûn to see how Zarhil affected even the usual coldness of his father towards him. Back when he had told him that he held the lady in great esteem, he had thought it nothing but another element of his father´s elaborate revenge against his wayward son, but in time he had come to have the distinct feeling that Gimilzôr had spoken the truth at least in this. With a slightly warmer glint in his dark eyes, he ruled that the wedding would take place in early summer, in the Palace of Armenelos, and that the celebration would reach all Númenor and the Middle-Earth colonies.

As the day of the wedding drew near, the streets of Armenelos were set with the most colourful hangings. People crowded the streets from the North Residence to the Palace hill, eager to catch a glimpse of the bridal entourage and fighting for an advantageous place before the royal gates, where they could see the entrance of the new Princess and get themselves a good helping at the various food and wine distributions.

Covered by her red veil, Zarhil´s face could not be seen, but Inziladûn was able to perceive the tension in her erect back and high chin. As was custom, the priests of Melkor took her away from the priests of Ashtarte-Uinen that came in her entourage and dragged her across the threshold. Then, both drank from the same goblet of consecrated wine under the eyes of the gods and the King, and the feast began in the main hall.

Preparations for the banquet had lasted more than a month, with the clear purpose of turning this event into a milestone for royal magnificence. The dishes were served on silverware from the factories of Gadir, and seasoned with Umbar spices. Meat of eight different kinds had been brought from the plains of Hyarnustar, while the fruit belonged to the King´s own gardens south of the Forbidden Bay. There were also great quantities of wine with honey, and the best musicians, singers and dancers of the capital entertained the guests with various performances.

Inziladûn watched all this at his father´s side, away from the raised voices, the laughter and the merriment. He was not fond of feasting; he had few friends among the guests and none he could freely speak to. Artanis had not come: someone had needed to stay in Andúnië while the rest of her family was here, and she had offered to do so herself.

From the corner of his eye, he realised that Gimilzôr had finished his little conversation with the King, and was now walking towards him. At once, he discarded his musings and prepared himself to be addressed, but instead of that his father stopped in his tracks and stared at some point of the hall with a pensive frown.

Following his glance in some curiosity, Inziladûn saw his bride sitting on a chair. She was still tense, and busy at yanking the long ends of her red veil away from the two little daughters of her brother Zakarbal, who ran in laughing circles around her.

“You should summon her.” Gimilzôr said. Inziladûn suppressed his surprise carefully, and nodded.

“I will.” he replied.

Before his father could begin organising the chain of messengers that would reach her, he bowed quickly, and downstairs he went. The courtiers who waited there bowed to him, with the good reflexes that they had acquired from fifty years of his oddities.

In the first table, Gimilkhâd was drinking with a few friends, and raised the jar to him when he saw him approach.

“Ha, Inziladûn!” he called ”Here, have a glass for yourself before you retire for the night! You will certainly need it- won´t he?”

The other men smiled a bit sheepishly, then laughed a little louder as his boldness encouraged them. Inziladûn passed them by, not deigning to pay them any heed.

Since that fatidical night, two years ago, his younger brother had known several phases. At first he had avoided him as much as he could, but after a while his exuberance had returned, louder and wittier than ever. Inziladûn was always the target of his jokes, and his older brother was quite sure that he could claim autorship of a good half of the rhymes about his wife.

And yet, he never saw him alone anymore. Friends and courtiers surrounded him, like a warrior´s trained escort.

Númendil and his betrothed, Emeldir, were watching the starlit gardens from a terrace. Inziladûn shook his head and left them to their privacy, wondering if those two would ever marry. The strong Elven blood of Númendil seemed to have frozen his maturity to a mysterious halt, and the lady was something between his friend and the object of his quiet adoration.

Not that he could say anything different from the women of his own life, Inziladûn reminded himself then, but his thoughts stopped abruptly when he found himself face to face with Valandil.

“Allow me to offer my most sincere congratulations on the auspicious event of your wedding day, my lord.” the older man recited with a deep bow. Inziladûn nodded, incommodated.

“I am sorry. I would... apologise to her if I could.” he whispered, almost between clenched teeth. Valandil rose, and stared at him lengthly with undecipherable eyes.

“You do not have to, my lord. “he finally said. For a moment, it seemed as if he was going to say something else, but then he shook his head and offered him a smile of encouragement. “One day, everything will change.”

Inziladûn nodded again, and continued his walk through the hall. Nearby, he spotted Eärendur with his daughter-in-law, talking among themselves. He gave them a mere nod, not wishing his father to grow suspicious.

Everything would change. Alas, for her it would be too late then.

Zarhil´s family gave him a warm welcome. The lords of Soronthil had not married into the royal family for centuries, since the alliances with the North had not been favoured by the lineage of Ar-Adunakhôr. This lord of Soronthil, moreover, had despaired long ago of finding a husband for his strange daughter, so the marriage had been, for him, the crowning bliss of a long life of service and few favours. No matter what people whispered about his oddities, Inziladûn had promptly become the object of his most sincere devotion and gratitude –gratitude that, the Prince´s heir could not help but think one more time as he was pulled into a world of bows, compliments, congratulations and offers, would properly belong to Gimilzôr. But his father, working and planning in the shadows and standing at a great, elevated distance even as he drank wine in his son´s wedding feast, did not encourage many warm feelings.

When he finally reached her, Zarhil was hissing at the smallest of her two nieces, a plump-faced girl of about four who had somehow managed to get the veil tangled all over her legs.

“Of all the little pests in the world, you are the very worst! Now, go to your mother at this very instant and be good and quiet or I swear...!”

Her scolding was brusquely interrupted as she became aware of Inziladûn´s presence in front of her. The girls also stopped wiggling and stared at him in wide-eyed awe.

“Who are you?” the elder of them inquired. Zarhil shook her head with a snort, and began to arrange the dishevelled veil over her lap again.

Inziladûn stared back at her, mystified. It was the first time he was confronted by someone who was young enough not to care for manners.

“I am the husband of the lady Zarhil.” he replied carefully, after a moment of thought. The face of the younger of the girls was immediately scrunched up in an expression of horror.

“Aunt, did you marry a man with hair on his face?”

Inziladûn froze. The older of the two girls elbowed her sister and hissed that she was not being nice.

Zarhil´s bad mood dissolved in a fit of hilarity.

“Go back to your mother now.” she told the girls. She was still shaking from suppressed mirth even as she shooed them away. “If you behave yourselves, I will not tell her what has been said here.”

The daughters of Zakarbal nodded, and reluctantly took away, whispering amongst themselves. Even after they had reached their mother´s side, Inziladûn could see them turn back now and then to steal curious looks at him.

“That was very funny.” Zarhil said. Inziladûn nodded in silence.

“Are we going to... retire already?” she asked after a while. There was a brief hesitation in her voice as she said those words, but under the thick red folds, Inziladûn could not detect if it was nervousness or a simply inquiring tone.

“I do not like partying very much.” he confessed, with a soft sigh. Under the King´s throne, six dancers were moving their jewelled arms to the sound of a flute. People around them had begun talking louder, so the music would not overshadow their voices. “And you must be choking under that veil.”

Zarhil shrugged.

“I am. But out there, I do not know what I would have done without it.” she confessed. “I was really nervous, Inziladûn. The whole of Númenor was there... staring at me.”

“And you will grow used to their stares until you even forget that they are there.” he predicted.

“I can still flee this place at night and make it to my ship before the guard finds me.” she threatened, standing up. With a gesture, she signalled him to wait while she bade farewell to her family and listened to their well-meaning advice –a long process, even though they had no plans of leaving overnight-, and readied herself to follow him.

Though Inziladûn took care to avoid the center of the hall, many of the guests, merry from the high-quality wine, still toasted to them and shot their congratulations as they walked towards the stairs of the throne. Predictably, when they could finally bow in front of him, Gimilzôr was furious.

“Did you have to shame yourself and your wife in such a manner on the very evening of your wedding day?” he hissed. Inziladûn lowerd his eyes in contrition.

“I am sorry. I wanted to talk to her family before we retired.”

Already?”

“This veil is choking me, my lord prince.” Zarhil intervened. Gimilzôr´s wrath turned into an almost comical look of surprise, and he turned his attention towards her.

“Is... it?”

Inziladûn blinked. He had never heard his father ask a redundant question before.

“It... has become worse after so many hours.” Zarhil nodded, now in a somewhat lower voice. “If we could retire to the privacy of our chambers...”

Gimilzôr made a hurried gesture to cut her talk. His features softened.

“I understand your plight, daughter. You may go, if you wish.” Then, he turned back to Inziladûn. “Present your respects to the King.”

Inziladûn bowed, taking Zarhil by the hand. She promptly mirrored her gesture, and together, they approached the throne of Ar-Sakalthôr.

The last decades had not been kind to the old man´s appearance. His body had always been thin, but now the bony fingers that held the Sceptre reminded Inziladûn of a skeleton. His face was pale and sunken, and in the middle of it, two huge, alert eyes gleamed with a light that became fell whenever he set them on his elder grandson.

Inziladûn remembered a time when, as a child, he had been brought to his grandfather´s chambers and forced to kneel in front of him. Ar-Sakalthôr had been silent, until the confused child lifted his head and tried to investigate the identity of the dark figure. Then, his grandfather´s face became livid, and he began to move his hands, hissing at him to leave his presence at once. Little Inziladûn, terrified, ran to hide behind his father, who laid a hand on his shoulder and told him to leave while levelling the cause of the child´s fears with a harsh, unintimidated glance.

Back then, Inziladûn had been admired at his father´s bravery. Only later, much later, he had come to understand that, though there was and would always be a current of dark suspicion and visions between the King and his two heirs, Ar-Sakalthôr was in fact the weakest and more frightened of the three.

And more than what he had ever feared Gimilzôr, his grandfather feared him.

“My wife and I ask for your leave to retire, my lord king, favourite of Melkor, protector of Númenor and guardian of the colonies.” he recited, kneeling and bowing in front of the throne. Zarhil knelt too, again as tense as she had been during the ceremony and a good part of the feast. She had only seen Ar-Sakalthôr in a few official or religious circumstances before, but the tales she had heard about the recluse sovereign were obviously weighing on her mind.

This time, however, the King seemed oddly subdued, maybe under the effects of the wine. Mumbling something, he leaned back and took a large sip of his cup.

“Leave.” he ordered more than acquiesced, in a cutting tone. Inziladûn bowed again, and stood up together with Zarhil. As they reached the door, a brief silence fell upon the hall, and the guests bowed to them.

Finally alone in the deserted corridor, where the sounds of the accursed feast only arrived in distant, distorted waves, Inziladûn yanked his wife´s cover away from her head. Drops of sweat glistened over her forehead, but her lips curved in a tired smile as, finally, they were allowed to look at each other.

“Thank you.” she beamed, combing her dishevelled hair with one hand.

He nodded in silence, and felt a brief flash of childish satisfaction as they walked past the red veil that lay discarded on the floor.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Once that he was inside her, he stopped for a moment to look at her face. Her eyes were dark with need, and she sought for his hand, which she held in a strong grip.

With a barely undiscernable nod, he began riding her. The pace was slow, but it slowly increased as her gasps became louder and louder.

When it was finished, he carefully disentangled himself and fell at her side, both holding each other close and listening to their hard breathing. Her callused hand moved distractedly towards his shoulder, where it drew random caressing circles.

Inziladûn stared pensively at the painted figurines on the wall.

“Do you already bleed?” he mumbled after a while. Zarhil´s hand froze.

“I do not.” she replied, all her warmth gone. Though she did not pull away, her husband could easily perceive the rigidity in her limbs, and cursed at his poor choice of words.

“I am sure it will come eventually.” he offered, trying to sound hopeful and conciliating.

“And if it does not come?” she asked, refusing to take the cue. He stared at her.

“Zarhil...”

She shook her head violently.

“What about the day when you will be sure that I will not be able to bear your child? Will you come to me anymore? Do you care about the cursed superstition, yes or not?”

Inziladûn did not answer for a moment, as he tried to think of what to do to prevent this situation from escalading further. He had been aware for a while of her mood, which had only been waiting for an opportunity to show and cause a quarrel.

When Zarhil was not happy, when she felt the walls of Armenelos creeping over her and blocking her from her beloved sea, left aside from the comings and goings of the palace or mocked by the courtiers, she always found a pretext to fight. In a question of seconds, it escaladed into a shouting match, and sometimes she would break things.

This pattern had become more and more frequent in the last years, feeding from the feeling of frustration that slowly took hold of both of them because of her unability to conceive. Her impatience grew with his own, and no matter how he tried, he had always proved unable to stop either of them.

“I am the second heir to the throne of Númenor, Zarhil.” he tried to explain in a patient tone, even as the feeling began to take hold on him again. “One day, I will be King, and then I will need my line to continue.”

“Then, why did you marry me?” she shouted, already at the end of her short patience. “I am unsuitable!”

Because my father wanted me to, he thought, seething at the same time at the constraint of his situation.

Had he been too proud when he had laughed the superstition off, so sure that the spirit of absolute perfection who created the world would always take the trouble of helping him against Gimilzôr? Or, a darker thought slithered inside his mind –and not for the first time-, were his Western kinsmen too influenced by the comforting figures of the gods of Men, when they imagined the Maker and his Eldest Creatures as kind beings with human shapes and feelings, who followed them, loved and cared for them?

He remembered the feeling of desolation that ran through him on that night in the temple, when he had known, deep inside, that they could not see him. The lord of Andúnië had later endeavoured to banish that cruel thought from his mind, and he had wanted desperately to believe it, just as he had once wanted desperately to believe in the Mother of All.

The black edge of desperation made him cruel.

“The Creator has probably decreed that I cannot have children with a woman who worships a false goddess.” he accused, sitting on the edge of the bed and laying the dishevelled sheets aside. Zarhil´s eyes widened in incredulous rage. Her hands were trembling as she, too, stood up and sought for her clothes, pacing in circles like a lion in a cage.

“I worship a false goddess? I worship a false goddess? The goddess of your father and your grandfather, and their father and grandfather?” she seethed. “What do you think they would say if they heard you now?”

He stood his ground, unfazed at the threat. Until this day, Zarhil had been absolutely impervious to his attempts to reform her beliefs, but no matter how angry she was at him, she had never denounced his words to his father. She would not do such a thing.

“I must leave you now. I have more important things to do on the morning than fighting a hysterical woman.” he proclaimed, throwing a nightgown over his shoulders and giving her a curt nod. She stared at him, livid.

“Maybe Ashtarte-Uinen has cursed you!”

The shout came from behind his back, as he was about to disappear through the gallery that brought him back to his chambers. Ignoring her with a snort, he kept walking away from her.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

She was only angry at their repeated failures, he thought, as he walked the corridors of the Main Compound an hour later to meet his father. As was he.

Still, able now to examine the situation with a clearer head, he could not help feeling ashamed at their behaviour back in Zarhil´s bedchamber, better suited to barbarians than princes of Númenor. How they had yelled, and hurt each other like children who needed to blame someone for being unable to have their way. And now, he knew, she would refuse to see him again for a long time.

Maybe Ashtarte-Uinen has cursed you!

Could this hold a part of the truth?, he thought, with a wry smile that rather ressembled a grimace. He remembered the popular tales about Aldarion and Erendis, and how according to them he had been cursed by the goddess for sinning against marriage and forsaking his wife. The truth that was hidden behind those words, for the more rational and learned or simply the more matter-of-factly, was that a man who had proved himself unable to love would be bereaved of any love. And if he, Inziladûn, succeeded in driving Zarhil away from him he would be, truly and finally, bereaved of descendence.

Even as he thought this, a part of himself rebelled fiercely. But it was she who had started everything! She was the one who found it so difficult to live with him that she did not waste an opportunity to start a quarrel. Before she had asked that accusing, unfair question everything had been well...

With a deep sigh, he recalled their lovemaking. She had been loving, with the tenderness that shone so rarely in her harsh and weather-beaten countenance. He had felt drawn to her, by a natural, spontaneous impulse and not because she had to give him a son before it was too late. For a moment, he had forgotten –until the demanding claims of duty and reality had shaken him off from this carefree state.

As he was deeply engrossed in his musings, his ears barely registered the sound of footsteps over the stone floor of the corridors. When he turned around the corner, and found himself face to face with a large train of men that walked in the opposite direction, only the barest of reflexes prevented the collision.

Fortunately, he managed to stop and regain his composure in time. Then, summoning his observation skills back from their long lethargy, he studied the men in shocked surprise.

They were very richly dressed, with a magnificent array of silks, silver thread and embroideries that seemed only a step away from becoming gaudy. In spite of the brilliance of Gimilzôr´s court there was nothing of that sort to be found in Númenor, and this, together with the arrogant way in which some of the men stared at him, made Inziladûn come to an unpleasant realisation.

“Stand aside for the great Magon, prince of Gadir!” one of them ordered, in a lofty voice with a heavy accent. Inziladûn froze as he recognised the name, but before he could answer, one of the others put a hand over his companion´s shoulder.

“Do not be so insolent in a place you are not familiar with. You might encounter some... surprises.” he scolded, with a perfect Númenorean accent, Then, he turned towards Inziladûn with a courteous bow. “Hail, Lord Inziladûn, grandson of Ar-Sakalthôr, favourite of Melkor, protector and guardian of Númenor and its colonies!”

Inziladûn nodded, taken aback at the stranger´s easy and correct guess, and stared at him. His cloak was purple like the robes of the Kings, and he wore a gold band upon his head. He had long hair which fell down his back in many different braids held by silver rings, but what fascinated Inziladûn the most was the strange, golden tinge of his skin.

His eyes were a soft brown, oddly caressing and at the same time scrutinising his features in a mixture of reverence and calculation. Inziladûn felt sized up by them, and immediately adopted a closed expression.

He was facing a worthy enemy.

“I am pleased to meet you, Magon of Gadir.” he replied in an even tone. “I was told of your arrival, but some matters are keeping me busy.”

This was a lie, but Inziladûn could not allow anyone to know of his puzzlement at finding those people in Armenelos. In theory, his father should have informed him of their visit, but it had been a long time since Gimilzôr decided to keep his son away from his dealings with the Merchant Princes. His Western kinsmen were unanimous in assessing that this could mean danger to them, but so far the visits had been sparse and in-between.

And never had the first citizen of the ancient Pelargir set a foot on Númenor before.

“We are flattered for this attention, coming from such a noble prince.” Magon said, with another bow. “But regretfully, we are leaving Armenelos this very afternoon.”

Inziladûn took a breath.

“Then, “he replied, making the Hand sign, “I wish you a good travel under the protection of the Queen of the Seas.”

Taking the cue, Magon´s whole retinue bowed to him, and passed him by in a flutter of heavy silks. Inziladûn made semblance of going his own way as well, but after a moment he stopped again on his tracks to stare at their retreating forms with a frown.

What had that man come to Númenor for?

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

“Will the King sign, then?”

Gimilzôr´s lip curved into a slight grimace, recalling the man´s shining eyes and his insistent expression. Oh, yes, he was very courteous, and soft-spoken. But as he had learned throughout his dealings with lesser men, ambition was such a raw emotion that, in the end, it oozed through the most skilled of masks.

There were also the airs, a servile insolence that came from that cursed city of merchants. He felt a little dirty: none of his predecessors would have received one of them or made dealings with him. But not much, because he knew that there were far more repulsive things, a worse kind of pollution that hid behind a pretence of loyalty perfected through centuries.

The pollution of those who had bereaved him of his wife and son, and would bereave him of his kingdom.

Gimilzôr had learned many things, since that day in which, taken by an ardent wish to be greater than his predecessors and put a definite end to the dangers that assailed the Sceptre, he had defied the council and his newly-proclaimed father by recalling the lord of Andünié. Back then, he had thought that not even Ar-Adunakhôr had known better than him, that nothing could escape his control. That, isolated from their supporters and under the sight of the King, his enemies would not be able to plot treason anymore. He had married their kinswoman to seal the alliance – little could he have imagined that Eärendur would be the one who fooled him in the end!

He had sought to control them through force, while they had wormed their way into his affections. Her beauty had clouded his mind, her son´s bright smile had clouded his heart. Their poison had matured through the years, and in the end, the bloodline of the Kings had been defeated.

Or almost.

Gimilzôr was now an expert in observing, and in waiting. At each year that passed he had become less of a mortal, and more of a reflection of the Divine Melkor, a true King. Inzilbêth had died, Inziladûn had been lost; his heart had shed the last chains.

He was unshakeable. He did not want to regain what he had lost, or have revenge on those who had bereaved him. And therefore, the time had arrived.

Methodically, he pushed the documents until they were at the exact centre of the table, and reread the first. The net´s terrible perfection almost made him smile.

“... and, due to your repeated crimes against Our Majesty, disdaining the sacred links of kinship, fealty, and obligation for past favours, you are commanded to surrender your lands and titles to the King and submit to the custody of  Azzibal of Sor.”

Back when he exiled them, Ar-Adunakhôr had left them their power, their honour, their followers, and freedom of action. Young Gimilzôr, seeking to control them, had allowed them into the inviolable circle of the King´s palace. But now, there would be nothing left to them as they withered in closed chambers in the very centre of the mighty city of Adunakhôr, under the vigilance of the closest client of Magon of Gadir. It was not the King they would have to contend with, but the lust for revenge and power of a class who had collided with them in the past because of their overseas interests, and whom they had despised, relegated and wronged without hope of retaliation. When trade with Elves was forbidden, and the Western line was exiled for the first time, the annals said that there had been long and magnificent festivities in Gadir.

The Merchant Princes were men like the others, this he had quickly understood as he dealt with them. They ate and bled, worshipped the gods and loved their women. And yet, among all their affections, it was the desire of riches what truly governed their souls. Riches gave them social status and preeminence among their peers, and ultimately, power over the nobles who held them in contempt yet needed their money to meet the requirements of Court life. Riches were their lands, honours, and titles.

And that was why they would ally themselves with him. They would freely do the dirty work of the Sceptre that destroyed their ancient competitors, offered them monopolies, provided them with armies to subdue the tribes that threatened their exploitation of the silver mines and their dealings with the natives. And they would do it for the sake of Melkor and Armenelos, and above all for the sake of Gimilzôr, the first prince who, against the scandal of his ancestors, had been their friend.

And today, he thought as he leafed slowly through a copy of the second, unread document, our alliance will finally be sealed.

Suddenly, the sound of footsteps behind the door of his study took him away from his musings. He raised his head,  and pushed the papers away.

“Yes?” he demanded. A soft voice answered him.

“Your son is here, my lord prince.”

Gimilzôr frowned. In his mind, for a moment, he had a vision of those grey eyes, trying to pry out his secrets for the benefit of his father´s enemies. A feeling that he had discarded a long time ago clenched his insides; he tried to dismiss it as a brief attack of nausea.

“I will not see him.” he replied, standing up from his chair.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

He did not stop for a moment on the threshold of the chambers. With a decided stride he passed between the guards, who stood back with a reverential bow, and ordered them to leave. The ivory table was in the usual state of disorder; he sought it with his glance, only to find the paper in the same place where he had left it the day before.

Frowning in anger, he picked it up for inspection. It was still unsigned.

“Where is the King?” he asked to a courtier who had arrived to receive him. The man lowered his head.

“In... in the gardens, my lord prince.”

Gimilzôr took the paper between two fingers, and immediately headed towards that direction. The door of the terrace was obstructed by three other courtiers, who were carefully cleaning radishes and putting them in boxes. When they saw him looming over them, they were so startled that one of them dropped the armful of vegetables that he was carrying.

Without paying the slightest attention to his fumbling, the Prince walked among them. The King was at the left side of the garden, kneeling between two bushes. He had just cut an especially fine radish, and was in the process of cleaning it with his hand and showing it delightedly to a lady who had rolled up the sleeves of her dress to help him in his endeavours.

Her laughter was quenched as soon as she felt him approach.

“Prince Gimilzôr.” she welcomed him with a bow.

“Leave.”

In a distinctly reluctant manner, she bowed and left with a lingering look at both of them. The King looked warily at him.

“What do you want?”

Gimilzôr did not waste much time with greetings. He simply produced the paper, and showed it to him.

“You forgot to sign this.”

The old man hesitated for a moment, then turned his attention back to his radish with an uneasy look that reminded of a young boy being scolded. For a while, he kept dusting it in silence, playing with the edges of Gimilzôr´s patience.

“I am sure that these radishes should leave you even a moment to sign an important document.” his son continued in a forced light tone. “Accompany me now, please.”

The King shook his head.

“No.” he muttered, sullenly.

Gimilzôr took a sharp breath. He had no time for the old fool´s childishness.

“What do you mean, no?”

For a moment, he thought that Ar-Sakalthôr would refuse to answer. As he was already opening his mouth again, however, the king laid down his precious root with an expression of regret, and gave him a baleful look.

“I do not want to sign that document, and I will not.” he spoke, defiantly. “I do not like its contents.”

“My King, it is a necessary move. It will support our policies well, and bring us great aid in the future. In exchange for having our aid to secure his influence over a territory which is even smaller than Armenelos, we will have the key to the loyalty of the Merchant Princes and all the rich merchants of Númenor.”

“To start with, she is three years old! Who knows if she is still... breastfeeding, or something of the sort? This is ridiculous!”

“The marriage will not take place until she is old enough.”

“Oh, yes, once she has had the time to bed the whole of the male population of her accursed city!” Ar-Sakalthôr snorted. “Child of the Mother”, the text says. Or you think, perchance, that I have forgotten how to read?”

Gimilzôr shook his head mechanically.

“The Goddess saved her life when she was born, and she was consecrated to her in exchange. If she does not receive her due, she will take it with her own hands.” he explained. “But this does not matter to us.”

“It matters to me!” The King´s voice raised to a shrill, complaining tone. “I care for my grandson and for my bloodline! I will not stand aside while this- this dreadful alliance with an unholy, polluted kin takes place, or allow an overseas merchant to rule Númenor at will! Think of what your ancestors would have said!”

Gimilzôr put the paper down with a sharp noise.

“And what would you have me do?” he asked, raising his voice. “I am taking the appropriate steps to assure the survival of our kingdom. That - bloodline of yours is hanging from a thread, and it is not a very reassuring one. As you very well know, my elder son has been corrupted into an Elf-friend by the Western snakes, and he will not have heirs!”

“And whose fault was that?”

For a moment, Gimilzôr stared at the King, livid. Then, he advanced on him, and saw a shadow of fear pass through the eyes of Ar-Sakalthor as he instinctively retreated.

“If you had done your duty, I would not have needed to make all those decisions! If you had ruled Númenor as King, an inexperienced prince would never have been forced to carry the burden alone!” With the corner of his eye, he noticed a stir among the courtiers who were still at the terrace, barely twenty metres away from them, and made them a sharp signal to leave. Their prompt obedience seemed to bring even more uneasiness to the huddled figure of the King.

“And now, you will sign this if you do not want your wretched life to become even more wretched!” Gimilzôr hissed menacingly. Ar-Sakalthôr lowered his eyes, and stared hard at his thin, trembling fingers.

When the Prince turned away in the direction of the porch, he followed him meekly, and sat down on the low table dusting his hands in a thorough, methodical way.

“Here.” Gimilzôr muttered, handing him the quill. Ar-Sakalthôr took it and stared at the text with a forlorn expression.

When he made the signature, his hand was trembling. Gimilzôr sought his features in shock, and realised that the old man was crying. He gave a sigh.

It was pitiful. No king should act like this.

“You treat me like I was the most despicable of mortals.” Ar-Sakalthôr sobbed. “You hate me, but once I took care of you. You- you have forgotten how I took care of you. You were such a small child once... not taller than my knee...”

Gimilzôr turned away in dismay. In spite of his endeavours to harden himself and expel from his mind the notion that this pitiful being was his father, he still felt his heart sink, torn between pity and revulsion.

It should not be like this. He should not be forced to bring misery upon this man who had enough misfortunes with his own troubled mind, not even for the sake of Númenor. But so he had felt about his wife and son, and in the end those thoughts would always bring him nowhere.

He was the King.

As he left the chambers, he found himself face to face with the lady who had been digging radishes with Ar-Sakalthôr. She made an attempt to leave his presence with nothing but a mumbled greeting, but he stopped in his tracks and forced her to do the same.

“Look after him.” he ordered.

Furrowing her brow in barely concealed disgust, she bowed and took her leave.

 

*     *     *     *      *

 

The summer of that year, right after taking his grandfather´s place at the wedding feast of Númendil and Emeldir, Inziladûn asked his father for leave to visit his wife´s kin in Sorontil. When Zarhil knew of this plan, her morose mood vanished completely, giving way to a frenzied excitement. She appointed herself his guide, and forgot their differences  for a while in her determination to show him the land of her birth to the last stone.

Forrostar was not the fairest land in Númenor, or the most pleasant to live in. For the most part it was covered in mountains of bare rock, where only goats and their shepherds dared to venture. Stormclouds gathered on their peaks, covering the skies in a melancholy mass of grey for the whole month of their stay. A humid cold seeped through the very bones of the visitors even in the warmest guest chambers of the windswept house of the lord of Sorontil, and yet Inziladûn found that he liked this house, and the land, well enough.

Zarhil had said once that the Northern breeze came directly from the Sea to the peak of Sorontil, clean and new, and unspoiled by the lazy warmth of the air of Mittalmar. He had to agree with her in that there was a strange invigorating quality to it, a purity which did not reach other parts of Númenor that lay enclosed between walls and shady corridors.

But, what was even more precious to him was that this land meant freedom. Zakarbal, his wife´s brother, paid no mind to Gimilzôr´s protocol in his father´s lands, and both Inziladûn and Zarhil were allowed to ride alone wherever they wished, undisturbed by the peasants who stared at them in faint curiosity before going back to their business. It meant lack, almost abhorrence of ostentation – a family of seamen and warriors, the lords of Sorontil had always prided themselves in keeping a modest household. All the magnificence they allowed around themselves had been bestowed upon their Armenelos residence, out of policy and constraint, and even this had been financed by the Númenorean associates of the Merchant Princes, in whose debt Zarhâd, to his great displeasure, stayed even now.

Zarhil made good of her promise to show him everything there was to see in the land. It clearly thrilled her to visit her family´s house and to ride the open plains again, and Inziladûn was glad for her sake. Still, the day when she brought him to the Sea, he noticed that her mood shifted again; as exuberant as before when she talked or exchanged jokes with him, whenever she thought that he was not looking she fell into a mournful silence.

And Zarhil was not the only one to feel the need to protect her troubled thoughts behind a veil of quiet. In spite of the welcome changes that this trip meant for him, Inziladûn soon found that he was still haunted by the shadows of Armenelos.

It was a feeling whose nature he could not exactly discern, but since that fatidical morning in which Magon, prince of Gadir, had stood in his way in that corridor, each whisper of a courtier, each visitor to his father´s audience chamber, each look in the Prince´s eyes had felt like another thread of a shape-shifting, endlessly stretching web of conspiracy. Sometimes, he was afraid that the suspicious disease that ran in his family´s veins could be preying on him. He had escaped the gloom of the Palace, but the irrational feeling of danger had still followed him here.

One day, they found themselves in a beach of the Eastern shore, riding back from one of their excursions. Inziladûn had confessed his great desire to visit the tower of Meneldur, where a famous ancestor of his had been imprisoned, and Zarhil had obliged.

The tower was now abandoned, not even used as a lighthouse anymore. Taking advantage of this circumstance, they had been able to climb to the uppermost room, where Tar-Meneldur had studied the stars and Alissha´s life had waned in an agony of decades. He had felt a great sadness pervade his spirit, as he sat behind the window where the woman who had been meant to be the first queen of the Faithful had seen the same stormy sea, day after day to the hour of her death, and wondered darkly if his own mission would end in a similar fate of loneliness.

Zarhil had also been quiet for the most part, not doing much to dispel the clouds of his demeanour. The trip back home was done in silence, each lost in their own world of thoughts, until he was taken out of his musings by an exclamation.

“Look! Look, Inziladûn, over there! Ships!”

Curious, he followed his wife´s finger, which was pointing at the horizon. Built with the exquisite craft of the Númenóreans, the machines of war seemed to fly over the foam with spread sails, like gigantic gulls of a beautiful yet terrible elegance.

“Warships!” she cried, excited, dismounting and heading towards the shore to have a better look at them. Inziladûn, admired in spite of himself, followed her example. “One, two, three! They are heading South for Sor!”

“Two warships.” he corrected mechanically. Zarhil stared at him in surprise. “One merchant ship.” Clients of the Merchant Princes, a darker voice murmured within his mind.

“By the Lady of the Seas, you have the eyesight of an Elvish fiend!” she cursed, clearly aggravated at a landsman besting her in her own domain. He did not answer, busy with overtaking her and reaching the breaking of the waves.

And then, he saw it. Riding the foam that spread like a white mantle over his feet, a single, silver gleam. Out of an immediate instinct, he crouched and caught it in his hand, before the water pulled it away from him.

A leaf. A small, perfect leaf of malinornë that he could cup in the palm of his hand.

“Inziladûn! What are you doing?”

For a moment, he tried to search in his mind for a way to explain this. Had the current brought it all the way from Andúnië, round the cape and without being washed ashore until it reached him? But then, his faint attempts at logic were overtaken by the unleashed storm of visions, like a wave was overtaken by another as they broke upon the shore. He saw the pale figures of Númendil and Emeldir, sitting under the malinornë trees, and there was a shadow upon them.

He saw Artanis, watching them sadly from a distance. The shadow was upon her, too, and upon her father and family.

He saw Eärendur, standing in waiting at the Palace courtyard. He appraised the shadow in front of him and faced it without a struggle, with the resigned firmness that Inziladûn had always seen upon his face to that day.

And the shadow engulfed him.

“Inziladûn... what is the matter?”

Pulled back into reality by the insistence of Zarhil´s voice, the first emotion that coursed through Inziladûn´s mind was danger. At once, he hid the leaf and tried to bring back an appearance of normalcy to his features, tense with fear.

“I am fine.” he assured her, swallowing deeply. For a second, her look felt doubtful and penetrating, but he looked away and headed back towards his horse in determined strides. “We must hurry, or night will take us in our way.”

Only after a while, he heard the soft, crushing sound of the sand giving way under puzzled steps.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

“In the name of the King, do not resist!”

He did not move. The soldiers had made a circle around him, but they did not advance, as if held back by an invisible wall.

Away in the distance, he heard his grandson´s voice. He was telling them not to harm his wife and Artanis -lonely, unfortunate Artanis, how she would miss the golden trees-, but he knew that they had been told not to touch any of them. It had been like this the other time, before any of them had been born.

Now, they would be brought to the Palace. There would be a trial. And later in the night they would be taken East, to the shores where his own life had begun in exile so many years ago. The proud Merchant Princes, newly allied to the Royal family, would suffer no opposition either in trade or politics.

With the first indice of anxiety that he had felt since they broke into his house, Eärendur wondered for a moment how Inziladûn would face these new circumstances. For years he had taken great pains to impress the nature of their respective duties in the mind of his young, royal kinsman; asked, entreated him to never betray himself no matter what happened to them in the future. Their own roles in this drama were secondary, fleeting lives of dedicated service and constant incertitude until their time came. And he thought that Inziladûn had understood – yes, he told himself with a small allowance to pride, he had taught him well.

His role was now over.

A young child sat upon the ground, listening to the distant cry of the seagulls.

“Mama, are those the birds from home?”

His mother shook her head in sadness.

“No, my dear. We have no home.”

The first cry of surprise came from behind his back. Another followed almost at once, and suddenly he saw nothing but confused faces, the clank of metal and a shuffle of feet running towards him. Cold hands grabbed at his arm, trying to pull him up, to force him to stay with harsh threats, but this, he thought with a smile in triumph, was the only thing that the proud King of Men would never be able to command.

Eärendur closed his eyes, willing back to his mind the memories of the first time that he had leaned on the prow of a ship to see the majestic cliffs of the Bay of Andúnië. Once again, he sought the secrets embedded on the grey lines with the enthusiasm of a child, until he found the city of his ancestors, carved in stone and cradled by rock like the nest of an eagle.

We have a home, mother, he muttered. Far in the distance, someone shook his body as if it was a broken puppet. And no one will take it away from me again.

A light shone in the West, white and radiant like foam under the sunlight. With a last, pitying glance at his loved ones, Eärendur rose, and began the journey.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

“Father...”

His voice broke. A weak grin flickered for a second over the emaciated face, before it contracted in a renewed spasm. The cold hand gripped his harshly, drawing nails against his flesh.

Gimilzôr did not feel the pain.

“Father, listen to me.” he repeated, this time in a firmer, more composed tone. Still, somehow, the treacherous anguish managed to seep through, and a part of his soul cringed at its haunting sound. When had he come to this humiliating weakness? “Númenor is safe now. The rule of the Western lords has ended. The merchants of Sor and Gadir are our friends, and we will keep things under control. One day, a new ruling family will be born from this alliance.” He paused to swallow the knot in his throat. “Inziladûn´s line is broken. We have saved Númenor, Father, do you see? We did what had to be done. You - understand it now, at last, do you not, Father?”

Ar-Sakalthôr´s huge, wide eyes stared at him in incomprehension. Little by little, the pull began to subside, and a feverish hand tried to find its way to clean the sweat from his brow. Gimilzôr sought for a handkerchief and wiped it himself, while his father watched his every movement in some tension and a slight wariness.

Suddenly, the old King broke into a short, raspy laugh.

“Who are you?” he said. Gimilzôr took a long breath. He was delirious.

“I am your son.” he said. “Your son, Gimilzôr.”

Ar-Sakalthôr shook his head, but did not answer or show any further signal of recognition.

“I have no sons”, he muttered a long while later, as he studied the glazed tiles of the wall in quiet disdain.

Chapter Text

The young woman bowed thrice, touching the stone floor with her forehead. With a well-measured gesture, she made the holy sign, muttered a litany of sacred names, and stood up to leave.

As she walked the length of the cave, her ears caught the faint sounds of rustling robes, first away in the distance, then closing upon her, unseen. A tremulous breath escaped her lungs, and she paused for a moment to listen. They were there, her sisters-  she could feel their presence following her movements from the shadows, with gazes of silent mourning for their youngest.

And still, she was not allowed to linger for any longer. Outside, they were waiting for her to emerge, for the brutal sunrays to tear her away from the Mother´s darkness. She lowered her head, blinking the dazzled tears away as she took in the stairs, until her eyes became able to find the way back to the boat. Two women, dressed in red and gold, knelt reverently to pick up her robes.

Melkyelid sat upon the back of the ship, slowly relaxing as the familiar roll of small waves rocked her body. At both sides of the channel, citizens paused their daily dealings to lean over the bronze railings, and take a curious glimpse of the young bride who would cross the ocean to dwell on their ancient homeland, where the sun drowned every night and ships who dared to wander beyond the last limits were swallowed by angry waves. Two children pointed at her excitedly, whispering between themselves.

The city of Gadir was never fairer than at this hour of the morning. It was the hour of the humid radiance, which spread through the urban forest of white and painted towers that crowned the tall houses. It was the hour when the first light touched the streets of polished pavements that the people of Gadir preferred to the corridors of their own houses, and the quiet groves where an awed little girl had once caught glimpses of a blue plain between gigantic trunks of oceanic, trees that spread their knotted, muscled arms as if to catch her in an embrace of petrified wood.

This same light was now dancing in brilliant spots upon the calm waters, where an older girl had thrown her most precious jewels to pray for the love of an ungrateful young man. And as the boat sailed across the wide mouth where the channel died into the sea, with the Númenorean harbour upon her left and the golden sands of the cove upon her right, it also touched the wilder waters where she had bathed her naked body after her service to the Goddess.

Melkyelid went pale, as those distant memories mingled with another, more recent ones. A young woman cradled her shaking body with her own hands, lying upon the cold floor at the Lady´s feet.

“Almighty Mother, you who rule the might of Sea, you who look with pleasure upon the joining of bodies in the dark hours of the night, you whom I have always served, and honoured, and held holier than the mother who bore me, take pity on your daughter in her great distress. Throw your mantle of shadows upon her, shut her in your dark womb, protect her from the cruel sun of tomorrow. Accept her eternal service, use her body to subdue men to your power, fill her mind with pious thoughts, until the day that she is lost and taken by the Doom of Men.”

Melkyelid stood up from her seat. The heavy silver necklace that she was wearing made a clinking noise, and she remembered her father´s hands, turning it thrice around her neck.

“You are my pride. Even as you sit in your brilliant palace at the end of the world, never forget your blood.”

Her mother, patiently tying the seventy thin braids of her hair with silver bands.

You are my pride. Even as you watch the sun die in front of your eyes, never forget your blood.”

Her elder sisters, who stole looks of mingled jealousy and admiration while they painted her fingernails with diminute figures of purple, and arranged the folds of blue silk spun in silver of her dress.

“You are our pride. Even as you bear long-lived children with the eyes of gods, never forget your blood.”

The young woman saw the last arms of sand pass her by, the last rocks, the last collectors of the purple shell. Her fingernails dug into her palms, so harshly that they almost drew blood.

... The benign smile of cold ivory, last teaching of her Mother to her daughter...

The boat slowed its course, then bumped to a halt. In front of it stood the ship.

Melkyelid swallowed the ache and smiled a regal smile, serene and achingly beautiful like the goddess of ivory. Her city lay behind her back, with her towers and her  trees, and her polished streets, and her shadowed temples.

And in front of the ship, stretching in front of the dead child´s eyes, the blue, flawless plain.

“Let us board before the wind changes.” she ordered in a clear voice.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The late Spring day was magnificent at its zenith, like a perfect blue gem. The sky was reflected over the smooth surface of the waters, and the people who crowded the docks sought in vain for a gust of sea breeze that would ease the weight of the burning sun. Everything was quiet, with the crushing calm of sacred ceremonies.

For the space of that one day, the small city of the Old Harbour had been revived from its long agony. Once again, visitors crowded the streets, vendors shouted their merchandise, and old women who leaned over their windows in mystified surprise were asked for the shortest way to the harbour that had once been the greatest in the world of Men and a word of fear for Middle Earth. The intense life of a royal seaport erupted in streets of old stone and neglected statues, where people exchanged rumours, confronted their divided opinions about the Newcomer and devised strategies to have a good view of the royal train.

As any pedantic library mouse, or proud heir of an ancient family would tell anybody who wanted to hear, Rómenna had been the key of Númenorean expansion for so many centuries that they were now impossible to count. The ships that would found Gadir had set off from their docks, and silver had flowed into their outstretched palms. Kings had embellished their streets, built magnificent public edifices and temples, and some ventured that even Gadir´s beauty had been nothing but a pale copy of its mother back then.

The beginning of the decadence had been Ar-Adunakhôr´s accession to the throne. The ambitious king had judged Rómenna insufficient for his daring projects, too small and old and full of memories. Not further than a few miles south, he had ordered the building of the Arms of the Giant, the weapon of Melkor fully equipped for both trade and war. The harbour of Sor was larger than three cities put together, and in the shadow of the growing monster, Rómenna could do nothing but wither.

During the reign of Ar-Zimrathôn, to add insult to injury, the King had ordered the Western exiles to dwell in settlements near the city, effectively crushing whatever remained of their ancient splendour. That impious rabble had suffocated them, forcing them to build walls and fences against their possible rebellions and attracting the King´s ill-will over the region. In the families of Rómenna, visceral hatred for those usurpers was transmitted from one generation to another as part of a sombre inheritance, the last remains of their ancient pride.

This year, however, many events had taken place to shake them away from this long lethargy of resentment. King Ar-Gimilzôr, in an unexpected decision that had provoked outrage and set many tongues wagging in the whole of Númenor, had chosen a bride from Gadir for his younger son, the daughter of the most powerful merchant of the colony. It was the first time that a woman of Middle-Earth married into an important family in Númenor –the King´s own family!-, and the whole Court had been set in motion to welcome her to the Island.

The first idea had been, of course, to have her reach Sor and welcome her in the King´s harbour. But when most preparatives were already completed, the priests had suddenly interposed their veto. If the Middle-Earth ship bringing the new princess to Númenor entered Sor, it would be a bad omen of conquest. Discontent was already seeping through the populace about what they viewed as a humiliating capitulation to the Merchant Princes, and her arrival could not take the appearance of a triumphal entrance in the greatest symbol of the King´s dominion over the world. Moreover, she was consecrated to the Goddess, whose dark feminine essence the Lord of Light despised.

And thus, the inhabitants of Rómenna had woken up one morning to find whole armies of servants of the King at their gates. For the space of a month the city had been cleaned and repaired, fences had been built throughout the harbour, houses had been restored to their former magnificence to accomodate great nobles, and the Western exiles who lived in the city as servants, artisans or vendors had been expelled once again. Everything that the Royal House of Armenelos had not done in a hundred years had been completed in a few days.

Most citizens, in spite of all, had not allowed themselves to be blinded by this new turn in their fortunes. Their city had once been great, and in front of those new visitors - both the humble and the illustrious-, they were determined to behave as if nothing was out of the ordinary. The lady whose family had been noble at the time of the Colonisers wore the finery of her great-grandmother, and stared with condescendence at the heavy golden veils of the Court ladies. The head of the City Council did not humble himself offering his thanks to the governor of Sor for having been chosen – echoes of a time where such a choice would have been obvious. Parents scolded their children for staring at the folk of Armenelos, and any circle of old wives felt entitled to criticise, in patronising tones, this new bride whom they fancied to be a distant descendant of one of the city´s wayward families, who had once left in search of a better fortune.

Still, the day when the royal train finally made it to the harbour, there were few who withstood the temptation of fighting for a vantage point from which they could at least catch a glimpse of the favourites of Melkor. None of the citizens had seen this new King before, except for the odd merchant who had travelled to Armenelos to finish some business on the day of the Prince´s wedding. As he walked towards the docks surrounded by his train and guards, many women and more than one man stood on their toes, and let go of a sigh of wonder.

Now, that was a king. Some of the elderly people of the city still remembered having travelled to neighbouring Sor to see Ar-Sakalthôr more than seventy years ago, when he went there to consecrate the temple of Melkor in the first year of his reign, and his long pale face, lost glances and rebellious hair had been found wanting. Ar-Gimilzôr, however, even at a distance, carried his royal dignity with all the required competence. His diadem, golden and set with rubies seemed to have been wrought with the sole purpose of ornating his proud frown. The purple cloak was folded with elegance, and the curls of long black hair fell down his back exactly as the most exigent of his examiners would have wished. All in all, he walked with assurance, seeing all but unmoved by everything.

Behind him, someone whispered, came his elder son, the Prince of the West. The looks of reverential approval that his father had earned turned to surprise, and then shock as he came in full sight. If he had not carried the purple, no one would have hesitated to believe that he was a lowly servant allowed into the King´s train by underhanded means. His mane, curly like that of his father, was as rebellious as that of his grandfather, and, horror of horrors! he had not shaved the hair in his face. He walked briskly, with none of the dignity that was required even of the humblest stablehand of the Palace, and his eyes, unpleasant and grey like those of the impious exiles, stared left and right with an unseeming curiosity.

At his side was his wife, plain and grey-haired like the wife of a barbarian. The daughter of a maid who served the hairdresser of a Palace lady-in-waiting whispered to her friends that she had heard there was no love between them, that he was exasperated at her unability to give him heirs, and that she spent more than half of her years in her family´s house in the cold North.

Last, three steps behind them, the other son of the King walked at the side of the governor of Sor. His features mirrored those of his father, but coloured by the charm of a youth that refused to fade, and which the artful braiding of his hair with gold thread contributed to enhance. He wore a tunic of green and gold; the approval of the crowd was immediate.

As he made a move of his hand to elegantly brush a spot of dust from the hem of his cloak, a woman whispered in her husband´s ear that Prince Gimilkhâd would make a better King than his brother. The respectable shoemaker looked left and right and shook his head, vaguely afraid.

Because of the unfavourable currents, or a general error of calculation of the heralds, the ship was suffering a delay. The city authorities soon had to order a red awning to be brought for the royal family, and some murmurations could be heard from the rowdier part of the multitude as the sunrays started to grow stronger. More than one person, bedazzled by the light or simply with a penchant for jokes, announced the silhouette of the ship in the horizon, and caused the heavy calm to stir briefly before it died again in disappointment.

Still, the white sails did not appear unless well past noontide. They came floating over the calm surface of the Sea, agonisingly slow like a sleeping whale. A low buzz of whispers arose again, as the people forgot about the heat and the long hours of waiting to press against each other in their attempts to see.

The ship had ben made with the peculiar craft of the people of Gadir. Lower and wider than the Númenorean falcons of war, its curved hull had ample holds for merchandise, and the gentle, rocking movement it made suggested the graceful swing of a woman´s hips. On its prow, which did not end in the piercing spur typical of the ships of Sor, a glittering spot attracted many curious glances, until it sailed close enough to the harbour for the people to distinguish the shape of a standing woman who looked into the distance.

The looks of curiosity soon turned to incredulity, and the intensity of the whispers increased. Rumour spread like fire that this woman was the merchant´s daughter, the barbarian who had the effrontery to show her face to the assembled crowd before her wedding! Some people turned back to steal a look at Ar-Gimilzôr, to see his reaction, but the King´s features showed none.

It was already under a slightly hostile climate that the ship, amid some yells of the sailors who manouevred to throw and tie the ropes, slowed and froze to a halt, and a gangway made of wooden planks was fastened for the princess´s descent. And still, when she appeared at the top of the ramp, the scathing comments died in a renewed bout of astonishment.

The bride from Gadir stepped down, ignoring the changing emotions of the crowd. For a moment, she stopped to dart a few looks at the unfamiliar surroundings, and her throat bulged with a quick swallow. Her honey-coloured eyes blinked once, and many an angry woman had to elbow her enthralled husband while cursing this foreign priestess who was not a pale-faced girl with a deep glance.

There were many legends about the fair queens of old, and rumour had it that the late Princess Inzilbêth, the mother of the heir to the throne, had been the greatest beauty of Númenor before the Doom took her at a young age. But none, among the thousands of people who gathered in that old harbour, had ever seen such a sight in their lifetime.

This bride was dressed with a magnificence that put every single courtier to shame. Even the King himself was overshadowed by the splendour of her extravagant attire of floating blue silks, covered in embroideries of the fine silver that had earned her city´s prosperity. Heavy necklaces hung from her neck, diamond and emerald bracelets covered her arms in an impossible profusion, and even her hair, long and of a rich brown colour, was almost buried under ringlets of silver and gems. No woman in Númenor had ever dressed like this – no, not even the goddess who stood in the darkness of her cave at the Forbidden Bay.

And yet, the beauty of the woman under the display of riches was well worthy, maybe even complementary of them in an odd way. She was very young –not yet twenty- with freshly formed features that were already tempered by a soft elegance. Beneath her robes, each of her small, balancing steps formed sensuous lines that brought a knot to many throats. And her skin –admirable thing!-, like yet another exotic jewel that had been wrapped over her limbs, was a softly golden colour, as if the sunrays, instead of burning it, had instead chosen to lend to it something of their own quality.

Someone could be heard explaining, to whoever cared to listen, that hers was the skin colour of the people who lived in the land where the sun was born. Those with an education smirked at his ignorance, but none looked aside.

As she arrived in the King´s vicinity, her chin was still high. The onslaught of murmurs of disapproval was renewed, this time coming from the people of the royal train. Something in her eyes, in the way in which she walked suggested effrontery to the grave folk of Armenelos.

She seemed to have the presence of mind to notice, however, and lowered her eyes until she was close enough to kneel and bow in front of Ar-Gimilzôr. Gimilkhâd eyed her in bedazzlement, while a curious interest danced in his brother´s sharp eyes.

“Rise, Melkyelid.” the King said, offering her his hand in a show of goodwill. She took it and stood up, just in time to find coarse fingers holding a red veil in front of her nose.

Realisation dawned upon the newcomer´s features, and she bowed in apology to the tall, forbidding figure of her sister-in-law. When she threw the red folds over her face, several muffled sighs of disappointment could be heard in their proximity.

Once that she had convenably covered herself, she turned again towards Ar-Gimilzôr.

“Protector and guardian of Númenor and its colonies.” she began. Her voice came too loud, and coloured by the shadow of an accent, but it did not tremble. “Favourite of the Great God whose name I am not allowed to speak, ruler of Armenelos, receive this humble daughter of the city beyond the Sea in your sacred realm!”

For a moment, she raised her eyes again, and let them trail briefly over the royal persons. Gimilkhâd swallowed, visibly agitated at the blurred sight of her face. Inziladûn frowned, as if he had been assaulted by a sudden vision, but Ar-Gimilzôr merely nodded in approval.

“Come.” he said. The members of the King´s train composed their robes amid the sound of swishing silks, and slowly set into motion behind Ar-Gimilzôr´s even steps.

Melkyelid stood there, frozen for a second of incertitude as she watched the complicated manouevre. Then, aware of the buzz that had been unleashed behind her back, she held the ends of the long veil with a determined grip, and fell into an empty space behind Gimilkhâd.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Her eyes were round and cautious, taking things in consideration with a sort of methodical slowness. Used to brief waits, to the intense moments and noisy chatter of a life of pleasure in Armenelos, this silent withdrawal into a world of her own could not help but make Gimilkhâd nervous. He turned aside from her, studied the mosaics and carpets of his own room; then turned back abruptly, ashamed at his own lack of majesty.

The young woman´s features, still brilliant from sweat, had only recently emerged from beneath the red folds of the veil. Now, a golden hand was trying to pull an element of her headdress back in place, with precise movements that struck a quiet contrast with his wild behaviour.

As he stopped to look at her, she raised her head in answer. Both their glances clashed in the air, and he blinked, feeling explored – not pierced, like whenever those terrible grey eyes saw through his elaborate masks and broke his strongest defenses, yet he had never allowed any man who drank with him or any woman who entered his bed to stare at him in the face.

And he had always hated silence.

Melkyelid breathed deeply, and her lips curved into a tentative smile. Gimilkhâd, whose mouth had already begun to open, felt a knot gather in his throat, and let it snap shut again.

Too late, he realised that she was seeing him gape at her. Furious, he clenched his fists, trying to regain his dignity while she watched.

“I thought a former priestess of Ashtarte-Uinen would not be so shy on her wedding night.” he blurted out, somewhat vengefully. “What do you have to be afraid of?”

The expected –relieving- onslaught did not come. Maybe, a part of him thought, he had not even expected it, not any more than he would have expected a precious statue in a courtyard to yell back at him.

She smoothed out the blue and silver fabric of her dress over her knees, until there wasn´t a single crease left in the pattern.

“Might a stranger speak freely?” she demanded.

Since the last lady-in-waiting had fled their presence, with hurried steps and a pleased blush upon her downcast face, it was the first time that she had spoken a word. In spite of himself, Gimilkhâd had grown fascinated with that alien accent of deeper and longer vowels, and the soft tone that she had quickly learned to employ when she realised that the ladies of Armenelos were shocked at the loudness in her voice. He nodded, a gesture which she answered with a small yet grave bow.

“It is... more than mere shyness, what brings me to study my battleground with such intent care.” she said, looking into his eyes again. “You have asked if I am afraid; my answer is that I am. From my island city stretching along the coast of Middle-Earth, I alone have returned to the land of my ancestors. I have achieved a place of honour that my family would never have dared to envision through the long generations that lie between me and our noble founder, even though we have become rich and powerful. “Lowering her glance a little, she joined her hands over the curve of her stomach, as if she was suddenly feeling cold. “And now, here, the princess of a house of colonizers is nothing but a barbarian. The daughter of Magon of Gadir is the daughter of a merchant, and the priestess of the Great Goddess is a prostitute who should not be shy in her wedding night.”

She made a long pause, but did not seem to care for the badly dissimulated shock in his eyes. He felt an urge to say something, but he could not figure what or how.

“This city is full of unkind eyes, tall buildings, and streets that I cannot tread.” she continued, in an even lower tone. The statue was beginning to dissolve in a fragile, longing image of vulnerability. Gimilkhâd sat at her side, and all of a sudden nothing mattered anymore, only a desire to hold those delicate fingers and tell her that there was nothing to fear.

And yet, he still did not know what to say.

“I have heard that there is a... rare kind of beauty in your city.” he began. His voice, hoarse at first in his clumsy attempts at kindness, became firmer when he saw a tentative light begin to shine in her features. “That there are places where you can see the Great Sea in front of you, and the barbarian coast behind.”

“Oh, yes! Our island is a small world of many horizons.” she nodded, happier at the remembrances. Her honey eyes became lost in the distance, as if they were seeing the familiar lines and colours of the land of her birth. “Ours is the mysterious blue line where no land is seen, the passage to another world that is but a myth to the tribes of barbarians that trade with us. Ours is the distant sight of mountains, behind the fog of the Eastern world. Ours is the red sunset where the sky seems to be filled with blood, the crown of ghostly rays behind a mass of grey clouds, and the spark of green that superstitious eyes seek whenever a yellow sun drowns into the Sea under a clear sky. “He pressed her against him, seduced by the enthusiasm in her voice, and she briefly rested her head against his shoulder. She smelled strange. “And ours is the sunset behind the branches of giant foreign trees.”

“You will also like Armenelos.” he promised.

For a while, he sought for words to describe the splendours of his city as she had just done with hers. But the flattering descriptions of Court poets rung hollow in his mind, borrowed words in face of the real love that breathed in her high-flowing, solemn foreign eloquence. He gave up.

What could he know?

Gimilkhâd had lived all his life in Armenelos, and prepared countless escapades to the best and worst quarters of the Three Hills to find the objects of his pleasures. He knew of the magnificence of its buildings, gardens, temples and palaces, which had furnished the luxuries that had become his life´s most pressing needs. Nowhere else, after all, could he have found such refinements, such fine garments, such beautiful women and good wine, and for all this he liked the King´s capital. But he had never loved Armenelos, where the sombre corridors had once been a world of dread, and a Palace wing had always been closed to him.

For a moment, he imagined how it would be to be her, and went back to those nights of darkness when he fancied that the still unexplored galleries were a labyrinth that stretched infinitely in every direction, and his mad grandfather smiled at him from his throne. When he still didn´t have friends, or women, or anything who stood between him and the overwhelming presence of two dark eyes lit with a cruel hope, and two sea-grey eyes filled with contempt.

He looked at the woman who sat next to him, who studied the height of the ceilings with the careful mistrust of a barbarian or a child. And then, though he had never had a share in the perilous gift of the King´s line, he felt briefly as if a flash of insight had taken him.

Would this quiet beauty reign one day in those corridors that she now feared? Would her voice be heard, louder than his, firmer in her intent?

A feathery caress on his shoulder startled him out of those strange musings. He gazed at her, and she surprised his lips with a kiss.

For a moment, he stood there in shock. No woman had ever touched him first before, not even the boldest whores at the less reputable places he had visited. Then, however, as a pair of skilled hands touched and scratched their way down his back, he felt the beginnings of a fire burn and coil inside his chest, warmer than the others he had experienced.

Taken by the impulse, his own hands wandered towards her hair and neck, and he began to discard the precious silver ornaments, throwing them left and right. His own violence surprised him, and also the unexpected surge of wild relief when, at last, he saw them scattered upon the floor.

The naked goddess nodded gravely, stretching her golden limbs upon the covers.

 

 

Chapter Text

Inziladûn.

A fog wove its warm tendrils over his soul. He looked down, forcing his mind to surrender to the glimmering precipice that stretched in the dark. Fear seized him in its cold grip, but he had learned long ago that he was brave enough to surrender.

All their voices were there, floating in the air that rose slowly to meet his trembling face. The grave voice of a man, the concerned voice of a woman, a young lady who smiled and a pale young man who studied the lines of his countenance in quiet fascination.

Inziladûn.

Even she was there, with her sad, beautiful smile. But unlike the others, she did not call him.

Inziladûn bit his lip, banishing the ghosts of the past from his mind. There were pressing issues at hand, reasons that had pushed him to contact the Exiles for the second time in the last three months – in spite of the danger.

With a firm gesture, he reached to the precipice, and took the light in his hands. Images of vast distances passed him by at a vertiginous speed, of hills and crops and temples, and a tall, magnificent city on the shores of the Great Sea. Crying seagulls settled upon a red tower with a quick flapping of wings. He steadied his grip.

Zarhil´s time is over. he said, searching for a point of support in the grey eyes of Valandil, which widened a bit before they were shadowed by a dark cloud.  I will not have heirs.

A heavy silence followed his words, as the Exiles pondered the disheartening news. Somewhere, a current of despair screamed briefly before it was subdued into the usual harmony of resignation.

We must trust the will of Ilúvatar.

Inziladûn acquiesced.

You feel no grief.

Surprised, the Prince of Númenor recognised the soft voice of Artanis. For the first time in years, her eyes pierced his light, and he remembered that they had been the colour of the sky on a foggy Andúnië dawn.

Artanis... her father´s voice interrupted, but she did not back down.

Inziladûn has a greater gift than any of us. We must trust his foresight, even if he does not trust it himself.

Shocked by the strange reasoning, Inziladûn tried to pull away from the link that joined his soul to the community of the Faithful. He needed to be himself again, to reflect on her words without other people´s thoughts brushing against his and gently mingling in a choir of whispering voices.

You feel no grief.

As he returned to the –now so narrow, so excruciatingly narrow- confines of his own self, he saw his wife´s sour expression turn to glowering anger. A vase shattered against the floor in a thousand shards.

“All those years for this? For you to mutter empty words of comfort when I tell you I will never be able to bear your child?”

“It is not your fault, Zarhil.”

Puzzlement gathered in his entrails, together with a weird feeling of inadequacy. It was as if – somehow, the news did not reach the sentient part of his soul. As if they were vain words, nothing more.

For all those years, he had been waiting, hoping. Having faith, in spite of the quickly diminishing chances. His father had been no fool, even though he believed in oracles.

Had his faith created such a gulf between him and reality, that now he was unable to accept it even as it was yelled to his face?He could not be angry. He could not feel despair.

Maybe everything had been in vain all along - and maybe he had known.

Artanis´s faith still reached him, now similar to a faint echo in the distance. But, he wondered, could foresight work this way? Forbidding his heart to follow the logic of his brain? Maybe, what had happened to him in other ocassions could have been explained this way – that night when against his upbringing he had chosen to trust the Lord of Andünié and forsaken his father´s gods-, but face to an inexorable law of Nature, the very thought seemed pretentious and empty.

Only He who created Nature holds power over His creation.

More shaken than what he had felt back when Zarhil gave him the news, Inziladûn focused back on the palantír. They were all waiting for him, and their minds opened gladly to pull him in. No one questioned his disappearance.

Inziladûn.

This presence was the most vague of all, with the ethereal quality of morning fog among trees; an Elf whose light had been dimmed by time and shadow. And yet, his voice was firm.

Númendil. he acknowledged him.

My wife is expecting a child, and I feel that he will be male. I will glady give him to you. the voice said.

There are many ways to introduce a baby in the Palace unnoticed. Valandil added in tacit agreement. And there are also ways to feign a pregnancy.

Shocked, Inziladûn felt their sincerity reach him. There was no suffering, no conflict, no more than a passing regret in the heart of Númendil and his family. They would surrender their homes, their freedom, their lives –their nieces, he remembered with some bitterness-, and even their yet unborn children in their quest for salvation.

He had been their friend and ally for many years now, and yet, at such moments he suddenly became aware of the width of the gulf that lay between them and him. Unlike them, he had never sacrificed everything. He could not wholly fathom the depths of devotion that lay behind their veiled glances. At those times, he felt ashamed – and afraid, knowing that one day he, like them, would have to face his destiny.

I congratulate you warmly, Númendil. Your son will carry the line of the Lords of Andúnië in brighter times.

His words, at least, were received with due acceptance. Feeling his refusal, they did not insist, and soon afterwards he pulled away in silence.

That night, Inziladûn dreamed of a boy and a girl, holding each other´s hands as they ran to escape the might of the wave. Their hair was black, their eyes grey and full of terror, and they were both alike.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

The King´s Festival was especially solemn that year, as whenever Númenor or its colonies were waging war on other peoples. In mid-winter, Armenelos had been mildly shaken when some ships bearing the King´s ensign had set for the colony of Gadir, with the mission of “mediating” in the uprising of a faction of citizens that had rebelled against Magon´s leadership and accused him of despotical ways. Contrary to the example of their metropolis, the people of Gadir, composed by a great majority of merchants, had always prized themselves for the relative equality of their social status. There had never been any great differences between the richest families, and an uncommon growth in the fortune of one was felt as a terrible insult by the others. Magon´s prosperity upon reaching the King´s ear had threatened them more than what any foreign foe ever could.

Still, Ar-Gimilzôr would never have been so careless as to send his ships to wage war on citizens. The raids of the Belfalas tribes were causing some ruckus in the trading posts of the colony, and under the grand pretext of fighting them he had declared the War Year. Thus, the altar where the flame of Melkor burned had been decorated with branches that smelled strongly of myrrh, and gold and purple offrands glistened upon the white flight of stairs. And, while the choir of priests sang the sacred litanies, the King performed the feat of sacrificing not two, but twelve black bulls and cows.

Inziladûn watched from a retired place, as always hiding his disgust at the spurts of blood under a seamless mask. He liked to believe that he had not needed Eärendur´s words to hate such a violent and dirty ceremony – deep inside his heart, even back when the lulling whispers of priests assaulted his ears in a continuous torrent, he had preferred to adopt Maharbal´s belief that purity could never come from uncleanliness and pestilence, or rejoice in it.

Next to him, Zarhil and Gimilkhâd followed the ceremony in silence. His brother, always devout, was forming a prayer with his lips, but Zarhil stood still in her place like a rock battered by the winds of Sorontil. The glow of the flames lighted her face in undulating patterns, bringing out the pallor in her features.

A powerful bellow echoed through the hall, momentarily smothering the litany of chants. Inziladûn saw the dying bull fall to its knees in agony, and his father´s hands smeared in blood. A shiver ran through his spine.

At a short distance, priests in white were hauling the first victims to throw them into the fire. The sacred flames rose to give their flaring welcome to the carcasses, and then the fumes became darker. A deep stench filled his nostrils, almost causing him to grimace in repugnance.

Elbereth, he muttered, remembering stories of how the Lady´s light had defeated this darkness when the world was new. But She was a pure thought of the One, not an imperfect soul where two kindreds battled each other continuously, locked in a prison of soiled flesh. And yet no, not even this - he was nothing but a human, the last fruit of a cursed lineage.

And he could not save Númenor.

As this morbid thought formed inside his mind, Inziladûn was shocked at himself. At once he turned back, trying to breathe clear air to purify his mind, but the pestilence had already impregnated everything. He coughed, unable to stop the dark flow of images. Everything that he had been unable to feel since Zarhil gave him the news assaulted him now with an unstoppable violence.

He imagined the black cloud spreading over cities, land and mountains, smothering everything under its suffocating stench. People fell to their knees with tortured gasps, unable to breathe, until a terrible yet beautiful wave restored their purity in death.

Shaken, and unable to think of the repercussions of his action, he turned away from the altar, and left the hall of sacrifices under Zarhil´s surprised look.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

As fresh air reached his nostrils again, Inziladûn felt the sickly visions start to dissolve, like a child´s nightmare under the comforting light of the day. And still, something lingered in spite of his relief, while the pestilence of burned flesh still adhered to his skin and robes. Nauseated, he took the direction of the gardens, swearing to himself that he would never hold a single sacrifice as King.

The royal backyard of the Temple, located behind the altar, was one of the most lovely places in Armenelos. Driven by that year´s unaccustomed heat, the orange trees had bloomed early, and their fragrant white flowers fell in clusters that floated upon the waters of its twelve running fountains.

Somewhere behind the bushes, the sound of a woman´s soft laughter reached Inziladûn. Suddenly aware that he was not alone, he washed his face with the sweet-smelling water and tried to regain his royal composure, banishing the last shadows from his mind.

The lady he had heard was sitting upon the blue glazed tiles of a fountain, together with seven companions. At their centre, protected from the sunrays by a heavy branch whose flowers fell upon the pages at intervals, the lady Melkyelid was reading aloud. Her hair, as was her custom, was braided into a complicated headdress with gold and red gems. The silk dress she wore was also red and embroidered in gold, and even her lips were skillfully painted with tiny patterns of both colours.

Upon noticing his presence, she laid the book down, and signalled the other women to bow. In the middle of the minor ruckus that ensued, only she stayed in place with courteously downcast eyes.

“You will not like my smell.” he told her, with studied lightheartedness. He had never felt comfortable around the daughter of Magon, in spite of her many fine qualities and her ability to give a good impression.

She merely smiled.

“Yet it is the smell of the divine.” A divinity whose threshold she was forbidden to cross, but whose power any true daughter of Gadir would rever. Inziladûn had heard many times that the cult of Melkor had originally hailed from their Temple – and yet, he did not have any intention of talking about the dark god in this beautiful place.

To his relief, she did not make any reference to his presence in the gardens before the ceremony was over. If she found it odd, or if it confirmed the rumours she had heard about his impiety, she preferred to let it pass in silence.

“It is well that we have met here. “she said instead, standing up from her seat. “There is... one thing that I wanted to tell you, and I did not know if I would ever have the chance.”

One of the women knelt to shake the petals off the folds of her dress, and she waited patiently for her to finish. Then, she gestured at them to stay back, and turned a beseeching look in Inziladûn´s direction.

“Would you walk with me?”

He nodded, more than slightly puzzled at the proposition. Since her arrival to Rómenna, there was no way to keep count of the pleasantries and formalities that they had exchanged, but they had never held a personal conversation.

For a while, they walked in silence through the carved paths and fountains. The vivid greens of the plants, the clear blue of the sky and the red in her dress were a welcome relief after the altar´s darkness, and he took every chance to bathe deeply in them.

Finally, she spoke again, carefully honing her Eastern eloquence.

“My heart was shaken when I laid eyes upon the radiant Princess of the West.”

Inziladûn hid his shock. Even if Zarhil´s sourness had been apparent to an observing outsider, it was not this woman´s place to comment upon it. And since he had known her, Melkyelid had never done anything that it was not her place to do.

“What do you mean?” he asked, forcing his voice to sound neither accusing nor defensive.

His sister-in-law´s lips curved into a new smile, this time strangely close to a grin. Before he could wonder at her sudden change of attitude, however, she laid a careful hand upon his shoulder, and calmly broke her news.

“I think that the Princess of the West is pregnant.”

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

The hard, dark-grey eyes narrowed ominously.

“Pregnant?”

She pulled back from him, until her head almost collided with the opposite end of the covered carriage, and let go of a derisive laugh. Inziladûn nodded, unfazed.

“This is what she said.”

“And you believed such a ludicrous story?”

“She said that she knew it as a woman. And then I remembered that it was two months ago when we last...”

Zarhil shook her head with violence, interrupting him.

“Nonsense! What... what can she possibly know about me? She was lying, lying like her whole breed!”

He crossed his arms over his knees, patiently. The carriage was crossing a street with irregular pavement, and both felt the wheels jump under their feet.

“And why would she?”

“Oh, who knows? Unlike her, I do not claim to know other women´s inner secrets!” she replied, making huge gestures with both hands. “She is not a good woman. Maybe... maybe she wants to have a laugh at my expense. Or she does it to introduce further disension between us!”

Even further? he thought, in bitter sarcasm.

“Since she came, her reputation has been spotless.” he told Zarhil, in an attempt to quench her quickly growing rage. “The King is very fond of her, and my brother loves her dearly. I do not think there are any grounds to...”

“Your brother loves her dearly!” The woman´s grimace showed well enough what she thought of Gimilkhâd´s affections. “A priestess of Ashtarte-Uinen is worth a hundred women”... isn´t that what they say?”

“Enough, Zarhil!” Inziladûn grumbled, at last close to losing his patience as well. In this, at least, they were still partners, he thought: there never was a single time when one of them failed for long to rise to the other´s provocation. “The lady Melkyelid is not the subject of our discussion, but whether you are or not pregnant!”

“Pregnant!” she cried. The carriage had slowed down; they were probably entering the Main Courtyard.“Of course I am not pregnant! I told you that the time was over for me, do you remember? How do I need to say it in order for you to understand? I do not bleed anymore!”

The Prince swallowed. A belated awareness that this subject should have been calmly discussed instead of yelled, -and that it was somehow the fault of his earlier wording- assaulted his mind, but today´s aggressivity was becoming too much even for her usual standards of behaviour. She was positively seething, glancing left and right like a lion in a cage.

“Do pregnant women bleed?” he asked, forcing his voice to adopt a kinder tone.

Zarhil stood up, grabbing the velvet curtain with her strong fist.

“Will you never cease tormenting me, Inziladûn?”

Before his astonished eyes, she jumped. Outside, someone shouted in surprise. A horse neighed loudly as it was reined back by frightened hands, and the impulse of the sudden stop caused him to fall back on his seat.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

For more than a month, Inziladûn saw nothing of Zarhil. She withdrew to her chambers, forbidding him entrance, and he was left alone to wonder about the puzzling turns of events.

Returning to their conversation, and recalling the ferocious hurt in her eyes before the jump, he realised, with the clarity of belated awareness, that her unability to have children had haunted her too. He cursed himself for his blindness, he, the man who looked into the hearts of people and had failed to nail his wife´s elusive and shifting distress! But no matter how many times he tried to talk to her again, he was not allowed into her rooms.

At days, he kept helping the King with the affairs of governance, unable, as in a nightmare, to prevent the many grains of sand from escaping his grip. Ar-Gimilzôr controlled everything now, his allies were rich in Middle-Earth and strong in Sor. The exiles would not return to their homes; their lordship had been revoked and they lived as virtual prisoners of the Merchant Princes of Sor. Their Southern harbours were exploited by the King; the Northern ones remained empty. People from other parts of Númenor had been relocated to the West, and offered farms in the lands of Andustar, which had come to fall under the lordship of the Governor of the Forbidden Bay. In the mainland, Umbar had been recently fortified. And reigning supreme above all this Magon, the merchant of Gadir, restored as undisputable leader of the colony, furnished the royal house with enough riches to produce two hundred thousand suits of armour, a hundred thousand swords and a hundred warships at the slightest sign of war, controlled Sorian trade and held most nobles of Númenor –even Zarhil´s father- in the list of his debitors.

At nights, weary and dispirited after endless ceremonies in caves and smoking altars –Ar-Gimilzôr, in his old age, had become more religious than ever-, he lay in his bed and immediately fell asleep. But his eyes, closed to the waking world, were opened to a legion of eerie and persistent visions whose meaning evaded him. He saw the Wave, and the foul smoke, and in the centre of everything, the Twins. They held hands and stared at him, with grey eyes full of silent insistence.

One of those days, as he returned to his chambers in the evening, he was startled to find a hunched figure lying upon his bed. With a strange mixture of caution and urgence, he approached the dark silhouette, and two fearful grey eyes rose to meet his own.

“Zarhil?” he whispered, astonished. He tried to kneel at her side, but she shook her head and clumsily sat down on her own. Her movements ressembled those of a drunkard, but it was her pallor what alarmed him. “Zarhil! What is the matter?”

She opened her mouth as if to speak, then closed it again as if she did not know how to start. A faint blush began to spread across her cheeks.

“I was – I am pregnant.” she stammered, in an almost inaudible whisper.

He did not understand the words.

“What?”

“I am pregnant!” she repeated, mustering back some of her old irritation. “Have you gone deaf? Or you do not speak the language of the Men of Númenor? Is it so... so difficult to...?”

Her voice trailed away, and soon died down in a confused stammer. Swallowing deeply, he embraced her, forcing the news to sink inside his brain.

Her limbs were shaking, in constant but irregular spasms. At first, he thought that she had to be crying, but then realised that it was a silent laughter. As if it had been nothing but a funny tale, he recalled everything from the start: her announcement, Artanis´s faith in him –his own despair, Melkyelid´s perceptive words, and their terrible argument the day of the King´s festival. And then he remembered his puzzling unability to fathom the idea, punctuated by the visions of the Twins.

As a long, overdue explosion of relief, he felt the pull of laughter gathering also in his lungs. Everything, at last, was as it should be. The paradox had been solved; visions and prophecies would follow their normal course. His destiny was set, once again, in front of him like a beacon of light.

“I was a fool.” she muttered. He nodded, falling upon the bed together with her. Everything seemed so comical now!

“We were fools, both of us. Fools, and unable to look in front of our noses!” And they laughed in unison, unable to care for this either, drunk with excitement and wonder.

That night, they slept beneath his covers, he pressing his face against her womb in an attempt to hear the beating of the heart –hearts!- of the forming bodies. But in his dreams, death and smoke still reigned, and one of the twins was covered by the dark fumes while the other raised a shrill scream.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Outside, the night´s starry mantle shone dimly over the domes and towers of the Three Hill City. The gleam in Her face, veiled by a halo of clouds, lit the steps of the women who perused the streets at midnight like ghosts of powdered cheeks. For an instant, he heard the distant yelp of a beaten dog– bad omen!-, but then there was nothing but the faint sound of the priest´s footsteps as he bowed and left him at the threshold of the Fire.

Careful not to stir the silence, he advanced towards the altar, muttering the prayers that would clean his soul from impurity. When he reached the white flight of stairs, he fell to his knees, prosternating himself thrice in front of the multifacetious, all-consuming giver of all power, the essence of life to which the God himself returned year after year until both were but one.

“The King of fire, of life and death, the son of Eru, Sovereign of Armenelos, will hear his favourite child.” a voice chanted next to his ear in a monotonous whisper. A powerful smell assaulted his nostrils, and humbly, he extended his hands to receive the bronze pot where the sacred herb was slowly dissolving in fumes.

“Bestower of answers...” he muttered. The High Priest rose in a rustle of white robes, and left him alone.

Giving himself a moment to experience the sickness that invaded his very being, he forced his mind to master his body, and plunged inside. At once, the insidious smoke blocked the air away from his lungs, burning his face and bringing him close to the edge. The violent struggles of the deathbed ensued.

A while later, finally, his willpower waned, and he felt his soul start to leave his body as peacefully as if the horror of the Doom held nothing but a gentle sweetness. But before he could surrender to this sensation, in came the full might of his intruder – the Self that penetrated him like the edge of a brilliant sword once that his own self, the self of Ar-Gimilzôr, King of Númenor, Favourite of Melkor and Protector of the Colonies, had crumbled to dust.

The threat has arisen like a canker, both in the East and in the West. From the blood of the crushed serpent, evil will grow anew. The fallen lineage will give birth twice in a year, and weave the threads of our ruin.

Warm limbs writhed upon a cold floor. Each of the details of the dome´s paintings shone like a thousand diamonds under the sun.

A King´s weakness brings many evils to his people. Back then, you were weak. You were selfish. And you were criminal.

He shuddered.

He was my son, he tried to hiss, but the overwhelming presence of the Other smothered this absurd, pretentious individuality. “He” - was nothing. He had no power, he had no lineage, he had no sons, it tore, mockingly, at his insides. He was but an imperfect mirror of the only true King who had existed since the Beginning, born to lend him a face and a voice in the mortal world for a while. He was a part of Númenor itself, and against His will and the Sacred Island´s prosperity there was no affection that was not criminal.

Not even I, powerful among the powerful, can escape Fate, and you are but a mortal. You may disguise your ineptitude behind a thousand clever schemes, but in the end, the sacrifice that you refused to make will come back to haunt you. And fail! the serpent will grow to fill you with horror, until the whole of Númenor is taken by her deadly embrace and you are left, bodiless spirit, alone  to mourn your cowardice.

The voice became silent, and the presence abandoned him with a mighty spasm. Shaken, Gimilzôr struggled to find a point of support, grabbing at the point of a marble step. He was trembling, and the sweat that soaked his face was cold and sticky.

At his feet, the bronze pot had been knocked over with violence during the ritual. The still steaming herbs lay scattered around the floor, and his left hand and arm were covered in angry red burns. He stared at it in morbid fascination for a while, then quickly hid it under the folds of his purple cloak.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Meanwhile, sitting next to the gentle fumes of a perfume burner, a woman raised her eyes to look at the stars. Her glance trailed from one to the other, following their lines –not with the abandon of a dreamer, but the practiced ease of an expert in their science who dutifully mumbled their names as she counted them, in a strange mixture of absortion and respect.

Suddenly, her forehead was creased by a slight frown. Something was out of place in the constellation of the Virgin, a glimmer...  a shooting star?

Little by little, under her silent vigilance, the glimmer grew, until it became a constant glow that mirrored the golden hue of her face. For an instant –had it been a vision?- her placid features were lighted by a feral joy, but it died in a flicker, carefully hiding her secret from the prying eyes of the night.

A gust of cold wind dishevelled her hair. Burying her chin under her blue velvet mantle, she huddled closer to the fire, and caressed her womb with a small smile.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

"Push harder!"

"Queen of the Seas

Mother of All...”

“Here it is! I... I have it!”

“Guide of ships

Mother of All”

Inziladûn heard a sharp growl, among hurried whispers of midwives and the sound of stirred water. Then, the silence.

“Lady of Shadows

Mother of All

Fairer than silver...”

Even the litany died after a while, with the faded voice of a shaking woman. Zarhil, strong as she was, had been terrified to give birth unless the attributes of Uinen were sung by her bedside, but now he did not hear her asking the singer to resume her task. Far in the distance, someone was wailing.

Inziladûn laid his forehead against the cool wood, impatient and worried. A strange feeling of urgence was on him, and he wondered if this was what a man was supposed to feel when his wife was away from his reach, writhing to give birth to his children.

Or was it something else?

The wail became sharper, turning into a scream that pierced even the thick closed doors. Inziladûn went pale, trying to remember where he had heard this sound before. It was high and shrill, and it filled him with an instinctive dread.

Death and smoke... The boy´s eyes widened in fear, as the fumes closed around him. His sister ran towards him. She opened her mouth to let go of an ear-shattering scream....

Seized by panic, Inziladûn knocked at the door. Nobody answered.

“Zarhil!” he cried. He heard a faint stir.

Feeling his determination grow, he pushed harder and harder, until it eventually gave way with a sharp click. A pungent smell of sweat and medicine, mingled with the insidious sweetness of blood assaulted his nostrils. Pieces of white linen were strewn across the floor at his feet, but no one came to greet him.

Suddenly, Inziladûn remembered that empty corridor. His mother´s small and white body, lying on her bed under a violet garment. He recoiled, and yet now as well as back then, the need to know proved greater than the fear.

As his steps led him to the Lie-In Chamber, the wails were already becoming deafening. There was a baby somewhere, of this there was no doubt –his baby, he told himself, torn between conflicting hypotheses. But he heard no other voice, no other wail, no other woman telling Zarhil to push harder until the second child was born. And Zarhil was lying on the bed, her eyes staring into nowhere.

“Zarhil!” he cried, rushing towards her. They have killed her and fled, was the first idea that formed in his mind when he found no one at her bedside. Trembling, he took her callused hand into his – and felt a slow, steady pulse bring back life to his deathly pallor.

“Zarhil.” he repeated several times, as if the very name had the power to dispel the shadows. She stirred a little, mumbling something incoherent. “Zarhil.”

Now that his most pressing concern had been answered, the awareness of what surrounded him returned little by little, as if he was waking up from a dream. The sheet where he was sitting was smeared with dark bloodstains. Around him, the room lay in an abandoned disorder of dirty water tubs, towels and ceramic jars, except for a lone woman who cradled a wailing creature in her arms.

As his attention turned sharply towards her, he saw her flinch, and pull back until her back was pressed against the stone wall. She could not be older than twenty-five, with a pale round face, and dark eyes that widened in fear. A book of litanies was lying on the floor at her feet.

“What happened?” he asked her. She shook her head, pressing the crying child against her chest. His impatience grew.

“Speak! Where are the others?”

“It was not me.” she muttered. The baby´s noise smothered the sound of her words, and she tried again, louder. “It was not me! I did not... help the Princess give birth. I... I was here to read...”

The panic, momentarily quenched as he saw that Zarhil was alive began to grow in his chest anew. He wanted to grab that woman and search her glance for the truth of what she had seen, of what had frightened her so deeply.

But then, she was holding his child in her arms like there was no other protection left to her.

“Come forth.” he tried again, in a kinder, reassuring voice. “I will not harm you.”

She made a nervous gesture of denial –obviously, she did not believe him. Little by little, she seemed to be reaching some kind of determination, and struggled to stand up. Eyeing him warily all the time, she tiptoed towards an ivory cradle that stood some three metres away from Zarhil´s bed. Inziladûn´s attention shifted towards it, and he saw that a wrapped bundle was lying on top of the purple covers.

His sense of foreboding increased.

The young woman took the crying child, and carefully laid it next to the bundle. As if taken by a powerful spell, the wailing immediately ceased.

“This is your daughter.”she said. Then, before he could react, she made a quick bow and ran past the door, raising her long silk sleeves with trembling hands.

Inziladûn swallowed deeply, but did not follow her. Instead of this, he knelt next to the cradle, and picked up the bundle to unwrap it with a heavy heart. The baby –the girl- started wailing anew, the same, broken-hearted sound of the twin of her dreams.

His son was dead.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

It was useless to attempt a pursuit, even an investigation of those women´s whereabouts. A peek at the next room showed Inziladûn the existence of another door, which they had no doubt used before to flee. And then, there were so many enigmas, so many questions floating over the silent emptiness of the room. How had it happened? Had it been one of them, several, or all? Had they been bribed?

There was only one person in Númenor who would inspire them with the sacrilegious audacity of killing a royal prince. One, who would not suffer him to have male heirs. The King´s bloodied hands at the sacrificial altar came back to his mind, and before he could even feel pain, he felt sick.

Zarhil´s eyes opened soon afterwards. At first, she began to move restlessly in her bed, muttering incoherences and fragments of litanies –had she been drugged? Then, she saw him, and immediately asked for her two children.

In other circumstances, Inziladûn would have carefully reflected on what should be said to a sick woman and what should better be left in silence. But the baby´s corpse, pale and swollen, was still in front of his eyes.

“He is dead”, he said simply, in a toneless voice. Zarhil´s eyes widened, and she let go of a strangled cry.

“Give him to me!” she demanded, tearing at the sheets in an attempt to lift her body to a sitting position. Alarmed, Inziladûn ran towards her, just in time to prevent her from falling off the bed.

“Zarhil...” he began, holding her down. She tried to struggle, but she was too weak, and her well-honed muscles were as little help to her as her desperation. Her head thrashed from left to right, like an injured lion in a wall painting. “Zarhil, he died in childbirth...”

“I heard him!” she yelled. “I heard him cry! He was alive!”

He swallowed, livid. Only the sense of purpose needed to calm her down could prevent him from letting go of his grief and nausea. His mouth opened several times, trying to find words to explain the horror of what had happened –until a terrible certitude assailed him, and put an end to his frenzied attempts.

She should not know. Nobody should know about this, ever.

“Yes. He was alive.” he nodded, with studied calm. “But he was the.... last to be drawn out from you. The birth was difficult, and he was suffocated. Soon after he was born, he died.”

She stared at him, uncomprehending.

“It was said that you were too old to withstand a double birth. “he lied. “We should count ourselves lucky that you survived.”

His very innards trembled at the hurt in her expression.

“It was my... my fault, then? Is that what you mean?”

“No!” he cried. She seemed to have gone limp under his restraining efforts, so he moved aside and let her go. Tears welled in her eyes, but she did not move. “It was nobody´s fault. You did what you could, they did what they could. Our son did what he could. But he could not survive.” Lies, all of them, lies. A monster´s deadly poison lived in the Palace. Shaking, he held on to the only thing that was true, and uncontrovertible. “It was not your fault, Zarhil.”

The woman shook his head. Suddenly, in an unexpected movement, she grabbed his sleeve with a white-knuckled grip, and pulled him towards her. Afraid that despair would bring her to violence, he tried to hold her again, but to his surprise she merely fell in his arms. Her body shook with sobs.

Inziladûn did not know anymore if he was comforting her or himself, but cradling this woman of rough skin and dishevelled grey hair made the most immediate knot in his throat untangle. After a long while, he pried away from her, and picked the living baby from the cradle.

She had begun to wail again, thrashing with her hands and feet as if she was trying to escape from something that his eyes could not see. Darkly, he wondered if she would ever be free from the evil whose shadow had already touched her.

Zarhil was wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, and he sat next to her, laying their daughter in her arms. At first, there was nothing but a distant awareness, slowly building in her eyes as she looked at her. After a while, however, fear came to her eyes, and with it the first spark of love for the child that had been about to die. She extended a tentative finger towards her.

“Feed her.” he whispered in her ear. A shaken hope lit her face for a moment at the proposition, but it soon disappeared.

“It is not my place. “She grimaced bitterly. “And I - I probably do not have milk anymore.”

You were too old to withstand a double birth.

He cursed at himself.

“Nobody cares about that. Feed her.” he said, in a stronger tone. “See! She wants you to feed her. She is your daughter.”

Tentatively, Zarhil manouevred her in what she thought to be the right position. The baby´s face was red from her ininterrupted crying, and yet she writhed and tried to twist backwards from her grip. Zarhil´s hands shook in renewed terror.

“I will drop her. She will die, too.”

“She will not.” Taken by a strong determination, he took the child in his own arms while she clumsily bared her breast. In such an awkward moment, he felt glad that they were alone.

At last, the child was ready to be laid again on her mother´s lap. Zarhil watched him do it in quiet fascination, and only when he tugged at her sleeve she realised that she had to lift her in her arms. The process of adjustement was slow, but finally the baby could find the way to her first source of food.

The woman´s expectation was tense, and painful. It felt as if everything in her world, her pain, her exhaustion, and even her grief for her dead child, had been reduced for a moment to this only object of her care and anxiety – the fragile child´s elusive face and a pale breast.

Then, the wailing fell into silence. To Inziladûn´s marvel, and as if she had always known what she had to do, the baby pressed her mouth against her mother, and began to suck.

A smile broke upon Zarhil´s face.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

We must trust the will of Ilúvatar.

He was aware that the easiest thing would be to lose faith. To turn his back on the one who had not wished or had not been able to prevent it from happening.

And still, deep inside his soul, he knew that this would be nothing but a foolish simplification. It was the immediate, beastly, naked logic of any of the thousands who sacrified to Melkor and Uinen. To give in order to receive. To receive in order to give. Divine figures built by men and for men, with the only mission of fulfilling their desires.

His friends, the Exiles, had taught him to recognise the true gods by their names and attributes. For long, Inziladûn had listened to their teachings, but though he held every single one of their words in high honour, there had always been a doubt that he had kept to himself.

For him, -and in this he had also clashed with Maharbal- the true gods did not answer to the vulgar requests of Men. They were the creatures of his vision, sitting on their thrones of light while their glances encompassed the whole world. The imperfect soul of Man, bereaved of the immortal brilliance of the fëar of Elves, could not reach their heights unless it could be possible to purify oneself so completely that all the shameful human thoughts and urges would fall to one´s feet like a discarded garment. The anguish, the longing that he felt were the curse of his Elven blood, but his human heritage was too corrupted.

Eärendur, back when he still lived, and Valandil, had reluctantly agreed with this. They had added that not even all Elves could reach the purity of the Valar anymore, and that many had lived -and still lived- in Middle-Earth as exiles. The Valar, after all, were also creatures like them, and they had their limits. But, they had added, Ilúvatar was Father of All, and there was no place that he could not reach, or voice that he could not hear.

For a time, Inziladûn´s skepticism had held this belief at arm´s length. It was not that he thought that Ilúvatar would be unable to hear him – Ilúvatar could not be unable to do anything – but his awakened disgust for the vulgar materialism of the false religion had made him recoil from the idea of maintaining such a relationship of giving and asking with the Creator of the World. How could Ilúvatar accept a cow in exchange for bringing someone luck in a naval expedition without destroying the very concept of what He was supposed to be? How could He let a man believe that he did not depend on his own actions, but on an invisible providence that could be paid in gold? Would such a concept not destroy whatever good was left in this world, a good that He himself had created?

And yet, this view, and he had to admit it with a renewed sense of shame, was not what had guided his thoughts and actions for all his life. Man was weak, and the common sense of youth hard to keep while facing the perils of the adult world. The sincere beliefs of the Western line – beliefs that had kept them alive, but theirs were not the same fights as his- had crept into his heart, and he had come to relate things with the divine providence that he had once despised. After all, wasn´t the Wave dream a proof of its existence? Would they be fighting to save a sinking world if not for His mercy? And to save Númenor, Ilúvatar had to save him first. His reign would bring a change to the World of Men; he had been chosen for this since his birth granted him both the Sceptre and the ability to find the truth.

Alas! he had failed to see in time how this belief would weaken him. Instead of fighting, he had simply accepted, feigned, and waited. He would be given the means, the Sceptre, the heir that he needed, he would triumph no matter what his father or his allies did. And with an exalted, confident heart he had become unworthy of his mission, allowed the servants of Melkor to weave their insidious nets around his future reign, and now, terrible wake-up call, the last and most sacrilegious of all crimes had taken place in front of his nose.

It was his fault, and no one else´s. The death of this unfortunate child with no name would even be a small price to pay for the realisation that he had to fight or perish. That in this world of murder and strife, in this world where his own father had his son strangled in his mother´s womb for the sake of his policies, things would never come to lay themselves upon his outstretched hand without pain and sacrifice.

He could hate Ilúvatar. But in the end, he had to be brave and hate himself.

Could it be said, he wondered, that it was already too late? Were their hopes meant to be quenched by this terrible blow? His heart twisted in his entrails, remembering his beloved mother´s suffering, and the sacrifice of their kin. They had understood well enough, and in spite of their beliefs, never lowered their guard. Would all their struggles be for nothing?

There have been three ruling Queens in Númenor before. He had thought that once in the first years of their marriage, flippantly, because with all those years ahead of him and the arrogance of youth he had not thought there would be a real need. But now, it came back at him. For he would never have sons, and only his daughter had been considered harmless enough to live.

This, if nothing else, showed that his father –for the first time, he felt nauseated at the title- was not posessed by a mindless evil, but filled with a cunning purpose. In this decadent Númenor, the great Ancalimë was seen as little more than a legend, and the last woman who had claimed a right to the Sceptre had been abandoned, by all but a few, to a terrible fate. Custom had become stronger than the ancient laws that Aldarion established before the decline, and nobody would fail to find ludicrous and intolerable that a woman, who was banned from all public offices except priesthood, could rule the Island as Queen. The God King was male; no female could be his reflection.

Inziladûn swallowed, suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling of helpless tenderness as he lay eyes upon his daughter. For days and nights she had been crying, unable to find rest even in dreams, until he had the occurrence of showing her Inzilbêth´s jewel. The baby had stared at it, mesmerised, and immediately held two enticed little hands towards the shiny thing. Worried at first, Inziladûn had finally allowed her to have it, checking that it had no cutting edges and that it was too large for her to swallow. She had calmed down then, to his surprise, sucking at the jewel with her toothless mouth. And when those eyes, wide and serene, had been lifted towards him for the first time, he had realised with a start that they were the eyes of his mother.

How could she, this baby, have the strength to fight the Merchant Princes, the false gods and the zealous evil of her own family? How could she, like the unfortunate Alissha, be thrown into the middle of a cruel war between kinsmen, and prevail? Inzilbêth, who had always smiled, who had always been strong for her son, had perished in one of these dark halls. Would this child, who had already seen death with her own eyes, have to fight those shadows one day?

She will not, he thought, feeling a fierce determination fill him with a new strength. Because when she grew up, this tainted world would not exist anymore. He was still there and he would bring the change to Númenor, no matter the pain and no matter the cost. Not even if he were to die in the attempt would he try to flee his fate or lament it.

One day, his daughter would be the fair Queen of a peaceful land, beacon of light for all kindreds, where the ancient arts would recover their ancient splendour under the guidance of the Immortals and nobody would try to take what was hers by violence.

Suddenly, he felt as if the purpose that he had lacked until today had come crashing upon him at last.

“My lord, it is the hour.”

Inziladûn forced himself to abandon his musings, and gave a brief nod to the Second Royal Nurse, who held the child in her arms. Careful not to wake her, he pried the jewel away from his daughter´s fingers.

“Let us enter, then.”

He was ready.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

When they entered, the King was already sitting upon his throne. At his left and right, the Palace Priest of Melkor – Inziladûn´s old teacher Hannon-, the Keeper of the Chapel of Ashtarte-Uinen and the Seer waited, in perfect ceremonial gravity. No one else had been summoned: as the child had been born female, it had been ruled that the ceremony should be a private one, far from the indiscreet glances of strangers.

In perfect calm, Inziladûn took the child from the woman´s arms, and knelt to wait for the summons. As he heard his name being called, he stood up with downcast eyes, and handed the sleeping bundle to Hannon.

The priest made no comment. Softly chanting a prayer, he unwrapped the baby until she was fully naked, then took her by both hands and skillfully held her over the flames of the sacred fire. This woke her up at once, and soon her scared wails were resonating in the ears of everyone in the room.

Nobody moved.

Next, it was the Keeper who took hold of her. Accompanied by the repetitive words of a litany, he submerged her in the Queen´s holy water. Her cries were choked and resumed several times, until Inziladûn began to fear that she would drown. He had to do a great effort not to interrupt the ceremony.

Finally, she was given to the Seer, who had already inhaled those vapours that, according to the late Eärendur, increased the natural gift of foresight of Elros´s line even as they drowned its truth under a stream of false hallucinations. The man, a prematurely aged creature with a pale face and bags under his eyes, stared in many directions with a haunted look. His hands were shaking.

“There is a woman... no! A goddess, standing upon the white peak of a mountain. “he muttered, in a hoarse voice that did not seem to belong in his mouth and that brought a shiver to Inziladûn´s spine. The King and the priests listened to him with reverence. “Her hair is black, like the wings of a raven. She is fairer than silver, and ivory, and pearls.” That accursed litany, again. “She looks into the horizon. She looks at the sea. She...”

Suddenly, the man was taken by violent convulsions. He stumbled, and fell, but did not cry as the cold floor struck his left shoulder. The others watched him in silence, calmly waiting for him to stand up and resume his prophecy.

But he shook his head, refusing to speak.

“I can see no further. Everything is dark.” he muttered. From the corner of his eye, Inziladûn saw Ar-Gimilzôr frown, but it did not last more than a second.

“Praised be the gods of Númenor.” he said. The others answered in unison, and he nodded. “You may leave. Inziladûn - stay, and bring me the child.”

At those casual words his son froze, in spite of all his previous resolutions. The moment had come. The time to give a step forwards, raise his glance – and meet the man who had killed his son face to face.

To his somewhat irrational shock, Gimilzôr did not look any different from the man he remembered since his childhood. His face was still the perfect mask of royalty, with lips pursed in a firm line, a high, slightly pointed chin and carefully arranged dark curls. His expresionless black eyes took a warmer tinge as he laid them on the baby, who was still bellowing her heart out.

Inziladûn tried to focus on calming her down, muttering words and cradling her in his arms. The nausea he thought he had mastered was coming back in a rush. He frantically wondered if it showed.

“Does she usually cry so much?” the King asked.

“Yes. “Inziladûn replied without thinking. “She... has good lungs.”

Ar-Gimilzôr extended his arms to receive the child. In spite of his revulsion, Inziladûn was forced to surrender her to him, but the King merely looked at her in fond attention.

“She is a beautiful and healthy child. You are to be congratulated, Inziladûn. Have you already thought of a name for her?”

The Prince nodded. The feeling that he had experienced when he had first seen her calm down and stare at him, chewing at Inzilbêth´s jewel grew in his mind until it took a definite shape.

Míriel.

“Zimraphel. Her name will be Zimraphel.”

Ar-Gimilzôr nodded in approval.

“An appropriate name. For she will be the fair jewel of our house, the first woman to have been born to the lineage of Ar-Adunakhôr.”

Even though he had to raise his voice to be heard above the ruckus caused by the baby, he still kept giving the same studied inflection to each and every one of his words. Fascinated by it, Inziladûn had the sudden crazy notion that nothing of this had ever happened, that the King was nothing but a caring grandfather who was seeing his granddaughter for the first time. A part of him refused to believe that this nauseating normalcy could be feigned, that such an everyday conversation could hide a murder, and a growing feud.

Could it be true? Could his father be such a monster?

...Hail the Father who sacrificed his son...

An old religious text crept into a corner of his brain, clear and insidious. The expression that crossed his features should have alerted Gimilzôr of the fact that something was amiss, because he handed Míriel back to him with a frown.

“You do not look well.” he stated. Inziladûn made a brief attempt at protesting, but it died in his mouth before it could acquire any coherence. “About what happened to the other baby... it was a tragedy. Our family is grieving with you.”

Inziladûn could do nothing but nod this time. Míriel, who had finally calmed down upon finding herself back in his arms, writhed back and buried her face in his sleeve. The resulting silence was positively deafening.

“He was to be the heir to the throne of Númenor. As such, he will be buried with the Kings in the caves of the Meneltarma, and a full month of mourning will be decreed.”

A vision of the swollen corpse of his son came to the Prince´s mind. For a moment, he wondered how he would look after he was dissecated and embalmed, and covered in finely sculpted plates of gold to live a life of eternity.

The idea disgusted him. That a child who had not been allowed five minutes of life would be made to endure centuries of preserved sleep, that someone who had been so little would last so much – there was a kind of horror in it, but still not as much as the look of sympathy in the King´s eyes.

He would do this to show the people of Númenor that his elder son´s lineage was cursed, and quench his remorse at the same time. Again, as always, the remarkable ability to accomodate everything to his policies– everything, except the existence of this grey-eyed stranger who had sworn that he would stop the evil that was spreading through Númenor.

Again, Inziladûn´s confidence grew, but this time out of a terrible feeling of dissociation. He bowed to the man who sat upon the throne.

Hail the Father who sacrificed his son...

He, not his unfortunate child, was the son who should have been sacrificed. Inziladûn did not know when Gimilzôr had seen this for the first time, if it had been back when he was born, or that other day –so vivid in his memory- when they were talking in the Princess´s gardens, and he had suddenly seen the horrible change in the eyes of a father with whom he had been having an enjoyable conversation. Yes, he thought, it should have been that day, the last time that he had seen any love in Gimilzôr´s eyes, little before his brother had been conceived. And though back then he had not understood, and felt hurt, now it was as clear to him as the gleaming blue crystal of the Elven stone in his pocket.

Gimilzôr had known. With the foresight of their race, he had seen that his son would one day despise the world that he and his ancestors had made, and that he would be summoned to destroy the last stone of the tainted edifice built by their hands. He was trapped in darkness, cursed to defend it until his death, while the child with penetrating eyes who innocently feared his cold glance would one day bring light and purity to their world.

They were born enemies. And now he knew, too.

“I thank you for yor generosity, my King, but I respectfully decline. “he said, formally. “It might not be advisable for the people of Númenor to learn about a weakness in our lineage.”

If Ar-Gimilzôr was surprised at his words, he did not show any sign of it. He merely nodded.

“Your counsel is sound. It will be done as you request.”

And that was all. As soon as he had pronounced those words, he made the customary gesture of dismissal, and Inziladûn found himself bowing in reverence to the throne and walking out of the hall. Outside, the Second Royal Nurse was waiting; he took the baby –who had fallen asleep again-, and handed it to her.

That night, for the first time in a week, he felt calm. His head was clear, the customary nightmares did not assault him in his sleep, and to his surprise, he did not even resent the King for the role he had to play.

 

Chapter Text

In his life, there had been so many gifts that he had wasted in foolishness. Wasted, misapplied, or –as it had happened with his intelligence- cultivated for the wrong reasons. He remembered that eerie night in the Elvish city, when all his purposes had been reduced to seeing the sea-grey eyes widen in recognition and fear. How he had been read – and how wouldn´t he-, and his most shameful desires used, to make him betray what he should have held dear.

It could be said that she had been the one who had saved his soul from a fate of perpetual escaping, of laughter that rung false, of empty words and the slow, insidious final corruption. Saved him from his old nightmare, only to throw him into a long and elaborate dream of her own making. She – nothing but a three year old girl when he had first heard about her, a young thing of nineteen when they married, though he still hadn´t guessed the true age of her soul beneath the slight, measured smiles. The barbarian, as the Court had nicknamed her in derision before they also fell under her spell.

And yes, a barbarian she was indeed. A strange creature who burned perfume, prayed quietly to the Goddess while they embraced at night, and read her fate in the stars. An enigma for him, as she walked with hips that moved with a daring, sensuous cadence that belied the mild look in her eyes. Day by day, year by year, she had persuaded him to let her share his troubles, personal and political, and often offered him words of wise counsel, but the naive and the irrational had never faded entirely from the core of her heart.

Do you know what my name means? That night she had smiled in childish joy, pressing her brilliant cheek against his. It means “Bearer of the King.”

At first, he had refused to listen. He had been angry, and self-righteous. But, through the years, even this had become another of the golden nets in which the lovely barbarian had ensnared him.

Treason? Her ringing laugh, so quiet when she was in front of strangers. Why treason? Can it be treason, if it is what the King wants?

And that other night, nine months ago, Gimilkhâd remembered the soft poison that oozed from the shadows of the Palace´s halls. The tension, cut here and there by the edge of a black knife in the eyes of an onlooker, who immediately lowered them with fright and fled in a rustle of silk robes. His father, his brother, and the dead baby that lay between them like a silent scream.

When he arrived to his chambers, trying to banish remembrances from his mind, she had been there, quietly waiting for him to arrive. Her dress had been a flowing green silk; she had perfumed her hair as if she was performing in a ceremony.

“I wish to be with you tonight.”

“I am tired.”

“No.” A look of determination crossed her soft brown eyes, and she pointed at the window with the unquestionable conviction of children and people who talked with the gods. “Tonight is the night.”

She had made him surrender to her fantastical prophecies, back then. And now, lying in bed like a triumphant queen with a gleaming forehead, she acknowledged him with a smile of joy.

“He has come.” she said simply.

He was sprawled upon her lap, his cheek resting against the curve of his mother´s stomach. His tiny eyes were wide open, already endeavouring to explore his surroundings. The colour of his skin was his mother´s rare golden, and for a moment he had the mad hallucination that the whole baby was a sceptre that she held in her hands.

He has come.

Filled with an almost religious awe, he sat down at her side, and extended a finger towards the baby. It trembled a little, and he irreflexively cursed between his teeth for showing this weakness.

It was a baby. Nothing more. His baby, his son... the third heir to the Sceptre.

“Isn´t he magnificent?” she muttered. Gimilkâd had never heard such a fanatical adoration in her voice before, not even in the endearments that she used to whisper in his ears. “Radiant, like the golden star that watched over his birth. No – like the Sun itself, like the three jewels in the Great God´s crown!”

Gimilkhâd drew closer to the baby, who seemed to realise for the first time that he was there. He blinked reflexively – and suddenly, his father felt the irrational euphoria of Melkyelid tighten around his throat like a knot.

Could it really be true?

Everything, he fancied in the aftermath of his last struggles to escape the pull of the divine enthusiasm, could be as easy, as beautiful as an old legend if he believed in it. His own birth – unlucky, unauspicious, the second serpent that all their ancestors had avoided like a dark curse-, his mother´s rejection –daughter of traitors!-, his brother´s contempt, and even his father´s smothering love. His wedding to the golden barbarian goddess, who bore her fate in her name as she did in her quiet insistence upon the will of the gods.

He could have been born for this. For this –to be the father of the King who would save his lineage from his brother´s impious snares. He would have a mission, and Melkyelid, the priestess of the Holy Mother, would have been the one to guide him through the steps.

Still overwhelmed, he picked up his son, feeling his smooth skin, his arms, his legs, the tuft of dark hair upon the golden head. The baby uttered an irritated yelp, in protest for the intrusion, and began to kick at him. Melkyelid´s smile widened in amusement.

“He already has a character.” Her expression became dreamy, lost in the distance. “One day he will be a great warrior, the terror of the enemies of Númenor...”

Gimilkhâd nodded, unable to let go of the child as if he had been plunged into a trance. The perfection of it all bewildered him, and he felt as if he was standing in reverence upon the altar of the Divine King. He muttered a prayer of heartfelt thanks to Melkor.

Never to feel lost anymore....

Tears welled in his eyes, the first time that he had cried since the day of the red flowers.

King of Light, Lord of the Armies. O Radiant, King of Armenelos.

Out of an impulse, his hand trailed towards the pendant that hung hidden upon his neck, to produce a ring of gold and rubies. And then, full of a fervour that he did not himself understand, he took the object of his imperfect childhood desires, the price of his treason and folly, and reverently laid it at the feet of his newborn son.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

(I)

 

The hall was silent. In the midst of its empty greatness she sat embracing her knees, a child surrounded by raging battles of stone. Her black eyes followed the sculpted movements, the joy and the grief of faces that had been frozen forever while they died, while they killed, while they celebrated their greatest victory.

Her forehead creased in a frown, as if listening for their ghostly cries in the darkness. The old nurse suppressed an involuntary shiver, and stepped forwards until she was at the little girl´s side.

“What are you doing, my lady?” she asked. The Princess did not move. Her features were pale, like another of those statues whose brightly-painted eyes were like unsettling beacons against the white marble of their faces.

For a moment of crazy hallucination, the woman felt as if the hall of Ar-Adunakhôr´s battle reliefs was the true home of this silent girl. The lack of contrast was seamless, as she sat quietly, calmly, surrounded by the figures set in stone.

Then, however, the thought passed, and the furtive shiver came back once again. That girl... that princess... no, there was no way to know how those things could affect her unfortunate soul.

Resolutely, she stepped in front of her.

“My lady.” she said. Zimraphel´s eyes seemed to pass through her, and this unsettled her even further. She laid a hand over the tiny shoulder.

“My lady Zimraphel, you know that you are not allowed outside your chambers! You- may hurt yourself.” she added in a whispered tone, swallowing deeply.

The Princess blinked. Then, as if they had just been sitting together for a while, she wrinkled her nose and sent an inquiring look in her direction.

“Who is she?” she asked. Somewhat relieved, and used to her charge´s changes of mood, the old lady studied the relief in front of her.

It depicted a beautiful, raven-haired woman, raising her eyes to the sky while she was dragged across the floor by two soldiers. Her robes were painted in vivid tones of violet, striking a contrast with the subdued golden and ochre of the rest of the figures.

The nurse gave a slow nod.

“This is Alissha the Traitor.”

She did not plan to add more, but Zimraphel began to pull at her sleeve with a methodical insistence.

“And what did she do?”

After a while, she was forced to surrender with a sigh.

“She tried to claim the Sceptre, though she was a woman and an Elf-friend. Ar-Adunakhôr and the Great God Melkor defeated her, and she was punished for her impudence.” She took a sharp breath. “But you are too young yet to hear such stories.”

“Did she die?” the girl asked still, with that kind of consuming absortion that seemed unable to see or hear anything else. The old nurse stared at her in shock.

“Yes. She died.” she muttered, in a voice that was almost too low for herself to hear. Then, with a renewed feeling of urgence, she stood up and beckoned to her. “Come. We must leave now.”

The Princess looked away, back to her original indifference.

“If the Second Royal Nurse learns that you have been here, you will be punished.”

The threat was ignored. Which was not really surprising, because that girl was never punished. Everybody was overwhelmed by pity as they gazed upon those eyes, huge and stirring yet cursed with the shadow of an invisible illness.

“The Princess Zarhil will come to visit soon.” she tried again. In spite of her mother´s deep devotion towards her, Zimraphel did not even blink.

Exasperated, the old woman grabbed at the girl´s hand, and forced her to stand up. Her fingers felt cold, and humid from the stone floor.

“Let us go.” she ordered. The Princess followed her with small steps, but as they crossed the Western gates of the hall, the nurse saw her turn back to gaze at the distant violet spot one more time.

 

 

 

(II)

 

The lines of his hands were starting to dim, blurred by the waning light. Above his head, flocks of seagulls filled the skies with their piercing cries, and he knew that in the West the sun was already sinking under the waves. He remembered the times he had seen it looking like a ball of burning fire, magnificent and red before the final plunge.

In this city, the sun was different, a white explosion of light that blinded the eyes as it rose triumphantly from behind the towers. The reflection of its rays gave a strange metallic quality to the sea of the merchants, that somehow felt harsh, vivifying; unwelcome.

Back in Andúnië, his family had said that with the passing years he was growing closer to the Elf than to the Man that they all had in their blood. Númendil, the Half-Elf, they called him in jest, smiling in indulgence as he grew absorbed by the slightest details of the shifting world around him. Life had always had a different quality for them than for him. Everything that happened was slower, blunter, less immediate - and sometimes he had felt as if the paths he was treading were different from theirs altogether.

When they were exiled without trial, and imprisoned in this harbour of merchants, his wife had thought that their activity and turmoils would affect him most of all. But then, she had been the one who broke down first, sobbing with longing for their quiet twilight world, their gardens on the nest of the mountain and the love of their kin. Eärendur had preferred to lay down his old life rather than being exiled twice; as for the whereabouts of his parents and his sister, the Sorian merchants would not tell. He had comforted Emeldir the best that he could, telling her that they had been allowed to keep each other, but in truth he felt the pulls of reality with a distant quality that he could not himself explain.

It was as if he had fallen into a long sleep, like some animals did when winter robbed them of food and warmth. From his terrace, he silently watched the comings and goings of loud-voiced men with colourful robes, the shipping of soldiers in warships headed for Middle-Earth and the evolutions of the crying gulls, and yet nothing of this affected him, like the mad dance of visions in his night dreams. The echoes of loving voices did not fade from his mind; he knew that they would meet again.

Far in the distance, he heard the noise of birds, but not gulls this time. The sound made him glad, for he loved those small, dark sterlings that curled under the cornice of the towers at this time of the year. They were like him; dwellers of the aerial realm, banished from the hostile comings and goings of the streets that lay under their feet.

In a month, those birds would be gone in search of a kinder climate. And he would remain, waiting for signs of their return.

“Father!”

Númendil froze at the voice, momentarily taken by the unpleasantness of awakening. Out of an instinct he closed his eyes, like a boy who wanted to sleep only five minutes more before he was awakened for his lessons, but he was not allowed to do so. A small yet strong hand pulled at his robe.

“Father!”

Resigned, he opened his eyes again, and was electrified by the shock of two bright grey eyes brimming with life. His musings became blurred, unreal again. Then, his son grabbed at his hand, and the fire finally flew from the sparks.

Amandil. Sometimes, Númendil wondered if he had grasped the notion that this quick spirit, this boy who protested in outrage when he did not receive an immediate answer and ran like a whirlwind around the house had been born from Emeldir and him. Back when she held him as a newborn baby in her arms, he had just marvelled at her happiness, and wondered how such a small and squirming thing could bring such comfort to a person.

It was only when he started to grow, and Númendil felt pulled into his vivid world of shouts, laughs and cries, when he had realised that this child offered him the harsh yet precious gift of a Man´s life. And for this he had loved him, more than he did his wife or kin.

“Amandil.” he said, looking down at him. “What is it, child?”

The boy was frowning deeply. His clouded expression brought a feeling of alarm to the slowly awakening conscience of his father.

“I want to go out.” he announced. Númendil stared at him, uncomprehending.

“Out of here!” the boy clarified, as if he was talking to a dimwit. “Leave this place and see the city! And the other cities, too. Mother says that the West is very beautiful.”

“Amandil...” his father began, then felt the words trail away from his mouth as they did from his mind. What could he say to such a thing? He felt belatedly aware that he should have expected the question at some point, from so curious a child, but whenever the boy was with him he was robbed of the ability to think. “We cannot go out, my son.”

The boy´s frown became a scowl.

“Because of those fat, vile, Morgoth-worshipping merchants? What can they do to stop us?”

Númendil swallowed. What had Emeldir told him?

“This is not a polite thing to say about our hosts.”

Amandil crossed his arms over his chest, defiant.

“But it is true! Mother said it!”

“Those people... “

Númendil sighed, then sought for a way to rephrase it. Before Amandil´s birth, nobody had shot questions at him that quickly. He had never grown used to it –questions about birds, about plants, about battles, about the Valar, about the seasons, and the inevitable bout of exasperation at his delay.

“Listen to me, my son.” he said, picking him up and sitting him on his knees. The boy squirmed a little until at last he found a comfortable position. “West of here lies a city, the greatest and most powerful in the whole of Númenor. There, upon the tallest hill, is the Palace, home of our King, who holds the Sceptre of Elros Tar-Minyatur.”

“I know about the Sceptre!” Amandil protested. Númendil´s lips curved in a faint smile.

“Then, you know also that we of the Line of Elros are bound to it, no matter what happens.” The boy nodded reluctantly. “We must obey the King who holds the Sceptre in Armenelos, even if he orders us to remain here.”

“Is he a Morgoth-worshipper, too?”

The heir to the former Lord of Andúnië sighed.

“One day, a King who honours the Valar will call us back, and give us our freedom, lands and honours.” he said instead, allowing his eyes to wander in the twilight shadows. “You will see all those cities then, and you will be a great lord.”

“And I will ride to war!” the boy nodded enthusiastically. Númendil stared at him in shock, wondering how such an idea could have got into his head. No member of the Western line had seen a battle since the days of the civil strife, and there was none who had wished to seek such violence.

Violence...

As he was thinking this, he fell the pull of a vision start to grip him with cold fingers. He saw a sword, driven into a curled shape that lay on a bed. An altar of fire, and a boy who stared at the flames, terrified. The howling of a wolf.

Worried, he cradled his son´s face with his hand.

“There is no need to be so impatient. A man must learn to wait, and observe the world that lies in front of his eyes. Look.” he whispered in his ear, directing his little chin towards the neighbouring tower where most of the sterlings had already fallen asleep. “Do you see those birds, who hide under the cornice?”

Do you see how they become confounded with the shadows as night falls, do you care for the skill of patiently tracing the flapping of their wings in the dark?

But Amandil shook his head.

“I do not care for birds. I want to go out now.”

Now.

Númendil´s premonition became stronger, with a sense of urgence that tore at his insides. Danger, fear, bereavement. Loneliness.

Death.

“No, my child.” he pleaded, holding him so close that Amandil squirmed and protested. “Please, stay here with me. Stay here, and be safe.”

 

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

(III)

 

 

Once, when he had been very, very little, he had been afraid of the darkness of the corridors. After all, any kind of creature could be lurking in the corners where his eyes did not reach, watching his footsteps. He did not fear being attacked, but not knowing what lay in the shadows made him nervous and uneasy.

Later, as he grew older, he had liked to imagine shapes for those creatures. They had become Orcs with ugly animal faces, holding bloody axes in their claw-like hands, and ghostly Elves who tried to ensnare him with their fell sorcery. He had believed himself a great captain, fought them bravely until he stood alone with a smile, and the corridor was empty.

In silent trepidation, he watched now the imposing gates of the Western Wing. The green jasper columns were so big that three men wouldn´t be able to embrace one of them with outstretched arms, and their palm-shaped capitals sustained a huge structure of gold architraves and black ebony statues. He imagined that those were the gates of Mordor, crowded with dark-skinned Orcs who guarded the realm of their master. Or maybe the doors of the Elven palace of Lindon, where men wandered lost, taken by a spell of oblivion as soon as they laid eyes upon them.

But not him. The armies of Númenor were waiting for his signal, and he would bring them to a great victory. Feeling his heart brim with renewed courage, he walked inside, refusing to feel intimidated by the imposing proportions of the façade.

Slowly, he forced his breathing to still. He found himself in a great hall, almost as huge as the throne room where his grandfather sat among hundreds of kneeling courtiers. An endless sucession of painted figures in relief covered the walls, and for a while, he could do nothing but stand gaping at them. A fleet of swift warships sailed the Great Sea, an army stood assembled upon the Eastern shores. Orcs, Elves and barbarians fled in terror or knelt to pay tributes to the Sea King who had set foot on Middle-Earth. And in the middle of the scene stood he, Ar-Adunakhôr the Great, tall and radiant with his golden armour.

Little Pharazôn swallowed deeply, fascinated. Lost in warlike imaginations, where he was the one who stood in the middle of the stronghold of his vanquished enemies, he almost failed to hear the sound of footsteps upon the stone floor.

“What are you doing here?”

Angry at his carelessness, he stood firmly in place, raising his eyes to meet the enemy who had discovered him. It was a tall lady, whose deep blue robes billowed with the breeze that blew from the gardens that lay behind them. Pharazôn watched the swirls, and fancied that they were the deadly undulations of a dragon´s scaly tail.

“I am Pharazôn, the King´s grandson.” he announced proudly. “And I go where I wish!”

The lady frowned at him, then gave him a curt bow and continued her way. The boy watched her retreating steps, astounded at his easy victory. And to think that he had never dared to step inside this place before!

Feeling his confidence grow, he resumed his conquering march, and headed towards the Western gate that connected the hall with the rest of the wing. The inner gardens were covered by a varnished lattice, behind which he could distinguish softly-running fountains, trees covered in purple flowers and floors of glazed tiles. Disappointed, he thought that those were similar to his mother´s gardens, and decided to leave such a boring place.

Before he could take his eyes away, however, the boy heard a female voice, and froze in place. Pressing his face against the lattice, he saw an old woman in a dark green robe, leading a girl by the hand. As they passed in front of him, the girl turned back briefly, and he saw her face, pale and beautiful like a flower. She looked sad.

Taken by an impulse, Pharazôn tried to push the lattice, but it had been firmly set in place by the best craftmen of the Island many years before he was born. Muttering a curse that he had once heard from an adult, he watched her disappear, and bit his lip hard.

So the Western Wing also had a princess! Turmoil brewed in his young heart as he turned away, wondering at those mournful grey eyes that he had seen for but a moment.

Who was she?

With a last glance to the reliefs of Ar-Adunakhôr, the boy crossed the hall, and then the Gates of the Western Wing. His conquest had been a great one, but it suddenly felt small and meaningless. He had to come back, and find a way to talk to her. He wanted to know her name.

Pressing his knuckles against an invisible sword, he swore to himself that he would, soon.

Chapter Text

Her hands fumbled with the curtain in the dark, as she blinked the clouds of sleep away from her eyes. The sound was growing in urgency and intensity; a long and shrill scream that reverberated across the yard.

Curling up in a grey cloak, Zarhil ran across the garden, ignoring the glances and the voices that whispered behind the shadows. There was light in her daughter´s chambers, and she charged in like a mad fury.

The women who were at the young Princess´s antechamber knelt to offer her a silent bow. She did not waste a moment with them, but instead rushed towards the entrance. Another woman was there –the Nurse-, muttering soothing words.

Zarhil pushed her away as well, and her eyes rapidly sought for the small figure who uttered the terrified screams. She found her crouching, her back pressed against a corner. Crossing the distance between them, she grabbed her hand, and held her down while she struggled and thrashed with a mysterious strength that the quiet girl did not possess during the day.

“Sssssh.” she whispered in a hoarse voice. Tears gathered in her eyes, and one of them trickled down the hard skin of her face. “Mother is here. There is nothing to fear.”

Slowly, the child´s struggles subsided. Her screams died in a choked sob, and two huge eyes flew open, shining in the dark like reflections upon the water of a well.

“You are with Mother.” Zarhil kept crooning in her ear. The girl´s tense limbs relaxed slightly. Little by little, she even grew to accept the intrusion of her caresses, though she did not lean against her.

“You are safe. You had a bad dream.”

Zimraphel shook her head.

“No! I didn´t. I never dream!” An anxious spark twinkled in her eye, and she went back to struggling. “Leave me alone!”

Zarhil dried her face with a swipe of her hand, and tried to smile.

“You did not dream.”she nodded.“You never dream. Please, let me stay with you.”

After the initial fright had passed, the girl´s expression grew void and empty. In silence, she studied her mother´s anxious face as if it was but a mosaic or a painting.

After another while, she turned her back to her, and curled in her silk sheets. Zarhil laid a careful hand across her shoulder, almost expecting rejection, but her daughter did not move again.

Now that everything had settled back into an eerie calm, she felt more than ever the urge to weep against the sheets. Many times, she cursed herself for having allowed her family and the King to take her away from her sea-travels, her ship and her brave sailors, and imprison her on dark chambers where every shadow seemed to grow terrible and threatening. She cursed her own strength, of body and mind, that did not avail her against the spell of a suffering, cruel child.

Zimraphel, the baby that survived, was the only creature that she had ever loved with such a frightening intensity. Her family she had always respected, her sailors she had befriended - her husband she liked enough, whenever she was allowed to forget that he was the man who had taken the Sea away from her. But that fair, frail, fathomless creature who had grown in the Sea Lady´s womb by some poignant irony of fate had become her life. Her weakness inspired her tenderness, her pain made her suffer, her beauty excited her pride and wonder – her disease killed her.

How could such a small thing inspire so much passion?

Taken by an impulse, Zarhil hugged the tiny form. The limbs went rigid again in silent protest, and soon she was forced to give up. Zimraphel had never accepted her mother´s blind love, never favoured her above her nurse or addressed her the words that she had heard his brother´s daughters whisper in their mother´s ears with a girlish smile. One day, as she had rushed back to her after a long and unbearable ceremony, the girl had turned towards the old woman who was combing her hair, and asked who she was.

It was the disease. The disease was at fault for everything, Inziladûn said- and sometimes, Zarhil was sure that there was something else that he was aware of. But who could know for sure? He was even farther from Zimraphel than she was now, as she held her trembling body in her arms at night. Once, he had told her to ask the child if the dream that scared her so much had a wave in it. Zimraphel had merely shaken her head in denial.

A soft sound of fidgeting, coming from the other side of the bed, brought her to open her eyes. The girl was whimpering, caught into one of her horrible dreams. Zarhil cursed again, over and over, choking with the burning impotence of not being able to wrestle the demons away from her.

Lady of the Seas, she muttered an old prayer, in an almost inaudible voice. With her right hand, she caressed over and over the dishevelled threads of her hair. Queen of Ships, help her find her way home.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

The summer sun was shining intensely, even though it was still early in the morning. Inziladûn made a signal for his entourage to wait, and entered the comfortable shade of the inner gardens.

His hands fidgeted with the purple folds, that billowed so conspicuously behind his steps. No matter how many times he wore those ceremonial robes, kept his chin high with hieratic dignity and accustomed himself to have so many people around, there was still some wild side of his soul that felt the urge to tear everything away and return to the lonely sanctuary of his youthful studies.

That day would be especially trying, he thought with a frown. The last war against the desert tribes had officially ended, and today the victorious general would bring his prisoners to the King and the people of Armenelos. The people were bad enough –they were always eager to see blood-, but some of those accursed merchants would also be there, and among them Magon of Gadir, kin to the King. Whenever that crafty serpent had access to the King´s ear, be it for an hour or a minute, the Prince of Númenor had to gather all his allies and double his precautions.

“Already in a hurry, Inziladûn?”

The Prince looked at his wife, who was surrounded by three serving ladies. They were arranging the folds of her robes, and giving the last touches to her braided grey hair while they whispered and prattled among themselves.  As they noticed his presence, however, they fell silent.

“We are expected.” he replied, then noticed the bags under Zarhil´s eyes. “You have not slept well tonight.”

The woman shook her head, and a shadow tensed her features for a moment.

“Nightmares.”

Inziladûn swallowed. Whose nightmares those were, he knew it very well.

“Where is she?” he asked then, wondering at the same time at the impulse that brought him to ask that question. He should greet her when he came to visit, a voice whispered inside his mind.

“In her chambers.” Zarhil answered, giving him a surprised frown. Inziladûn nodded, and left her with a muttered indication to hurry that should have rather been addressed to the other women.

As he entered the dark halls, he had to blink several times before he grew accustomed to the new light. Some women abandoned their silent tasks to kneel; the Nurse bowed obsequiously and let him through the door of the antechamber.

Míriel was reading. Her grey eyes were fixed on the pages of an enormous volume in absorbed concentration, and she did not even blink at his entrance. For a moment he stood at the doorstep, wondering at that strange Inzilbêth who had come back to life with an invisible taint.

Back when she was a baby, he had alternatively blamed her disease on her unfortunate birth and her heritage, but years later he had begun to wonder. Crazed ideas crossed his mind, and he fancied that his mother had come back, to stare with huge and enigmatic eyes at those who had killed, buried, and then forgotten her.

In an attempt to dispel his unease, he coughed a little. Conversations with his daughter had grown more and more difficult as the years passed by. She looked at him with cold indifference, and the rare times that she spoke her words made his blood curdle in his veins. Once, she had asked him why did he let her brother die, and no matter who he interrogated about this, everybody swore by the gods that they had not said a single word about the dead twin in her presence.

Month by month, year by year, the frequency of his visits had dwindled. They brought too much pain and puzzlement, and he was too busy to allow her to interfere in his political moves, his bargains for support, and the tenuous relationship with his father. He had left her to Zarhil and her women, who soothed her when she had bad dreams and looked after her in those chambers, carefully hidden from the prying glances and harsh realities of the world outside. With all his soul he wanted her to be happy - and yet, she would never smile to him.

“Míriel.”

“Father.” she echoed. Surprised, he looked at her, and she lifted her glance from the book. He was not used to have her attention so soon.

“What... are you reading?” he asked, feeling as awkward as he had not felt since he was a child and a mad King had stared at him. She frowned, and covered the pages with both hands.

“A book.”

And there it was, again. Her instinctive mistrust pierced his heart, then left nothing in its wake but a cold disappointment.

He took a sharp breath.

“Your mother and I are leaving for a celebration. She will come back at night to visit you.”

Míriel´s voice came out muffled, for she had pressed her face against her protective hands.

“And I cannot go.”

Shocked, Inziladûn gazed lengthly at her, but she did not lift her head up.

“I...” he began, unsure of what to say. He hid behind formality . “I... do not think it would be advisable.”

“I do not care.” she muttered. “I do not want to go with you. Leave me alone.”

The Prince felt a knot gather in his throat. It was the disease. Nothing but the disease, he forced himself to remember. The Curse of Ar-Sakalthôr.

It was not her fault.

“Have a good day, Míriel.”

As he crossed the threshold, and walked the length of the corridor in his way out, he had to force his rigid hands to unclench.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

The triumphal celebration took place at the square that stood in front of the Palace. Inziladûn watched the ceremony from the lower terrace, where some of the most powerful men in the realm had gathered around the King and his family.

Hours passed by, without a moment of respite for the chants and shouts. Prayers, sacrifices and dances gave way to a bloodier spectacle, as the enemy leaders were brought forth in chains and their throats slit to the crowd´s delight. Once that they were dead, voices were heard asking, demanding for more. The King nodded, -Melkor would have his due-, and the higher ranked of the barbarians followed suit.

Inziladûn stood in silence, watching the rivers of blood flow from the stabs and the agonical expressions with repugnance. The soul of Man, unlike that of animals, Orcs or Elves, was a battleground where the god and the beast fought a perpetual struggle, the late Maharbal had taught him when he was a child. But at certain moments, when a kind of frenzy spread like a disease from man to man, from woman to woman and child to child, everything that was good was drowned under an animal bloodlust.

Next to him, Pharazôn was doing great efforts to appear brave in front of his family. His face was slightly pale, his jaw clenched, but he did not take his eyes away from the sight. His mother touched his shoulder with a proud smile.

One by one, they came to their ignominious end under the various curses and mockeries of their enemies. Inziladûn shivered. Even worse than the general madness, worse than the blood and the corpses that were taken away by piles, what shook him to the core was their glances just before they died. Their voiceless wonder as they stood in the heart of the Jewel of the West, and forgot knives, crowd and executioner to stare at the shimmering reflections of sunlight in the glazed tiles of the magnificent buildings, the white and ochre towers closing upon them like a beautiful shadow of death, haunted him even as he closed his eyes like a coward.

Once that the last of the bodies was dragged away, Ar-Gimilzôr turned his back to the crowd. The people in the terrace followed him to an improvised banquet under a cover of braided branches of pomegranate trees. There, the victorious general –a nephew of the governor of Sor- was received with honour among the other guests, and was immediately taken under the wing of an insolent merchant whose long curls were held by gold ringlets like those of a woman. Azzibal of Sor, Inziladûn thought in distaste. The man´s father-in-law, asides from a long-standing associate of Magon of Gadir.

Refusing to be distracted, his eyes sought the King in his throne. Gimilzôr was asking them something, with that severe expression that old age had sculpted in his features like a perennial frown. Gimilkhâd stood at his side, dressed in all his finery and crowned by a diadem of rubies. Under the gems, his dark hair shone like Umbarian ebony – the second in the family to require the services of their father´s favourite dyer, Inziladûn thought a little frivolously.

Soon afterwards, he also spotted his main enemy, Magon of Gadir. The fat merchant, dressed with his usual ostentatiousness, was doting on his grandson in the company of his royal daughter and another man. Melkyelid, who wore a flowing dress of yellow and gold with green embroideries, frowned in disapproval at something that her son said, while Magon laughed loud.

“It is yet too soon for you to say such a thing!” he scolded, ruffling Pharazôn´s curly hair.

“Your grandfather is a man of extraordinary honour and renown in Númenor and Middle-Earth.” Melkyelid told her son, vanity surfacing for a moment in her measured tone. Pharazôn stared curiously at the man.

“Do you rule a great kingdom?”

Magon gave a casual shrug, that was not devoid of affectation.

“Indeed. I rule a house in Gadir, and a couple of factories.”

“That is true.” the other, younger man nodded. Inziladûn did not see any similitude in their features, so he assumed that he had to be what those people called an “associate” – which, for them, ranked higher than blood kin. “And yet the most powerful men of Gadir, Sor and Umbar, the coastal outposts and harbours, the tributary barbarians and many nobles of Númenor bow before him and lie in his debt.”

The young prince frowned.

“I do not understand.” he stated, with the bluntness of a child. All the adults laughed.

“One day you will.” Magon sentenced, ruffling his hair again. Inziladûn looked away, before they could see him and trap him with a polite and respectful invitation. Even farther, at the edge of the obsidian balustrade, his wife had spotted him and proceeded to call him with gestures. Talking with her was her brother Zakarbal, lord of Forrostar, and a man that Inziladûn wanted very much to have a talk with.

“Hail, Prince of Númenor!” the man saluted, raising his cup of wine. He answered with a nod, and approached them.

“Zakarbal of Sorontil.” he greeted politely. “I am glad to see that you were invited.”

Those words were not devoid of meaning. It had been some years since their common mistrust for the emerging merchant class, blood ties and a great deal of skill on his part had availed him to win the new lord of the northernmost province for his party, and Ar-Gimilzôr´s insane suspicions had haunted the man´s steps ever since. Zakarbal, a born warrior like his father, and therefore straightforward and not very subtle, did not know how to mince words at Court – and this, together with his reverence for the Númenorean gods was probably the only thing that had saved him from being considered a two-faced viper like the unfortunate people of the Western branch.

Still, the issue that had brought his name to the lips of the courtiers and people of Armenelos of late was of a very different nature. His wife had failed repeatedly to bear him a male heir before she was past the age, and now the prestigious Northern Branch, direct descendants of Tar-Anárion, ended with him. Inziladûn had sketched a plan to solve this problem that would reinforce his party at the same time, but it was very rarely that a high-born noble of the Line of Elros would be willing to listen to talks of adoption.

Zakarbal motioned to a servant, who brought wine to him. Inziladûn accepted it with a smile, but instead of drinking it, he chose to stare into the eyes of his brother-in-law.

“Have you thought about it?” he asked bluntly. The nervous, uneasy shift that ensued told him better than any word that Zakarbal indeed had.

Zarhil drank a sip.

“I... have.” the man finally replied, looking at her. He was too proud to ask for support, but it seemed to Inziladûn that he was encouraging her to speak in some way.

“He was just informing me that he had not found any other solution.” she complied.” I told him that our father´s line could not die, and that if he did not care for it himself, the King soon would.”

“I do not want one of those accursed merchants to be my heir.” Zakarbal mumbled, frowning at the idea. Inziladûn smiled in sympathy, though he was heartened inside.

“I do not think that it would go that far.” he soothed him.

“No? Look around you.” the Northern lord snorted. “They are everywhere. Even at the very feet of the Throne, so why not in my house?”

“Then, all the more reason for us to attack first.” Inziladûn decided. “I have a candidate.”

Zakarbal´s brow furrowed even further. It was obviously a very painful subject to broach for him, a decision that he had only made pushed by an even bigger threat. Inziladûn decided to offer him an arm he could lean on.

“He is from the line of Elros, of course. Son of Shemer, the Southwestern lord, a Council member. One of the very few who has not been bought by our worthy Gold-Makers, in fact, and therefore a natural ally.”

Zakarbal drank again, mulling over these words.

“And... what about his father?”

Inziladûn shook his head.

“The gods are with us. He has a brother. He is scarcely twelve, a very bright lad”, he added, after a moment of thought.

“And strong?” his brother-in-law asked. For the first time in the conversation, he seemed to be taken by the idea.

“And strong.” Inziladûn confirmed, encouraged. “So what? Would you ... agree to meet with him, then?”

The tenuous instant of trust dissolved in a rush, and Zakarbal instinctively recoiled.

“Well... I am heading North this month, as you know. There are many affairs I have to tend to, being the sole lord and King´s attendant at the same time.” he mumbled, not unlike how a child who had been forbidden to talk to strangers would refuse a sweetmeat in the streets. The Prince sighed –too soon yet.

And he had already obtained a very important victory.

“Very well.” he nodded, taking his first sip of the drink. “Take your time.”

His brother-in-law´s eyes widened in slight alarm.

“Please understand that this is not a rejection of your generous proposal. I just...” he began, but Inziladûn cut him with a good-natured gesture.

“Of course not.”

“He can look inside your soul.” Zarhil informed him, in a mild yet dry streak of malevolence. “There is no need for explanations.”

The Prince glared at her, then turned back to Zakarbal.

That is very far from the truth indeed, in spite of the rumours. I simply understand that...”

Suddenly, however, a figure gesturing at him brought the thread of his words to die away in distraction. It was the Great Chamberlain, his chin discreetly pointing in the direction of the Throne. Careful not to startle his companions, Inziladûn ventured a brief look from the corner of his eye, and what he saw made his blood freeze.

Magon and the King were talking.

“What is the matter?” Zarhil, always so indiscreet, asked in surprise. He made a vague sign to her and her brother.

“I will be back.” he mumbled, walking away. Zakarbal´s eyes widened, but he did not have time to do anything but bow in haste.

The figures of the guests came and went in a blur under the dimmed evening light. Inziladûn passed them by, in search of the man who had alerted him.

“There is an... interesting conversation going on.” he whispered in his ear. The Prince nodded in understanding.

“Come with me.” he whispered back.

Pretending to be deep in conversation, both walked side by side until they were close enough to the Throne. With great skill, the Chamberlain pretended to have been beckoned by a courtier and bowed to Ar-Gimilzôr. Inziladûn followed him.

“Congratulations on the victory, my King.” he said, with another bow. His father´s eyes trailed over him vaguely, and he acknowledged him with a silent nod, absorbed as he was in conversation with the merchant. Profitting of this leave, Inziladûn stayed nearby.

“...his birthday was last week.” Magon was saying at the moment. His lips curved into a smile that, for some reason, made a shiver cross the Prince´s spine. “A beautiful boy, they say, healthy and quite clever. Azzibal tells me that he loves to wield toy swords and fight “filthy Morgoth-worshippers.”

Ar-Gimilzôr´s features tensed. His eyes took that feverish glint that Inziladûn had learned to despise so much, and his hand tightened around the Sceptre.

Danger, a shrill voice pounded in his ears. He tried to choke his fear, his bile as he met the golden merchant´s fatherly smile with a calm glance.

So this was what he had been planning to do...

“The line of King Elendil are proven traitors, who have been removed from the King´s august sight.” he rebuked. “They should not be mentioned in his presence.”

Ever gracious in his manners, Magon bowed low.

“Oh, dear. Indeed, I was out of line. I humbly beg for your forgiveness.”

Inziladûn did not answer, but turned his attention to his father instead. Ar-Gimilzôr was frowning, and staring at a certain point beyond the terrace´s railing. He barely seemed to have heard his intervention, so absorbed he was by his own thoughts.

The light of the lamps and candles that servants were laying around them cut sharp lines on his profile, and lent a fell quality to his glance. With a startle, Inziladûn realised that he reminded him of the late Ar-Sakalthôr, brooding in the shadows. Out of a sudden instinct, he swallowed deeply and followed the direction of his father´s stare.

Down in the almost deserted square, under the faint glow of lanterns, several men were washing the spurts of blood that remained upon the stone pavement.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

In the following days, the news of his informers were unanimously worrying. His father was oddly thoughtful, his nights were restless, and he had visited the temple of Melkor twice. Even worse, he had refused to meet with Inziladûn. Ar-Gimilzôr had always feared his son´s ability to unlock carefully guarded secrets and dark thoughts – this was something that he knew since he was a child.

Back when the Western line had been abolished, their lives had been spared, with the exception of Eärendur´s voluntary departure. This had brought some relief to Inziladûn, who had feared the worst for his friends. But, what about a new heir, the monster´s spawn, the continuation of their line and hopes? Would even he be innocent in the all-fearing, all-consuming eye of the King?

Ar-Gimilzôr had heard of the baby´s birth years ago, and done nothing. Probably, some kind of remorse for his grandson´s death –murder- had stayed his hand back then, but Inziladûn knew too well that the ambition of a merchant, the will of Melkor and a tyrant´s fear held a power that was all too terrible.

Curse that merchant! He had learned to read the King´s unlimited penchant for suspicion, and exploited it more easily and ruthlessly than his own son had done through the years. Númendil... Valandil... they might be ready to offer their own child as a sacrifice, but Inziladûn was not.

Day and night, he had the Merchant Princes who stayed as guests followed, and those from Sor with special care. But he could not follow the King´s every movement, not when his father denied him access, and this tore at his insides. He felt powerless, hurting himself over and over against the same stone wall. Disturbing visions plagued his mind, the same that had once warned him of his infant son´s birth and murder.

One night, as he lay restless in his bed, he was taken by an unnatural slumber, deep and fathomless like a black hole. Ghostly figures danced around him, of grey women whose eyes were brimming with tears.

All of a sudden, a pair of hands grabbed his cloak.. He turned around, searching for a presence, and found himself face to face with the anguished face of Emeldir.

Help us, Inziladûn! she cried. Shaken, he offered his hand to her, but it slipped away like a cloud of mist.

Even before the last tatters of the vision had relinquished their vivid hold on his mind, Inziladûn jumped from his bed, and felt his way in the darkness towards the hiding place of the Seeing Stone.

Chapter Text

“Númendil! Númendil!”

He opened his eyes in confusion, wondering if someone was calling him. Everything was empty, except for some twisted shapes that gleamed on the wall.

He closed them again.

“Númendil!”

An irregular darkness enveloped him, like a mantle with tears and holes. Strange images came to haunt him in his retreat, a frightened child, a silent plea for help, a woman crying. He curled under the blankets in an attempt to suppress the growing feeling of loss. It was as if there was a gaping hole in his soul, but he could not remember why.

Father! I want to play!

There was the distant remembrance of a hand, grabbing his arm and pulling him into a world full of loud laughs, of quick and immediate words. A small hand... a child´s hand.

Where had it gone? Why couldn´t he feel it anymore?

Sleep beckoned to him, and its lure was stronger than ever. It promised rest and warmth, whispering in his ears that there was nothing left to care about. But Númendil had an instinct, somehow, that still forced him to fight it. The child´s hand was not there anymore. He was afraid.

If nobody pulled him back, he would never wake up again.

“Númendil!”

Something cold touched him. It was not the cold of tears as they dried, but a different, intense and solid kind of cold. An object numbed his fingers, robbing him of the warmth of the blankets.

“Númendil!”

Now, for the first time, Númendil could hear the Voice. It was the voice of a man, strong and commanding. Galvanized by the shock, he opened his eyes wide, and met another pair of sea-grey, determined ones.

“The Shadow is taking you. You must fight it, Númendil!”

The Shadow... In a first moment, the words rolled inside his mind, their meaning unknown. Little by little, however, an awareness began to dawn upon him. Someone was breathing loudly and irregularly over his neck.

His hands held a black stone, which commanded his attention. He remembered having held that thing in the same manner days ago, when Amandil asked to see it for his birthday...

Amandil!

The name was like an eruption, wreaking chaos in his mind as the remembrances resurfaced. The sea-grey eyes stared at him in silence, allowing the pain to pierce his soul.

“Do not worry about your son. He will be the King´s honoured guest in Armenelos.”

The exultant spark in the merchant´s eyes belied the concern in his tone. Emeldir held back a sob, pressing her hand against his.

Behind Azzibal, and between two men who flanked him as if he was a prisoner, the boy shot bewildered glances in their direction, still unable to wholly understand what was going on.

“But I do not want to go to Armenelos! I want to stay here! Mother, I want to stay here!”

Emeldir supressed a whimper.

“Young and noble guest...” Azzibal began, but Amandil bolted off, and the merchant´s politeness was changed into an adamant expression as he ordered the men to hold him back. Undaunted, Amandil struggled, bit and kicked their legs.

“Let me go, worshippers of Morgoth!”

“There is no need to be so rude.” Azzibal frowned in disapproval. “The King would not like to hear those words. Everything is ready, take him away.”

“No! I do not want to go!”

Númendil stood still, watching the men as they pulled his son away. He could not move, or think of anything to say; the many different, lightning-quick emotions had paralysed him. Azzibal bowed, then retired, allowing him a last glimpse of the terrified plea in his fearless child´s eyes.

“Father!”

Wordlessly, he muttered the litany of his five generations of prosecuted ancestors. The sacrifices that each of them had made to save Númenor from the Downfall, and the prophecies of the Ultimate Sacrifice that would come before the end. A part of him wondered if it could be this.

We were sent that dream so none of us would ever forget our mission. his grandfather had said. Because if we forget, Númenor will be lost.

The words of duty finally found their way to his mouth.

“Amandil, remember us. Do not forget...”

But then, he felt himself pushed aside by an unexpected force. Astonished, he turned towards his attacker, and saw Emeldir step forwards, mighty and regal in spite of her short stature.

“No, Amandil! Forget us!” she cried, with a strength that belied the traces of tears upon her cheeks. “Forget us and live!”

The door was closed behind their backs. For a moment, both stood in silence, too thunderstruck to say a word. Then, Amandil´s screams reached them from outside, and she fell to the floor, her body racked by sobs.

Back then, he had not wept.  He had comforted her as well as he was able, feeling how her crying was gradually muffled as he held her in his arms. Then, he sat on his chair, and began to forget everything. In his dreams, only this one scene was replayed again and again, and he stood still for a hundred times while his son was taken away from him.

As the days passed, however, even this had become blurred. Now, for the first time, the emotions assaulted him as strongly as they had back then. He stood, shaking, once more paralysed by their intensity.

“My son...” he mumbled. Emeldir´s hand pressed his shoulder.

“Do not grieve for him, Númendil.” the grey eyes told him. “Once, you offered him to me freely, and I did not accept your gift. But I accept it now. He is under my protection, and I will let no harm come to him.”

Valandil´s heir blinked in admiration. Those were the words of a king, a king that he had never met before. Was he the one that Eärendur had announced?

Emeldir was staring at the ceiling, and muttering something like a prayer. He heard some of the words, shaken by a tremulous joy.

“Thank you, lord Inziladûn... thank you...”

For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, he felt truly warm.

“And now, you must carry on with your mission.” the voice continued to speak in his mind. “If you die, your death will only be a triumph for your enemies. Live, and I swear to you that your son and you will see happier times.”

Númendil´s admiration gave way now to a different sort of emotion. There was a new strength seeping through his limbs and soul, encouraging him to fight and resist. To discard his apathy, like crystal shards that had to be taken away from his still bleeding skin.

Encouraging him to live.

“Bear more children. Strengthen your line.”

Númendil nodded, feeling tears trail down his cheeks. He felt like he had just awakened from a long and dreary nightmare, drawn by the light of that man who addressed him. The King had been found, and he would save his son.

The end of their sufferings was near.

“I will.” he swore, his ability to master the Seeing Stone restored at last. A beautiful smile lighted Emeldir´s features, and she pulled him into an embrace “I will, my King.”

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Amandil advanced as swiftly as he could, yet his steps seemed small and slow in the midst of a boundless immensity. Above his head, the ceiling shone like a million stars, and the intense colours of the columns dazzled him.

“We must hurry. The King is waiting.”

He did not reply. Looking down, he bit his lip, and tried to get the flutter in his stomach to settle.

During the last days, he had travelled a very long distance across the Eastern regions of Númenor. Once, this would have seemed terribly exciting, and he would have peeked through the curtains of his carriage to see the people, the cities, the villages that had all been part of fabulous dreams and bedtime tales. But instead he had curled in the darkness like a baby, and forced himself not to cry as he was dragged farther and farther from his parents. Each mile, each shout announcing that they had passed a new landmark was a new cause for dread – even if he could escape, how would he go back on his own now?

In front of them –the Morgoth worshippers!- he had pretended to be brave, like an adult. Adults were not always brave, and he had seen tears in Mother´s eyes when he was taken away, but he would never show his fear to those people. When they tended to his needs they were always polite, but he had heard them calling him “the prisoner” when they thought he was not listening.

They also said many other things. One morning, a merchant of Sor muttered something about “the family of the traitors”, and added that the King feared the deceitful plots of Amandil´s father and grandfather. This had made the boy indignant, and he had been about to step out of his carriage and tell him that his father had said that they had to obey the King always, no matter what he did.

When they reached Armenelos, it had been night. Of the “greatest and most powerful city in Númenor” of Father´s tales he had barely seen some blurred lights, and a narrow street full of people watching from doorsteps. The Palace was made of long corridors that never seemed to end, and dark chambers where he was left alone to sleep.

That night, he had finally broken down and cried.

Early in the next morning, a woman woke him up “because he was going to meet with the King”, and this had made his hopes rise a little again. Thoughts and ideas ran like wild horses in his mind... first he would bow, and look at him in a very serious and sincere way. Then, he would tell him that his father and grandfather did not want to deceive or fight him, and that they would always obey him no matter what he did. He would surely understand –he had to. Amandil just couldn´t look intimidated, or let fear get the best of him.

Those were the words that he repeated over and over to himself as he was taken into an even bigger hall, and made to bow in front of a small man in red silks who gave him a cursory glance and stood up to talk to someone else. He was alone here, to fend off for himself. No Father or Mother.

He could not be afraid.

This started to become very difficult when the man in red silks and another one in yellow beckoned him to follow them through an imposing archway of porphyry and ivory. Inside, there was yet another hall, the likes of which Amandil had never seen in his life. It was bigger than the whole house where he had lived until now, counting all the floors – maybe as much as three or four times as big. Colourful mosaics covered the walls, ivory carvings filled the ceiling, and the polished obsidian floor gleamed darkly under his feet.

Amandil did not like the smothered yet reverberating noise of his footsteps. Swallowing, he forced his eyes to focus and search for the King, and saw a golden throne upon a flight of stairs. A man sat upon it, rigid and still like a statue.

Once again, the boy had to battle his fears. He kept walking forwards with a high chin, and the two men fell at his sides. Many echoing steps later, he reached the bottom of the stairs, where there were more men standing and peeking at him, but as soon as he tried to climb the first of them, he felt a strong hand grab at his shoulder.

“Lower your eyes, and bow!” a voice whispered on his ear. Taken by the urgency in its tone, he obeyed.

“Raise your head.” another voice said, calmer and graver. Amandil obeyed again and sought the King´s face, feeling small because of the throne´s height. He saw a tall and thin man with a sceptre in his hands. There was a diadem upon his forehead and a beautiful purple mantle over his shoulders, but his eyes were dark and cold, and his lips tight. Amandil had never been judged so unkindly by anyone.

His spirits sank.

“I...” he began. The hand pinched his shoulder again, and he repressed a yelp of pain.

The man in the throne did not move.

“We bid welcome to Amandil, son of Númendil, to our city of Armenelos” he said, in a strangely monotonous voice. Amandil tried again, as quickly as he could.

“Thanks, b-but I...”

A rustle of robes reached his ear, and he fell into a bewildered silence. The King´s mouth moved as if he was going to say something, but he just stared at him and closed it again.

Suddenly, he stood up from his throne, turned his back to them, and left. Everybody bowed deeply to the retreating figure except for Amandil, who sat there, thunderstruck.

“The audience is over” one of the men in the stairs declared in a solemn voice.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

This audience with the King put an end to Amandil´s expectations. Barely half an hour later, back into the dark room and still dressed in his rich, useless robes, he could do nothing but wonder forlornly at what had just taken place.

He did not understand. Why had the King not wanted to listen to him? He had taken him away from his parents, brought him all the way here, and now he did not even allow him to explain? It was not fair!

Shaking a little, he curled over himself. That stare had made him feel horrible, like he was alone and had done something very bad and everybody hated him. He thought of Mother, and how she smiled whenever she said that she was so proud of him. Somehow, it all seemed so distant now.

He felt the urge to cry again, and there was no willpower left to repress it. Warm tears gathered in his cheeks. What was going to happen to him?

Taken by this anxiety, he did not hear the voices outside the door, or the sharp click as somebody fumbled with the handle. A light fell upon his face, and he hid it between his hands in alarm.

“Stand up and kneel!” a harsh male voice ordered him. Amandil was growing tired of everybody making him go up and down like a puppet, and he refused to obey. A soft hand caught his wrist, trying to pry his hands away from his face.

The boy resisted, ashamed of his tears. Between his fingers, he had a blurred glimpse of a green flowing robe, and recognised the woman who had dressed him that very morning.

“The Prince of Númenor is here to see you” she announced quietly. Amandil shook her off, then quickly brushed his cheeks to dry them before she could react. Two men were with her in the room, and there was a lot of light now.

He blinked many times, glad that he could pretend it was the light what hurt him. The Prince of Númenor? Now, who was that?

Before he could wonder more about it, a third man walked inside. The other men bowed and left at his signal, and the woman followed them. Only Amandil stood in place, watching him warily.

It was a tall man, with a diadem and a purple cloak that reminded him briefly of the King. But the resemblance ended here: this one was younger, with a sharp nose and sea-grey eyes that made him look remarkably like Amandil´s father. The boy stared at him, astonished, while his forehead curved in a pondering frown.

Then, the man knelt in front of him, and sought for his glance. His eyes were bright and deep, and Amandil felt as if he was sucked away.

“Amandil, son of Númendil, I am your father´s friend.”

Shock turned to wonder, then to a tugging sensation of recognition that almost brought the tears back to the boy´s eyes. Those words were in Mother and Father´s language!

“Who are you?” he asked, willing his voice not to sound tremulous. The man shook his head.

“I am Inziladûn, son of the King. But there is no time for this now.” A bit awkwardly, he fumbled with his cloak, and took out a small brown bag which he laid on Amandil´s hand. The boy stared at it, wondering if he should be more surprised at the man´s uncanny resemblance to Númendil, at his goodwill, or at the fact that he was the son of that horrible man. “Keep this hidden. When dinner is served to you, you must slip this into your drink. Swear that you will not forget!”

“Why?”

The man´s look became even more intense.

“Swear it!”

Amandil´s head hung down. Here, nobody liked him, and he should not trust them. And yet– this man was different. He looked familiar. He talked like his parents. He did not make him bow and then refused to meet his eyes.

So in the end, he nodded, even if he had no idea why.

“I... I will.”

The man –Inziladûn- smiled, a quick, relieved smile that made him feel warm.

“Thank you. Now, listen to me.” His tone was laced with compassion. “You must be strong, even if you are afraid and you miss your parents. You must be brave, no matter what happens. One day you will be free, and you will see all your loved ones again.”

Amandil swallowed the funny feeling in his throat.

“My... my father said that one day the King would give us back our freedom, our lands and our honour,” he managed to stammer. “But the King did not want to even listen to me. He stood up and left!”

For a moment, he thought he saw a strange expression cross Inziladûn´s features. Before he could decide what it was, however, it disappeared, leaving nothing but a frown of determination.

“Your father does not speak lightly. What he said will become true one day, but you must wait. We all must wait.” As if in a sudden hurry, he stood up again, and arranged the folds of his cloak. “Do not forget what you swore!”

“Wait!” Amandil saw the man turn back to leave, and panic filled him. “Do not... do not go!”

The man stopped in his tracks. His shoulders tensed, as if trying to shake off an unwelcome feeling.

“I have no choice,” he said, his words already muffled by the distance. Then, he crossed the threshold, and was gone.

 

*     *     *     *     *

“To the lady Hanni, daughter of Imubal heir of Maharbal, greetings...”

Inziladûn stared at the letter that he had just written with his own hands, studying its contents with a critical look. Once that he was satisfied, he summoned his secretary, and handed it to him together with the necessary instructions. Then he sat back to wait, while a sigh escaped from tightly pursed lips. One.

Making promises was easier than finding the means to fulfil them, he thought in this brief instant that was allowed to him between careful and time-consuming manouevres. To have allies in the Palace and the provincial courts was a must, without which not even the exalted heir to the Númenorean Sceptre was worth anything. And for this, he needed to bend to others, be attentive to their needs and even –sometimes- play games with them.

Once, he remembered, he had despised those practices as part of the Merchant Princes´s artifices, and lived in proud isolation from the corrupted world that surrounded him. He had kept himself pure, Eru´s Chosen One and the bearer of true doctrine. He had studied the ancient texts, written treatises where he proved the truth and logic of the Faithful´s beliefs, until one day he found himself holding his son´s dead body in his arms and understood that none of those high-flowing theories would give him the power to change this forsaken land.

Years had passed since that day, and now, once again, a child was in danger. A child that was much more than those terrified sea-grey eyes, and a small body huddled against the wall of his room. If Amandil was killed, the Western line, the line of the bearers of the Wave Dream, would be broken. He would be king, but his allies would be no more.

Inziladûn was sure that the Merchant Princes and his father had thought the same thing. The boy had been brought to the Palace to die. For a long time, remorse –he knew- had stayed the King´s hand, but finally the avidity of Melkor and his power-hungry allies had not allowed him to redeem the murder of his grandson.

This remorse, for Gimilzôr, was a terrible weakness. He had been trying to get rid of it for years, knowing that his enemies could find a way to benefit from it. And now, he thought, the time had come to use it for their own advantage.

A servant knelt upon the threshold, announcing the arrival of his guest. Inziladûn nodded, and told him to lead him in. Mere seconds later, the round silhouette of Hannon walked into the room, and the deep bows of the old priest of Melkor greeted him thrice.

Years had been anything but kind to the Prince´s chief tutor. The wrinkles of old age marred his once elegant face, and abundant grey locks had overshadowed the chestnut brown of his hair. Furthermore, as it happened to many pleasure-loving Palace courtiers -many of whom had grown old during Inziladûn´s longer lifetime-, a life of luxury had finally taken its toll and made his body grow in width almost as much as in height. The Prince saw the enormous belly, which seemed about to burst under the white and gold priestly robes, the plump cheeks and chubby fingers full of rings, and wondered if one chair would be enough to hold so much weight.

Still, undaunted by the ominous crack of the perfumed sandalwood, the man accepted a tray of honey sweetmeats with enthusiasm. Even as they were still busy exchanging greetings, he swallowed two and considered a third with an appreciative glance.

Inziladûn felt the need to shake his head. Hannon was the least spiritual priest that he had known, the most immoral of tutors and the most immoderate of courtiers, and yet the cunning that sparkled in those small eyes could hardly be dismissed. From a relative low position, he had entered the Court, became chief responsible for the education of an heir to the Sceptre and finally the Palace head priest. Since the very beginning, he had set his intelligence and resources to work for his own advancement, as well as the amassing of riches that provided for his pleasures. He had cared for nothing besides himself, and this with a trained and focused dedication that other people, who worked for worthier causes, would easily have envied.

This was why all the Palace had been in an uproar when, nearly twenty years ago, Palace Priest Hannon announced that he was marrying a young and beautiful woman, daughter of a Palace provider. Though her Sorian ascent had become respectable in Ar-Gimilzôr´s time, she was still beneath a long-standing courtier and a priest. And several years later, to their even greater shock, his wife had given him children. All those who saw the unscrupulous hedonist dote immoderately on his adolescent daughter and infant son had to stop and rub their eyes, then shake their heads in disbelief.

Inziladûn, however, had thought differently back then. Until that moment, Hannon had been lost to him, firmly anchored in a present whose last days he would never see. His daughter and son had been his ties with the future, with the Númenor of Ar-Gimilzôr´s death and his old pupil´s rule. Worried for their advancement, he had suddenly developed an obsequious interest in the wayward prince that the Melkorian and high merchant circles had so maligned.

And this was why his help would be so useful.

“My dear Inziladûn!” The old man shook his head in mild reprobation, eyeing the whole contents of the room. “Still so austere, I see.”

“After all those Court ceremonies, I feel the need to rest now and then, in the solitude of my own quarters.” he replied with a modest shrug. “To have some hours of quiet, simple life – and see a few old friends.”

Hannon bowed at the compliment. Another honeycake –the fourth- found the way to his mouth, while a servant poured tea in his cup.

“Some rose petals in the tea would be nice,” he observed thoughtfully. Inziladûn ordered them with an indulgent smile, and watched how he raised the cup and smelled it like a connoisseur before taking his first sip.

“Your hospitality is far more magnificent than your rooms, my lord”, he finally declared. Inziladûn frowned.

“Should I take this as a reproach, or as a compliment?”

“I suppose it would be more advantageous if you took it as a reproach. You never cared for my compliments”, the priest joked. The Prince nodded -he remembered Hannon´s jealousy of his subordinate Maharbal´s strange hold over their young charge.

But Maharbal was long dead now, and he needed this man´s help.

“I always held you in the highest reverence”, he assured him, drinking a cautious sip of the rose-petal tea. As he had feared, it had a sickly sweet taste that he found almost unbearable. “This was why, I was thinking of late....”

Inziladûn´s voice trailed away deliberately, and he was rewarded by the glimpse of an interested expression in his old tutor´s guarded features. Encouraged, he waited for a while before he continued.

“I have been in talks with my noble brother-in-law for a while, the lord Zakarbal of Forrostar”, he said. “Due to his unfortunate lack of heirs, he has been thinking of adopting Hiram, the son of Lord Shemer of Hyarnustar.”

Hannon nodded, without betraying any sign of surprise. Maybe he had already gathered it from other sources, the younger man thought.

“An auspicious decision, my lord.”

Inziladûn took a distracted sip of the cup, repressed a grimace, and continued.

“Indeed. And still, there are some loose ends yet in the matter. You of all people might know that his family has been the target of some... malicious gossip within the walls of the Palace.”

Hannon frowned. This time, Inziladûn was certain that his ignorance was feigned.

“Malicious gossip?”

“They call Zakarbal impious, and even Elf-friend. Of course, the life he leads is as respectable and honourable as any, but you know the power of envy.” The Prince shrugged. “It is enough that someone has heard about the adoption plans to incite the jealousy of all those who might have hoped to see a kinsman of theirs rule the North.”

The old priest sighed.

“This is indeed true, alas! People do not pay heed to moral precepts anymore, and have forgotten to strive for perfection. Pettiness and smallness of heart grow day by day in this sinful city.”

Inziladûn took breath. In his childhood, he had grown used enough to his teacher´s flawless hypocrisy, but as an adult he did not feel like listening to his sermons.

“The matter is, I have thought of several ways to solve this. And there is one, which I intend to pursue above all others, that interests you particularly.”

“Interest me?” Hannon´s curiosity was back. He nodded.

“It has not escaped my notice that you have grown a fine family in those last years. Those who know her have nothing but words of praise for your beautiful and virtuous daughter.”

The flicker of interest became an avid gleam, that all the old man´s skill could not hide from the Prince´s prying glance.

“You are a highly respected member of the Great God´s clergy, and a good friend of mine. I have thought that a match between this Hiram and your daughter would be advantageous to the young man and a fine gift for her. What do you think?”

For one of the few times in his long career, Hannon was stuck with words.

“I... my lord...” He bowed. “As a father... I have no words...”

Inziladûn cut him with a gesture.

“There is no need for them. I am grateful for all the years you spent teaching me. There are still some impediments looming in the horizon, I must confess, like Zakarbal´s consent and, of course, your own...”

“My daughter, like me, is at your service for whatever need you may have of us, my lord!” Hannon exclaimed, still incredulous. Inziladûn imagined how the sweet thought with its various spreading branches was invading, little by little, every corner of the man´s mind.

His daughter, the future Lady of Forostar. His daughter, the wife of one of the most respected Council members, and kin to the King. In all his years, his ambitions had been many and high, but this has remained even beyond the reach of a powerful priest of Melkor. Not of one who did not have a drop of the blood of Elros running through his veins.

“I was sure you would accept, as one who understandably has her best interests in mind”, he said, with a grave nod. Then, his features relaxed a little, and he sighed. “Such is the sway that our children hold over us! Since we cradle them in our arms for the first time, we know that we would do anything to make them happy. Why, as you know, I am a father myself...”

“May the gods bless and keep the life of the young princess”, Hannon recited obligingly. Inziladûn nodded, while his thoughts wandered for a moment towards the child of the shadows. Would she ever have a happy marriage?

But his musings were brief, and he forced himself to return to the matter at hand.

“Our children are our soul”, he sentenced. “They are pure and innocent, as we once were, and have so many years, so many joys to live yet.”

“Indeed.” Hannon ate another cake, signalling his agreement. He looked exultant.

“Which brings me to a different issue...” Inziladûn continued. Something in his expression, despite his casual tone, warned the priest that what he was going to say was important. His features sobered, and he gave him his full attention.

“Yes, my lord?”

“As you surely know, a certain child arrived to the Palace yesterday, summoned by the King.”

Hannon blinked, then made a cautious gesture of assent.

“The grandson of the prisoner of Sor, yes. I... was told.”

Inziladûn sighed again, allowing his glance to grow lost in the distance.

“I saw him this morning. He... looked quite scared, of course. I felt pity for him.”

“He is the King´s honoured guest.”

The Prince shook his head in impatient dismissal.

“You know as well as I do that he will not live much longer.”

Shocked, Hannon surrendered to the instinct of staring left and right in search of indiscreet ears. His body tensed, causing the wooden chair to screech again.

“I do not know...”

“I want to save that boy.” Inziladûn interrupted him. “He is my kin on my mother´s side, and I have an obligation towards him.”

“But...” As if his calculations told him that his position did not allow for objections, Hannon let the words trail away in his mouth, and changed to a more obsequious, almost caressing tone. “My dear lord Inziladûn, I agree wholeheartedly with your noble feelings. That unfortunate child deserves all our compassion, and I pray to the Great God whom I serve that his life will be long and prosperous. But we are mere mortals before the might and wisdom of the Sceptre.” He bowed formally. “We must abide by its decisions.”

“The King found his family to be guilty of treason and impious practices, and abolished it.” Inziladûn nodded. “But the boy was not even born when this happened. He is innocent.”

“And yet, “Hannon´s face was a perfect mirror of regret “he is their heir.”

“And yet,” Inziladûn insisted “there could be a second way. Something that could preserve his life and reassure the King at the same time.”

“And what could it be? Of course, such a thing would ... bring great happiness to me.”

In spite of the approval in his words, Hannon looked a bit wary. He was right to feel that way, Inziladûn thought – his quick mind should have already begun to suspect that the ultimate purpose of this conversation had been to win him as an ally for this perilous cause. And still, his daughter´s marriage with the heir of Zakarbal was too great a prize to back down.

In any case, it was time to reassure the old man a little.

“You are a priest of the King of Armenelos. Of course, I am not an expert in custom and ritual, and I could be wrong in this,” he bowed as a signal of humility “but I have thought that to have him enter Melkor´s service would not be a difficult thing.”

Hannon let go of the cup he was holding, as quickly as if a stray droplet had scalded his hand.

“Enter Melkor´s service, my lord? But... he is...”

“The grandson of the Former Lord of Andúnië, yes”, Inziladûn finished for him. “But now he has no family; the law erased their names and the King´s summons broke their ties. Think about it, Hannon. If the Great God claimed him, the Western line would be broken, and the King would need not fear the traitors anymore.”

“And he would live”, the priest added, mulling it over. “But... how would that come to be? The King...”

Inziladûn summoned his willpower, and fixed his sea-grey eyes on Hannon´s shifting ones. The old man held his glance, uncomfortable and mesmerised at the same time.

“I will ask this one favour of you, as a token of our friendship and our long years of close acquaintance. If you advise the King to take this course of action, invoking the will of the god that you serve, he will listen to you, of this I am certain. Do this for the boy, and I will reward you as if it was my own son you had saved.”

Hannon´s forehead was creased in a deep frown. He was thinking it over –pondering the benefits and dangers of saving Amandil´s life, Inziladûn guessed. But what else could be his ultimate conclusion? Since the beginning of the conversation everything had been made clear enough; for the sake of his daughter´s marriage, and the hopes of further favours, the ambitious man would not say no. He was caught in a sweet snare, too difficult to undo.

“The King speaks with the Great God”, he objected. “He may receive a signal...”

“The King would never take the words of a priest lightly.” Inziladûn argued back. “And the King of Armenelos will rejoice in his new servant.”

Hannon took another cake with a distracted hand, and began munching at it.

“I could try...” he ventured. The Prince cut him in exasperation.

“I am sure that you will not deny me such a small thing.” His tone grew  confidential, almost like a secret whisper. “I do not know what is it that made me feel so strongly for this boy´s fate, but now I can hardly think of anything else. Maybe it is because he reminds me of myself, when I was a child... or maybe it´s the thought that, had he been alive, my son would be his age.”

The priest looked out of sorts at the mention of the long-silenced tragedy. In a dull voice, he muttered a short prayer to Melkor the Soul-Deliverer, and gave him a look of sympathy that for once Inziladûn did not feel to be wholly feigned.

After all, he was also a father.

“I understand.” he nodded, swallowing his last reluctance. “I will do my best.”

The Prince smiled warmly. He had won.

“Thank you, Hannon. May the gods be with you always, and guide you in your tasks.”

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Amandil lay wide awake in bed, tossing and turning under the covers. The silk sheets were already tangled in such a mess that it was impossible to see where each of them began or ended anymore.

He could not sleep. Back home, it was long ago since he had ceased being afraid of the dark, but in that shadowy Palace his baby fears had come back with a vengeance. He could not see the things that lurked behind the heavy curtains, the long galleries or the labyrinth of chambers in the wing where he had been imprisoned. And when he closed his eyes, it was even worse, as sleep brought him nightmares where a man with dark eyes and tightly pursed lips wanted to hurt him and refused to listen to him.

The boy curled under what remained of his sheets, even though there were drops of sweat upon his forehead. Somehow, this made him feel a little more protected. He could stay there, he thought, and pretend that his mother was the one sleeping next door.

Tomorrow, everything will be all right. Tomorrow, everything will be all right...

He was awoken by a persistent tug in his left arm. Mumbling something, he refused to open his eyes at first –in the last days, he had grown less and less fond of the reality that surrounded him-, but then the tug became a hurtful grip, and he jumped in his bed.

Before he could yell, a hand closed upon his mouth. Bewildered, he stared around, and realised that it was still night. The woman holding him was the lady who had been there since the first morning, Hanni. She tended to his needs by day, but she had never entered the room like this when he was sleeping.

Without wasting any time, she grabbed him by the hand.

“Come with me!” she whispered in his ear. “And be quiet!”

Amandil felt himself pulled out of bed, and dragged towards the door. Surprise, as well as the lingering haze of sleep made him unusually docile to her handling. As they entered her own chamber, the disquieting sounds reached his ears for the first time.

Footsteps. Hushing. Whispers.

“Quick!” she said, holding a big box of clothes open. “Enter, and do not make a sound!”

A providential instinct brought Amandil to obey without question. Curling against the soft fabrics of dresses, and hugging his knees with his arms, he lowered his head and let her pull the lid back in place. Complete darkness followed, and he swallowed deeply to repress a wave of fright.

Meanwhile, the noises were becoming clearer and stronger. They came from the adjoining room, the one where Amandil had been sleeping a moment ago.

“Thrice damn our stupid luck!” a man complained. “Where could he have gone?”

“That´s strange!”

A sharp bang ensued, and the various noises of things being thrown upon the floor.

“Not here, either. He´s not anywhere in this room!”

“Maybe he went to take a piss?”

“Shhhh!” A sharp whisper cut the growing ruckus. “If he is around, your noises will scare him away!”

“I still think that this is too... strange”, another of them insisted. “He has been here all night! Why would he disappear just when we...!”

“Maybe he knew?”

“Nobody could have told him!”

“And what if he had a... vision, or something? After all, he is kin to the King, too.”

“Don´t be stupid!”

“Listen.” The man of the sharp whispers commanded the attention of his companions once again. “We have not been paid to build wild theories, but to do our job. Let us search the adjoining rooms, maybe we will find a clue there. And you two, stay at the corridor, in case he returns!”

Some grumbling ensued, and finally Amandil could hear footsteps approaching them. Blood curdled in his veins, though he was not able to explain very well why. He hugged his knees harder, trying to compress his body in an even smaller space.

Then, just as he thought that he could not be any more scared, a new sound made him freeze. He repressed a startle, as it seemed to come from the same room where he was hiding. It was an inhuman, almost painful sound, like the yelp of a beaten dog but much, much deeper. Amandil cringed, trying to cover his grated ears, but there was no way to escape its penetrating cut.

Letting the lid slide a bit out of place, he ventured a peek outside. What he saw augmented his shock even further: the sparse glow that came through the window fell over Hanni´s crouching silhouette. The horrible howl came from her throat.

A renewed buzz had erupted in the neighbouring room.

“The- the Sacred Wolf!”

“Run! This boy is protected by the Great God!”

“But the King said...”

“Bugger the King! I do not want to die!”

At the third of Hanni´s attempts, their growing agitation degenerated into panic, and running footsteps were lost in the distance.

The silence that fell upon them felt strange and heavy, only broken by Amandil´s  gasps. The air in that box of clothes was becoming suffocating, and he tentatively pulled the lid away.

“Hanni?” he called. The woman was lying on the bed, and she did not answer.

His determination already growing back, the boy stood on his feet to leave his hiding place. As he reached the woman´s side, he studied her features in some worry.

Hanni´s eyes opened wide.

“Come”, she said, grabbing him by the clothes and pulling him into the bed. He opened his mouth to protest, but she began touching his face as if she still had to make sure he was there.

“Stay with me”, she ordered, though the voice was so full of urgency that it almost felt like a plea. “Stay here, with me, tonight. Stay with me...”

Amandil had never seen an adult act so upset, except his mother the day that they had taken him away. Not knowing what to say, he nodded in silence, and suffered cold hands to crush him against a swiftly beating heart.

 

 

Chapter Text

“King of the City, Lord of Visions, send me an answer.”

Suffocation. The familiar sweet smell, insidiously penetrating his nostrils and bringing tears to his closed eyes. A faint cracking of flames, and then, once more, the silence.

“King of the City, Lord of Visions, send me an answer.”

He tried to focus in the image of the boy, though the very remembrances were laced with conflict. Those eyes, those innocent, terrible sea-grey eyes. The eyes of the boy he had regretted sparing, back in a distant past; and also of the baby he had regretted killing not long ago, if only he had been allowed to live.

But how could he have lived? Bitterness took him, and with it the will to struggle, and he pulled away from the embrace of the fumes. Immediately, he lay his palms forwards and fell on his fours upon the cold floor, his body racked by a coughing attack. His body was not what it once was, after ruling Númenor for more than ninety years.

That boy, the son of traitors, had been protected by the Great God. Poison had not harmed him, and the assassins had been met by a mysteriously empty bed and the Wolf´s howl. The Lord Melkor had even sent dreams to his highest ranking priest in the Palace, demanding to have Amandil enter his service.

If something could be said about him after so many years of experience, it was that Ar-Gimilzôr was no fool. In all those prodigies he had suspected the hand of Inziladûn, who had grown cunning indeed in his maturity. But then, what difference did it make? If the Eternal King of Númenor turned a blind eye to that apostate´s ill-use of his sacred name, if he allowed his priests to be bribed without bringing ruin upon them –if he refused to send him an answer even now, as he stood before his altar, when he had been so clear and pressing about Gimilzôr´s own grandson, what was he meant to think?

How was this fair? The protector, the guide of the King´s family wanted a heir to the throne to die, and a traitor to live. Why did he refuse his sacrifice? Why did he allow for mercy, now that it was too late for that unfortunate strangled baby?

Ar-Gimilzôr forced himself to find a grip. Gingerly, he reclined his body on one of his sides, fleeing that humiliating pose.

He could not question the God´s will, being, as he was, a short-lived mortal. Who knew the uses that the Eternal King had foreseen for that child? Maybe, in his service, he would grow one day to be a powerful ally of Gimilkhâd and his son Pharazôn, when time came for them to fight for the God´s true Faithful and the heritage of Ar-Adunakhôr. Maybe he would see the truth, and resent his own kin for walking in darkness.

Your will be done.” he whispered, defeated. His voice came out hoarse, and he could barely manage to stand up again to bow to the altar flames. Upon realising that he was finished, the High Priest approached him, as was custom, to leave a basin of water on the floor at his side.

This time, instead of meeting him with silence, Ar-Gimilzôr gestured for him to stay.

“We must talk.” he said.

That would be the answer, he told himself in a flash of insight. If the boy could forget the lies of his parents, and willingly be consecrated to him whom they called Morgoth, it would be signal that the King of Kings himself had claimed him. If so, he would be allowed to live- and become a priest of Melkor.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Pharazôn watched the old woman leave from his hiding place behind the column. As the sweeping noise of her robes faded in the shadows, he nodded to himself, and prepared his assault.

The girl was sitting on a small ivory chair in the shade, next to the fountain. She was scribbling or drawing something in a paper, which seemed to absorb all of her attention. Long and lustrous plaits of hair fell down her shoulders, so deeply black that the boy found himself wishing to know if they would shine under the sun.

Making sure that there was no one else in sight, he approached her with determined steps. She did not intimidate him, even though she was so beautiful that her features seemed to have been fashioned by the artist who made the statues of Ashtarte-Uinen. He had heard stories about her, but they had done nothing but augment his curiosity.

How different could she be from any other girl, anyway? She was just his cousin, the daughter of his father´s brother - so his mother had told him.

“Hello.” he ventured.

The girl did not answer. Somehow - if this was not impossible-, he would have believed that he had not even heard him or seen him approach, because she continued to paint without the slightest acknowledgement of his presence. He felt suddenly stupid, out of place standing there.

He found that he did not like this feeling at all.

“I am speaking to you!” he said, louder this time. When she still gave no response, he approached her, grabbed the papers and snatched them away from her.

The girl froze. Mournfully, she stared at her empty lap, and he swallowed in alarm, sure from his experience with Ithobal´s daughter that she would now start to wail. But instead of that she raised her eyes, fixing them on his. They were wide and calm, black like the sky on a cloudy night.

“You came.” she mumbled. Pharazôn blinked.

“You know me?”

The girl nodded.

“I see you often. More than anyone else.” she said. “Sometimes it´s good, but sometimes it´s horrible. I have seen you die.” she added thoughtfully.

The boy stared at her in shock.

“What are you... talking about?” he asked. His voice came out a little high-pitched, and he closed his mouth again, angry at himself.

He was an idiot. He knew about this! His mother had told him, and he would not fall for it. Pointing an accusing finger at her, he gathered his wits back.

“You like to scare people away, don´t you? My mother told me that you have made other girls cry with your stories.” Pride inflated his chest. “But I´m not a girl. And I´m never afraid.”

It was true enough. Everybody said that same thing about him, since he was a baby and he ventured alone through the dark corridors of the palace. He was not afraid of darkness, of heights or of monsters, and much less of things that were not possible at all.

Nobody could see him die.

The girl stared at him again. Her eyes became laced with an uncomfortable warmth.

“I am not afraid, either.” she said, and her lips curved into a small smile. “Not anymore.”

Pharazôn grumbled, fidgeting with her papers. What was that supposed to mean?

“What´s your name?” he asked, after a while of more uncomfortableness. “I am Pharazôn, son of Gimilkhâd.”

The girl shrugged.

“Which name?”

His hand swept the air in irritation.

“Yours!”

“But I have two.” she argued. “And both are mine.”

“You can´t have two names.” he retorted. “Nobody has two names!”

“Well, I do!” Her voice became shrill for an instant, then went back to its usual low tones. “People call me Zimraphel, but my father calls me Míriel. I do not like it.”

Pharazôn thought a little about this. 

“I do not like it, either. It... sounds like Elvish, or like some cat´s name.”

Her expression became serious.

“It was the name of a woman who wanted to die.”

The boy shrugged. Once again, he had no idea of what she was talking about.

“But then, my father does not like me.” she continued, pouting in a charming way. “He keeps me imprisoned here because he does not want anybody to see me. He thinks I am a monster.”

Pharazôn stared at her with a frown. He had heard horrible things about the Lord of the Western Wing: that he was a secret expert in Elvish sorcery, a traitor and an enemy of his family, and that the holy smoke of the sacrifices hurt him. Her words should not come as a surprise, and yet they shocked him.

So she was a prisoner, just as he had fancied back when he saw her first! She never went out, not even to attend feasts or ceremonies. Never saw anybody but her parents and the old woman. What a terrible life, he thought, feeling pity for her for the first time.

“You are not a monster.” he said generously, putting the papers back on her lap. “Just a little strange.”

Zimraphel offered him a tremulous smile. Pharazôn was taken aback at her gratitude.

“What are you drawing?” he muttered, wanting to change the subject. He cocked his head to the side to have a glimpse at the topmost paper, and his eyes widened.

The pencil lines were perfect. The shades were perfect, too, like a painting done by a grown-up artist.

“You are good!”

Zimraphel did not nod at the compliment. Hurriedly, she covered the paper with both hands, but not before he was able to distinguish a boy whose features were very alike to hers, with straight black hair and huge dark eyes.

“Who´s that? Your twin?” he asked, wondering why she would want to draw a boy that looked like her. She nodded.

“I also see him sometimes.”

Did she have a brother, imprisoned too? Pharazôn rubbed his eyes, more and more confused.

Before he could ask her this, however, the sound of sweeping silks warned him of someone else approaching. The old woman again, he thought in fury. Briefly, he pondered staying there to face her, but basic prudence overran that option. He might get Zimraphel in trouble, too. A commander should know when to retreat.

“I have to go.” he told her, turning away to leave. Behind him, he heard a whimper.

“No! Do not leave me! Do not leave me, please!”

The sound of her voice was so piteous that it made his stomach churn. It brought him instant remembrances of one of the barbarians who had been killed in front of his eyes that year, after he struggled desperately against the man with the knife. Back then, he had had nightmares with that scene –secret nightmares that he had not shared with anyone.

He turned back once again, wondering what to do. Unfortunately, that was the moment that the woman chose to appear through the other door, followed by two ladies-in-waiting. As soon as she spotted him, she raised her arms and screamed.

“An intruder! An intruder! Follow him!”

Pharazôn ran past the columns and the gallery, evading the slow-moving women without difficulty. Any other day, his heart would have been beating in excitement at the chase, but when he finally slowed down in the safety of the mosaic hall, he felt instead like a cowardly deserter.

His forehead creased into a frown, as he remembered her vivid eyes on his. What if they hurt her now? What if she thought that he had... abandoned her?

He had to find a way to see her again. Even if he had to brave the vigilance.

As he headed back for the South Wing, the boy had the feeling that his life had somehow become more complicated.  

 

Chapter Text

The boy´s eyes were fixed, stubborn, upon the veins of greyish ore that a capricious hand had drawn upon the floor. He conjured images of the Sea, of the cry of the gulls as they flew past their balcony on the cool sunset hours, but his forehead was burning from the heat of the fire.

He tried to close his eyes, and forget where he was. No matter what he did, however, the soft voice would keep crooning lies in his ears, and evil words that he did not want to hear.

“Those who serve the Lord are the highest among mortals. Only they can achieve true wisdom, be admitted to the divine secrets, and receive the respect and reverence of all the faithful.”

Amandil did not answer. The old man´s forehead creased in a frown, as that of the previous old man who had been sent to him, and of several others before that.

“The Lord Melkor is merciful, and the King as well”, he continued, now with a slight air of rebuke. “You should be thankful for being chosen.”

The boy´s silence was starting to exasperate him. Advancing one step, he grabbed his chin with one hand, and forced his eyes to look into his. He had an unpleasant face, bald and full of wrinkles.

“Well, at least give me an answer, impudent boy!”

“I am not thankful” Amandil muttered, struggling until he was free to look down again. “And he is not merciful. He tortured the Elves until they turned into Orcs. Leave me alone!”

He heard an outraged huff, and the sound of robes as the man turned his back on him. A quick prayer was muttered between clenched teeth.

“Alone, indeed! Well, then, be alone! I will be damned if I allow myself to be convinced to deal with one of these... of these Elvish sorcerers ever again!” he cursed. “Their minds are warped from birth. King of Armenelos, may your wrath fall upon this sacrilegious breed!”

Amandil watched him walk away, and disappear through one of the two heavily ornated back gates. It was long since he had ceased caring for the people that kept trying to convince him. Horror and fear had been replaced by some kind of dark satisfaction as he saw them leave in anger, one after another.

This could not last forever, he told himself, trying to get himself to take heart. At some moment, they would realise that they could not convince him, and leave him alone. He did not care where they took him after that; nothing could be worse than this terrible place.

Amandil´s parents were being held in a city very, very far away. The King had not wanted to listen to him, and Hanni had disappeared without saying goodbye. Even the man who had promised that he would protect him had not come back, in the end, but he did not even mind the loneliness anymore. All he really wanted now was to be taken back to his small dark chamber in the palace. He wanted to be allowed to curl there, undisturbed, and forget what he had seen that day.

Please, Lord Manwë, Lady Varda, he thought. Have them bring me back.

“You are not being very wise.”

Repressing a grimace, the boy slowly looked up. Instead of the smile of the star-bright goddess of Mother´s tales, he saw a frowning forehead, and a pair of hard grey eyes on the pale and thin face of a man.

He was not nearly as wrinkled as the others. In fact, he could even have passed as young, if it wasn´t because the intensity of his glance gave him the air of authority of an elder. His robes were long and priestly white, heavily folded over his lean body. The curve of his mouth was firm, and the words he spoke were not soft.

“They were not going to send anyone else to waste their words on you. Luckily for you, I insisted.”

Amandil shook his head, surprised in spite of himself at this new approach. Unlike what had happened in the previous interviews, he graced this man with an immediate reply.

“I do not want to be a... priest of Morgoth”, he said, hissing the last words as if they were a curse. “So you might as well not waste words on me, and let me leave this horrible place, because that´s the only word I will heed.”

“Let you leave?” The man´s features creased in a strange laugh, that looked more like a grimace in his severe face. “That is not a wish I can grant. Not even the High Priest himself could oppose the orders given by the King, and much less a simple priest like me.”

At those words, Amandil could not prevent his eyes from glancing up again.

“What does that mean?”

The laugh was over as quickly as it had begun.

“It means, ignorant little child, that you will never leave this temple alive. If you do not swear your fealty to the Great God, those soldiers who are at the threshold of the Main Gate, can you see them from here?” A gesture of his hand pointed at the shadows of the four guards who stood at the great gates, still like statues and fully armed, “will be called in by the High Priest. They will kill you. Then, your remains will be burned, so nobody will know that there has been a death on consecrated grounds.”

The boy paled. He shook his head in disbelief.

“You lie!”

“His Holiness had already called them in when I stopped him. He says that it should be over at least a few hours before the night services. The smell of cremated flesh can be lingering. You lived in Sor... surely you must have witnessed a fire-sacrifice of an animal at least once.”

Amandil swallowed, horrified. Images came unbidden to his mind, of a beautiful turtle-dove writhing in agony, its body in flames, and the pestilent smell before Mother´s protective embrace whisked him away.

“You lie”, he repeated, but his voice came out piteously shrill. He covered his ears with his hands and closed his eyes, trying to banish those images away. “I am a boy, not an animal. Only animals are killed.” Mother had told him that, back then, when he had the nightmares.

The man shook his head with lordly impatience.

“Surely you cannot be so foolish! The King is afraid of your lineage, and has vowed its destruction. This is why you were brought to Armenelos, and why you were visited by assassins that night in your bedchamber.” The remembrances came back with a pang to Amandil´s stomach. Assassins... they had wanted to kill him?

Was that why Hanni had looked so frightened that night?

He looked down again, shivering in silence. It was a bad dream. All this was but a bad dream.

“The merciful Melkor sent a vision to the King, telling him that he wanted you spared for his service. This is why you are here... alive“, the priest continued, shattering his illusions. “Now, the service of Melkor is not such a serious affair as you might believe. This temple is full of priests who worship money, wine or sinful lust with far more sincerity than they do the god. “Here, he allowed himself a brief gesture of contempt. “He is clearly not a very demanding master, but for you he holds the gift of life in his hands.”

He stopped for a moment to fix his eyes on his again.

“You are but a child. You do not know what life is, you do not know what death is. If you let them kill you now, your still imperfect and unfulfilled soul will find little mercy with the Creator, who made you to live until the Doom took you in old age. And you will have eternity to regret your foolishness.”

Amandil still did not answer. He wanted to yell. He wanted to cry, and he couldn´t do either thing; he was paralyzed.

The priest turned his back to him, and began walking towards the door.

“I will do my duty, then, “he said, dryly. “I pity your parents, who will not even have bones to mourn.”

Something in the boy snapped. A distant image of Mother´s tear-filled eyes, calling for him as he was carried away caught his mind.

Forget about us, and live!

If he died, Mother would be devastated. And Father too, who had told him so many times that he was the hope of their lineage when he grew up. He did not want to make Mother and Father sad... and above all, he did not want to be thrown into the fire like that turtle-dove. Just the idea chilled him to the marrow, and one of those fire-nightmares had always scared him much more than a hundred stories about Morgoth.

So when he saw the man leave, his body was electrified into motion.

“Wait!.... Wait!”

It took more than one shout to stop the inexorable steps towards the gates. For a fearful second the boy thought that it was too late, and anguish gathered in his throat, but finally the priest turned back.

“Well?”

“I will do it!” he yelled, forcing his breath to still. “I will do it, just please don´t call them!”

The priest considered him with an inscrutable frown. Then, he nodded without any visible signal of triumph, and motioned to an attendant that stood in the background.

“A first step to a life of wisdom”, he sentenced. The attendant brought him a basin, full of a liquid that looked like water, and a knife. Upon seeing the last item, Amandil retreated again, taking a defensive stance.

“Do not fear”, the man told him, walking towards the altar. “I will not harm you. But you must do everything I tell you to do.”

Amandil mulled this over for a moment, then nodded hesitantly. Step by step, he approached the fire, which burned his cheeks with an unbearable heat. He wanted to stop, but the priest ordered him to approach even further.

How much would fire hurt? He remembered having asked Mother that question once.

Just when he was thinking that the flames would burn him for real, however, the priest stopped him with a sharp gesture. He told him to kneel and bow three times, just as he did. Amandil obeyed in silence, as he had promised, though great drops of sweat were falling down his forehead.

He had to be brave.

The priest´s voice chanted a prayer, while he dipped the knife in the water of the basin. Then, he stood up and approached him, and the cold blade touched his cheek.

Be brave. Be brave. For Mother, for Father... for himself.

“Stop shaking, or you will get cut”, he was rebuked. It was nothing. He only wanted to cut a lock of his hair, and that did not hurt. He was so stupid for being afraid.

“See”, the man mumbled while he did his work, pointing at the flames with his chin. “You are looking upon the all-consuming, shape-shifting mirror of the Lord´s might. All men bow to His power, which gives life and brings death, be they Númenoreans or barbarians.” The lock was finally cut, and he lay it upon Amandil´s hand. “Now, consecrate it, and yourself with it. Throw it into the fire!”

Amandil stared at the fuzzy dark hair on his wet hand. He had come this far. He would not let that funny sensation of being about to do something very bad ruin his determination.

Gathering what seemed like all his strength, he threw it away. The fire made short work of such a small thing; it disappeared without writhing like the dove. Still, a disagreeable smell reached his nostrils after it was gone, and the flames flared a little stronger.

The priest acquiesced, solemnly.

“See? Now, he has seen your face, too. He has accepted you, thrown the mantle of his protection over you, and made you his servant. “Amandil closed his eyes in renewed fear, wondering if the corrupt Vala would come and take him. But nothing happened, and he opened them again, relieved. He could not harm him.

The Valar would not let him.

He was safe now. No demon would carry him away, and no King would throw him into the fire. One day, he would see Mother and Father, and then they would be happy to see him alive.

The priest´s hand pressed bony and sharp fingers into his shoulder.

“By the mercy of the Great God, you have been reborn. And so from now on, your name will be Hannimelkor, the Mercy of Melkor.”

He could barely nod, busy wiping tears away from his swollen eyes.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

“Praised be the King of Armenelos! Your preaching skills will bring great glory to our Temple, if you were able to touch the soul of that fiend!”

The younger priest shook his head in barely concealed irritation, and bowed once to each of his superiors, who sat around the dining table.

“It was not rhetorical abilities what allowed me to touch his soul”, he replied, with rigid modesty. “May I, Your Holiness?” he asked, pointing towards a basin of water. The High Priest nodded absently, and watched as he drew a careful trail over his forehead with dripping fingers.

“Then, what did you say to him, Yehimelkor? He refused each and every one of the priests we sent!”

“I let him know about the fate that awaited him if he refused. In terms that even a fiend would easily understand.”

One of the priests, an old man with a balding, grey hair, stared at him in shock.

“You were not allowed to do such a thing!”

Yehimelkor did not blink. Lowering his head, he knelt at the feet of the High Priest.

“If I have done wrong, Your Holiness is entitled to judge my actions”, he said. His look held a determined spark that belied any pretence of humility. “But I beg Your Holiness to remember that you were present when I opposed the idea of having the sacred soil of this Temple defiled by a crime. Back then, I said that I would not stand for such a thing, be it an order of the King or the plea of a beggar. If you will forgive me the insolence of the supposition – when your Holiness gave me permission to talk with the boy, you must have known that I would do whatever was in my hand to prevent it from happening.”

“Are you insinuating that you disobeyed the royal orders with the connivance of the High Priest?” the old priest frowned. “Your swollen head is in dire need of some cooling, young man! Just because you belong to the line of Indilzar...”

“Enough.” The High Priest raised an elegant hand from purple folds, putting an end to the discussion. “Yehimelkor is right in reminding me that I should have been more vigilant. And what is done, is done. Rise and sit on a chair, Yehimelkor.”

“But...!”

“The Great God does not withhold his blessings once that he has bestowed them upon someone, which means that the boy is now under our care. Still...” The man´s pleasant face creased with a sudden frown, and he watched Yehimelkor intently as the latter sat down. “I cannot help but... wonder if your family associations had something to do with this, Yehimelkor.”

“Indeed!” The old man was quick to jump at the idea. “Melkorbazer, the Fiend´s husband was your great-uncle, was he not?”

The younger priest shook his head, keeping a rigid composure.

“I have no family outside this Temple. If you believe that I was not ready to become a priest when I took the last oaths, you may have been better advised not to vote for the exception that allowed me to take them eighteen years earlier than the others.”

“I did not...!”

“Peace, both of you!” the High Priest intervened again. “We are not doubting your commitment, Yehimelkor. In fact, I doubt there is anyone in this Temple who is as committed as you.” The younger man bowed in acknowledgement of the compliment. “And yet, you must know that, when it comes to you, there is much more at stake than with any other priest. If things go as planned, your royal blood will allow you to wear this purple one day. So the King of Kings knows that I am not to be blamed for worrying.”

“Of course not, Your Holiness”, the old priest nodded. “The other also was to have succeeded as High Priest before that sad affair happened, if my memory does not fail me. Partiality towards that family was at the root of your kinsman´s undoing.”

“If you allow me, Revered Father Mousor,” Yehimelkor bowed again. “I do not share your opinion on this.”

The High Priest nodded, interested.

“You do not?”

“No. For me, the only thing that ever was at the root of my kinsman´s undoing was the shameful lack of control over his impulses. He could never be brought to suppress his pride, his vain dreams of glory, his desire of bloody conquest. This passionate nature was what made him throw away his teachings, his allegiance to the Great God and to the King and his family´s reputation out of a shameful lust he conceived for a woman. “He made a praying gesture, and raised his eyes. “My Lord, the Eternal King, knows that there is nothing in common between him and me.”

“I see. “The High Priest nodded again, this time thoughtfully. “As usual, there is wisdom beyond your years in your words. We will not hold you accountable for what happened today. “The other man made an attempt to protest further, but was silenced by a mild warning look. “I am sure that you must be tired, Yehimelkor. Some rest would serve you well.”

Understanding this as a dismissal, the priest bowed to Mousor, and knelt before the High Priest once more.

“I am grateful for your concern, Your Highness”, he recited. “I request permission to take my leave.”

“Granted, granted, of course”, was the goodnatured reply. Yehimelkor nodded and left, watched with keen interest by the two senior priests.

“Always a step ahead in everything”, the High Priest snorted. “When his time comes, he will completely overshadow me.”

“And yet, he is also a... prominent individuality”, Mousor grumbled, shaking his head. “I wonder what the future will bring.”

“That is impossible for anyone to know except the Great God. Still... I suspect there might be more problems in there than I would be able to handle myself”, the High Priest sentenced after a brief, thoughtful pause. “And he will be there to fight them, for which I am glad.”

The other man´s glance grew unfocused, as he stared into the distance and gave his superior a grudging nod.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

The altar flames flared, licking his flesh in a surge of burning agony. Amandil choked a scream, and frantically tried to retreat, but bony hands pushed him forwards, towards the source of the pain.

He could not breathe. His lungs were full of a foul smoke that smelled like burning flesh -his flesh. Horror filled him at the thought, and he stared in fear at the fire that would engulf him.

Suddenly, there was a great, booming noise behind his back. Amandil tried to twist his head to look, but before he was able to see anything a mighty force swept him away. Feeling himself grow towards the skies, the boy glanced down, and saw the Temple, the Palace and the city of Armenelos as small colourful dots upon a green land. And then he was free, cradled in a watery embrace that bore him far, far away....

“Hannimelkor!”

The boy whimpered, covering his head with the warm sheets of his bed. For a while, he managed the feat of retreating to a new, dark haven of sleep, but the voice was insistent.

“Hannimelkor!”

“Hmmmh”, he complained, rubbing his eyes. The walls were full of painted symbols, that looked like crowns of flowers under the dim light of dawn.

Yehimelkor stood upon the doorway. His arms were crossed under the white folds of his robe, and he was staring at him in disapproval. Slowly, Amandil remembered where he was, and sat down with a brusque start, shaking the last traces of sleep away.

“Coming... Revered Father”, he added, as he remembered further. “Sorry.”

The man shook his head and left. Before he had even stepped on the floor yet, the boy could hear the sound of chanted prayers coming from the adjoining room.

Gathering courage, he headed towards the bathroom. As he had feared, and just like the previous day, the water buckets were cold. For a long moment he stood there, wrapped on his warm woollen shawl and wondering what to do. On that grey, early morning, the temptation to procrastinate grew more and more inviting.

But then, it had been the same the previous day, and it was two days since he last washed himself properly. The water would be cold every single morning; one day would have to be the first.

Repressing a grimace, Amandil washed his head first, then the arms and the legs... and finally, his chest. It was not a thorough washing-up, and he did not dare introduce any of his limbs in the water, but he was nonetheless reduced to a shivering mess by the time he was done. Muttering a curse that he had picked up from the other boys, he sought for the comfort of the heavy white robe he had been given to wear, and folded it as tightly as he could around his body. Unfortunately, his dripping black hair would take a longer time to dry.

He would never grow used to that, he told himself by the time he was hungrily wolfing down his breakfast. Yehimelkor had been right: the Temple was not such a terrible place in itself, and there were no Orcs or Balrogs there. The priests were not so different from the merchants of Sor, and there were lots of boys of his own age living with them, just as the merchants´s children that he had sometimes played with. The rooms were nicer than those in the Palace, staying with Yehimelkor was not so terrible as he had been told it would be– but why, oh, why did the man have to wash with cold water?

On the second night that Amandil had spent in the temple, still scared out of his wits by the dreadful experience with the fire, four boys had approached him with unpleasant smiles, and asked him whom would he live with. Any boy who entered the Temple had to live with one of the priests until he pronounced the Fourth Vow- one more of those complicated things-, serve him, and hold him in the highest reverence after the High Priest. Then, they began to mention a lot of priests that Amandil had never heard of, telling him nasty stories about each one of them. To make them stop, Amandil had told them that he had chosen Yehimelkor. They stared at him, dumbfounded, then started to laugh and told him that he was mad.

Yehimelkor, they said, had never been chosen by anyone. To live with him meant spending all nights in prayer, eating once a week, performing painful rituals and –it was rumoured- participating in his dark invocations. Amandil had shaken his head, a bit intimidated but refusing to give in to their words. It was simple enough: Yehimelkor was the only one who had told him the truth, while the others would have let him die. Therefore, he was the only one he trusted, or the one he distrusted less, and it would have to be him.

Besides, it was the only name he knew.

He would only ever admit it to himself, but when he was taken to his new chambers, the terror he had felt on his first days was about to break to the surface again. He could not believe that he had chosen to spend his life with that Morgoth worshipper who had said horrible things to him as he stood next to the fire. On the first night he had been brought there, his stomach clenched and fell to his feet, and for a moment he thought of escaping.

Yehimelkor, however, had been quite matter-of-fact about it all. He had not tried to bewitch him or drag him to any ritual, though he did spend all his nights muttering in his chambers. Amandil had never seen him sleep, but this, oddly, brought less disquiet than a strange feeling of security. It meant that there was no silent darkness anymore, like there had been in the Palace. Nightmares still came and went, just like before, but now he always awoke to a faint light and a familiar voice in the neighbouring room.

Compared with the fear and incertitude of the previous days, Amandil saw those as an improvement. He missed his parents, but he discovered that the other boys did, too. If they were brave about it, he could not be the only coward. He was not ashamed to be the only one to have nightmares, though - none of those boys had been threatened with being burned.

After he was finished with food, he wiped his mouth carefully, and knelt next to Yehimelkor to join him in prayer. He was supposed to repeat everything that the priest said, but the words were in a devilish Adûnaic that he did not understand. So he just muttered back similar sounds, wondering if they were a spell of some sort.

This went on hour after hour –or so it felt to him- until his knees began to hurt and his head was turning in dizzy circles. Then, Yehimelkor stood up, and he could barely repress a sigh of relief as he followed him to his library.

“Today, you will learn about the creation of the world.” the priest said, the first real words that he had addressed to him since the start of the morning. Amandil nodded dutifully, enjoying the wonderful softness of the chair.

Still, when Yehimelkor began to talk in his vigorous voice, it was all that the boy could do not to get ignominiously lost somewhere around the third sentence. There was something about a humid mud, and something else about darkness, and then a long story with names, and names, and names that he had not heard in his life.

Taken by a poignant longing, Amandil remembered the happy days when Mother taught him, and she smiled whenever he told her that he had understood. Back then, he had felt very clever, but now, face to face with that man who shot his boundless knowledge at him, he felt like an idiot.

“You are not paying attention”, Yehimelkor snapped. Amandil shook his head.

“I... do not understand”, he confessed.

The priest stared at him. Amandil met his eyes, doing his best not to squirm. A surge of frustration darkened them for a moment, making him tense in alert, but then it was gone, replaced by a resigned look.

With a sigh, Yehimelkor stood up, picked another book from the library, and gave it to him. It was a basic Adûnaic reading method.

Amandil blinked, wondering if he had read the cover right. His mouth opened to ask a question, but Yehimelkor had already picked a dusty scroll that had completely absorbed his attention. Something told him that it would be better if he kept quiet and pretended to be reading.

And yet... it was so boring! Aleph, bet, gimel, dalet, he, waw, zayin, het...he had learned all those ages ago. A humiliating thought crossed his mind: maybe Yehimelkor had decided that he was truly an idiot, just because he had not understood the complicated names?

He decided to count the pages of the book, just to see if he was still clever enough to reach the higher numbers quickly. One, two, three... thirteen, fourteen, sixteen... twenty, thirty....

“What are you doing now?” an irritated voice stopped the count. “I gave you that book to read, not to play.”

Amandil pursed his lips firmly. It was not his fault that he had been given that baby book!

“I already know how to read”, he declared. Yehimelkor did not look impressed, but at least he studied him with some interest.

“Then, why did you not say so?”

Amandil could not think of a reason, so he stayed silent. Yehimelkor sighed again.

“Tell me what you know, then.”

“I know how to read and write.” The boy began to tick off his fingers. “I have also learned almost all the Elvish letters, though there are more and they are complicated. I can count, and do all kinds of sums. I speak Quenya. And I know lots of things about the First Age, and the name of all the Valar!”

Just realising that he had probably put his foot in his mouth with the last thing, his enthusiasm was quenched, and he looked down. Those people did not like the Valar.

But Yehimelkor merely continued his interrogation.

“You speak Quenya? Say something in that language to me.”

Amandil thought for a moment, then recited the first phrase of the Valaquenta. And probably put his foot in his mouth yet again, he thought in dismay just as he was done.

For some reason, though, instead of angry, Yehimelkor seemed to grow more and more interested.

“You may be of use, then.” he said, in a thoughtful tone. “What I know on the pronunciation of Quenya does not allow me to make much sense of some texts. Especially hymns.”

Amandil nodded, feeling a bit relieved. That man knew lots of things, everybody said so. If he could be of use to him, then clearly he could not be so stupid.

“Then... what do I read?” he asked, hopefully. Yehimelkor considered him for a moment, in which he looked a bit less severe than he usually did.

“We will see how much Quenya you know”, he finally stated, standing up to search for a new book.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Every day -and this one was no exception-, Amandil and Yehimelkor parted at lunchtime. Amandil headed for the parlour where all boys ate together, and gossips and whispers were exchanged under the frowning vigilance of a priest. Many of them sneered or stared in disgust as he passed them by, but he ignored them and sat next to the small group next to the pillar. Those had been the first to speak to him after he was admitted into the Temple, and thanks to them, he had learned that their lives were similar to that of the other children, only quieter and with more annoying chores. Back in the state in which he had been back then, fearing for Orcs and creatures of the darkness to appear at each turn of a corner, he had appreciated this information very much. It had been the first day in which he could sleep.

Afterwards, he had the duty to tend to the fire for the afternoon. Bracing himself, he entered the altar that he hated so much, and sat as far from the flames as he could. Two other boys were already there, but Amandil did not know them, so he did not say a word.

Not even five minutes later, one of them was sitting next to him, indiscreetly peering at his face.

“Urgh! Did you see those eyes? And the nose! The boys were right, he really looks like an Elf.”

“Go away”, he said. For them, the word “Elf” was not a compliment.

Before the boy could answer, his companion approached too, a bit more cautiously. Their stares made Amandil so uncomfortable that he stood up and strode away.

“Not an Elf, Abibal. A noble!” this last boy said. Amandil stopped in his tracks,  curious in spite of himself. “Nobles have grey eyes.”

Abibal turned to him, challenging.

“And how do you know that?”

“I know it because my father was part of the retinue of the house of Forostar in Armenelos.” the boy said. “Once, he brought me with him, and I saw the lord of Forostar himself. And he had his same eyes!”

“Did he?” Amandil returned to his place to follow the discussion in silence, but Abibal was not finished with him. “Are you a noble?”

He shrugged nervously, searching for a quick answer. Both boys were looking at him in renewed interest.

“Eh? No, I am not”, he muttered. All of a sudden, he had an idea. “I am a foreigner, though. I am the son of a rich merchant from Gadir.”

“Gadir?” Abibal opened eyes like saucers, as if the mention of such a distant place was more interesting than nobility. His companion, who was cleverer, frowned in confusion.

“Then, what are you doing here? Gadir has the oldest temple of Melkor ever. You could have stayed there.”

Amandil bit his lip. He was caught – he really should have started learning how all those things worked by now!

And yet... there was something he had been told the other day....

“I don´t know”, he replied. “I think I was brought here because my ancestors were from Armenelos, and my father had conse-crated me when I was born.”

To his relief, both boys seemed to take this as an acceptable answer.

“I was consecrated when I was a baby, too”, Abibal said with a grumble. “They could have consecrated my brother!”

“Abibal wants to be a soldier”, the other added, conversationally. “To serve the Great God is a bit tedious for some things – you have to be ancient and take all six vows before they let you marry or get in the army, and only with permission.”

“Really?” Amandil looked up at this, very interested. Would he be able to get into the army, too? “I also want to be a soldier.”

The last remains of Abibal´s hostile attitude dissolved with this.

“Do you? There is arms practice in the backyard every afternoon. Ask your Revered Father to let you attend!”

Amandil´s enthusiasm dampened a bit.

“I... well, I do not know if he would allow...”

“Who is he?” the boy asked. The other boy whispered something in his ear that sounded suspiciously like “Yehimelkor”, and both stared at him in shocked compassion.

“He is not that bad”, Amandil rushed to inform them, before they could launch into a set of uncomfortable questions. “I... eat, sleep at nights, and I am not hurt, or bewitched, or... anything, really. Though he bathes with cold water”, he conceded with a grimace. “And I will ask him later, anyway.”

“Good luck “, Abibal conceded with a groan, then frowned as he realised something “What´s your name?”

This gave Amandil some pause. The name “Amandil” was already hanging from his lips, and when reason told him that he could not give it to those boys, it made him sad.

“Hannimelkor”, he muttered, covering his disgust as best as he could. He would never grow used to that, either. Never, ever.

“Elinoam”, the remaining boy introduced himself with a bow.

“Glad to meet you, er, Elinoam, Abibal.” Amandil bowed back, encouraged to have two less disgusted stares meeting him in the parlour everyday. “So... you were also consecrated?”

Elinoam shook his head.

“Not me. I was just introduced in the Temple on my eighth birthday.”

Amandil looked at him, shocked. That custom of vowing the yet unborn or young babies to the temple whenever someone in the family was very ill or in deep trouble was strange enough. But, doing it of one´s own, free will? He grimaced.

“And why? Why did your father do such a... thing?”

“Why?” Elinoam shrugged, then let go of a loud laugh. “Because there is no better job in all of Númenor, of course! To think you would know, of all people, how much of a privilege this is!” His eyes narrowed. “There was a time when merchants like you or nobodies like me were not accepted. Priests of Melkor can get to command armies and even enter the Court!”

“Ah.” Still shocked, Amandil had the good sense not to show it.

Command armies...  He found that there was something in the idea that thrilled him, but also something that he disliked. Maybe it was the idea that he would have to stay in the temple until he was ancient, and take all those vows before he could do it at all.

And he did not want to be a priest of Melkor. When he was old enough to see for himself, he would leave. Until then, he would make good of his word and survive as best as he could.

“I cannot wait to take my first vow next year”, Elinoam mused, dreamily. “My priesthood will truly begin then, and people will bow at me.”

“They will not bow at you until your fourth vow, you idiot!” Abibal sneered.

“But I will not be addressed as a mere servant of the temple!”

Amandil looked at them, and slowly nodded. So that was how it worked, then... time was the only thing that could grant each of them their wishes now.

He only hoped that it would not take too long.

“You are right”, he muttered. “I cannot wait for it, either.”

 

Chapter Text

Forty-six, forty-seven, forty-eight, forty-nine...

Amandil held his weapon with tight hands, as drops of sweat fell down his forehead. His lips curved in a small smile: even a couple of weeks ago, he had been already exhausted before he reached those numbers. He was improving.

The back courtyard was desert at this early hour, except for some birds that sang in shrill tones from the palm tree branches. No boy was there to mock or stare at his lonely practice, no adult frowned in vague disgust at the Intruder of the Temple. For a moment, he could just let his body perform the movements that Abibal had taught him, hold this stick, and let his mind wander.

When he had been a little child in Sor, he had often asked Mother for makeshift swords for his mock battles. His chest swollen with bravery and enthusiasm, he had pretended to fight giant spiders, dragons and Balrogs, and sucessively he had been Beren, Túrin and Glorfindel, the great heroes of the First Age.

Now, those imaginations made him smile, with sufficiency but also a small measure of regret. There was no way to go back to those days, when everything was a child´s play. If he closed his eyes, it was not glorious battlefields of past ages what he saw anymore, but the future, his future. One day, he would sail to Middle-Earth with the army, to fight Orcs and barbarians and see all the countries in the world. There would be no prisons anymore: to be a warrior meant to be on one´s own, and inspire fear in his enemies.

And none of those priests would be able to hold him back.

Fifty-seven, fifty-eight, fifty-nine, and sixty thrusts and parries. In a battlefield, Abibal had told him, this would have meant killing loads of enemies, but he had to be careful not to let them creep behind his back. He whirled around to give another thrust, and yelled in enthusiasm.

Something burned in his chest, and it made him so happy to let it go. Sixty-two, sixty-three – his sword was becoming heavier.

Suddenly, absorbed in his task as he was, he thought he heard the sound of footsteps behind his back. Surely one of the boys. He decided to ignore him until he left, sixty-four...

“Hannimelkor.”

The name made him jump; all his visions faded away. Taken out of his pleasant fantasies by a feeling of alarm, he stopped the exercise, and slowly turned back.

Just as he had feared, Yehimelkor stood in the doorway, arms crossed under his robes and keeping still like an intimidating statue. His glare was seething.

Amandil´s spirit sunk to his feet. What was he doing there? He never set a foot out of his quarters in the morning. Maybe someone malicious had wanted to get him in trouble?

If it had been one of the boys...

“I...” he began, then stopped, feeling stupid. What on Earth could he say? The priest had stated clearly enough that he did not want him to do arms practice, with others or alone. Many times.

Way too many times.

“Come with me.” Yehimelkor ordered. Amandil pressed his borrowed sword against his chest, refusing to leave it behind even though he knew that its very sight would make the man´s anger rise. Then, he sighed, and followed him through the corridors, his eyes fixed on the hem of his white robes.

It was difficult to follow the longer strides of the priest, who seemed to be taken by an even more pressing impatience than usual. Of course, Amandil thought, swallowing, he had to be furious. He tried to use his time to make up the words he was going to say, but there was no excuse for his behaviour that he could think of.

As they entered Yehimelkor´s quarters and headed for his study room, Amandil remembered, not without some bitterness, the previous feeling of power and freedom that he had experienced. Here he was now, the mighty warrior - a cowering little boy!

Ashamed, he took breath, and made the resolve to at least keep his dignity. Even if Yehimelkor´s eyes were so deep, and penetrated him so intensely.

“I am sorry.” he said. Yehimelkor frowned.

“You should not apologise if you would do the same thing again.”

This was so direct and to the point that Amandil could not find a reply. Refusing to look flustered,  he put the sword aside, and sat on the floor in front of the priest.

“And you have done the same thing again, over and over. In the last months, this is the third time I have caught you, or heard of you from one of the priests. No matter what measures are taken to prevent it, you still go back to this same” here, his nose was wrinkled in an expression of contempt” barbaric activities, as if they had a stronger hold in your soul than any other consideration. What should I do, then?”

An old, familiar exasperation seeped into Amandil´s heart at those derisive words, ruining his humble mood. Why did the man have to be so difficult about those things? Abibal and the others never had those problems. It was not fair!

“May I ask a... question?” Even before Yehimelkor had managed an irritated nod, Amandil continued, gesturing with his hands to drive his point home. “The Lord is a warrior god, too. Many of his priests go to arms practice. The other boys are allowed, why can´t I?”

The priest´s voice was dry and severe.

“There are also priests who bed the boys” he snapped back. “And it means what, exactly?”

Amandil tried to repress his frustration. That argument, again. Why didn´t he understand that it wasn´t the same thing?

“But arms practice is not evil!”

“No.” Yehimelkor shook his head. “It only throws your thoughts into disorder, takes your attention away from your studies, and forms useless passions in your heart without allowing you to focus in perfecting your character.”

“But...”

“When you are older, you will do as you wish. But not now.” Yehimelkor stood on his feet in an imperious movement, no doubt intending this to be the end of the discussion. Amandil, however, was feeling too argumentative to let it end so easily.

“When I am older, it will be too late to get properly used to weapons. The Arms Instructor said it!”

Yehimelkor stared at the boy. Amandil needed to gather all his self-control not to flinch, though he could not prevent himself from retreating a little.

“You are not a warrior. You are a priest.” the priest sentenced. Then, a look that betrayed some tired disgust crossed his face, and he shook his head. “Wars, wars! It seems as if nobody thinks of anything anymore. The Eternal King gave us our land in the shape of an island, protected by a sea whose secrets we are the only ones to know, but this is not enough for the sacrilegious urge for power, that bends the will of the gods for the sake of ambition. Our armies have created so many borders for us in the mainland, so many interests, so many weaknesses! “Once again, his eyes focused on Amandil, who was listening to his tirade in surprise. “The Doom of Númenor will come through one of these wars in the mainland. And you will keep to your studies!”

After a moment of search, he took a huge book from his library. With both his arms, he carried it across the room, and let it fall on the table with a loud thump, forgetting his careful rules about book-handling for once.

“In two hours, you are demanded at the parlour, to take part in the cleaning activities for the end of summer prayer. You will stay there until night, and they told me that tomorrow you will be needed again. I hope for your sake that you manage to study your lessons in the time that remains to you,” he said. Then, he turned away and left, leaving Amandil alone with the book.

Shaking a dazed feeling away, the boy lifted the animal-skin covers of the volume. A cloud of dust made him cough, and he saw line after line of Adûnaic words written in ancient script. As he managed, with much difficulty, to read some of it, he realised that they were hymns to Melkor, listing all his good deeds towards the Númenoreans, his ridiculous epithets, and his titles.

In renewed dismay, he recalled the lands and countries that he had imagined, back when he waved the sword in front of his eyes. He recalled the freedom he had experienced, far away from the temple, its fires, its prayers and its suffocating rules, only trusting his arm to keep himself safe from whoever would attack him.

Taken by an impulse, he closed the book again, and fled the room. He would ask for extra cleaning duties outside. Anything but stay there for a moment longer, sitting in the dark with that dusty book and dreaming of what he was not allowed to have.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

The End of Summer Prayer was one of the most important ceremonies held in the temple of Melkor during the year. With bright-eyed enthusiasm, Elinoam proceeded in the following days to illustrate Amandil about its different stages. On the first day, the King and his family would arrive in a public procession, and they would stay at their reserved quarters behind the Temple. Everybody would have to fast – but he should not worry, as the next day, after the Great Ceremony, there would be delicious things and they would be able to take as much as they wanted. Not like the children in the street, who had to stay outside watching them eat.

There would be two ceremonies, one involving only the King and the priests, and the other with all the royal family and the most important people in the kingdom. The young of the Temple were greatly excited about the last one, so much that for the three days that Amandil worked with them polishing the floors and ornating the walls and altars, he rarely heard them speak of anything else.

He was not quite as happy as they were about that whole thing. The King they made such a fuss about was still often in his nightmares, though he had never told anyone about that. Rather than seeing him again, he preferred to flee as far as he could, even if that meant getting in trouble and missing their feast. He doubted that he would be hungry anyway.

Meanwhile, his waning grudge against Yehimelkor had begun to make place for less biased and glowering thoughts. Already on the following morning, he was forced to admit to himself that his own behaviour had been completely against the rules. Nobody talked back to the priests in the Temple, period, even if they did not agree with what they said. Whenever he remembered it, his cheeks went red.

The same day of the procession, he allowed himself to be proud in front of his envious companions as Yehimelkor was designated to bear the bowl of sacred water in the festivities. And later, in their chambers, he extended him a peace offering of sorts, arranging the folds of the priest´s robes as well and solemnly as he could.

This, however, was no obstacle to his plan of taking advantage of the ruckus to flee somewhere quiet and practice with Abibal´s sword. Altars, fire and the King were a dreadful combination that made him sick in the stomach, and brought awful memories that were better buried in a corner of his mind. Yehimelkor would be too busy to catch him again, and the other boys would be at the upper galleries, fighting for a peek from the small, latticed window on top of the altar.

The ceremony had already started when Amandil tiptoed downstairs. Easily evading the few watchers who lingered on the corridors, he headed for the back courtyard again. He wanted to be as far away from those people as possible, at least today. He wanted to feel free again – to forget...

As he reached his small sanctuary, however, he froze still. He could hear strange noises, like women voices, and a ringing laugh so close to him that he stared left and right, bewildered. The courtyard was empty.

Wary, Amandil inspected the place. After some observation, he realized that the laughing women had to be behind the stone wall of the back, where there were lush treetops that grew entwined in an impenetrable net. Since he had arrived to the Temple that place had always been empty, so he had never wondered or asked who lived in it.

As he was immersed in those thoughts, he heard the noise of snapping twigs somewhere behind him. He whirled back.

Nothing.

Slowly, his eyes became accustomed to the sun and the distance, and he looked again. This time, he made out a small silhouette perching over the wall, almost at the place where the Temple and the courtyard wall collided. He tightened his grip on the wooden sword, and ran in the direction of the intruder.

The intruder made no effort whatsoever to flee, even when Amandil stopped to take breath right under his feet. It was a boy, who sat comfortably on the wall with his feet dangling down while he chewed on a very appetizing pomegranate. Spilled drops of red liquid stained his cheeks and hands, which seemed to give a golden glow under the sunlight.

Under the stains, the boy was dressed in the richest clothes that Amandil had seen in a long time. They were green silk, embroidered with gold, and his curly, dark-brown hair was held by a cord that looked like plaited gold as well.

After a second of mutual surprise, the boy was the one who reacted first. Swiftly, he picked another fruit from a long and heavy branch that sagged towards the floor of the Temple, and threw it in Amandil´s direction.

“Take it!”

Still astonished, Amandil´s hands reacted to the command, and he let the wooden sword fall to the floor to pick the pomegranate. Cradling it in his hands, he looked up again.

The boy´s lips curved in a smile of self-satisfaction.

“Ha! Now you are guilty, too. You can´t tell on me.”

“Tell on you?” Amandil repeated, more puzzled than ever. He also was hungry and thirsty after going without food for a day, so he tore the fruit open and began sucking on it avidly. “What would I tell on you for? And who are you?”

The boy stared at him.

“I am supposed to be fasting. You, too. You are a priest, aren´t you?”

Amandil shook his head. With the back of his hand, he wiped the juice from his mouth.

“No. I am Hannimelkor, a servant of the temple.”

“Ah.” The boy nodded, then his eyes took a glint of arrogance. “I am Pharazôn, grandson of the King.”

The pomegranate that Amandil was holding fell to the floor with a muted squish. A curse, the one that Yehimelkor disliked the most, almost escaped his lips in his shock, but he managed to get a grip on himself.

Grandson of the King. It figured. Of all the boys in Armenelos he had to meet with the grandson of the King, in the backyard of the Temple. And this when he was supposed to be fleeing his horrible, hateful grandfather who had wanted to kill him.

Still, if there was something that Amandil did not want in his life, it was more problems. So he sent a quick look in the direction of the other boy, who seemed to be expecting him to look suitably awed, and gave him an awkward bow.

“How do I... call you, then?” he asked, deciding to be practical before everything.

Pharazôn´s smile, however, was friendly, and nothing at all like Ar-Gimilzôr.

“You may call me by my name.” he graciously conceded. “Is that a sword?”

Still a bit dazed, Amandil knelt to pick it up again.

“A practice sword. Like a... wooden stick, but a bit more polished.”

Pharazôn looked very impressed.

“Do you practice swordsmanship?”

“I suppose. How did you manage to climb up that wall?”

But the boy seemed too interested by the sword to accept Amandil´s attempts to change the subject. As if he hadn´t even heard his question, he kept looking at the weapon with covetous eyes.

“I want to have a sword and practice arms training, too.” he said, frowning. “But my mother says that I am too young for that.”

Amandil calculated his height, and the childishness of his features. He was probably younger than him, a year or two at least. And yet, he was well aware that the opinion of adults about when was old enough tended to differ.

He shrugged, deciding to speak the truth.

“To be honest, my revered father does not allow me to practice, either. Not my real father, but in the Temple we call them like that.” he added, somehow not wanting the two concepts to become muddled. “I come here to do it in secret.”

If it could be possible, now Pharazôn looked even more impressed. If one was to judge by his expression, Amandil thought that he had probably just given that Prince ideas that his mother would not appreciate.

“You taught yourself?”

Amandil shook his head.

“Another boy, Abibal, goes to arms training, and then teaches me what he has learned. I practice alone.”

Pharazôn nodded slowly, as if the sense of those words was laboriously sinking in his brain. Then, his expression changed again, and he frowned in determination as he gave him a commanding look.

“Teach me.”

Amandil stared at him, uncomprehending.

“What?”

“Teach me!” the boy repeated. “If you learned this way, I can learn as you did.”

“But...” Amandil bit his lip. He could not believe that this was happening. “You have no sword.”

“I broke a branch yesterday that has the same shape.” Pharazôn replied. Before the other boy could say anything else, he jumped to the floor at the other side, and disappeared from his sight. Amandil heard the sounds of breaking twigs, and then the curly head emerged again from the old, gnawed stone.

“Here it is!” he announced. With great agility, he held the tree branch and let his body slide to the courtyard floor, the promised sword safely pressed against his chest. For a moment, Amandil thought that the branch would break under his weight, but it just made an alarming creaking sound. “Now, teach me!”

In silence, he inspected the weapon. Pharazôn had probably used it to play before, because the sticks and leaves had been carefully pulled off. He tried it several times, and realised that it weighed a little less than required, but who could dissuade the boy now? He was looking at him insistently, not taking well to any delay. And he was a prince and all...

Amandil also had to admit to feeling a tiny bit flattered, but that had nothing to do with anything.

“Here, take this stance.” he ordered with a shrug.

Once he was set to something, he found that Pharazôn went all the way into it. He did everything he was told, listening to each of his instructions as if they were some kind of divine revelation. Soon, he was already asking for a fight, and Amandil reluctantly obliged.

Without any serious practice, of course, the boy´s skills were almost nonexistant. Basic prudence dictated that he should go easy on a prince who had probably never got hurt in his life, and whose parents could easily have a servant of the Temple killed. And yet, Amandil realised when he took his sword to fight his adversary, prudence had nothing to do with what happened afterwards.

He was prisoner of his own skill, even as he efficiently parried the unexperienced blows of his adversary. He felt powerful, and it was a wonderful sensation, more than anything he had ever experienced when he fought alone. When he had Pharazôn stumble and fall to the ground at his feet, he almost felt the need to laugh in fierce pride – the King might have wanted his head, but his grandson could not even manage to touch him once.

Then, however, Pharazôn stood up, and demanded another round. And after he lost that one, he demanded another, and then another. Amandil´s triumphal and uncharitable mood was slowly changed, in spite of himself, by his persistence. He felt a dawning respect towards his opponent.

In the end, he had to be the one to say that he was tired and that he could not fight anymore- he did not want to keep this going on for any longer. There was already a bruise on the young boy´s cheek, and another on his left arm, but in spite of this, his enthusiasm was completely undimmed.

“I want you to be my teacher.” he solemnly declared. Amandil shook his head, still panting.

“That´s impossible. I cannot leave the Temple.”

Once again, Pharazôn´s eyes showed that he had rarely been crossed in his life.

“I will come here several times a year. There are lots of ceremonies, and now I am old enough to go to them. Whenever I am here for one, I will come to this place, and you will wait for me.”

Amandil cautiously nodded.

Why not? He remembered the look in his eyes as he repressed a groan of pain and stood up after receiving a blow to his left arm – that had impressed him.

He would never set foot on the Palace again, though.

“You should convince your mother to let you have some classes in-between.” he recommended. “Otherwise, I will always beat you.”

Pharazôn shook his head proudly.

“Next time, I will beat you.” He took a long breath, then turned towards Amandil “One day, I will be the greatest warrior king that Númenor has ever known, and I will conquer the world. You can be in my army, if you want.” he offered after a moment of thought.

Amandil frowned in renewed surprise.

King? You are going to be King?”

Pharazôn bathed in his shock, taking it for simple admiration.

“My mother told me I would. She knows everything.”

As he digested those puzzling news, a thought slipped insidiously into Amandil´s mind, and he wondered what Yehimelkor would say of Pharazôn´s plans. He chuckled, imagining the priest´s fuming ire at such a crime against the God´s will.

To him, though, the plan seemed as good as any.

“Thank you.” he said. “I would like that very much.”

This brief moment of understanding was broken by the sound of a woman´s voice. Amandil´s ears perked up, and then he heard it calling Pharazôn´s name.

The other boy stood up, frowning.

“Stupid women! They will not leave me alone for a minute!” he grumbled. “There, now I have to leave. I do not want them to discover my secret passage.”

The secret passage in question was more like a very risky climb up a wall, with the only help of a tree branch that seemed more ready to crack at each passing moment. Amandil watched him go up in some anxiety, but relaxed when he realised that Pharazôn encountered no trouble.

“Wait for me the next time!” the prince reminded him before the jump. Amandil nodded to the wall.

If anyone should learn of what had just happened there, they would not believe him.

“I will.” he promised. Then, he blinked and turned back, feeling, all of a sudden, strangely alone in the empty courtyard.

 

Chapter Text

“My lady?”

The Princess of the South sat on her porch, protected from the sunrays by the twisted boughs of a vine tree. Chestnut tresses fell freely down her back, as she let the warm breeze dry the golden dye of her upper locks.

“Yes?” she asked, in a deep, sleepy voice. The woman advanced a few steps and bowed in front of her, letting the folds of her dress fall at both sides. Her hand was holding a folded piece of paper, humid from her sweat.

“The Lady of the Keys gave me this letter for you. She told me a strange story about it: according to her, a beautiful girl asked one of the women to give it to your son.”

Melkyelid frowned, and extended a hand imperiously.

“Give it to me, Mehedya.”

The woman obeyed, a small, amused smile dancing in her lips. As Melkyelid unfolded it, her eyes fell on a message, written in small and spidery letters. She cleared her throat.

“To the prince Pharazôn, greetings. I have dreamed of you again...” she began, then stopped. Her eyes widened. “What is this?”

Mehedya shook her head.

“I do not know, my lady.”

Melkyelid stared at her in incredulity, and after a while she saw her fingers start to fidget with the golden hems of her dress.

“You have read it already.” she stated. “Oh, I know of your curiosity.”

“I am sorry, my lady...”

The Princess dismissed her apology with a casual wave of her hand.

“Images of you plagued my mind day and night, and I had to draw you to get rid of them. “she continued reading. “Now, I feel alone and empty. Why have you abandoned me? If you are afraid of the people who watch over me, we can meet in the corridor that stretches past the Great Western Hall. There is an empty room there, and I know how to steal the key. Wait for me in the early hours of the afternoon; there is no one around then. The Princess Zimraphel... “Her voice trailed away, and she looked at the paper with increasing surprise. “Why... if this is...!”

Mehedya allowed herself a rippling laugh.

“Now, this is something that would have read alarming enough, had they been a dozen years older! My, my.” She affected to wipe her eyes with the back of her hand. “The prince is a handsome and precocious boy, but who could have imagined that he would  take the Western Wing by assault and start breaking the heart of maidens? Not I, indeed.”

Melkyelid did not smile. Instead, she focused in the message, which she reread several times with a thoughtful frown.

“If there is someone being... precocious here, I am sure it is not my son.” she muttered. Mehedya forced her tone to become solemn.

“Of course, my lady. That girl... the daughter of the Prince of Númenor... is not what anyone would call a normal child. I wonder in which circumstances did those two meet. “Her countenance perked up once again. “In any case, this is nothing we cannot be informed of. Shall I summon the little scoundrel here, so you may ask for explanations?”

Melkyelid threw a last glance in the direction of the girl´s lively script, wondering at the tiny fingers which had written it. Then, she folded it again, and held her back with a movement of her hand.

“On the contrary, you are going to give this back to the servant who received it. Who will give it to my son, as our young maiden intended.”

“And then you will have him followed.” the lady-in-waiting guessed. “A clever plan.”

Princess Melkyelid bit her lip in annoyance.

“Do you think that I need to spy on my son?” she asked, with a proud frown. “Know that I do not need any underhanded methods to be aware of his wishes and desires.”

Mehedya shook her head

“And yet he is hiding from us.”

“Not yet. Not yet.” the Princess repeated, in a lower, more thoughtful voice. Then, she gave back the paper, and gestured with her chin. “Go. I would not want him to miss his little appointment.”

The woman seemed about to add something else, but a quick assessment of her lady´s mood convinced her to swallow her words. Lowering her head in a bow, she left without further discussion.

As soon as she crossed the threshold of the porch, Melkyelid´s frown returned. She stared at the vine branches above her head, muttering a name with her beautiful lips.

“Too soon.” she said, with the smallest sigh of regret. A small, speckled bird with an orange chest fluttered among the leaves, searching for its nest. “My Queen, my Lady, is it not too soon?”

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

“See?” The boy stared at him proudly, trying to hide his gasps for breath as both wiped the sweat from their foreheads. “I told you that it wouldn´t be so easy for you anymore.”

Amandil nodded, impressed in spite of himself. His arm stung, and he knew that he was sporting a growing bruise under his white robes.

“So, you took lessons, after all.”

Pharazôn shook his head.

“I practiced on my own, just like you.” After a moment of thought, however, honesty took the better of his determination, and he blushed. “Well, all right... I convinced the armsmaster of Lord Zakarbal´s household to correct my stances a bit. He asked for the person who had taught them to me, and he was impressed.”

“Huh?” Amandil frowned. Pharazôn looked at him in newfound appreciation.

“He said that they were good.”

“Did he? Well... I cannot be so good if I let you hit me.” the Temple servant grumbled, a bit embarrassed. The last thing he wanted was for a courtier to ask inconvenient questions about him.

“Of course I hit you.” Pharazôn protested, furrowing his brow. “Mother predicted I would be the greatest warrior in this land one day.”

Amandil was about to make an unpleasant comment about mothers being partial when it came to their sons, but he finally chose not to open his mouth. Pharazôn was his friend, no matter how naive and spoiled he could sometimes sound like. It was not his fault that he had a family and a whole army of courtiers fawning over him.

“A warrior king.” he muttered, thoughtfully, remembering what the boy had said to him on their first encounter. Would he be the one who would free his family, as Father had said?

“And you? Are you going to be a warrior priest when you grow up?”

Amandil bit his lip, and reflected on this. To be a priest wasn´t among his future prospects, but it was prudent not to let anybody know about that.

“I suppose.” he shrugged.

“Why?” Pharazôn insisted. Amandil stared at him in surprise.

“Why do you ask?”

“Because Mother told me one day that all true warriors must aim for greatness. Do you aim for greatness, Hannimelkor?” the Prince asked. “I do.”

The older boy wrinkled his nose. Greatness is for kings, he thought.

“I am sure you will be great for both of us.” he finally said, but there was no hint of mockery in his voice. “After all, I´m the one who is teaching the King to fight.”

Pharazôn nodded, proudly.

“The day I have the Dark Lord at my feet begging for mercy, I will tell him that my swordsmanship is the work of Hannimelkor of Armenelos, the most skilled warrior in Númenor after myself!”

Amandil snorted. The ego of a prince really knew no boundaries.

“You have not even defeated me yet.”

Pharazôn grabbed his sword, and waved it in the air with ferocious movements.

“Then, let us fight again!”

“Are you rested?” Amandil asked, doubtfully. The younger boy gave him a cheeky shrug.

“Are you tired?” he retorted at him. Amandil growled, and fell back into a stance.

Fine, then. No fooling around anymore. He would not go easy this time.

Both wooden swords crashed in mid-air with a sharp noise. The boys fell back, panting as they studied each other´s movements.

“Take this!” Pharazôn yelled. Amandil blocked his thrust easily.

“Do not tell the enemy what you´re going to do!” he scolded. As if to underline his words, his own thrust came from an unexpected angle, a move that Abibal had recently taught him –and which had allowed him, once perfected, to defeat the bigger boy.

Pharazôn clenched his teeth to suppress a hiss of pain as the wood connected with his hip. He stumbled a bit, but managed to regain his footing quickly enough. Where did he get that impressive endurance from?

As Amandil waited for him, a different noise reached his ears from behind his back. Whirling around, his glance met the white face of a priest, who was staring at them in astonishment from the courtyard gate. His hands carried a roll of ritual cloth.

Next to him, Pharazôn´s movements also froze to a halt. Keeping his aplomb, the Prince advanced a couple of steps, and sized the man up with a determined look.

“He has not defeated me yet.” he assured him, tightening the grip of his fingers on the makeshift sword hilt.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

“Do you know what you just did?”

Amandil kept his eyes religiously fixed on the floor patterns, still like a statue under the scrutiny. The High Priest´s voice was calm - soft, even, and yet the boy was not foolish enough as to try to breathe a word in his presence.

Besides, anything he could say would only make the situation worse.

“You attacked – you hurt the grandson of the King.” the voice continued. “Have you an idea of how serious this is?”

The boy heard the sound of footsteps behind his back, and then the rustle of heavy robes as Yehimelkor knelt at his side. He ventured a brief look at his face from the corner of his eyes, forcing himself to be brave and keep his composure. Deep inside, however, he was positively screaming for help. Please, let him not be furious. If he decided to give up on him now... he shuddered to think of what could happen.

“Will you defend his foolishness, Yehimelkor?”

The priest bowed respectfully.

“Your Holiness, it is well known to you that I will never defend mindless fighting.” he said, sending an ominous look in the boy´s direction. Amandil swallowed. “I do have to say, however, that I do not think that this child is any more guilty than the prince in this issue. As it seems, they were practicing swordsmanship, and he had been asked, if not ordered, to teach the son of Prince Gimilkhâd.”

The High Priest thought about this for a moment.

“What you say may be true, but he was still careless. Compared to the life of a child of the royal family, his own is worth little. He should have thought about it before.”

“He rarely thinks about anything, Your Holiness.” Yehimelkor sneered. “And yet, he was chosen by Melkor, so his life is as much under the Lord´s protection as that of the prince.”

Amandil felt his chest filling with hope at those words. If he emerged out of this unscathed, he thought, he would always respect the man, and never, ever do anything against his wishes again.

“So what?” The High Priest frowned, and his eyes bore upon him. “What is your opinion? Should this Temple surrender the boy to the prince´s family so they can obtain their revenge?” he sighed, oblivious, it seemed, to the sudden pallor in Amandil´s face. Surrendering his stoic pretence at last, he sent a terrified glance in Yehimelkor´s direction.

Images that he thought he had left behind fought to enter his agitated mind again. The defiance that he had been mustering for all that time left him in a rush. He saw the fire once more, and the King´s cold eyes passing through him as if he was nothing but dirt in front of his eyes.

He shivered. No!

Yehimelkor´s eyes became hard.

“My opinion is that it would be a grievous error, Your Holiness.”

“Explain yourself.”

“I will.” The priest bowed again. “For many years, we have kept our position carefully balanced with that of the Kings. We are the Great God´s chosen servants, keepers of the holy rites and interpreters of his wishes. Much depends on this state of things, as you well know. “The High Priest nodded slowly to each of his words. “But since Ar-Gimilzôr took the Sceptre, this balance has become more tenuous than ever. The Kings have always had the right to share in our ceremonies, but none of his ancestors had been so intent on it as he is now. In the last years, he has taken over many of our duties with great zeal, and some have been dreading that he intends to proclaim himself the only keeper of the wisdom of the Lord. This will imperil the influence of this Temple and that of his High Priest.”

Amandil listened to this torrent, half-dazed. A part of him wondered what could be the relationship with the issue at hand, but the High Priest seemed to be interested in it. So much that he seemed to have even forgotten about his presence.

“I see.”

“If you humble yourself in front of him, everybody will think you weak, and you will have less power. We must keep our dignity, and protect it at all costs. It is the only way.”

The High Priest arched an eyebrow.

“Do you think me weak, Yehimelkor?”

Amandil wondered if there could be some sort of dangerous edge to this question. His tone sounded only mildly interested.

Yehimelkor shook his head.

“I do not, Your Holiness.”

The High Priest´s lips curved into a smile.

“Then, there is only one way, indeed. You may retire.”

“Let me express my deepest thanks, Your Holiness.”

Still bewildered at the strange exchange that had just taken place, Amandil reacted to the man´s bony touch upon his shoulders, and struggled to his feet to follow him.

As he crossed the threshold of the High Audience Chamber, he felt the knot in his throat dissolve at last.

“What will.... happen to me, then?” he asked in a whisper, needing and dreading the confirmation at the same time. Yehimelkor stopped in his tracks and turned back to measure him up with an annoyed glance.

“You have been caught disobeying my orders on weapons yet again. This makes seven times, Hannimelkor. Seven. Sometimes I still wonder if you do understand Adûnaic like everybody else.”

Amandil lowered his face, humbly.

“I am sorry.”

“You will not step outside your room for ten days. Maybe this will stop your frenzied activity enough as to allow for a bit of reflection.”

Amandil pondered this briefly, then nodded. Had it been twenty days, or forty, right now he could not have brought himself to care. As the realisation that he was, indeed, saved, crashed into his mind, he felt a wave of gratitude fill him until he was about to burst.

“Thank you. I mean... “he rectified, not sure of what he was supposed to say. “I am sorry. I will not do it anymore.”

Yehimelkor snorted.

“Short is the memory of a mindless young boy.” Turning back again, he continued his way through the corridors, and Amandil followed him in silence.

As they were already reaching their chambers, Yehimelkor spoke again.

“Your closeness to the prince Pharazôn worries me, Hannimelkor.” Amandil blinked in surprise. “I trust that you remember who wanted to kill you back then.”

The boy shook his head.

“I remember.” he said in a hoarse voice. “But he... he is nothing like that. He is... a friend. We were not fighting, it´s all... well, practice. We like each other.”

As nobody else has liked me here, he thought, somewhat bitterly, but he kept the last thought to himself. It would not do to complain to the priest about that.

Yehimelkor, however, looked at him with a strange, surprised expression in his face. Amandil thought he could even distinguish a brief flicker of pity in his eyes, but it was gone before he could wonder.

“This is all very well. But you must be careful. Your impulsive nature might get you killed”, he grumbled. The boy nodded at this, without much difficulty. A selfish part of himself was exultant and relieved at the fact that he had not been forbidden from seeing his friend.

“I will be careful.” he promised solemnly.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

“Why did you have to make such a fuss?” Pharazôn stood on the glazed tiles of the Prince of the South´s chambers, his golden frown fixed on his father in anger . “He will not want to teach me anymore!”

Gimilkhâd´s features were tense, and he stared into the palms of his hands. His voice came out with a hissing sound, as if he was speaking between his teeth.

“This is just as well, then, because you will not see him again.”

The boy´s outrage flared up in a rush.

“Why?”

“Because he is dangerous.” his father replied. Then, he continued in a lower, if not less stressed tone. “I do not want to speak further about this subject.”

Pharazôn glared, putting his hands on his hips.

“Then do not speak about it! But you will never stop me from seeing him!”

“What?” Gimilkhâd looked at him, livid.

“He is my friend!”

Several attempts to form words became tangled and stuck in the prince´s mouth, and for a moment he sat, opening and closing it and breathing heavily. Undaunted, the boy withstood his glance.

“Well, I do not... I do not allow you to be his friend!”

“I am his friend already!” the boy replied, yelling back. “You can´t do anything about it!”

“How dare you talk like this to your father!”

Pharazôn lifted his chin in a disdainful gesture.

“I am the future King! You cannot order me around!”

Whirling round, he gave his back to Gimilkhâd and stormed out of the room. Everything around him became blurred, and he almost crashed against a long-robed figure who stood in the corridor, quietly waiting for him.

“My son.” Melkyelid scolded in a fond voice, stopping his mad rush with her hand. Pharazôn looked up at her, and blinked furiously as she knelt in front of him and the hand caressed his chin. He never cried. “Is this the look you gave your father?”

The boy bit his lip, trying to break free.

“If you are going to side with him, leave me alone!”

The Princess´s features hardened.

“Insolence towards your father is one thing. But your mother gave birth to you, and the Lady in Heaven will punish you if you ever treat her disrespectfully.” Seeing his anger cool down at those words, her lips curved in another loving smile. “Tell me what happened, my child. I will help you.”

For a while, Pharazôn considered her in silence, his determination battling with need. As always, his pride eventually surrendered to that beautiful face that promised him a solution for everything that troubled him. He swallowed.

“He... told me I couldn´t be friends with Hannimelkor. He says that he´s dangerous, but that´s not true! He was teaching me swordsmanship. He´s very good at it... and he´s my friend!”

Melkyelid nodded attentively.

“I understand.” One of her long tresses, brilliant with perfumed oil, fell over her shoulder, and she pushed it back. “Still, you must know that your father has his reasons. Do you know who your friend Hannimelkor really is?”

Pharazôn frowned.

“Who?”

“He is the only heir of the former lords of Andúnië.” she whispered softly in his ear.  “That was why the King forced him to become a priest, or be killed.”

The boy´s eyes widened.

“The traitors?” he mouthed in shock. “But... how´s that possible? That happened before I was born!”

“Of course, my son. He was born in exile, from outlawed parents. He has no name and no honour, and a clouded destiny.”

The boy lowered his glance, reflecting on this. His brows began to knit in a frown, but his mother´s keen eyes also perceived a glint of awe in the corner of his eye. She laid a hand over his shoulders, and smiled.

“This does not deter you, I see.”

Pharazôn shook his head.

“I... were they really going to kill him?”

Melkyelid nodded.

“Miraculously, he managed to wriggle himself out of all threats. Your friend has lived through more than you can imagine, son. Maybe that is why he is a better warrior.” she muttered in a lower, more thoughtful tone. Her son stared at her, now in open fascination.

Upon noticing his expression, she broke in a ringing fit of laughter.

“Why? You still want to be his friend?”

Pharazôn pursed his lips in determination.

“I do.” he stated. “If... if he was an evil Elf-friend, he would not be a priest of Melkor, would he? Melkor wouldn´t have chosen him!” he added in flawless logic. Melkyelid laughed again.

“Indeed, he would not! You are wise, my son.” Her hand caressed his rebellious curls, and the soft fabric of her long sleeve touched his face, leaving a perfumed trail in its wake. “I will help you, as I promised. But there is one condition.”

“What condition?”

The Princess´s features sobered for a moment.

“You will offer your apologies to your father.”

Pharazôn´s features tightened in surprise, then creased in distaste.

“But...!”

Melkyelid raised her hand, interrupting her son´s budding protest.

“I will need to work, lengthly and tirelessly, in order to fulfill your wishes. If you do not do my bidding, and apologise to your father, you will make things even more difficult for me. “She sighed, reproachfully. “Would you do that, my son? Would you scatter hardships in my way, when I am toiling for your sake?”

The strength of the boy´s denial was quenched by those words. Somewhat ashamed, he stared down in painful hesitation, and Melkyelid smiled.

“I knew you would not.” Gracefully she stood up, in a soft rustle of colourful silks, and took his hand in hers. “You and I, my son, will forever be allies.”

Pharazôn stared at her in grave silence. Inside him, there were some emotions in conflict, but he was not skilled at considering them and determining their nature. So he merely stood there, and nodded dutifully to his mother.

She would put everything right. She always did.

But one day, he would not need her help anymore.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

When Melkyelid entered the Prince´s chambers, she found him sitting in front of an ivory table, looking into a glass of wine with a stormy frown. She approached him with her soft steps, and cautiously sat at his side.

A long and uncomfortable silence followed.

“Has our son displeased you?” she finally asked, touching his arm with delicate fingers. He shook himself away ill-temperedly, and glared at her.

“A nice piece of work, indeed, is what you have you made out of him!” he hissed. “You and your... accursed airs! Since the very day he was born, you have always spoken of him as if he was a king, a deliverer, a god, instead of a mere child. And now, look at the results. He does not even respect his father!”

Melkyelid weathered the storm in silence. As Gimilkhâd made a pause to drink, she opened her mouth to reply, but he interrupted her again.

“And this is not the worst. Oh, no, you have even infected me with your overblown beliefs! He is standing there, in front of me, opposing my will, and I cannot even bring myself to open my mouth! “His words died in a humiliated, half-drunken groan. Muttering something, he emptied the cup, and allowed his glance to trail sourly over the distance.

The princess lowered her eyes in regret.

“Great is the weakness of a mother.” she admitted. “I beg you to forgive me.”

He did not answer.

“He was taken by his impulsive nature, and now he regrets it deeply. “she continued. “He only wishes to apologise to you.”

“Apologise?” he snorted in disbelief. Still, his haughtiness also seemed a little surprised, if not mollified. “So he wants to apologise, now? The nerve...!”

“We never know to which purpose do the gods govern the impulses of a young boy.” she added, furrowing her brow. “His friendship with this Hannimelkor...”

“His name is Amandil.” Gimilkhâd cut her. “And I do not wish to discuss him.”

“I am sorry.” she said, “but what if...?”

“Enough!” he yelled. “I said I would not discuss him!”

Melkyelid stood up. Her chair made a loud noise as it was dragged back across the floor, causing Gimilkhâd to look up sharply, but she simply joined hands over the robes that hung in heavy folds over her stomach.

“Excuse me. “ she began. “Since the day I was born in Gadir, the Goddess bestowed all her blessings on me, welcomed and nurtured me as her only and most beloved child. She taught me the many paths and ways of her service, and I laid my heart and soul at her feet. She gave me a brilliant future, wove it into my dreams, and wrote it in the stars.” Her husband, taken out from his drunken sulk by shock, studied her in quiet astonishment. She withstood his glance, and continued her passionate speech. “When my son was born, I took all the favours, all the joys that the Lady had destined for me, and heaped them upon his head. Both our fortunes are his, and this is why I know that he will be King and that no evil will ever be able to touch him. The Goddess guides his every step towards his destiny, and I am a mere servant to her will.” Her eyes narrowed in determination. “It was not by mere chance, or ill luck, that he met the heir of Andúnië, I know this. So please, listen to me. Help me to reach an understanding of her message, for us and our son´s sake!.”

The uncomprehending expression became more and more pronounced in Gimilkhâd´s features as he listened to his wife. He shook his head, confused.

“Help you? What message?”

Melkyelid smiled, encouraged, and looked down with a blush.

“I... am a woman, and I know little about politics. My only knowledge comes from the times when you have chosen to share your problems with me. And yet... there is one thing that is obvious to all those who live in this Palace, even the kitchen girls. Your brother, the Prince of Númenor, will one day be King.”

Her husband nodded, reluctantly.

“And once that he does...  would he not want to restore the traitors –may the Doom take them!- to their former honours?”

Gimilkhâd frowned in deep distaste at the question.

“He probably will.” he finally muttered, with a grimace. “He is a traitor, himself. My father...” His voice trailed away, then he shook his head as if to chase a dark thought. “Only his blood protected him from suffering their same fate back then.”

Melkyelid wrinkled her nose in distaste.

“And, do you think they would hold a seat in the Council? After having been pronounced traitors to Númenor?”

“The day my brother has his way, yes. They will try to rule through him.” her husband explained. “Luckily, our supporters are a majority in Númenor, and we will not let them do as they please.”

The Princess smiled.

“That sounds reassuring. Still...” She frowned again. “I have lived in this Palace for long, and heard things. Sometimes, I cannot help but wonder how many of those supporters are really loyal.” Gimilkhâd looked about to protest, but she quickly continued before he could speak. “Oh, I do not mean that they are traitors. But when there is civil strife, many people survive by following the flow of the tide and weathering the storm. Now that your father is king, they are with him, but will they be against your brother once they see him holding the Sceptre? Will they rise and fight their King, even if they are against his policies?”

Gimilkhâd sought for the wine jar, and filled his cup again. For a while, an uncomfortable silence reigned in the chamber.

“Go on.” he said at last, surprisingly quiet. “What are you trying to get at?”

“I think that Amandil, future Lord of Andúnië, may be one of our greatest allies in years to come.” she complied. “And that this is the splendid gift of the Lady of Storms to our son.”

Then, before her astonished husband could come up with an answer, she bent her head in a parting bow, gathered the folds of her dress in her hands, and discreetly left him to ponder her words.

 

Chapter Text

 

A slight drizzle was falling as Amandil left the Temple, and the dark clouds that loomed over Armenelos had sped the arrival of the spring night. Groaning in discomfort, he threw his hood over his head, and fixed his glance on the puddles that were starting to form over the stone pavement.

Even the sky seemed determined to make him behave like a good novice, he thought, with a kind of irony. It forced him to bow his head and look down.

At least Yehimelkor should be busy enough now with the April night vigils. Amandil, who had known him for all those years, was aware that the priest disliked to be distracted from his private contemplations to take part in such things, though he would never have said as much in words. It was a gift for his pupil in any case, for it enabled him to leave their retreat and seek Amalket in the busy centre of Armenelos.

Unfortunately, Pharazôn had learned of his free night through an indiscretion of his own, and had wasted no time inviting him to one of those parties where there were always many guards of the Palace and courtesans, and everybody ended either in bed or drunk. None of those two options seemed acceptable if he was to seek her afterwards, but he wondered if he would be able to escape unscathed.

The inn was not far from the Palace, and barely two streets away from the quarters of the guards. Amandil took away his drenched hood, passing a hand through his forehead, and addressed the innkeeper. There were some things about Pharazôn that he would never wholly understand, he thought as he checked the look of the place and the groups of people who drank in the corners. How, having been born in the Palace, he could enjoy cheap inns that would have even given Amandil pause was one of them.

The man bowed obsequiously to him, and asked him to follow. As soon as they set foot on the backyard – a little square with a well and no pavement that was already beginning to ressemble a mire-, the sound of loud male shouts and strident female laughter reached his ears. When the man threw the door of the private chamber open, the sight almost made him wince. Few steps away from the threshold, a man, heavily loaded with drink by the look of his face, was kissing a giggling woman upon the floor.

Now, that was fast.

“Alas, much have I missed!” he remarked sarcastically, as the door was closed behind his back. Pharazôn lifted his eyes at the sound of his voice, interrupting the animated conversation that he was having with his guests behind a low table full of empty jars. His golden brow was crowned with a makeshift circlet of branches, which, together with his mantle of royal purple, made him stand out from the crowd. The brown curls of his head had already begun to look dishevelled, and the red in his cheeks told Amandil that he had also drunk his share.

“You are late!” he scolded merrily. “Come and sit with me!”

Amandil strode towards the crowded space, just as some of the men began to push back to leave room for him among great confusion. Finally, one of them stood up and vacated his place at the old stool, and sat on the floor next to a companion. A courtesan followed suit, arranging her expensive robes over the dirty planks with a surly look.

“His robes are wet.” said a young man in an elegant outfit who sat at Pharazôn´s other side, wrinkling his nose. Amandil recognised him at once: it was Pummyaton, the son of the foster brother of Pharazôn´s father. That courtier had never seemed to like him much, probably out of jealousy.

Pharazôn, of course, was always oblivious enough to make things worse. Ignoring him, he focused on his newly arrived friend, and lay an arm over his shoulders.

“Do you know what?” he told him with a grin. Amandil shook his head, slowly getting used to the heat and the smell of wine. “Iqbal, of the Gate Guards, brought his brother to meet us today. His name is Setbal, and he is the man who is sitting next to you. Isn´t he impressive?” A man of about thirty or forty, with dark skin and serious eyes, bowed at this introduction of sorts. The width of his shoulders was indeed impressive, and there was a long scar in his cheek. “He is stationed in Sor right now, but until last year he was a soldier in Umbar!”

The delight in Pharazôn´s voice was evident. Amandil nodded, interested.

“He was telling us about the last campaign...”

“Oh, that was no campaign! “the man protested. “Just a few skirmishes...”

The young novice of Melkor did not miss the collision of Iqbal´s elbow with his brother´s ribs. It was well known by everyone that tales and talk of battles never failed to kindle a bright fire in the prince´s eyes, and that any man who had ever wielded a sword was sure to gain access to him. One day, it was rumoured, Pharazôn would be the first member of the royal family since Ar-Adunakhôr who would not stay content with a life of leisure in the peaceful island.

“The desert tribes assaulted a post that was close to Umbar, and killed the people who lived there.” Pharazôn continued, ignoring them. Then, he tried to drink, and realised that his cup was empty. “What? This is a shame! Who has decided that I should go without wine?”

One of the courtesans, a beautiful woman with golden ribbons in her tresses, waded through the other guests with a jar in her hands. Amandil admired the skill with which she prevented it from falling to the floor in several ocassions, even when one of the merry drunkards pulled her sleeve just to make a good joke.

“A shame, indeed.” she tsked, refilling the cup. Then, her glance shifted towards Amandil, and she let her eyes widen in affected surprise. “Oh, my! A man who isn´t drinking!”

“By the King of Armenelos, how could that possibly be?” Pharazôn cried. “A cup for this man, at once! He is my friend, the best swordsman in Númenor and a sacred priest of the Great God!”

“Such a ruckus.” Pummyaton shook his head, offering an empty cup to Amandil. “Here you are, Your Holiness.”

The woman poured the scented wine with a steady pulse. Amandil nodded and gulped it down –sipping on it would have been unacceptable in the present company-, but when she was about to turn back and leave, Pharazôn held her by the sleeve of her dress.

“Where are you going? Stay with us, too.” he invited. The courtesan covered her mouth with her free sleeve and giggled, honoured, while the confusion of pushing others back and rearranging the sitting space started anew in both ends. This time, it was another of the guards who had to leave the stool, and the woman sat between Pharazôn and Pummyaton.

“And now for your story!” the prince reminded, drinking and caressing the woman´s neck with a daring hand. She leaned against him, and presented Amandil with a breathtaking view of her pale and graceful breast.

He swallowed, remembering who was waiting for him. All of a sudden, he felt an overpowering wish to leave, and he had to force himself to stay seated between his half-drunk friend and the Sorian soldier´s animated chatter.

The men talked about glorious –and not so glorious- wars against the fierce natives, who had been a threat to the Númenoreans of Umbar ever since the city was established in a corner of what had been their vast territory. Pharazôn listened in rapt attention, and asked questions while his bored woman´s attempts to distract him from the conversation grew more and more obvious. Pummyaton, disgusted at the amount of fussing and kissing that was taking place in his immediate vicinity, abandoned the stool and began courting a woman of his own.

Amandil grew interested after a while, and even asked some questions, though they tended to focus on details that made Pharazôn shrug, like the exploration trips that had been made across the Southern desert, or how the settlements of the natives looked like. At some moment, a woman came in with painted ceramic bowls full of dates, and once that he checked that most of his companions did not care much for them, he hid some in his sleeve while they were busy talking. He knew of someone who would surely appreciate them much more.

When the same woman came a while later to collect the bowls, he realised that she was evaluating him with a predatory glance. His daydreaming evaporated, and he tensed.

“You do not seem to be drinking much.” she observed in a singsong tone, leaning her head to the side. Her hair was arranged in a complicated knot that fell down her neck, and it had probably been dyed black, judging by the clear colour of her eyes. Her lips were full and sensual.

“This is my fourth cup.” he lied. She arched an eyebrow.

“Four cups and all you can think about is martial exploits? Why, I cannot believe it!”

“Indeed!” Iqbal laughed. Too late, Amandil understood her strategy, and cursed between his teeth. “Has he made a celibacy vow, the little priest of Melkor?”

“When you are in a party, you are not supposed to preach saintly ways –even if you´re a priest!” his brother snorted. Pharazôn stared at him with a curious frown.

“Women say that there is no better lover than a priest of Melkor.” the courtesan continued her taunting. “Alas for empty fame!”

Amandil let go of a deep breath, more and more annoyed at each passing moment. It was not his fourth cup, true, but it was at least his second, and he was already feeling the jaws of danger close on him with sinister accuracy. And you deserve it, Yehimelkor would have told him dryly if he could have seen him now. It is a fool who surrounds himself with fools.

He stood up, muttering something, and took advantage of their surprise to leave the place with as much dignity as he could. He did not care if those louts and that whore considered him a coward. He would explain the truth to Pharazôn, once and for all – when he was sober, and certainly when they were alone.

As he reached the courtyard of the inn, he stopped in his tracks to close his eyes, and welcomed the cool breeze of the night upon his sweating face. Slowly, the dizziness and the drunken haze faded away, and his head began to clear. The rain had stopped falling at some point of the feast.

Thinking about it, he realised now that his abrupt exit had not only been a show of cowardice, but also rude to his friend who had invited him. While he sorted out and carefully put away the sweet dates on his sleeve, he sincerely hoped that he had been too drunk to care.

As if some high being up there had heard his wish and decided to have a laugh at his expense, however, just then he heard the sound of unsteady steps over the wooden planks of the porch behind his back. He swallowed, and turned around.

It was Pharazôn, who had abandoned the wine, the talk of battles and the courtesan´s embrace in order to come after him. The effects of wine were apparent in his clumsy movements, and yet there was an almost sober scowl upon his forehead as he fixed his eyes on his.

“You are hiding something from me!” he growled. So like Pharazôn, to skip over the bulk of boring proceedings.

Amandil withstood the accusing glance.

“Is there anything you would want to know?” he asked mildly, arching an eyebrow. The prince stared at him in puzzlement for some time, then shook his head with a groan.

“Did you think that you would steal all those dates without anyone noticing? And not only that, you drank almost nothing –such a good wine, it is, that is why I like to come here at all!-, and what to say about the women? You avoided them like they were those sea-monsters that crawl ashore once in a hundred years and take human shape! Those sar... ser... serpents?, oh, curse it, who cares how they are called?”

“Sirens.” Amandil offered, helpfully. Pharazôn barely gave him an answering nod, plunged as he was in his irritation.

“Whatever, there is some girl who has taken your fancy!” he declared with a violent gesture of his hands. “You cannot deny it, I have seen through you!”

The priest-novice´s eyes widened in suprise. Almost sober –indeed.

“I admit it.” he sighed, a bit incommodated, but unwilling to fuel his friend´s mood. With a bit of luck, he would later go back to the feast and drink ten more cups, and all he would remember the next day would be some kind of blurred haze. “Her name is Amalket.”

“A courtesan?” Pharazôn´s expression changed to a vivid interest. Amandil shook his head, almost insulted at the insinuation made about his beloved. She was so innocent... so pure...

“No! She is the... “Just as he was about to say “daughter of a captain of the Palace Guard”, he cursed his stupidity and interrupted himself. Pharazôn, now or sometime later, might start a campaign of indiscreet enquiries, and he had many friends in the Palace Guard. The last thing he wanted was for her father to learn of the affair in such a way. “She is the daughter of a well-to-do family.”

“Well-to-do family?” Pharazôn laughed. “And she is so cheap that she takes sweets stolen from a drinking feast?”

“Well, I do not need to buy her favours, you know!” Amandil growled, offended. “She likes them, that is all.”

“Is she beautiful?”

Accepting the abrupt change of subject as the closest to an apology that he was likely to get, he nodded.

“She is... small, and slight of build, but not enough to feel bones under the skin.” he muttered, losing his eyes in the distance. He had never spoken of her to anyone before. “And her skin is soft... “

Pharazôn snorted.

“You are almost drooling! I am worried about you now!”

Amandil shook his head. His friend´s flippant attitude was beginning to annoy him seriously.

“You say it as if you had any idea of what you are talking about.”

Pharazôn jumped at the insinuation.

“I have bedded dozens of women!”

“Courtesans.”

“And none has asked for payment!”

Amandil sighed. Another of the things about Pharazôn that he could not understand was how he could be so innocent about some things, even as he made a show of running ahead of his age in others.

It made him feel protective enough as to let go of his anger for a moment.

“You are a prince. Who would ask you for payment?” he explained patiently. Pharazôn looked puzzled again, though the outside air had cooled most of his drunkenness by now.

“If they did not want me, and wouldn´t ask for money, why would they come to me at all?”

“Fame. Status.” Amandil muttered. Sighing again, he relented. “And I suppose that your good looks must help a great deal. But the issue remains the same: you do not love them. Or do you?”

For a moment, it seemed as if the prince´s face was obscured by a passing thought. Soon, however, he shook it away, and shrugged.

Love. Why would I wish for my life to become as complicated as yours?” He gestured towards the door with his chin. “They will be laughing at you until next year, all because of that... siren.”

Hopeless. But then again, Amandil, who had known him since he was a little boy, had not really expected him to be otherwise. It would be long, if ever, until a woman gave his impetuous friend pause. He did not know what the word “waiting” meant, or prudence, or self-control – always rushing into things at the worst possible time. His life seemed to be led only by vital impulses, now here, tomorrow there.

A part of Amandil admired, and envied him for this. Another felt worried for him, at times.

“Now, what are you doing, planted there in the middle of the bloody yard like the bloody White Tree? Go and see her! What´s the purpose of acting foolish if you´re not even going to get any afterwards?”

Shocked, Amandil interrupted his musings to look at the prince. He was serious.

He blinked.

“So you won´t mind if I leave your feast?”

Pharazôn shook his head, as if his friend was some kind of idiot.

“Of course I won´t mind! In fact, “he added, allowing his lips to curve in an anticipating smile, “there is a woman waiting for me inside. While here there is only you sulking over your beloved... what's her name, and a cold breeze.”

Amandil nodded mechanically.

“I am sorry.”

“Whatever.” Pharazôn sized him over for the last time, then turned away with a snort. “She´s small and slight of build... her skin is so soft.... Disgusting!”

“If you say so. “Amandil muttered, wading through the mud pools in the direction of the other door.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

At that hour of the night, the streets were largely empty, except for some groups of revelers who sang bawdy songs and cheered as he passed them by. Amalket´s father lived at the other side of the hill, so the walk over wet pavements was long and impatient. Still, when he finally stood in front of her gates, his intent was mingled with a vague inquietude, and he tried not to think of what would happen if he was discovered.

With fastidious precision, he counted the windows several times before throwing the pebble. He had been through this before, but it was still a relief when a small head popped over the windowsill and a hand waved to him. Answering the gesture, he headed for the door, and waited.

A minute later –which seemed more like an age for him-, the door opened with a faint creak. A woman signaled him to enter.

As he followed her through moonlit inner yards, stairs and corridors, his heart was beating quickly inside his chest. Inside the house, everything was plunged in a deep silence, and the only sound that could be heard was his soft footsteps and the dull sweeping of the maid´s dress against the floor. He remembered the laughter, the loud cheer of Pharazôn´s feast where he had been a mere while ago, and a feeling of unreality seized his soul.

“My lady is waiting for you.” she whispered with a bow, turning away from him and leaving him alone in a dark corridor. Remembering his previous visit, he found his way easily through the shadows, until his hand grabbed the hard coldness of a bronze handle. He pulled it resolutely, and the door opened.

She was sitting on her couch. A white dress with blue flowers spilled its folds in a circle around her, as if she was one of those white roses that grew at the gardens of the Temple. Her skin reflected the glow of the moon, and as she turned a pair of joyful honey eyes in his direction, he almost felt himself go weak in the knees.

She had had that effect on him, since the first moment that they met. He still remembered that day, when he had been assigned to the Temple gates at a Festival celebration and a distraught young woman had addressed him shyly. She had lost her mother in the crowd –her mother, whose hearing was cursed so she could not hear people calling her-, and please, had he seen a lady who walked alone?

What had happened afterwards had been anything but logical. Somehow, he had found himself leaving his post against all rules, and searching among the crowd that approached the Temple from all gates for a woman that he had not even seen before. Bewitched by her alternate looks of distress and gratitude, he had not even realised the stupidity of his actions until he was confronted by the irate questioning of his superiors.

At his age, Amandil had known a woman or two –not nearly as many as Pharazôn-, but it was the first time that he felt as if he would be able to act against his own interests and against common sense, even knowing it, and do it over and over again. After so many years, he finally understood why Yehimelkor compared women to wine and said that both could be extremely dangerous to a man – but he did not even care that it was so.

“Hannimelkor!” she cried, impulsively throwing her arms over his shoulders. He relished in the softness of her embrace, and the heavy scent of perfumed oil.

The smells that she perceived, however, were not so pleasing to her nose. Suspiciously, she began sniffing at his neck, and a cloud came over her features.

“You smell of wine.” she accused. “Where have you been?”

Amandil sat at her side on the mattress, which gave way under his weight with a dull, chafing sound.

“I was invited to a feast. It was my best friend.... I could not refuse.”

The cloud became more ominous.

“Were there women?”

The young man was torn between an impulse to laugh at her jealousy and the fear that she would misunderstand. In the end, he settled for a harmless lie.

“Not a single one.” he assured her, touching the side of her face with a placating caress. “Just a lot of drunkards. And I would not have looked at them, anyway!”

“Do not go to feasts where there are women.” she admonished, relenting to his protestations. “They are all a bunch of hyenas.”

You cannot even imagine how right you are, he thought, remembering the courtesan of the sweet bowls and her taunting.

And speaking of sweet bowls...

“I do not know if they are hyenas, but they are as unfair towards their lovers as the Queen Ancalimë.” he replied, pretending to be offended. “I had been thinking about you all the time, so much that I had even picked something for you...”

“Really?” Her face lighted up like that of a child who was promised a treat, and she immediately became all doe eyes and sweet touches. “Oh, my dearest, I am so sorry for doubting you. What did you bring?”

Allowing himself to be easily convinced, Amandil produced the small bag of dates, and lay it upon her lap. She clapped her hands, and stared fearfully in every direction as she remembered about the noise.

When it became apparent that nobody had heard her antics, she picked a date and began munching on it with great relish. Amandil gazed at her as she ate, admiring how this  contentment increased her beauty, kindled sparks on her eyes and coloured her cheeks.

For a moment, he felt a wish to cringe at his own thoughts. If Pharazôn could hear them!

“Do you want any?” she asked, dangling a bunch of golden dates in front of his nose. He extended a distracted hand to take them, but she pulled it away.

“Only one.” she admonished warily.

“They will harm your stomach.” he muttered. She laughed this away, her mouth full. As a result of one of her movements, a small foot appeared under the folds of her dress.

Amandil swallowed deeply, and took it with both hands. Nonplussed, she leaned back, flexing her knees, and allowed him to touch it and cover it with a rain of kisses. Now and then, she tried to pull it away, giggling.

“You are tickling me!” she protested. He did not answer, his senses absorbed by the strong scent of oil, the softness, the smallness, the perfection.

Yehimelkor could say whatever he wished, he thought, in a small rebellious impulse. He had never enjoyed this. He did not even know that it existed. Compared to a single foot, all the treasures, the gardens, the running fountains, the halls, the assembled magnificence of the Temple of Melkor was nothing but dead and ancient dust.

From her feet, he then progressed to the tender flesh of her legs, even softer and warmer to his touch. Amalket opened them several inches further, and gathered the folds of her dress up to ease his task. It had been shortly after they met that Amandil had discovered, to his wonder, that a long education in the ways of propriety would leave no trace in her when they were together. Once they began their lovemaking, she only cared for pleasure.

As he reached her knees, she leaned forwards to embrace him, and both fell upon the couch with a soft thud. He bathed in the curves of her body, stifled her imprudent moans with his kisses, and allowed each moment of pleasure to stretch in time until time itself was a forgotten notion. Trembling and shaking, she buried her face in his chest, and cried his name.

Then, after it was over, both curled together, murmuring pointless endearments to each other. The energies of release had left their bodies in a furious whirlwhind, leaving nothing but lifeless limbs behind. One of her hands traced lazy circles over his stomach.

It was from this dazed state that a discreet knock on the door roused them much later. Amandil frowned in regret, forcing himself to stand up. The moon had already set behind the terraces, in a blaze of red glory.

“Morning is near.” he whispered to his lying lover, who grimaced rebelliously.

“I hate mornings!”

He sighed.

“Me, too.”

In regret, he pulled away from her, to step naked into the chill that preceded the dawn. Kneeling under the bed, he sought for his clothes, and began fumbling in the dark to put them on. Amalket propped her chin against her hand, and watched his every movement in pensive silence. For a moment, he wanted to drop them on the floor again; to go back to her, kiss her mood away....

Behind their backs, the door slid open, and an annoyed face peered from the crack.

“The birds are singing already. Five more minutes and you will have to jump from the window!” the woman scolded. Amandil nodded, with an apologetic look in his lover´s direction.

“I will come back soon. I promise.”

She handed him his cloak.

“The next time that the Temple opens its gates, look for Abila. She will bring you a message from me.” she mumbled, flustered. “I... do not forget!”

“I will not.” he assured her, indulging in a last, exploring glance that would allow her image to live in his mind until their next encounter. Her hair fell dishevelled through her back after their exertions, and its brown curls looked almost red under the faint glow of the approaching dawn.

It was so unfair.

“Be safe.” she heard her voice behind his steps, as he followed the servant past the threshold in quiet resignation.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

The pale brow was furrowed in an imperious frown. Even though the shadows were thick around her, he could easily distinguish the lines of her displeasure.

“You did not come yesterday night. Again.”

“I was at a feast.” he explained, not too apologetic. If he was to say the truth, he had been avoiding her for the past months, and purposefully missing many of their appointments. “With some soldiers and Palace guards, and my friend Hannimelkor. I... guess I was drunk afterwards.” he admitted, with a shrug.

Zimraphel frowned, her anger turning to curiosity.

“Really? Where?”

“At an inn, close to the Guards´ headquarters in the western side of the Palace hill.” Pharazôn, used to his cousin´s hunger for details, was as meticulous as possible. “We were many.”

“Was there wine?” she asked, leaning slightly forwards. He nodded.

“Plenty of it.”

“And music?”

“Yes. Banquet songs, drinking songs... all that.”

“And women?”

Her grey eyes were wide, devouring his with a strange, joyful ferocity.

“Yes.” he admitted. She laughed, and clapped her hands.

“That sounds fun! Did you bed any of them?”

Uncomfortable, Pharazôn looked aside for a moment. Through the window, a ghastly light was filtering through the twisted branches of the White Tree. The First Courtyard lay empty at that hour of the night, its grey pavement stretching beyond their sight.

“I did.” he muttered, in a low voice that rarely escaped his brash lips.

“Was she beautiful?”

Wanting to tell her that she should not ask him about those things, that this line of conversation was not appropriate, he turned a frowning look towards her. The words became stuck in his throat at once.

Zimraphel had that expression that he had soon learned to recognise as a signal that she was not willing to understand. Whenever he saw that dark glint in her eyes, he felt vaguely uneasy, as if instead of a frail woman he was facing the irrational, blind might of the Sea that had once been about to drown him in the Forbidden Bay when he was a child.

“Was she beautiful?” she repeated. He sought his mind for an answer.

Was she? A brief image of the luxuriously dressed courtesan crossed his mind. Then, he focused back on Zimraphel, on her face sculpted in ivory and so radiant under the pale glow of the night. Strands of raven black hair fell down her shoulders like a royal mantle.

Even though those features were sometimes twisted in an unholy expression, and the lips whispered words that made him shiver to the marrow of his bones, he always came back to her, like a common criminal who hid under the cover of the night, fearing that his secret shame would be discovered.

No, he realised. To call any woman beautiful in her presence would be blasphemous. As they all lay with him in bed, murmuring endearments in his ears, her shadow was floating over them, making them dissolve like starlight under the bright rays of the full moon.

Pharazôn knew that he was not supposed to have those thoughts about his cousin. But as much as he had tried to stop courting the danger, to get drunk every night and bed all the courtesans of Southern Armenelos whenever he was supposed to be visiting her, the curse still haunted his steps.

Sometimes he had wondered if, somehow, she knew.

“No. Not beautiful.” And then, before he could even think. “Just pleasant... skilled.”

“Skilled?” Her lips curved into a mischievous smile. “How, skilled?”

Pharazôn coughed, red to the tip of his ears.

“Good in bed.” he mumbled. “Let us change the topic.”

Zimraphel ignored him.

“Did she... kiss you?”

Pharazôn was unsettled by the mix of innocence and sensuality in her voice. To his further shock, her hands began to touch and caress her own body, in distracted and almost inadvertent motions.

He took a sharp breath. Should he leave, flee to his chambers like a coward? Or stay, and be driven to a turmoil of feelings, of actions that he would later have cause to regret?

If Hannimelkor could see him now! Just the other day, he had mocked him for his love for a city girl, but the truth was that any stupidity done for her sake would be less laughable –despicable!- than Pharazôn´s current situation.

“I said I did not want to talk about this!” he said, now more forcefully. Her face fell at those words, and her joy became sadness. She stared at her twitching hands, her composure crumbling in a matter of seconds.

“You probably think me so pitiful.” she mumbled, with a breaking voice. “But you do not know what it means to be alone. You do not know what it means to be imprisoned, a living corpse entombed between stone walls. Do you have an idea of what it is to be unable to know the love, the life that you so freely enjoy? That I, a princess in blood, a queen in beauty and a goddess in wisdom, am forced to beg for scraps of your tales and live through you?” she raged, her body shaking. “Ah, the indignity!”

The young prince stared at her. He had been witness to her capricious turns of mood, and sometimes she had been sad or angry, but never before had he seen raw desperation. A knot gathered in his throat, a cold grip that paralyzed his reactions.

He wanted to comfort her, to flee her presence... and he could do neither.

“Zimraphel...” he mumbled. Black, impulsive eyes sought for his, heavy with unshed tears. He felt something akin to a punch on the gut, and before he could realise what he was doing, he held her chin with her hands and kissed her.

Her response was avid and clumsy, very different from the expertise of the courtesans. And maybe, in an inner recess of his mind, also very unlike the evil temptress that had been built from figments of his imagination whenever he felt haunted by her image.

Then, realisation dawned on him, and he pulled back in shock.

“This is a crime.” he hissed. “The curse of the Goddess will fall upon us!”

She stared at him with disappointed, questioning eyes, as if she did not understand.

“Why?”

“We are cousins!”

Her surprise turned to livid rage.

“I do not care!”

He shook his head, and turned his eyes away from her. He had to withstand the temptation. He tried to imagine the ivory face at the altar twisting in fury, the sacred fire refusing to burn for him.

She was mad. Mad, or taken by an evil spirit. She did not know what she was saying- but he, he should know.

“Have a good night.” he mumbled, turning back to leave the room at a quick pace. A strange buzz filled his ears, his lungs screamed for air, and he was barely able to hear a strangled sound of pleading in the distance.

As soon as he was sure that he had left her behind, he pressed his burning forehead against a marble column. The fire quenched in the altar...

The sun shining on the hair of the most beautiful girl he had ever seen in the Palace gardens.

...the Goddess looking at him in fury...

Her lips trembling under the moonlight, and the fascinated, expectant touch of a warm hand upon his shoulder.

He shook his head, as if trying to free it from the turmoil of his own thoughts. His body felt hot, but it was not just the shame or the arousal. It was as if a spirit had posessed him.

For the following hours, Pharazôn did nothing but rush past halls, galleries, corridors and even courtyards, trying to outrun the shadows that followed in his wake. Anyone who would have met him, and seen the frenzy in his expression, would have recoiled in superstitious fear.

Never see her again. Never see her again., a voice – the voice of his mother?- whispered in his ears. Forget that she exists. Forget her beauty and her loneliness, my child.

And yet, in a dark recess of his mind, he knew that sooner or later, he would be back.

Chapter Text

Zimraphel stared at the singing whirls of water, her lips moving to form words. Her breath was soft, very soft, almost as if she did not wish for anything to disturb their secret language.

Behind her, rough hands were pulling her hair, turning her head left and right like that of a rag doll. Her limbs and bones were melting under their touch, like a fog, or better still like a viscous substance such as the fins of living fish when touched by human fingers.

“Am I allowed to love a man?” she asked. The hands stopped abruptly, and her hair fell again down her shoulders, tickling the back of her neck. For a moment, she was happy.

“Where... did you get such an idea?” a shocked voice inquired. “Did you read it in a book?”

She frowned again. Her hands tightened into knuckles.

“Am I, or not?”

Recognising the ominous note in her tone, Zarhil walked to her front, and stared at her in mute bewilderment. The water was invisible for her now, but she still heard its song in the distance.

“My child...” the woman began. Her features softened. “It is yet too soon to think of such things.” One of her hands caressed her cheek, and a feeling of repugnance took hold of Zimraphel as she imagined the rough touch marring the perfection of her ivory cheeks. “You are little older than twenty. Do you know how old I was when I married your father?”

The young woman shook her head, pulling back to flee the hand. She heard her mother swallow.

“I do not care.” she hissed. “I want to know if I can love a man.”

“You are too young for this conversation.”

Nervous, Zarhil turned away, and began to pace in circles in front of the fountain. After a while, she became self-conscious, and stopped to watch the flow of the water with her tense back to her daughter.

This reminded Zimraphel of a dream, where an old woman stood on a boat and she felt the burning anguish of loneliness. She shivered. She hated her mother´s back.

She hated her mother.

“Look at me!” she shouted, with a voice that erupted from her throat like a terrified plea. Zarhil obeyed mutely, and knelt in front of her with a look of pity and worry.

“My child...”

“I am not allowed.”

The woman shook her head, touching her forehead with her fingers. Zimraphel perceived her clumsy discomfort, and knew that she was right.

“One day, your father will be King.” she said, in an almost crooning tone. “You will be the Princess of Númenor, and you will marry...”

“... Father´s chosen heir.” she completed. “Who will be marrying a madwoman because the King made him to.”

The hand that touched her forehead froze. Zarhil went very pale, and Zimraphel smiled, feeling the capricious wish to gloat.

“You are not mad!”

“Yes, I am.”

For a moment, it seemed as if her mother would choke with the words that fought to come out of her mouth. Suddenly, she extended her arms, and gathered her daughter in a fierce embrace.

Her chest heaved up and down noisily, as if she was having difficulties to breathe.

“My child...” she mumbled into her ear. Zimraphel closed her eyes and stood still. It would not hurt her if she did not move.

Nothing would hurt her if she did not move, except water. Water would drown her.

“I love you.” Zarhil repeated several times, making no sense. “I love you, my child. I... I want you to lead a happy life. Only...” She let her go, and stared at her with a frown and a new determination. “And you will have it. You will have it, I swear, whatever I have to do to ensure it.”

Zimraphel twisted her mouth in disdain.

“You do not own my soul.” she stated. Zarhil frowned, momentarily uncomprehending, and then shook her head.

“Oh, my child! This is not what I....”

The young princess did not want to hear. She looked away, humming the song of the waters.

One day, they would not own her body, either.

 

*      *      *      *      *

 

In the beginning, there was nothing but dark and lime

Floating in emptiness

In the midst of it He stood

Alone; He, the great, the only

The Fatherless god.

None could boast of having sired Him

And none were His children

For He was perfection

And perfection is an end unto itself.

 

--------

 

One day, from the region of the deep currents She came

She, the impetuous, the ever-shifting

stirring, lusting, fulfilling

Queen of Desire

She fell in love with His perfection

And took His light into the shadows of her belly

 

--------

 

From this union, a child was born

He, the first, the only

The most beloved son

The Father laid a crown of light upon his head

The Mother spun stars in his mantle

He shaped the trees, the mountains, the endless plains

He called forth the animals, those that run, those that fly

And those which crawl upon the ground

He made the Sea, fish-kingdom, swift road for vessels

And gave it to the Mother, to honour the fruitful belly

Where he had grown.

She laughed in delight

And made his world her sacred home.

 

--------

 

He then created a mighty race of creatures

Fair but soulless, crafty but cruel

They turned against him, raised swords against their maker

And tried to steal his crown.

 

--------

 

In revenge, he created a second race

They were not fair or crafty

They were a swarm of bloodthirsty monsters

The terrible fruit of his wrath

They fell upon the soulless folk

And feasted on their flesh.

 

--------

 

For days and nights, he wandered

Through forests, through mountains and through endless plains

None could abate the fire in his heart

Nothing could take his mind away from their treason.

But one night, he arrived to the pearl-sprinkled shore

The silver light of the Moon fell upon her face

The Mother smiled

And his heart was at peace.

Then, he created a third race of beings

Who were, of all, the most similar to himself

They were strong, proud and brave

The great, the most beloved children

They lived away from pain and disease

And the secret of eternal life was theirs.

 

Amandil leaned back, holding his hands in front of him as he repeated the last verse in a low voice. The dusty scroll ended there; he could not help but feel relieved at this.

Yehimelkor had extensively commented on that poem in the past, the oldest heirloom of the temple of Sor. He had written things, too, some of which had brought him to clash with old and revered priests from the East. There had been much controversy about the creation of the Orcs, but the greatest matter of contention was the crude phrase: “And took His light into the shadows of her belly”.

This was an abomination, according to Yehimelkor. Would eternal Perfection be subjected to such a barely concealed sexual act? Would the everlasting gods feel human desires? It was absurd, nothing but the misled imaginings of an ancient priest. Eru had thought a beautiful thought, and the power of the Lady had made Him wish, for the first time, to admire and love His work from outside. That was the origin of the Great God Melkor, and to think otherwise one would have to be a sinner with a muddled mind. His enemies had argued that none of them had the right to question such an ancient text, and Yehimelkor had elaborated relentlessly on the differences and contradictions in the traditions of the different temples.

Amandil, himself, was somewhat worried about Yehimelkor, for he was aware of the fierceness displayed by religious authorities and the priest did not seem to care much about it. As for the rest, he did not see much difference between one theory and another. Or rather, he did in a purely rational sense –in spite of what the priest would say, he was not that much of a fool-, but there was a certain something in their disputes that tended to make him wish to dissociate his mind from them.

Maybe it was the fact that no one really seemed to care about the truth, just about what concepts would fit better. Once, he had dared to ask Yehimelkor if he was taking his theories from some kind of source, and had been answered by a look of disdain and one of those long lectures full of names and concepts that the priest usually bestowed upon his enemies. And then, he had been ordered to study all the lore of the Beginning as it was kept in the Four Great Temples, and other six or seven that were not so great.

He was aware that he was somewhat of a fool as well, for he disliked to think about those things that he could not grasp, and that, he knew in a corner of his mind, could get to make a terrible difference. At nights, when everything was dark and he shut his eyes, he could summon the face and loving glance of his mother, telling him marvellous tales with a soft voice. As a child, he had listened in awe to all those things that had really happened, so scary and so beautiful and so strange that nobody could have invented them if they were not true.

Would there also be such disputes, such theories among the Faithful? Would he have needed to learn them, had he stayed in Sor with his family, and would they maybe be less convincing than Yehimelkor´s devastating logic? He hated to think about this. No... he refused to think about this.

That was why, he knew, Yehimelkor made him learn those things at all.

The sound of footsteps and low voices interrupted the chain of his musings. Instantly, Amandil straightened up, and pretended to be muttering something.

Yehimelkor entered the room accompanied by another priest, a middle-aged man with pale skin and a bald head. They passed him by with barely a nod, though Yehimelkor turned back to address him in his way to his chambers.

“I will have dinner now. Alone.” he added, before he could open his mouth to ask.

Recognising the order as an unmistakeable cue to leave them, Amandil bowed to each of them and left the room.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Yehimelkor´s dinner was composed of soup, vegetables, and a strong black tea whose smell was enough to give Amandil nausea. As he entered the rooms with the tray, the elder priest had already left, so he merely left it at the table where Yehimelkor was reading.

A pair of penetrating eyes were slowly lifted from the page .

“Hannimelkor.” he greeted, as if truly seeing him for the first time. Amandil stopped in mid-retreat, and met his glance.

He looked tired.

“Have you been studying the books I gave you?”

Amandil nodded.

“Yes, Revered Father.”

“Have you said your prayers?”

“Yes, Revered Father.”

“Good.” Yehimelkor´s forehead creased in a slight frown. “You... should be allowed to take your second oath soon, I believe.”

Amandil took a breath. So this was what.... He was aware that his tardiness bothered the man, and yet for a while he had believed him to be too absorbed by his doctrinal feuds to worry about him.

He forced back the temptation to shrug. As if it was his fault. The High Priest and his council did not trust a priest with the blood of the Elf-friends, but if most of the times this gave him a feeling of relief, it was never without a small twinge of guilt. How he wished that Yehimelkor simply did not care! After all, he was nothing but the child of a disgraced lineage – who, as if his position was not precarious enough, was having an affair with the daughter of a captain of the Guard.

To think about that now only contributed to make things worse.

“I hope so.” he said, trying to sound as sincere as possible. Yehimelkor did not answer, and for a moment he was about to turn back and leave.

Then, however, the priest gestured him closer. Amandil obeyed, puzzled, though as he saw the familiar annoyed look, a spark found its way back to his eyes.

“Your hair is dishevelled.” Yehimelkor frowned in censure. Amandil knelt, allowing him to tie the knot back in place. He had the bad habitude of pulling his hair while he studied, and he always relapsed into it when unsupervised.

Looking slightly more respectable, and with the first feeling of warmth towards the older man that he had harboured that day, Amandil rose minutes later to go back to his books.

He had not even found yet the text he was searching for when a sound of knocking came from the door.

“You may come in.” Yehimelkor´s sharp voice invited. It was Elinoam.

“With all due reverence” he greeted the priest courteously, giving him a deep bow. For a moment, he seemed to hesitate, but when he opened his mouth again his voice was calm. “Hannimelkor´s presence is requested to guard the Fire tonight.”

Yehimelkor frowned.

“It is not his turn.”he said. Amandil regarded his friend with curiosity, and swallowed when he noticed that his left hand was fidgeting.

“The Second Rank Novice Abibal has been rendered incapable of his duties after swallowing by error the cooked flesh of an animal.” he replied with admirable aplomb. Yehimelkor sized him up intensely, and Amandil could not help but wince in sympathy. Not even he, who by all rights should be used, could always withstand that glance.

But this time Yehimelkor relented, and nodded in silence. Amandil stood up, ordering his books and folding the manuscripts with care. Elinoam bowed and crossed the threshold, but as soon as he was in the corridor, his easy-going demeanour crumbled to give way to a tense bravado.

“You owe me. Owe me indeed.” he muttered. Amandil stared at him.

“What is the matter?”

Elinoam laughed, but it was not a companionable laughter.

“You will soon have enough problems to worry about this escapade. Come with me.” Nodding, still with a lot of unanswered questions sizzling in his brain, Amandil followed him through the corridors, and swallowed a protest when he was taken past the altar and across the Great Hall to the gates of the temple. He saw Abibal staring left and right, looking obviously worried.

“Here. Come forth.”

From behind the shadows of the threshold, a hooded woman advanced with small steps towards them. When he was at a short distance from him, she raised both hands to take her hood away, and the anguished features of Amalket´s maid-in-waiting stared back at him.

“Something... terrible has happened.” she mumbled, falling to her knees. “You must help us!”

Amandil´s heart sank.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

“Greetings, my dear son.”

Pharazôn nodded in silence, feeling somewhat uncomfortable at the familiar soft voice. Melkyelid was sitting in the darkness of her room, her hair pulled in a multitude of small braids that mingled with the heavy folds of her blue dress. Kneeling at her side, two ladies painted silver flowers on the fingernails of her outstretched hands.

“Mother. You wanted to see me.”

The Princess whispered something to one of the women, who nodded. Then, her eyes trailed slowly over his countenance, as if taking notice of every slight evidence of his uneasiness.

“I have been hearing rumours about you of late.” she said, blandly. “They say that you have taken to drinking and reveling in taverns with people of low status.”

His chin shot up in indignation.

“I...!

“I understand that you need, now and then, to have fun, and experience freedom from pressure.” she continued, interrupting him. “Your father, for example... but he does not belong to this discussion. This behaviour has been escalading over the past months, and I fear the King will hear about it.”

Pharazôn shifted uncomfortably, mortified that his mother would say those things in front of the ladies-in-waiting. The women kept to their work, blowing over fresh paint without seeming to realize that they were at the end of his glare.

“I am not neglecting any of my duties.” he protested. Melkyelid nodded.

“And I hope you never will.” she agreed. Then, to his relief, she made a vague gesture with her still drying fingers, and the women left the room.

This relief, however, was short-lived. His mother´s piercing stare met his.

“I wonder if a secret love affair could be the reason behind your frequent disappearances.”

In the time that he needed to blink, Pharazôn forced himself to reason that it was impossible that his mother knew about Zimraphel. He schooled his features to look calm, and his lips curved in a disarming smile.

“And what if it was so? We all have our adventures.”

“Indeed.” Thoughtfully, Melkyelid gazed past the gold-painted lattice of the window. Her distracted look belied the intent in her voice in a way that Pharazôn had learned to be wary of since he was a child. It usually meant that she knew something else. “But.... you have been seen stealing into the West wing of the Palace.”

Pharazôn´s eyes widened.

“That...” He sought for an adequate response. “A lady... we were involved for some time.”

The Princess of the South frowned in concern.

“What is this? My dearest son, are you afraid of something? “She shook her head. “For all those years, I have prided myself on bearing a child who does not know what fear is.”

“I am not afraid!” Piqued, Pharazôn strode towards a chair and pulled it forwards, sitting noisily upon it. That woman could even play the King´s strings successfully, damn it. “And I have had enough of your summoning me like an errant child!”

Melkyelid did not rise to the bait. She studied her fingernails, which she still held spread to dry.

“Is it because you have been meeting with the young Princess of the West?”

The young man stared at her, thunderstruck.

How do you know that?” he demanded, even before a warning voice could yell in the back of his brain that this had not been the best reaction he could have shown. His mother took it as a cue.

“So you have.”

“I...” Caught, a fiery blush began to spread through his cheeks. Like the Middle-Earth panther, he defended himself through attacking. “You had me followed!”

“I did not.” Melkyelid replied, a little more forcefully than usual. “Sometimes, your cousin can be quite careless. She gave notes to my women, telling them to deliver them to you.”

Pharazôn´s anger gave way to alarm, as his mind began to review the implications. Did she know about...?

“This is none of your business!”

“No, it is not.” she replied. “And so I did not interfere. Of late, however....”

“What?”

Melkyelid shook her head with a sigh.

“Are you in love with your cousin, Pharazôn?”

The young man´s face paled.

It was not mere alarm or embarrassment now, but a feeling of dread that sunk to his gut like frozen lead. To hear the words that he had never dared to confront in his most private thoughts, there, in his mother´s lips, managed to drive the acute pang of shame home with deadly effectivity. It rendered him incapable of any other reaction than stuttering lamely.

Filth. Abhorred by the gods. Impure.

“I swear that I have never performed any dirty acts! I have avoided her for months! ” he cried at last, pulling the sign of the Hand on himself. His mother stared at him for a while with an unreadable look in her eyes, then her expression softened.

“Such words!” she snorted. “And I who thought that her... favours were slowly driving you over the edge.”

Pharazôn stared back at her in disbelief.

“How can you be so calm about it? And so crude?”

The Princess blinked.

“Nothing of what you said is anything that should make me nervous.”she replied. “And you have to be more than fearless to call me crude.”

“The Goddess is against it. She cannot accept such a...”

“How can you presume to know the will of the gods?”

Pharazôn looked at his mother with a newfound unease.

“This is... this would be incest. Surely you must know that!”

“Oh, it is you who does not know many things.” she snorted again. “You were not yet born when your crude mother lay on the stone floors of the Lady´s cave at night, waiting for any stranger to throw a silver coin on her lap.” Seeing the horror in his eyes, she repressed a smile. “It was there where I met a man called Xaris. He was a powerful king of Middle-Earth, the ally of the merchants of Gadir.”

“A barbarian?”

“Yes, a barbarian.” Melkyelid nodded. “A barbarian, who had more refinement, more wisdom, more power and certainly more books than many a Númenorean.”

Pharazôn´s shock increased, if this was possible. He stared at his mother´s wistful smile.

“Did you... “Obviously uncomfortable with the notion, he tripped over his words, “...talk?”

“Oh, many times!” she laughed. Finally judging her fingernails dry enough, she passed her fingertips over them. “Many men used to feel that we could give them the Lady´s blessing, yet withdraw their darkest secrets from her. The point is... “Serious again, she met her son´s eyes, “that he was married to his cousin, and had four children by her. One of them –a magnificent boy- now holds the sceptre of the barbarians in his place.”

Pharazôn shook his head, with so much vehemence that he seemed to be chasing away an insidious temptation to listen.

“Those are barbarians.”

“So they may be. Their kings think that no one else but their own kin can be high born enough to marry them.” Melkyelid gathered back her braids. “But  then, who are we? Our law states that no heir to the throne may marry outside his own bloodline.”

“Starting with cousins once removed!”

She shrugged in dismissal.

“A restriction unknown to barbarian men – but not to Elves, it seems. King Xaris thought that even after we broke away from their dominion, we still kept believing in some of their unearthly customs. Like that one about bastard children having twisted souls from the violence done to the marriage bond. Ar-Adunakhôr the Great proved this to be wrong.”

“There is nothing a barbarian can teach us about our own customs.” the young man sneered. Still, it was obvious that the possibility disturbed him, and the mention to Ar-Adunakhôr had made him think. Melkyelid kept pressing the soft spot with her skilled fingers.

“The Kings marry their own bloodline, both among us and among barbarians. And yet we have a restriction that, according to old lore, only exists among Elves. Did it come from our gods? Ashtarte-Uinen, the powerful queen, smiled on Xaris for all his life, and now smiles on his descendants.”

“What are you trying to do?” Pharazôn stood up from his seat, and began pacing along the room in furious strides. “Push me into my cousin´s bed? You, my own mother, who bore me in your womb? Doesn´t the... very idea fill you with shame?”

Melkyelid shrugged imperiously.

“And yet I care more for your sanity, my dearest son. I do not wish you to waste your life in despair, drinking in a vain attempt to forget the eyes of a sorceress. “She shook her head. “No! If there is any shame, then I will bear it. Tell me that you will forget her, and I will help you to. I will find the greatest beauty for you, make her love you and deliver her hand in yours. But if you cannot, then I will make you come forth, seize the object of your desire and win, like Ar-Adunakhôr did!”

Pharazôn stopped in his tracks, speechless. His eyes held something strange, as if he was considering her in a new light than before.

He shook his head.

“You...”

She did not speak or move. Words trailed away in his mouth, and he rubbed a hand across his face.

“I do not need your help.” he finally declared, whirling back and heading towards the corridor.

Chapter Text

“So, let me hear it again.” Pharazôn´s wild pacing in circles was beginning to make Amandil dizzy. “Your woman is pregnant?”

He nodded tiredly. His friend stopped in his tracks, and shook his head in disbelief.

“There are things for this, you know. Things to prevent a woman from conceiving. And they usually work.”

“Usually.” Amandil pointed out, mechanically. Their figures projected long shadows in the dimly-lit room of the royal villa of the temple, where they had snuck early at his urgent request. He almost regretted it now: Pharazôn was not being very helpful.

“Kill it before it is born”, he was rambling. “After only two months, nobody will be the wiser. There are people who do this sort of thing very...”

“No.” Amandil interrupted him, shaking his head. He felt his innards freeze. “I cannot do that.”

Pharazôn walked forward until they were but inches apart. He looked enraged now, as if the frustration he had been feeling had finally found a suitable target.

“And you think you have a choice?” he spat. “You are a priest of Melkor. You cannot marry at least until...”

“...I am sixty. And that with special permission, “Amandil recited. “I know that, thank you.”

“Well, then you should have remembered it while you were entering women without the proper precautions!”

Now, it was Amandil´s turn to feel rage.

“I did not enter “women”!” he hissed. “I entered her, and there was nothing wrong with the precautions we took! Do not make me repeat it again!”

Pharazôn barely blinked at this correction.

“Who cares why it happened?” he grumbled with a dismissing gesture of his hand. “It happened.”

“I care.”

“Where is she?” he asked, ignoring him again. Amandil looked down at his feet.

“At home. Pretending that she is ill because she does not dare meet her family for fear that they will notice.”

“So you have not seen her?”

“No. Too dangerous.”

“Then do not.” Pharazôn threw himself upon the chair next to his. “Do not go back to her. That should take care of the problem.”

Amandil was not able to prevent himself from raising his voice any longer.

“I will do no such thing! And she knows where to find me, anyway! She could raise a scandal!”

“Suit yourself, then!” Pharazôn shouted back. He leaned forward, livid. “As your bastard, the whelp will have a short and miserable span of life until the King hears of its existence, and you would only be expelled if you were a normal priest! And have you spared a thought for what her family might do?”

Amandil swallowed, forcing his fraying nerves to cool. He tried to picture himself following his friend´s advice, getting rid of his unborn child and going back to a life of prisons and prayers. Abandoning Amalket.

Something within him rebelled at the very notion. He felt an all-consuming, almost physical repugnance threatening to erupt in his stomach.

“You still do not understand. I love her. I want her to be my wife and bear my child.” All the unsaid words, all the suppressed fury, the anguish he had felt since the fears of a powerful man had first affected his life came to his mouth now, swift and easily. “They took my family away. They forced me to become a priest. They imprisoned me here, under surveillance and in perpetual fear for my life. They made me pray. They made me sacrifice. They made me renounce my ancestors, but they will not take this from me!”

Pharazôn´s anger had given way to shock. He stared at him wide-eyed, as if he was some kind of monster that had suddenly slithered through a hole in the ground. Slowly, in the light of those eyes, Amandil began to realise what he had said. Paling a little, he shook his head.

“That was... out of place.”

Pharazôn frowned.

“When you say “they”...?”

“No! It was stupid. I did not know what I was saying.” Frightened, Amandil realised that he was blabbering. “Please, forget it. I am not myself right now.”

The younger man nodded in silence.

“And yet you mean it,” he mumbled. “No” he cut him off, when he realised that Amandil was going to protest, “not that. But you are not going to leave her and the child.”

Amandil shook his head.

“I think... I feel it must be some kind of signal. It shouldn´t have been conceived. It was not supposed to happen, we knew what we were doing. She had taken the herbs!” With a sigh, he covered his face with both hands. “What if this was the will of the gods?”

Pharazôn seemed to mull this over for a while. Fortunately, he seemed more puzzled than worried.

“One would think the gods would have given it to you later, once you were allowed to marry. As things are, its very existence is a crime in their eyes!”

Amandil grimaced. Deep inside, he could not help but wonder if the gods who had sent him such a dangerous present were really the same whose laws threatened him now. But he could not say those things to his friend.

Could this... signal be telling him to run away, and leave the litanies and the smoking altars behind?

But, where would he go? It was madness. He would be tracked and killed, and his child with him. The more he thought about it, the less sense it made.

“If I did away with the child, it would be just as bad. It is a crime in religious law, just as abandoning your wife”, he elaborated meanwhile, trying to impress some part of his dilemma upon his friend in terms that he could relate with. “I am –supposed- to be a priest, Pharazôn! Even if I was willing to do that, which I am not, it would make no difference in the eyes of the gods.”

“So... whatever you do, they won´t be happy with you.” Pharazôn deduced, with a look of real bewilderment. It was probably a whole new idea for him, Amandil thought, that the gods could be angry at a man no matter what he did.

After all, Melkor had never refused his blessings to the royal family.

“Isn´t it such a coincidence that, of all the young men of Númenor, this strange thing would happen to me, who am forbidden to marry?” he wondered aloud.

Pharazôn stood up brusquely, and grabbed his amulet of the Hand.

“Maybe the gods hate you. They say your blood is impure, after all.”

Amandil was not offended. He knew that, too, only too well.

“Maybe.”

“I only know one person we could ask about this.”

Taken out of his somber musings, Amandil stared at the prince´s back.

“What?”

“She loves to be asked for help. But meanwhile, you must lay low and wait.”

“She... what are you saying?” Puzzled, Amandil stood up and sought Pharazôn´s face. His friend pulled away from him.

“I am not going to sit here while you die on me!” Pharazôn shouted. “If there are gods involved, they will have to be asked.”

“But...” Puzzlement became shock, and Amandil stared at his friend. What on Earth...?

“And preferably not by you.” Pharazôn added, turning away to stride out of the room.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

His eyes were fixed upon the flames, blindly mesmerized. The low rumble coming from his lips sounded like a prayer, but in truth it was long ago since he had lost the intricate threads of the litany.

His knees hurt.

Yehimelkor knelt before him, so close to the fire that his hands, pressed against the floor, had turned scarlet. The words fell fluidly from his lips, one after the other in perfect, flawless repetition.

After he finished the Third Litany, there was a brief silence. Stray sparks cracked in the fireplace.

“You may leave and rest.” the priest said. Amandil bowed to his back in mute gratitude and stood up, repressing a groan at the renewed ache in his legs. As he left the overheated room, he wiped his forehead with the back of his hand.

For a while, he stood watching the bowed figure through the door. Yehimelkor had not even moved, and he knew that he would probably stay there for hours. For the priest there was no pain or heat now, only devotion. When he prayed, he lost all notion of time and the outside world, even though he had been able to lift his glance for a moment and spare his younger pupil´s discomfort.

Amandil swallowed, and turned away. Cursing between his teeth, he wondered why it was now that every single show of goodwill from that man sprang to his mind in minute detail. For years he had complained, resented his words and his actions, his unreasonableness, his harshness, but now he was not even able to recall a reason why this should be easier for him.

He sat down, and proceeded once more to unfold the missive he had received that very morning. It was written in Pharazôn´s abysmal calligraphy.

 

Mother did not only agree to consult the Goddess about you; she also decided, after the rites, to help you. I can find no words to convey to you how important her goodwill is. The Princess of the South always gets what she wants.

As it turns out, the priests of the Goddess can marry under any circumstances. So, she spoke to the High Priest of the Forbidden Bay. She claimed that the Goddess wants you, and that this was shown to her in a vision at the main altar, so there was little else he could do but agree. Apparently there is a list of precedents and she knows them by heart, not to mention she is a princess. She also persuaded him to appoint her as messenger to the High Priest of Melkor, so she will be meeting with him shortly. According to her, he will be very glad of the excuse to have you off his hands, because of your family.

Do not worry about the King; he will raise no objections, though do not ask me how she did it. It is rumoured in the Palace that he is becoming more religious as years go by, and she does know how to play that card. The greatest remaining obstacle, according to her, will be persuading Yehimelkor, but this is something that you must do on your own - and soon. She bids you to elaborate on visions of the Goddess when you are interrogated. Do not tell anyone that you will be getting married: this must remain a secret, lest the King hears about it.

If everything goes well, you will be departing for the Forbidden Bay in a month, and nobody in Armenelos will know what happened. Make your arrangements with Amalket´s family, but do it in secret and, for the King of Armenelos´s sake, don´t tell them the truth. Tell them you are the son of a rich merchant or some courtier´s bastard and that you will send them money.

I am deeply loath to see you go, but she insists that it is for the best, and that you should be made aware of that also. In years to come, we will meet again in the army.

 

Amandil repressed a shiver, just as he had done that morning when he had skimmed through those lines for the first time. For all his life, he had felt bitterness at his forced imprisonment in Armenelos, and yet now that an unknown woman had taken it upon herself to change his life, he was not sure of how he felt about that either.

It scared him that a royal princess had decided to interfere in his affairs, and that she was in possession of his secrets. He had always tried to pass unnoticed, since, as a child, he had discovered that there were people who considered him dangerous just because of his blood. It scared him, too, that she had brought this issue to the King and the High Priest´s attention. That had happened already once, when another member of the royal family had contrived to put him under Melkor´s protection. He felt like a toy, bounced back and forth by the hands of strangers, until one of them slipped and dropped him.

But even worse than this was the unexpected turn of his life. He would have to leave Amalket and his child -and under what terms!- and relocate to an unknown place to become part of a different cult. Logic, cold and implacable logic, agreed with Pharazôn´s mother, of course: he and Amalket could never have married if he stayed in Armenelos. He was no mere priest.

And yet, what if the King ever heard about this? Would Amalket be in danger while he loitered in the West?

Could this be a trap?

Almost immediately, he berated himself for being childish. As if the King needed to get him out of the way to do what he wanted! He was nothing but one foolish young man, even if he had the blood of the Andúnië branch. He would never be able to stand between his wife and the King´s men.

And still... to leave her now, even if it was for the best, was a hard decision to make. Had he been demanded to fight for her, even if it was hopeless, he would not have flinched, but abandoning her! Would they, after all those years, be taking a family away from him again?

It will not be like that, he had tried, many times, to reason. It would be a temporary measure. Unlike Pharazôn –who nonetheless seemed to have been persuaded in this case, which said much about the danger Amandil really was in- , he had always known how to wait. If he became a soldier, he would come back to Armenelos, and then he would see her again. She was free to visit him, too, and even bring him their child once that he was older. Maybe, even, one day they would live together, after the death of the King.

And he would be going to the Forbidden Bay. From his studies with Yehimelkor, he knew that this was the most beautiful place in Númenor, the old Bay of Eldanna, where the ships from Valinor used to arrive in the past. It had been part of the ancient lands of his family. Maybe he would find some signal, some trace of their presence there...

He shook his head with a start. He should not be worrying about such things; not, at least, before the most pressing danger was over. If he wanted his loved ones to be safe, he should be thinking of what he was going to say when he was interrogated. He should be planning his strategy to approach Amalket´s parents, and tell them that he would be marrying their daughter only to abandon her before her child was even born.

He should be speaking to Yehimelkor.

Amandil shuddered, suddenly hot again. In the adjoining room, the litanies had faded to a soft, persistent whisper. He tried to imagine what the priest would say... what he would do when the boy he had raised asked him, in the name of a princess and a high priest of another cult, to let him go.

How would he take his betrayal?

The paper was crushed to a small ball in his fist, and he stood up. Trying to still his raging emotions, he poured a glass of water, and carefully tiptoed inside the room to leave it at the older man´s side. Yehimelkor did not even seem to notice.

Tomorrow. Yes, he would tell him tomorrow. He closed his eyes, and forced himself to concentrate in the blurry image of a dishevelled young woman, lying under her covers while she desperately waited for news of him.

Would she think he had abandoned her?

Quietly, he sat back on the table, and covered his face with both hands. He had never felt so exhausted.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Next day, as he had promised himself, he held back after finishing his lessons.

“I need to speak to you.” he told Yehimelkor, who surveyed him with a grave look.

“I thought so. You have been most inattentive.” He motioned towards the chair. “Sit.”

Amandil obeyed. He stared back at the man, trying to steel himself to deliver his carefully constructed lie, but his stomach sunk with the realisation that he couldn´t do it.

The grey eyes were deep and solemn, just as they had been that fatidical day near the fire altar. That day, Yehimelkor had revealed terrible truths to a scared child.

That day, he had saved his life.

Forcing himself to withstand that glance, Amandil began to speak. He told him everything, even about the baby he had vowed to protect by his silence. The words came quietly, steady and without a stammer.

“And this is why I request your permission to leave this temple.”

Only after he was finished, and silence fell upon them like a heavy mantle, he realised that his heart was pounding. He briefly fought the temptation to look elsewhere but at the priest´s paling face.

He swallowed.

“I....” he began. Yehimelkor cut him with an airy gesture.

“Have you thought of doing away with the child?”

Amandil froze in shock. Of all the things he had been expecting, this matter-of-fact suggestion might have been the very last.

“That would be a crime in the eyes of the gods,” he spoke resolutely. Yehimelkor shook his head.

“Of a minor degree than abandoning your priesthood for a dishonourable reason.”

Amandil needed a while to gather his thoughts, until he grasped the piece of information he had researched somewhere in the last, anguished days.

“From the third vow onwards. I have not yet made the second.” he reminded him with aplomb.

“They are of equal degree, then,” Yehimelkor insisted. Amandil blinked. He was not used to this man discussing religious things so directly, without longwinded arguments or quotes. “So you have a choice between betraying me, dishonouring your priesthood, abandoning the God, placing yourself in mortal peril, or that... woman and her child.”

The young man stood his ground, feeling a familiar anger gather its warm coils over his chest at the contempt in the priest´s voice.

“I choose that woman and her child.” he replied, more forcefully than he had intended to. Yehimelkor paled even more. He looked almost like a corpse now.

“Go, “he muttered. “Leave my quarters.”

Only then, Amandil realised what he had said. He knew it was too late, but he still attempted to explain.

“I mean...that I....”

The eerie calm that had been present in Yehimelkor´s voice up to that moment dissolved in a rush, as the priest´s features creased in rage. Amandil had never seen him with so little self-control.

“Leave my quarters!” he yelled.

Miserably, and without looking back, the young man obeyed.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

It was Elinoam who took him in for the night: the priest he served had vigil duty, and his rooms were empty. Lying on a blanket and feeling miserable, Amandil told him what had just happened.

“I understand his reaction,” the young man muttered, staring at the courtyard through a small window. Amandil frowned.

“Oh, I do not mean that you shouldn´t follow the commands of the Goddess, if she calls for you, or that you shouldn´t protect... you know.” Elinoam elaborated vaguely as he noticed his expression. “But for him, this is a dishonour. A very great dishonour.”

“It´s not his fault,” Amandil grumbled, feeling his resolve teetering over the edge again. His friend shook his head.

“You are under his responsibility. As far as anyone here will be concerned, it is.”

“Thank you.” Amandil forced himself to curve his lips in a sardonic smile. “You made me feel much better.”

“Just so you know,” Elinoam replied, walking away from the room.

His disapproval at how he had handled the conversation was obvious, and Amandil wondered, crossly, if he had expected him to fall on his knees begging for forgiveness instead. He had not been allowed to explain, he had been told to leave the room, and therefore, he had left.

What else could he have done?

He wondered if a furious Yehimelkor could turn into a danger for him. Would he tell? Somehow, he could not imagine him doing so, and yet there was something else, something just as terrible -what if he did not give his permission?

Pharazôn´s mother had been right in thinking that Yehimelkor would be the greatest obstacle. Even with two High Priests and a royal princess against him, Amandil could not imagine him cowed or intimidated. He had not even been afraid of the King, back when he took him under his wing.

Or perhaps he would be too proud to keep someone who didn´t want to be with him anymore?

He buried his face on his pillow. Why? That man had been like his father. Would they have to be enemies, after all? Would they end by hating each other? He could not imagine such a thing, after so many years.

So you have a choice between betraying me...

I choose that woman and her child.

He cringed. Maybe Elinoam had been partly right: his wording had been anything but adequate. And yet, he had never been very good at hypocrisy. Yes, this was a betrayal, pure and simple -he did not know how to disguise the fact, and even had he known it, he was not sure he could have managed.

After all, he had been told to lie to him and he had not been able to do that, either.

“King of Armenelos,” he muttered. He had rarely addressed Melkor in his personal prayers, partly because Yehimelkor had taught him that it was a great disrespect to burden the gods with personal issues, and partly because the instinctive revulsion from his childhood had never died completely. Still, in this case, he knew that if there was a divine entity who could sway that priest´s inflexible mind, it had to be him. “Lord of the Island, make his anger at me abate. Let me talk to him one last time.”

Only belatedly, he realised he was begging a favour of the god whose service he was about to leave forever. For all those years he had been able to scoff at the ideas of divine punishment, but in his present situation he found that he was afraid to risk it.

He closed his eyes, and tried in vain to find sleep.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

The two following days passed by in a slow whirl of incertitude. Even while dreading the summons, Amandil was worried that they would not come, and Yehimelkor had not made any attempts to meet him after their conversation. At nights, he was visited by the old childhood nightmares, filled with fuming altars and flames and waves, but this time it was not him who drowned or fell to their devouring heat, but a mysteriously silent baby.

On the evening of the second day, he guarded the Fire in silence, wondering where he was going to sleep that night. As his time drew to a close, he bowed thrice, greeted his successor, and stood up to walk down the dark and empty hall.

“Hannimelkor.”

Startled out of his bleak thoughts, he turned back in the direction of the familiar  whisper. Yehimelkor was standing at the side of a column, arms crossed under his white robes as he watched him with an unreadable expression.

Amandil approached him cautiously, trying to restrain his excitement. He did not know what the man wanted. Maybe it had been a mistake...

Maybe, even now, he was not there to give him an opportunity to explain.

“Follow me.” the priest ordered, walking past him in the direction of the corridors. Amandil obeyed, his heart beating in his chest.

After a while, he realised that they were heading in the direction of Yehimelkor´s quarters, where he had lived for the past thirteen years. A good sign, he thought, searching his mind frantically for the most appropriate way to profit of this second chance.

Once they were back in the old sitting-room, however, face to face over the small wooden table, Yehimelkor did not seem to want him to talk. He silenced him with a curt gesture, even before his lips had managed to form the first word.

“You may wish to know that I was summoned this morning by the High Priest to discuss you case,” he said, flatly. And then, in a slightly lower voice, “I gave my permission.”

Amandil looked up, disbelief and joy dawning on his face. Of all the things he had been expecting...

“Thank you very much! I...”

“Do not thank me.” Yehimelkor cut him off again. His back, his neck and even his hands looked as rigid as wood, and he shook his head. “I did not do it for you. Look!” Amandil followed his glance, and found himself staring at the fire. Confused, he tried to read its capricious movements in search of an answer, but he had never been any good at those things.

“Revered Father...”

Yehimelkor ignored him.

“Have you ever heard anything about my lineage?”

Amandil nodded cautiously.

“Yes. You belong to the long-lived line of the Kings of Númenor.”

“I am a descendant of the Lady Alashiya. Do you know who she was?”

Amandil frowned, doing his best to summon his recollections. Alashiya...  no matter where he sought, the name meant nothing to him.

“I... am sorry,” he muttered, feeling as if he was an errant student again. Yehimelkor merely waved it away.

“She is not known by many. For all her life, she was an obscure character, who hid in the shadows and betrayed her most sacred obligations in order to survive.” Surprised, the younger man could do little but stare. He wondered if this could be the start of some kind of unflattering comparison. “She was the sister of the Lady Alissha - that name is less unfamiliar to you, I see.”

Indeed, Amandil had heard about Alissha. Even though her memory was cursed, there were few in Númenor who did not know about the ambitious cousin of Ar-Adunakhôr, who tried to usurp his throne with the help of many landholding nobles of the provinces and the Elf-friends. She had even gone as far as to pronounce herself Queen, only to die in a faraway prison years later.

Amandil knew, also, that Ar-Adunakhôr and his descendants had accused his own family of being in league with the usurper.

“When she realised that her sister was going to lose, Alashiya left her side. She married a lesser man, a man who had been unfit to even glance at her beforehand, and had his children. Because of these actions, Ar-Adunakhôr did not see any threat in her, and she was left in peace.”

The young man glanced at the priest, his troubles momentarily forgotten by this revelation. Only after a while, he realised that Yehimelkor was holding back, as if expecting him to say something.

“I had no idea,” he offered, not very cleverly. Yehimelkor´s eyes devoured his face.

“What do you think of her, Hannimelkor?”

Amandil shifted in his chair, uneasy and annoyed at the same time. He had a vague idea of how the stories could be linked.

“I...”

“What do you think of her?” The question was repeated, almost in anger.

This time, Amandil rose to the bait.

“She was a coward. I am not.”

Yehimelkor did not flinch.

“And yet you both betrayed your obligations.”

“Our obligations?” Amandil fumed, standing up from the chair and throwing caution to the winds. “I did not ask for that child! And yet it came, and now I have an obligation towards it, too! It is mine!”

“And that is the question.”

It was a low whisper, and yet it gave Amandil pause.

“What?”

“Alashiya was a traitor,” Yehimelkor continued, but there was a little more feeling in his voice now. “And yet she had children, and her children had children, and now, I am here, alive. Her lineage is alive.”

“Your lineage, just like mine, has been judged by men, and condemned by them. However, the gods hold their own counsel, of which we can only perceive an imperfect echo with all our prayers and visions.”

He had fallen back to his old, didactical tone, the same with which he had explained to a bored child everything about omens and divine volition. Any belief Amandil might have held that he was understanding the point of the conversation died in renewed confusion.

“What does that mean?” What do you mean by that? was what he truly would have asked, but for once he had the wits to choose the less confrontational answer.

“The gods do not wish your lineage to die. For what reason ever, they are challenging the King´s decision, and so must I. However,” he interjected swiftly as he saw Amandil´s mouth open to say something, “you are still a betrayer. Our ties are broken, and I advise you to respect this notion. A great disaster is in store for you if our paths ever cross again.”

Amandil´s dismay should have been deep enough to show, etched in every line of his face. He stared at Yehimelkor as if it was the first time he saw this thin, heavily-robed figure evaluating him with a harsh and regal look. As if it was the first time that he felt the sense of perfect righteousness, the sense of clear finality that emanated from the priest´s voice and gestures whenever he felt backed by the mighty wisdom of the King of Armenelos.

Then, Yehimelkor´s right sleeve fell back a little, and he saw the dark shadow of blood. Before he could even blink, or swallow a sudden anguish that gathered in his throat, it had disappeared under the white folds.

It was over. Of all the words he could say, of everything he would have wanted this man to know, Amandil knew that none would be heard. He was being told to leave the rooms where he had studied heavy books, knelt day after day in front of the fire to pray, and woken up at nights to see a familiar light burning in the adjoining rooms, as the austere priest kept his watches.

He could not ask him to understand. He could not tell him that he was sorry, for it had been his decision to make. He could not ask for forgiveness, for the God, as it appeared, had spoken.

And still, he realised with a jolt, there was something that he could say. Swallowing deeply, he sank to his knees on the floor, and bowed thrice.

“I, Hannimelkor, thank you with all my heart for everything you have done for me,” he recited, in a strong, ringing voice that he fought to keep steady. All of a sudden, he found that his awkwardness was gone, and everything he wanted to say fell from his lips easily. “You saved me, took me, taught me, named me, and let me go. For all those things, my gratitude is as deep and boundless as the ocean.”

An unreadable emotion crossed Yehimelkor´s eyes, briefly warming their steely coldness. He gave him a tight nod.

“I will pray for you.” he said. And with this he turned back, and walked inside his rooms with the silent irrevocability of a High Priest after a sacrifice.

 

Chapter Text

He barely heard the mutterings behind his back as he took three sips from the cup of blue glass. Mutely, he handed it over the tray, and her pale hands trembled a little under the veil as she took it from him.

Amandil gazed behind the shadows, trying to read the expressions of the man and the woman who sat there, watching their daughter drink. Not to his surprise, they were frowning.

It had been Pharazôn, the last person in Númenor he would have asked for that kind of advice, who had told him to enter their house proudly and not put himself down. They had been very vocal at first, and even threatened to have him killed, but eventually they had come round. He was not sure if it had been because they had understood his situation, because Amalket had sworn to her mother that she would spread the rumours of her pregnancy herself if they refused their consent, or because of the liberal amounts of gold he had offered them. As planned, he had promised he would send further quantities, through “a friend” who was “a distinguished associate” of “his family of Gadir.”

Belatedly, he had realised that he owed Pharazôn so many things now– not least his wedding, and maybe even the life of his child.

The hardest to manage had been Amalket´s father, a tall and strong man who believed himself to have influence in Armenelos, even though, as a guard, he was not even allowed to cross the inner threshold of the Palace. He also believed that his daughter could have done much better than some foreign merchant with a hawkish nose. Even after they had struck the agreement –shamelessly enough- he had continued with his threats.

“I have friends among the soldiers of Sor.” he had said, surveying him with a particularly scathing look. “If you are doing this only to run away – believe me, you will only reach the shores of Middle-Earth as a rotten corpse washed upon the shore. Am I making myself clear?”

“Perfectly clear”, Amandil replied, putting the restraint he had learned in the temple of Melkor to use. “You seem to think I would have needed to pay you a good bride price and marry your daughter in order to escape.”

The suspicious look in the man´s face was barely altered by this logic.

“Maybe not. However, you may yet change your mind.”

“I am not letting go of a career of brilliant prospects at the Temple of Melkor just in order to change my mind”, Amandil retorted, with an appropriately offended voice. This statement seemed to infuriate his father-in-law even further.

“You dare complain? My daughter has been forced to let go of brilliant marriage prospects because of you!”

Their eyes met, and Amandil´s grey held a hard glint.

“I am not such a bad prospect.” he said. To his surprise, the words came to his mouth with a natural pride, not with the forced bravado that he had envisioned himself using at his friend´s advice.

It even gave the other man some pause.

“You...” he muttered, pacing in circles.  For a while, he kept opening and closing his mouth as he wondered how best to put it. “You are a merchant.”

“Yes, I am. And in the colonies of Middle-Earth, there are no other nobles than us merchants. Once I am discharged from the Bay, she will be held in great honour there.”

All this had not stopped them from frowning even at the very night of the wedding. But soon, at least, he would not have to care about that.

Slowly, he tried to relax. The room was dark and quiet, lighted by a few, scattered perfume candles. Only a small wooden statue of the Lady, painted in light colours and dressed in finery, presided over their wedding with a vague smile upon her lips.

“Well. “A woman´s pointed cough broke through the tense silence, and they put the cup back on the table. “Now, she is your wife.”

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

After all the stolen nights they had spent in that very place, breathlessly listening for the barest sound of footsteps, the faintest flutter of robes, it was strange to sit there now with all lamps alight, upon a bed that smelled of perfume.

Amandil saw Amalket discard the veil, and turn a nervous smile in his direction. Her cheeks were covered in a soft blush, but she kept gazing at the bed with the same discomfort that he felt.

“This...” she whispered after a long, incommodating silence, “does not feel natural.”

He laughed, as if her words had been some kind of cue to give free rein to his own emotions.

“Right now, I would feel more comfortable if I could breathe some fresh air.”

She smiled, and nodded.

“It can be done.”

Her mother and the servant were waiting in the corridor, and they stared at them in shock as they passed by, hand in hand, heading for the backyard. There, they lay on the moonlit porch, next to a fountain whose running waters soothed the nerves that had been tight with worry for so long.

“The moon will be full in a week.” she mused aloud, laying her head upon his shoulder. Locks of oily, scented hair had escaped the tight lines of her headdress, and tickled the skin of his neck.

He looked at her belly. The curve of the stomach under the saffron robes was as slight and graceful as ever. Only the sollicitous hand that stroked it as she watched the skies bore witness to the presence of his baby in her womb.

“Do you really have to go?”

Amandil froze.

“Amalket...”

Her hand moved until it was laid upon his, flawless skin contrasting sharply with the burns and scars of the holy fire.

“Shhh. Do not get me wrong. I know why you did it!” she whispered. “Believe me, I do! You did it for me. For us.” He relaxed. “But I wonder if... if we had just.... left...”

Amandil shook his head. Since he had chosen the path he would take, he had known that this question would come sooner or later – and that he would owe her an explanation.

“My family...” he began, then cleared his throat. “My family is not happy with me. I was consecrated when I was born, and if I lost my honour now and just –fled, they would curse me. I have to honour their arrangement and enter the Sacred Cave. “

As he said this, a part of him wondered if it could be more than one of those many well-crafted lies that he needed in order to survive. What would his parents, in Sor, think of his actions?

He had been a priest of Melkor for thirteen years, he thought, a familiar heavy weight sinking in his stomach like lead. Surely, if they had wanted to curse him, they would have done it already.

“And then, there is another reason”, he continued, forcing himself to return to the matter at hand. “I know I told you that it was just a pretext. Maybe this is even what I believed back then, but now I feel that the... Lady is truly claiming me.”

Amalket hid her surprise behind her hands. Amandil wondered why it was so difficult to elaborate.

“Some god brought us this child. There is no other explanation, “he continued, remembering Yehimelkor´s words to him in that last conversation. “A god that did not want me to remain in the service of the Temple of Armenelos. And then, the priests of the Lady decide to help me... I think it is a signal.”

If he had told her the complete truth, if he had said that sometimes he doubted that the high being who had seen fit to make their lives a mess was counted among the gods of the Númenorean people, she would not have understood. She would maybe have been afraid.

As it was, she looked at him in newfound awe.

“Do you think she is.... protecting our child?” Her hand stroked her belly with an almost covetous insistence now.

“Maybe. She could have planned something for its future. Or mine. We should obey her wishes, and see what happens.”

She turned back to gaze at the water, and slowly, her enthusiasm gave way to a thoughtful expression. When she looked at him again after a while, there was a tiny frown upon her forehead.

“They say that the priestesses of Ashtarte-Uinen are the most desired women in Númenor. I hope you are not thinking about that when you speak of obeying her wishes.”

Amandil´s eyes widened at her accusation, but not in offense. Since the news of the baby had first shaken their lives, fear and worry seemed to have banished any jealous thoughts far from her mind. It was as if a part of her had been lost, and now that he felt it come back again he realised how much he had loved her for it.

“Priests of the Lady are forbidden to bed fellow priests – and priestesses”, he informed. “If that regulation did not exist, the Forbidden Bay would probably have become a common brothel long ago.”

“I hear it is a common brothel already”, she argued, sulkily.

“Then, why don´t you make sure that you keep an eye on me?” he challenged. “You can travel there. See me whenever you wish. If you pretend to be a pilgrim and we are careful enough, nobody will be the wiser.”

All animosity forgotten, her eyes widened in pure glee.

“Really? I...I... of course I will go!!”

Amandil nodded, heartened.

“They say that the Forbidden Bay is the most beautiful place in Númenor. The realm of the Love-goddess. It could be nice to meet there.”

“Oh, just wait. I am going to have you expelled for indecent behaviour.” Suddenly, she whipped around and kissed him. He leaned forwards, kissing her back.

When the kiss broke, her wedding headdress had fallen, and a more familiar light was beginning to set her features ablaze. Amandil had to swallow deeply – was this the reason why he had chosen that path, after all?

“I... am sorry that I have to leave so soon”, he muttered, not really knowing what he was saying. “I would have liked... I would have preferred....”

“I know.”

“I will send you money.”

She laughed, pressing her body against his.

“People will think I am some nobleman´s mistress.”

For a moment, a distant sense of alarm gave him pause, but it was drowned under a cascade of more immediate sensations.

“And what will you say to that?” he muttered between kisses. Her clear laugh rang in his ears again.

“I will make them terribly envious with stories about a handsome and mysterious rich man of the colonies.” she said. He felt himself relax, and laughed back at the purposeful silliness in her voice. “I hope the child looks like you.”

“Do you?”

Amandil had never seen himself as handsome. Most people stared at him and decided that he had to be some kind of foreigner, if not something worse, and his friend Pharazôn´s looks could outshine much better looking men than he. And then, of course, Yehimelkor would have scolded him for thinking of his personal appearance...

A small pang of sorrow made him wince. It would take long, to get used to the priest´s absence. It would take long to get used to so many things.

The departure was scheduled for next week.

“Is something the matter?” Amalket whispered, giving him a worried look. Some of his thoughts, it seemed, had been reflected in his face.

He shook his head in dismissal, and proceeded to bury his face in her pale neck with a renewed, almost desperate hunger.

“Nothing.” he groaned, as he felt his wife´s hands start to fumble with her clothes.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

“So you are leaving.”

The moon had set in a blaze of red behind the slopes of the Meneltarma, and the city of Armenelos lay in the quiet darkness that preceded dawn. In the gardens of the royal temple villa, the song of night birds was already beginning to fade.

The traveller stared in disbelief at the cloaked figure that stood in front of him.

“I cannot believe that you actually came.”

The figure made a gesture of impatience.

“But of course I came! My friend is leaving Armenelos for good, and you think I should have stayed in bed?”

Amandil shook his head, but did not speak. After a moment of slightly awkward silence, it was the other young man who spoke again.

“I am going to miss practicing swordsmanship with you.”

A faint smile.

“You are not going to improve at all without the challenge.”

“You think so?” Pharazôn furrowed his brow, but suddenly his face lit up, and his eyes sparkled with mischief. “I will just have to travel to the Forbidden Bay myself, then. Now, that would be an idea! I have heard they have the best priestesses in Númenor and the colonies... why, they told me the High Priestess can even...!”

“Now, now, stop making me jealous.” Amandil interrupted him before he was subjected to a detailed description of one of his new superiors´s sexual prowess. “I will not be able to bed any of them.”

Pharazôn rolled his eyes.

“Because of your wife?” he guessed. His friend shook his head.

“Because of the rules of the sanctuary.”

The mocking expression turned, after a moment, to pity.

“Oh. Well.”

Amandil shrugged. For a while, again, both struggled against the weight of silence, closing their mouths when the words didn´t come to them. A breeze blew through the trees, stirring the lighter branches with a long, smothered hiss.

This time, it was Amandil who spoke first.

“I...” He swallowed. “I cannot possibly thank you enough. Everything you have done, making this marriage possible, providing all that gold...”

Pharazôn shook his head, with the slightly impatient, regal air that would come only to someone used to hearing similar words all the time. Amandil hoped that the darkness would hide the red in his face.

“Stop that! You are my friend. “The prince smiled. “And I prefer it when you are being grumpy.”

The blush in Amandil´s face became even more pronounced. He took a long breath.

“There are no words to convey how this is embarrassing to me... but after all you have done, I still must ask something else of you.” His arms were crossed over his chest, and he glared at his companion. “Stop laughing!”

“What is it?” Pharazôn asked, the supressed smile still twinkling in his eyes. “Do you want me to keep your wife satisfied in your absence?”

Amandil did not even bother to make a reply. After knowing him for such a long time, he was aware that this was Pharazôn´s idea of a way to ease the tension.

“No, it is...”Their eyes finally met. “Will you protect my child? I am in no situation to do it myself, and I fear....”

“Oh, please. Do not tell me that this was what all the fuss was about.” The prince shook his head in disbelief. “As if I was not going to do it already! “For a moment, he seemed to sober, and his eyes took a steely glint. “May the King of Armenelos and the Lady of the Forbidden Bay rip my soul to pieces if I ever let any harm come to your child while I live.”

Amandil nodded in silent gratitude. The sounds of the first conversation had broken somewhere in the nearby streets of the Eastern Hill.

“I am now completely in your debt, then.”

“Yes, yes.” Pharazôn waved it away again. “I hope it is a boy. A good fighter, like his father. I need men if I am ever to conquer Middle-Earth.”

Amandil thought about that for a moment.

“I would prefer that, too. I will be so far away, and a girl... somehow, seems even more vulnerable.”

His friend stared into the distance, searching for the first rays of light.

“Yes, they seem so.... “His voice trailed away, just as a strange expression flickered over his face, and he shook his head as if to dislodge a nagging thought. “But dawn is here. Come on! You should be going now.”

Amandil nodded, and arranged the folds of his cloak. The Morning Star was the only one that still resisted the oncoming onslaught of brightness. Beyond the tiled roof that encircled them, he could imagine the silent, majestic city of Armenelos stretching under the mountain, with its labyrinthic streets and colourful domes.

When would he see it again?

“Farewell, then.” he said, forcing his voice to ring clear and steady. “Farewell, my friend.”

 

*     *     *      *     *

 

It was almost summer already, and the colourful and fragrant spring gardens had been abandoned in favour of the coolness of the fountains. It was there, sitting under the shade of two pine trees, that he found his mother, and she smiled at him as if she had expected his visit all along.

He ignored her silent invitation to sit.

“I would like to thank you in Amandil´s behalf.” he spoke, meeting her amused, hazel eyes with his. “Without your help...”

Her laughter was as clear as the water spilling before them.

“Stop being so formal.” She shook her head. “I know how fond you are of him; I had no other choice than to do what I could for his sake.”

Pharazôn nodded.

“It must have been quite difficult to... speak to the King about this matter.”

“Oh, on the contrary!” she exclaimed, making a sharp gesture of dismissal. “I told him that you both had become friends, and that I would do whatever it took to stop that Western fiend from corrupting my only son. The Lady, in her infinite graciousness, had heard my concerns and sent me a vision. We both agreed that killing him for no reason after thirteen years of public service in the Temple would be... unadvisable. Especially when he is under the protection of that phenomenon – what was his name?”

His son stared at her in disbelief.

“You told him that?”

“Why, of course! What would you have done, go to the King and ask him to please help your dear friend?” She shrugged, somewhat disappointedly. “You have the subtlety of a three year old.”

A spark of indignation flickered in the young man´s eyes, though it was quickly replaced by an inquiring stare.

“I suppose I should wonder if what you told the King was true.”

Melkyelid sighed.

“You seem to have lost all trust in me. Even though I do nothing but help you, over and over again.”

Pharazôn looked a little guilty at this. He shook his head violently.

“I also have been in communication with your cousin once again.” she continued, changing the subject. “She gave me something for you.”

“Stop your... your meddling!”

Melkyelid´s eyes narrowed.

“You did not mind my meddling when you needed it to help your friend.”

“That was...” He looked lost for a moment, then forced himself to adopt a deliberately polite tone. “Please, do not interfere in my relationship with the young Princess of the West. This is my business.”

“And what if she is careless enough as to come to me?”

Curiosity made a dent in Pharazôn´s determination.

“Did she?”

Melkyelid´s lips curved into a smile.

“She did. And she gave me this.”

In spite of himself, the young man leaned forwards as he saw something glint in his mother´s hand. His breath caught as he checked it closer. It was the most beautiful piece of jewelry he had seen in his life, if maybe not the most splendid. The gem looked like a large emerald at first sight, but it gleamed with the bluish hue of the Sea in summer, and the silvery material in which it was engraved had been wrought in the shape of small leaves, with a skill that surpassed that of the crafters of Gadir and Sor.

He swallowed, astounded.

“What the...?”

“This is something very ancient. I guess it is a family heirloom. “Melkyelid ventured with a delicate frown. “Any idea on why would she give it to you?”

“Did she say anything?” he asked, even more mystified than she was. The jewel felt strangely warm in the palm of his hand.

“Only that you might need it one day. But when I asked her why, she said that she did not know.”

Pharazôn shook his head. Zimraphel was as strange as she was unpredictable. Almost as he thought this, he experienced a shiver, and a familiar feeling of longing that he had been repressing for months now. He clenched his teeth, furious at himself for thinking of her when he had sworn to himself that he wouldn´t.

“She probably wanted to spite her family for some reason or other. She does that quite often.” he said, trying to sound casual and unconcerned. But he could tell that his mother, with her uncommonly sharp eyes, had noticed his inner struggle.

“I see. I would advise you not to wear it in public, then.” she said. “There might be... consequences.”

Pharazôn looked at her in outrage.

“I was not planning on... wearing this thing.” Its beauty was dazzling, and it felt so warm in his hand. Like her.

“I will put it in a box somewhere.” he decided, pushing it inside his robes and offering her a curt bow. Melkyelid smiled pleasantly.

“That would be a good idea.”

She probably had recognized his lie as easily as she always did. But still, she chose not to point this out to her son as he turned away from her, and left her gardens at a stormier pace than was strictly proper.

Chapter Text

It was midday when the gates opened. The sound of many voices singing in a choir wafted from inside the temple, woven into the gusts of sea breeze. An ocean of heads and outstretched arms immediately gathered round, threatening to drown a figure in fluttering robes of blue, whose silver crown gleamed with pearls in the sunlight. She was raising her hands in the air, both frozen in a gesture of petrified might.

Amandil watched the statue of Ashtarte-Uinen as it was rocked left and right, in its slow and laborious procession through the petal-flooded avenue that led into the sands of the beach. Thousands of locals and pilgrims pressed around, trying to touch an inch of the fabric of her dress.

In the twenty years he had spent at the Forbidden Bay, he had never yet been allowed the honour of carrying the statue to the sea for her trip, something for which he felt guiltily thankful. How did those priests avoid being crushed or suffocated by the mob was something that remained a mystery to him.

Above his head, the white houses of the outskirts shone, their front splendidly decorated with flower boughs and the sensuous scarlet fruits of the Goddess. Even further, the cloudless sky of the summer solstice stretched in an endless patch of radiant blue that matched the robes of the Lady who received the homage of her faithful Bay this morning.

Amandil did not know when or how this festival had originated, but he knew that it was ancient. It sank its deep roots on a legend, a tale of much older days when maybe Númenor did not yet exist, and the world was shrouded in darkness. The scrolls where it had been copied, kept at the Cave, spoke of how one of Darkness´s own creatures, a monstrous serpent of terrible and unpredictable moods  known as Yam, had once held sway over the seas. In rebellion against Eru and the world, he had plunged them in a perpetual raging gale, where no ship could sail, no fish could dive, and not even the Immortals could draw close.

In defiance of him, the Goddess had stood upon the shore, and stars pierced the clouds to shine on her crown. Their battle had lasted thirty years and thirty months, and its clatter could be heard in the far ends of the world. In the end, the serpent had been subdued, and Ashtarte-Uinen had become the Queen of the Seas. It was to commemorate  this victory that, once a year, a painstakingly carved and painted image of the Lady of the Sanctuary was dressed in all her finery, taken out by the priests, and put on a ship that drifted away from the shore.

Though it was too crowded for Amandil to see much in front of him, he felt the soft crunch of the sand under his feet, and realised that they had arrived to the beach. Now the multitude would disperse in all directions, and stand on the shore to watch the Lady´s departure. He remembered the first time that Amalket had seen this, how she had followed the boat´s trail with awed eyes while she took advantage of the crowd pressing around them to lean against his shoulder. Out of an impulse, he sought around him for the hundredth time, in search of a glimpse of soft brown hair and honey eyes.

He swallowed, wondering why he felt so disappointed. He had known, hadn´t he, that she would not come. Since the untimely death of her father, the force of circumstances had tied her to her frail mother´s side. And their son...

For a moment, he remembered the flustered face of a young, dark haired boy of ten, seeing his father for the first time.

“Hannishtart?” Amandil jumped as he heard the voice of the senior priest behind his back. “You are not supposed to be talking to the pilgrims when your duty lies in the Cave!”

A hungry, last look, carefully schooled into a vacant expression. A polite bow.

“I hope you will find your way from here, foreigners.”

He would be around twenty, now. A man, he thought, almost incredulously. Would he have joined the Guard, as his grandfather before him?

Distracted, he watched the crowd scatter across the shore, and walked towards the circle of priests who were preparing the boat that would carry the image. He knew better than to approach them and offer his help: he was barely worthy to be in the procession. The special goodwill of the Lady had granted him the first two of the five degrees he ought to achieve, but the higher priests here, just as those of the god-he-could-not-name-anymore before them, had not forgotten his lineage. Nor the fact that the rich lands in the West that were now theirs had once belonged to his family.

Still, he had to admit that, compared to the temple of the Great God in Armenelos, life in the Forbidden Bay was freedom. Beauty alone was truly worshipped in the ancient Eldanna: to tend to the Lady´s silk embroideries, her complicated hairdresses, the sorting of the precious offerings of rich visitors and the rare flowers, trees and plants of the sacred gardens were the only religious duties of the priests of the Cave. Asides from this, they were allowed to train in the military arts by a warrior High Priest who set enough store in being prepared for combat –even though his dangerous neighbours were now gone-, their practice only disturbed now and then by the crystalline laughter of the priestesses who spied on them.

The notes of a song broke around him, and Amandil knew that the boat was now ready. Together with the thousands of people who surrounded him, he watched how they set it free, and how, slowly and clumsily, it began to sail. The wooden statue leant dangerously to the left for a moment, pushed by the waves, then regained its balance. Sunlight cast dazzling reflections upon her crown.

Blinded by their light, he closed his eyes, and suddenly felt a strange sensation creeping over him. It was a pang of anguish, like mourning for someone that he did not know had died. The waves crashed behind his back, and he was sitting on that boat, his fist clenched over a rope as he forced himself to surrender to the mysterious, windless pull that took him away from the shore.

He blinked, and then it was gone. He was standing on the beach, and everybody around him was singing as the boat drifted farther away and, in spite of the winds and the currents, headed straight West.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

As he knelt before the Cave´s altar to replace the burning inciense, sounds of laughter and merrymaking reached Amandil´s ears from the distance. Outside this humid, secluded place people were feasting on the beach, eating and drinking until their bodies could hold no more. Once, he remembered wistfully, he had done it with Amalket – the only hour of unrestrained bliss that they had shared since their secret wedding had been full of drunken cries and elbows and the ocassional flying object.

Standing on top of her mountain of sacred boughs, the statue of the Lady loomed over him with her smile of frozen ivory. He left the silver casket before her feet and bowed to her nervously, as he would a living Queen.

Sometimes, he could not help but feel that such a magnificent being had to be alive in some form. Were those eyes, filled to the brim with silent acceptance, truly fixed on him as he walked away?

Almost at the same time, he scoffed at his own imagination. After all those years! The gods of Númenor despised him.

“Hannishtart.”

The whispered word broke the sanctuary´s spell of quietude, forcing him to blink his musings away. He bowed thrice, and turned back to meet the gentle face of a young priestess.

Nodding in silence, she moved towards the gate, and he followed her. Outside, the shadows had grown long, and the Sun reminded him of a great ball of fire plunging into the waves.

“What do you want?” he asked, as both waded past the closest groups of faithful with garlands on their hair. She walked slowly, as all priestesses did, with small and graceful steps, and he had to do a conscious effort to tame his long strides.

“His Holiness sent me to find you”, she replied, recoiling in horror as a flying jet of wine made a purple stain on her tunic. “He – oh, how I hate this!- wants to tell you something.”

Amandil frowned, surprised. It was very rare that the High Priest would want to speak to him; in fact, all the priests of rank seemed to make a point of ignoring him as much as possible. The Forbidden Bay was the centre of power in the West of the Island; politics were nearly as important here as they were in Armenelos. Anyone found consorting with the heir of the ancient neighbour and rival, convicted for treason, would not have a very bright future.

Back in the capital, Amandil had realized soon after his departure, Yehimelkor had been quite reckless to become his protector. Nobody in this sanctuary was willing to take such a risk, but after all that had happened to him in the past, for Amandil this had been a relieving experience more than anything else. He had no need for any more conflicted feelings.

The avenue that headed towards the temple where they lived was still covered in dirty and trampled flower petals. A cool breeze whispered on the tree branches, already obscured from sight as they reached the building.

Thanking his companion for her trouble, Amandil went to his room and cleaned himself thoroughly. He also changed his robes, and combed his hair –Yehimelkor had been right, it tended to be in disorder- before he finally decided he was presentable enough for an audience with the holy Itashtart. He knocked at his door, and waited with a swiftly beating heart until he was summoned.

“Enter.”

The elderly man was sitting on his desk, busy with some papers. In spite of the lines of his face and the grey of his hair, he still had the bearing of a warrior. The first time that Amandil had laid eyes on him, he recalled with a jolt, he had felt more affinity with this man than he had with the priests of Armenelos, but Itashtart –not unsurprisingly- had never wanted anything to do with him.

Until now.

Amandil knelt on the floor and bowed, keeping a respectful silence until he was addressed. He heard a loud rustling of papers, then, finally, a grave voice addressing him.

“Raise your head.”

He obeyed and sat back on his feet in the most comfortable position he could manage. Itashtart was staring at him, just as intensely as he crushed a discarded draft on his fist or shattered his wooden targets in arms practice.

“I will be quick and direct”, he announced, picking up a new document and playing with it in his hand. “There will be an army leaving the harbour of Sor by the end of the month, and our people are going to be on it. The King wants new temples to be consecrated in the vicinity of Umbar, to keep away the shadow of Barad-dûr. Abdashtart will lead them, and he has requested you to be on the party.”

Amandil´s eyes widened, and he had to forcefully suppress a start. Whatever he had been imagining, it had not been this.

“I had to agree. I have followed your arms practice, and there is no one here who is half as good as you are.”

The young man could not muster the wits to be thankful for this unexpected praise. He was too busy analysing this new situation.

Many years after he arrived to the Western sanctuary, he had to admit, his wish to travel eastwards had remained undimmed. Pharazôn had visited several times –paid his respects to the Lady on behalf of his family-, but he never brought anything more than the usual news. In the end, Amandil had decided to banish those foolish hopes from his mind, at least for the time being.

Now, however... A blind excitement began coursing through his veins. He would see Pharazôn, and Amalket, and his son. He would see the world. The prison that had held him for so long would be broken.

And yet...

“Thank you very much, Your Holiness”, he recited, trying to keep his voice carefully devoid of any emotion. Why had he been summoned alone? “I will uphold the honour of this sanctuary.”

“I thought it was me who was supposed to say that”, Itashtart remarked, but then waved his apology away in some impatience. “Never mind. You are surely aware that not many people trust you, here or in the East.”

Amandil swallowed deeply. So there it was. His glance became fixed on a dot of the floor.

“I solemnly swear to you that –“

Itashtart waved his words away once again.

“I know what you are going to say. You are trustworthy. However, it is not enough that you say it, you must prove it as well. And this is a good opportunity to do so.”

Amandil nodded in silence. He was beginning to understand. It was not only his fighting skills what had made his superiors choose him for this mission.

He thought he could guess the relief of the High Priests once that such a compromising novice was safely away from their hands, beyond the Eastern Sea, and maybe getting killed by Orcs or barbarians. This was their answer to the King´s manouevres.

He, once again, was right in the middle of it.

As he spoke again, he did his utmost to sound as thankful as he could, bowing several times and promising not to disappoint. Deep inside, he was convincing himself that he  should not care about what they thought as long as this would enable him to see his family, his friend, and the vast shores of a land that had meant freedom to him since he was a mere child who was taken away from his parents.

A strange feeling came upon him, so strong that he was almost forced to close his eyes. Could it be this, what that morning´s vision had announced?

“You may retire for now.” the High Priest dismissed him. He bowed deeply once again, then stood up and headed towards the door.

Out of an impulse, he broke into a run, causing two priestesses to shriek in surprise as he almost crashed against them. Barely stopping to breathe an apology, he pushed the door of his room open with a loud clang, and grabbed his sword. The weight felt familiar and comfortable in his right hand.

At night the practice grounds were usually empty, as it was impossible to see an inch apart from one´s nose. Amandil was not deterred. They said it was like this in the deep recesses of Middle-Earth, where Orcs crawled and waited for their enemies to wander off. Their eyes could pierce the darkness to hunt for flesh, and if he gave them a chance they would feast on it. The fact that he was a priest of the Lady would matter as little to them as it did to the holy Itashtart and his counsellors.

Thrusts alternated with parries, with a ferocity that would have sent a real opponent reeling against the walls. Amandil had no lack of those in the Forbidden Bay, and each one of them had fallen to his practice blade. That had not helped him make friends, either.

Many times, he had wished fervently for Pharazôn to be there, to face him with his unbreakable vanity. He remembered the boy in the Temple, the gleam of determination in his eyes whenever he struggled to his feet and demanded another round. The prince was also a true warrior, one who wouldn´t hesitate if fate brought him to the ancient enemy´s black gates. How he would envy Amandil for being sent where he himself had always wanted to be, into the thick of the battle!

No poisoned gift would have been able to daunt him, either.

“Hannishtart”, a voice spoke behind his back. Startled away from his thoughts, he froze and turned towards its source.

It was a young priest, about ten years younger than Amandil himself. He had been among those who engaged in arms practice daily, a pale-faced would-be warrior who held his sword too tightly and tensed his limbs too much. Amandil had floored him a couple of times, and after that the young man had sought less intimidating challenges.

“Eshmounazer”, he greeted him, putting his practice sword aside. “What brings you here at this late hour? The feast must be getting quite rowdy by now.”

“I was wondering...” He advanced a few steps, and Amandil could hear their echo in the growing darkness. “Have you heard of the... summons? The summons to the mainland, I mean.”

“Are you coming, too?” Amandil wiped his forehead, and looked closer at him. Eshmounazer´s eyes were brimming with some emotion. “I see. Did you come to test your skills before our departure?”

“Not really.” The dismissal sounded hasty, as he raised both hands. “I... knew you had to be coming, of course. They would not leave someone like you behind!”

“I am not too good at consecrating temples”, Amandil retorted dryly, thinking of all the problems that suddenly arose whenever it seemed like he might apply for the next degree of priesthood. “I am not holy enough.”

“But we are not going there just to consecrate temples! We will take part in the battles, like the others”, Eshmounazer insisted. “Even if we do not, the battle will be exactly where we are.”

And someone won´t be praying for my safety, Amandil thought to himself.

“That is so”, he replied. Someone was lighting the lamps at the other side of the yard, and under their light he finally saw the anxiety in Eshmounazer´s face. “Is something worrying you?”

“Why are you always so brave?” the younger man suddenly burst, unable to keep it to himself for any longer. “Nothing ever affects you. Not even the idea of...”

“... fierce barbarians and Orcs who will tear you to pieces and eat you?” The words echoed harshly in the night, and Amandil realized his rudeness. He had been remembering a child who had been alone in a temple, searching the darkness for signs of Orcs and Balrogs who would come to get him.

Orcs and Balrogs were said to be terrible, true, but here in Númenor the will of one man was enough to kill him. That threat was hanging continuously above his head, but it would never face him head on.

“Are you not afraid of them eating you?”

“Not if I have my sword”, he replied. That, at least, depended on him. “And you should think the same. Is that not the reason why you learned to wield it?”

“I never thought I would be sent to Middle-Earth! Maybe fight some rebels from Andúnië, but even they are gone now. Númenor is a peaceful realm.”

“The colonies are part of Númenor, too.”

“I forgot. That is where you are from, are you not?” Eshmounazer seemed to forget his worries for a moment to give him a curious look. “You would be... going home.”

Amandil thought of Armenelos, the home of his hidden wife and son and the man who would never set eyes upon him again. Then, he thought of Sor, and the prisoners who spent their lives in the upper floors of merchant palaces.

“Yes”, he nodded. “You could say that.”

“I see. I am... happy for you, then. See you.” Eshmounazer waved to him, and started walking towards the lights of the porch. Amandil watched him leave in silence, until the words that had been so slow in coming finally found their way through his mouth.

“Believe in your strength and your training. If you do that, you will feel much better.”

Eshmounazer stopped in his tracks. He seemed to think of this as he wiped his eye with the back of his left hand, then shrugged.

“It seems easier when you say it.”

It seems easier when you have been afraid since you were a child. Amandil smiled tersely.

“With the help of the Lady, we will manage”, he said, waving at his companion´s retreating figure. Then, he knelt to pick back his sword, and resumed his thrusts with renewed ferocity.

Chapter Text

They were to leave the Forbidden Bay at dawn, when the town was still asleep and the roads empty of pilgrims. Before the first light had pierced the shadows of the eastern sky, the departing host assembled at the candle-lit Cave, to sing hymns to the Goddess with wreaths of flowers upon their heads. Amandil´s voice joined the rest, and the sound coming from two hundred throats echoed powerfully within the stone walls.

The Lady stood above them, atop her pearl-incrusted moon and the mountain of green boughs of return. She did not seem to be looking at him as she usually did, maybe because the fumes of incense obscured her face. Or maybe because no ship would bear him back, the dark thought crossed his mind, but he tightened his hand on the pommel of his sword and forced himself to forget the dreams where the current always pulled him away from the shore.

After the prayer they drifted towards the paved courtyard, where they saddled and mounted their horses. Amandil had been given a stubborn grey mare, which he had been cleaning and feeding for the last days in the hope that she would grow used to him. As when he attempted to be a dutiful priest of Melkor or of Ashtarte-Uinen, however, his efforts had passed largely unnoticed, and the mare writhed and almost threw him down before she submitted with ill-grace.

The streets were largely deserted at that hour, though now and then a curious face would peer from a window.  Sleepy-faced vendors were building their stands at the side of the road, and they glared at them in startled resentment as they pulled their marchandise away from the horses´s hooves. Abdashtart rode at the head of the column, yelling at them to keep their pace up.

After a while, the town was left behind and they entered the forest paths, which were paved with flattened earth instead of stone. The scarlet fruits grew there in greater profusion, as did the golden mallorn trees that, according to Amandil´s mother, grew in what used to be their home up North. One day we will go back and see them, she had always promised, but the King would rather kill them all.

Little by little, the winding road was gaining height. As they left the trees behind, Amandil looked down and saw the beach, a radiant white plain that nobody had defiled since it last emerged from the waves, the gift that the Sea laid at the Lady´s feet twice a day. The waters of the bay were golden- and rose-coloured, and he had to look away before his eyes started to water. Around him, everything seemed dark by comparison.

As Abdashtart reminded them whenever he opened his mouth, they were expected in Armenelos by the fourth day, and they needed to make haste. Pauses were therefore scarce, and at night many a grumbling young man complained that they had barely closed their eyes when they were made to open them again. The inns built by Ar-Adunakhôr to ease the muster of forces across the island lay abandoned for the most part, and more than once they were made to huddle on the floor of some chilly hall where no fire had burned for a hundred years. Amandil preferred to sleep with the horses, as there it was at least warm. His mount was still giving him the cold shoulder, but there were others that did not mind him curling next to them. Other priests followed his example, but they would come in groups and not pay him much attention.

The second night, as he fell asleep among snorts and the smells of cheap wine and warm manure, he had that dream again. He was standing on the stern of a boat, and Númenor was behind him, steadily growing smaller in the distance. A feeling of great loss washed over him, so strong that he could remember it well into the next day. But when he turned towards the prow he woke up shaking, unable to remember what had scared him so much.

That was the last dream Amandil had for a while. After that, the many things which filled his mind distracted him from the visions that came in the night, and soon they even started to seem irrelevant in broad daylight. They were riding through the plains of Mittalmar now, and the white shadow of the Meneltarma was cast against the horizon.

Armenelos was drawing close.

Amandil did not remember it being so large, or having so many buildings. In his thoughts it had shrunk, becoming a single house where two women and a boy lived, and a temple with fires and corridors that sometimes seemed more of a dream than even the boat nightmares.

“You used to be a priest there, weren´t you, Hannishtart?”

It was Eshmounazer who spoke, pointing towards a domed building that stood on the top of the farthest hill of the city. Many young priests had never seen such a sight before, and they were muttering excitedly and staring at the King´s capital with looks of the purest awe. Amandil looked at the white towers, no bigger than his fingers at that distance, and the golden dome between them, right where the Fire burned day and night under the watchful look of the novices. Memories came crashing into his mind, of the endless nights, the hurting knees, the furtive escapades, the sound of muttered prayers in the neighbouring room and above all, the fear, of fire and discovery and the cold eyes of an old man sitting on a throne.

“Long ago, yes. Before I was claimed by the Lady.”

He knew that Eshmounazer would have asked more questions, if it hadn´t been too rude to do so. Tongues had wagged since the day that he appeared at the Forbidden Bay, straight from the service of the King of Armenelos, but only the senior priests knew the truth about him. Or what they thought to be the truth.

None of them knew that Amalket lived in a house next to the Palace hill, raising a boy who was his.

“There are no more inns. If we do not get to the city before nightfall, you will be sleeping under the stars tonight!” Abdashtart threatened from the front. Amandil gathered his reins, and reluctantly, the grey mare resumed her pace.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

It was night when they entered the city, just as it had been thirty-three years ago. This time, however, the vendors called to them as they crossed the narrow streets, and women in coloured veils smiled from the corners. Amandil ignored them, but others paused, with looks that reminded him of his friend Pharazôn.

“Those are not even courtesans”, he said to nobody in particular, though Eshmounazer heard him and turned away, looking flustered.

They were to spend the night split between four inns at the flat hollow in the city centre, not too far from the Palace hill. From there they would be summoned on the following morning, and they would have wished they had slept then, as Abdashtart warned in dire tones, but most young priests left the inn barely five minutes after he had turned his back on them. Armenelos was the capital and the jewel of Númenor, where nights were as bright as days. Wine houses, taverns and brothels awaited, ready to welcome the visitors at each turn of the street.

Amandil was glad of the opportunity to leave the place unnoticed. He threw his cloak over his shoulders, and took a cobbled street that stretched uphill. It was a side route, and it was empty except for a group of early drunks that huddled in front of a small door, which stood open and casting an orange glow over the pavement. When Amandil hurried past them, someone pointed at him and laughed. He wondered if it could be one of the people he had met in Pharazôn´s infamous feasts. He imagined them sitting inside with their cups, as if time had stopped for them when he left, their glances still unfocused as they paused in their song to follow the cadence of a woman´s legs.

The house was also standing right where he remembered it; a small, two-storied building painted in white, with a balcony where he had used to throw pebbles to alert of his secret visits. A lamp was burning inside, casting a dim radiance over the clay lattice. Under its light, he could see that the jasmine plant had reached the second floor by now. As he stood in front of the door and knocked, sweet-smelling petals fell over his cloak.

A light flickered in a window to his left, then went out. Amandil was debating whether he should announce his name, feeling again like the guilty intruder who shouldn´t draw attention to himself. In a sense, it was so – walls had ears in Armenelos, and the latticed windows above the street were as many manned sentry posts.

The light flicked on again. A soft rustling sound reached his ears from behind the door, and suddenly it creaked open, and a wrinkled face peered through.

She was smiling.

“My lady was beginning to worry”, she said, beckoning him in.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

“Who told you I was coming?”

Everything had happened too quickly at first to make sense of Amalket´s servant´s welcome, or Amalket´s beautiful new dress or her carefully painted face. There had been tears, and kisses, and embraces that tore his thoughts into shreds and left them hanging while he hugged her to his chest and muttered back her own words at her. But then, she caught his hand in hers and led him to a table that seemed to be sagging under the weight of meats and fruits, and the questions grew back.

“Your providers sent word.”

“My...?” The words died in his lips, and he stopped for a moment to ponder this. His providers were his father´s associates in Armenelos, who took care of his wife while he was serving the Goddess in the Forbidden Bay. His real father, of course, was not a merchant but a prisoner in Sor, and he had no associates in Armenelos or anywhere else. Pharazôn was behind it all, but Amandil couldn´t imagine how he might have known about...

“Come on!” Amalket complained, tugging at his hand. She was a fully-grown woman, a mother and the head of a household for years. A few lines had appeared in her face since the last time he had seen her, and yet she seemed to have become a girl again as soon as she laid eyes on him.

Realizing that it was useless to think about it now, and even more so to obsess over the implications of anyone in the Palace having heard of his choosing -Pharazôn could have just decided he had to be in the party, since he had a high opinion of his skills, didn´t he? or maybe even his mother, the Princess of the South, had had it from someone, since she had been a priestess of the Lady-, Amandil followed her towards the table. Just at that moment, her servant appeared with an old woman leaning on her arm. Her back was bent, and she walked very slowly.

“Look, Mother! See who is here!” Amalket shouted, though he was obvious enough, standing in the middle of the room with his hand in hers.

“Mother”, he bowed courteously. She stared at him for a long while, and he marvelled at how age had preyed on her so soon. Amalket said in her letters that she was ill, and now that he saw her frailty for himself, he could believe it.

After a while, she nodded in a vague way, allowing herself to be led towards a chair.

“How are your vows going?” Amalket asked him. “Will you have all five of them soon?”

“Soon”, he lied. He was as close to becoming a full priest as he had been the last time, and even after he had achieved all five vows the permission to leave the Cave would never be granted. It would be more useful to wait for Ar-Gimilzôr to be taken by the Darkness, but of course he could not say that to Amalket. The lies were necessary, and yet they brought a weight upon his chest.

One day, she would have to know. She was the mother of the child who was sent by some power -and deep inside he knew that, even if he was fated to spend his whole life in the shadows, her son would come to the light.

“You must be really high up in the temple, if they chose you to consecrate holy sanctuaries in Middle-Earth!” she chattered as he sat down. “Your blessings must be able to kill Orcs and drive the darkness away. And they trust you to keep the King´s soldiers safe, too!” Her expression suddenly sobered, and a crease appeared on her forehead. “Still, you must promise that you will be careful. The mainland is dangerous, and there are plenty of evils there. I would not want anything bad to happen to you!”

“I will be safe.” Another lie. “But where is our son? I am very eager to see him.”

Amalket took a wine jar and poured into his cup. The smell was spicy and sweet.

“Halideyid should be back soon. He´s been teaching swordsmanship to the sons of the Palace Guards, but he promised he would make haste.”

“Teaching... swordsmanship?” Amandil was surprised at this. He held the cup at a distance from his lips, staring at the lumps of cinnamon that swirled inside the liquid. “You know that if you need more money, you only have to...”

“We do not need more money!” she cut him fiercely. He looked up; he had not expected such a reaction. “He needs to join the Guards, that´s what he needs, and that´s what they´re making him do. So it´s his duty, and he´s getting nothing for it.”

“If my lady´s father was alive, things would be different”, the other woman huffed. “He would have had his arms at sixteen and he wouldn´t have to teach no snotty-nosed kids.”

“I like it”, a voice said from the corridor. Amandil left the cup on the table with a sharp noise, and turned towards the doorstep.

“Halideyid!” Amalket´s voice was laden with reproach. “You are all... sweaty, and dirty, and your father is here!”

“But you told me to make haste”, he argued, coming in. Then, he looked past his mother, and saw him sitting on the table. He stopped in his tracks, and his features sobered carefully. “Father.”

Amandil blinked. For a while, that seemed to stretch shamefully long, he could do little else than that. The last time that he had seen him, it had been over ten years ago. He remembered a tall boy, with a large nose and curious grey eyes. Now, however...

The man who stood in front of him, wrapped in a blue cloak, had the sharp features of the Andúnië line, or at least those of his father and the father of his father that Amandil barely remembered. Dark hair fell freely down his shoulders, like Amandil´s, but his looked more dishevelled than his father´s had ever been. That was because of the beard that covered the lower half of his face, still too new to be combed but too grown to pass unnoticed.

And still, what had struck Amandil the most was his height. As he stood in the middle of the room, the top of his head almost touched the ceiling, and he had needed to bow to cross the threshold of the door. He was taller than him, taller than any man he had ever seen, with long and lanky legs and arms that seemed to hang at his sides. When he stood up to greet him, Amandil was forced to look up to meet his eyes, and he felt briefly ridiculous.

“You have grown”, he muttered -and this, too, felt ridiculous. Fortunately, Amalket took his discomfort for sheer admiration, and beamed.

“Yes, our son has become quite the tall, powerful man! When we walk together, people take him for my husband!”

She would rather look like his daughter, at least from behind, running to keep up with his strides. Amandil´s mother had told him once that Elves were tall as trees, and also that the Western lords were descended from them thousands of years ago. But Elves had no beards or disheveled hairs or sweaty cloaks. This was a Man... his own son.

“Welcome to Armenelos, Father”, Halideyid said, feeling self-conscious under his stare. Amandil noticed this and looked away, searching for his cup while the young man sat in front of him. He had a strange way of sitting, sideways, with both legs stretched to the right and his upper body bent in the opposite direction, so as to be in line with the table. If he sat normally his knees would bump against the surface, Amandil realized.

“Hello, Grandmother.” The old woman smiled back at him, as he took the wine jar and started pouring on a cup. Liquid spilled to the sides, and Amalket stood up again.

“I will do that”, she offered, in a tone that brooked no discussions. “Hannishtart, please, we are eager to hear about your journey.”

“Is it true you are being sent to Middle-Earth?” Halideyid asked, dropping a piece of bread over the spice bowl. It was no isolated incident: during the meal he spilled a cup, dropped a pear on his lap and sent a knife flying into the bread basket. Amandil might have blamed it on embarrassment, but he noticed that Amalket and the other women seemed used to this clumsy behaviour. Watching him, he had the feeling that the young man´s arms were too long for his movements.

For a long while, he was the one who did most of the talking, while Halideyid and the women listened and ate in silence. He told them what little he had heard about the recent manouevres of Mordor, the problems in the colonies and the summons that had come to the Cave. Then, he told them of the journey East, and what lay ahead of them.

“So you are leaving tomorrow already?” Amalket asked, dismayed. “I thought...”

“We bought food for a week”, the servant nodded. “Well, at least we can prepare it for the journey...”

“Abila, if Father came back to his quarters with a bag of homemade food instead of a hangover there would be plenty of questions”, Halideyid intervened. For a moment his eyes met Amandil´s, and he rushed to fill his cup again.

As they were finishing, someone knocked at the door. Amandil felt concerned for a moment, but Amalket shook her head and sent Abila to answer it. She came back announcing the arrival of two boys for swordmanship class, and Halideyid stood up at once.

“If you would excuse me...”

“Couldn´t you have arranged it for another day?” Amalket asked, her hands on her hips.

“It was impossible. They already come every day, and their parents...”

“I do not mind”, Amandil interrupted the argument, smiling. Halideyid bowed and left, and he turned towards his frowning wife. “In fact, I think I would... like to take a peek. Just for a while.”

Her frown dissolved.

“Oh.” She thought about this in silence, then she looked at him again. She seemed suddenly embarrassed. “Hannishtart... I think that he... he wants to like you.” A blush covered her cheeks. “But he has only seen you once, and it is not your fault but...”

Amandil winced.

“He does not know me.” And it was true for both of them.

“Go and see him, then”, she urged, standing up and piling one plate in top of another. “I will be waiting for you later.”

Amandil nodded, grabbed his cloak and walked out of the room. He did not remember the way to the backyard very well, so he took some false turns through the dark corridors until the sound of voices and the clash of wooden swords finally reached his ears. The night was warm, and he found he had no need of the cloak he had brought. He walked gingerly through the wooden planks of the porch, not wanting them to creak under his feet and provoke an interruption. It was his house, and still he could not help feeling like an intruder.

He has only seen you once.

Halideyid was standing under the lamplight, holding a wooden sword. The two boys stood in front of him right where a fountain used to be years ago, under a cherry tree that looked strangely forlorn after its petals had scattered across the yard. They had to be around twelve or thirteen, the age that he and Pharazôn were when they had taken on the eighteen old son of the Palace armsmaster.

“Imagine that you fancy a girl, but she likes another boy”, Amandil´s son was saying. If he had noticed him sitting there, he chose to give no sign of recognition. “Your opponent has heard about it, so when you are in the middle of the fight, he suddenly taunts you about it. How would you feel?”

“I would be angry. I would want to shut his fat mouth”, one of the boys said. The other boy nodded in agreement.

“And embarrassed, if other people were listening”, Halideyid supplied. After a long moment of hesitation, both boys nodded this time.

“Now imagine that you have skipped your archery class. Your opponent saw that you were not there, and in the middle of the fight he tells you that you are in huge trouble and that everybody was looking for you. You would feel uneasy, would you not?”

Another nod.

“If you let anyone take you by surprise in this manner, you will lose track of what you are doing, and even if it´s just for a moment, you will forget everything you have been taught and grow careless. Then they will have an opening to defeat you.”

Amandil was listening with the same interest as the two boys.

“Keeping your emotions in check is a very important part of swordfighting, and you have to be very careful about it. You mustn´t let your opponent take you at unawares about anything. “Halideyid closed his eyes. “Do like me. Close your eyes and remember all the things that worry you.”

“Well... we are going to be tested in archery tomorrow, and...”

“Not like that! You have to do it in silence, only to yourself.”

The boy´s mouth snapped shut, and both of them stood still for a while. Amandil noticed, however, that their lips were moving in silence.

“Now, you are prepared. Try to fight me. Meanwhile, you can try to distract him if you know how.”

One of the students, the one who had talked about the test, fell into a stance, and Halideyid did the same. Their fight was unequal since the beginning, as Halideyid did nothing but parry the attacks. Still, Amandil was admired at his sudden transformation. The clumsy young man whose arms and legs were too long and unwieldy to pour wine on a dinner table wielded the sword with astonishing ease. No movement was longer or shorter than it had to be, no step superfluous.

“I-I saw Imil kissing another boy last night!”, the second boy cried.

“I know that is a lie, you are making it up to...”the one who fought began, but he could never finish the sentence because Halideyid got him first.

“See? You cannot afford to be distracted!”

“But I did not believe him!” the boy complained, rubbing his shoulder. The other laughed triumphantly.

“You fell for it, you fell for it!”

“Anything that takes your full attention away from the sword you´re wielding is a distraction. It doesn´t matter if you believed him or not, you looked away and paid him more attention than the fight. Try again!”

Amandil stayed there for the whole lesson, so absorbed by everything they said and did that he wasn´t even aware of the hour. When Halideyid announced that it was over, he was surprised.

As the boys crossed the porch to go back inside, they saw him for the first time, and they paused to look at him curiously. They were just boys, but Amandil felt uncomfortable under their stares.

“Come on”, Halideyid urged them.

One of them turned away quickly, though the other stole another glance at him.

“By the way, my father will pay you tomorrow,” the priest heard the boy say before the three of them disappeared down the corridor. Halideyid began answering something, but their voices died soon after.

When the young man walked back into the porch, Amandil was stretching his legs under the tree.

“Your mother said that you were not being paid,” he said, then winced at the accusing edge in his tone. He wanted to know his son, not argue with him.

Halideyid held his glance.

“She was not lying. What I did before, it was my duty. This I do for money.” He paused for a moment, as if to think, and his voice became lower. “Grandmother is not well, and medicines do not grow in Númenor. They have to be brought from the mainland, and it is expensive.”

“I can arrange...”

“I know that you are rich, but I am fully grown now, and I found no need to trouble you about things I can solve on my own.” There was pride in Halideyid´s tone as he said those words, and something about it made Amandil unpleasantly aware that the money he sent to that house was not his in the first place.

“I see”, he muttered. Then, he remembered a different subject. “Are you going to enter the Palace guards, then?”

“That would make Mother happy. And your associates would never have to send money again.” Halideyid knelt to pick the wooden swords that he and the boys had discarded on the floor after the practice session. “But Grandfather died when I was still young, and my birthright is not very... clear.”

“Why so?” Amandil inquired. He had a suspicion.

“Well...” Though his son had already picked up everything, he kept his back turned to him. He wandered around, pretending to be looking for something else. “People cannot help but wonder...”

“About me.” It wasn´t a question. “In spite of the unfortunate circumstances, my family is respectable enough. My associates can prove it for you.” Pharazôn would help, if he told him about it.

“I know”, Halideyid finally turned to face him. “The problem is, I do not know if they would appreciate having any associates proving anything near their quarters. Mother says you are a good swordsman. Could we..?”

“Oh. Of course.” Amandil was trying to make sense of what his son had said, and the request took him by surprise. He grabbed the sword just before it fell.

Halideyid seemed pleased at this. He fell into a stance in front of him, and Amandil did the same. His son´s height reminded him involuntarily of the times when he had faced much older boys, back when he was a boy himself.

“So... who are you?”

For a fraction of a second, Amandil was vaguely aware of having lowered his weapon on or two inches. Then, he felt a strong impact and saw it whirl away from him, crashing against the wall with a sharp noise. Pain exploded in his fingers and spread through his arm.

“Sorry”, Halideyid said. Amandil bit back a groan, cursing to himself.

If you let anyone take you by surprise in this way, you will lose track of what you are doing.

“So you are using your lessons against me, aren´t you? Very clever”, he grumbled, walking towards the place where his sword had fallen. As he was about to kneel to pick it up, however, he thought better about it. A wince crossed his features, hidden by the shadows.

“I just wanted to know. If there was something else.” Halideyid´s voice was laced with a new intent. “Twenty years ago, when I was born, the lord of Hyarnustar´s brother was still living in the capital. He is well known here for his... excesses with women, and for his love for the wine that his native lands export. Among the Guards, it is whispered that he has my eyes...”

“Are you doubting that I am your father?” Amandil shouted. “You think you are some nobleman´s bastard, and then he, what? Sent me to your mother in his place?”

“No, that would make no sense, but...”Halideyid sought his glance now, eagerly. “Maybe you could be his bastard.”

“Me?” Amandil was taken aback. What was the meaning of all those questions? Where did his son want to get to, interrogating him like that?

He could not know. He should not ask.

The eager look disappeared, replaced by an air of grave... was it disappointment?

“I am sorry. I should not have asked. I know there are reasons...”

“What on Earth do you know?” Amandil snapped. Then, he calmed himself, ashamed of his outburst.

How would he feel, if he had been in his son´s place? Growing without his father... sent money through intermediaries, gossiped about and rejected because of his strange features at the guild his own mother´s family had belonged to. He remembered Halideyid´s enigmatic words before the duel, and understood them better now. “That is why you said that the Guards would not appreciate meeting my associates. They actually think a councilman´s family is going to meddle in their affairs, don´t they? Everybody believes that stupid story, do they not?”

“Not everybody”, his son replied at once. “It is just a few whispers. I have never even told Mother about them, I wouldn´t want her to know.”

And maybe she does not want you to know, Amandil mused, growing more disheartened.

“Halideyid” he began, barely knowing what would come from his mouth next, “you must understand something. I did not leave willingly, and if it depended on me I... I would be here with you and your mother, and I wouldn´t have to hide or keep secrets from anyone.”

Was the young man understanding even a word of this? He sat on the porch, next to a withered cherry flower which had been blown that far by the wind. Distractedly, he picked it up and started turning it around his palm.

“Do not worry, Father, I know that too.” Halideyid said then, and the flower fell from his hand. “Do you remember when Mother and I travelled to the Forbidden Bay ten years ago, and we saw each other for the first time? You were going to greet us, but a priest scolded you and told you to stop chattering with the pilgrims and go back to your duties. I looked at your face then, and you did not look like a man who wanted to hide, but like a man who was forced to hide. With that knowledge, I could never have thought badly of you.”

Amandil looked down, at the flower that was now lying at his feet. For a long while, he spoke no word.

Then, he raised his head.

“I am no bastard. I am the true heir of my father and grandfather, Lord Valandil of Andúnië.”

If they had been holding swords at this very moment, he could have easily gained retribution for his son´s earlier ploy. Halideyid had never looked so shaken.

“Valandil? The prisoner of Sor? The....?”

“The traitor”, Amandil finished for him. “When I was a child, the King was going to have me killed. Instead, I was vowed to priesthood in Armenelos, and my line was meant to die with me. However, I met your mother, and you were conceived. I could not bear the thought of disposing of you, and so with the help of a powerful friend, I erected this wall of lies to protect you, your mother and myself. You are the last descendant of the Western lords, Halideyid.”

The young man had gone pale.

“But the Western line...everybody says that they are conspirers... that they are godless...”

“I was taken away from my parents when I was a child”,  Amandil replied, with a bitter grimace. “It has been more years than I can count, and still that is not how I remember them.” His son was about to open his mouth again, but he interrupted him before he could utter a word. He had not thought of it once in years, and still, all of a sudden, it seemed terribly important. “Nobody is godless, Halideyid. People... worship different gods, and that is why they hate each other.” He thought of his mother, telling him stories about Melkor´s evil deeds, and the verses about the Elves in Yehimelkor´s theogony. “The King poisoned my food and sent men to cut my throat in my sleep, but his grandson befriended me in spite of who I was. The High Priest of Melkor would have killed me and burned my corpse, but the man who will be his successor saved my life and took care of me. Hating people because of their family or their beliefs is more complicated than it seems.”

Halideyid frowned. He was still shaken, but he managed to nod to his father´s words.

“Anyway” he whispered, “I cannnot hate myself, can I?”

Wise beyond his years, Amandil thought, in a brief outburst of pride, wiser than I was back then.

“My position is dangerous. Even now, I feel that His Holiness sending me in the party to Middle-Earth, though it was a cherished wish of my childhood, might not be a simple coincidence. That is why it is better if you know who you are. And if there comes a day when my family is freed from their prison, and you tell them that you are my son...”

Halideyid´s eyes started widening in alarm at those words. Amandil noticed it, and fell silent.

“Then again, maybe you would prefer to forget what I just told you. It is not easy, and not likely to help you now.” Maybe he, Amandil, would have preferred to forget what he knew, too.

But Halideyid bowed low.

“Thank you for telling me.”

Amandil´s mind was in turmoil as he crossed the porch and walked aimlessly through the corridors of the house. He did not see Amalket waiting for him at the threshold, and almost crashed against her.

“Did something happen?” she asked, her eyes narrowing in worry as she perceived his agitation. Amandil held her hand.

“I...”

In his fevered state, it crossed his imagination to tell her, there and then, to expose himself to her judgement and wait for the verdict as he had done with his son. But then she tiptoed and pressed her lips against his, and that moment was gone.

“You are with me”, she moaned between kisses. “You can forget... your troubles... for a while.”

“I will”, he promised, encircling her waist with his hands and kissing her back.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

The next morning, Amandil was one more of the bleary-eyed, barely awoken young men who gathered at the main gate of the Palace under Abdashtart´s frown of disapproval. All around them, the King´s soldiers were gathering among a flurry of standards and the clang of armour. Some were on foot and some on horseback, and they seemed quite pleased to see them, though the priests were not seasoned warriors and many would require protection. The blessings of the gods were a force to be reckoned on its own, and nobody in Númenor was as religious as the soldiers.

That´s why it would be useless for any Elf-loving lineage to conspire against the Sceptre, Amandil thought, remembering the conversation with his son last night. But then, his own father had told him clearly enough, back when he was a child. We must obey the King who holds the Sceptre in Armenelos.

They were no conspirers.

“Look who is here! If it´s not Hannishtart himself!”

Amandil´s musings were abruptly quenched by this shout. He looked up, not wanting to believe his ears. That voice...

Pharazôn jumped from his magnificent white horse, ignoring the protest of the man who held the reins, and tugged at Amandil´s. He was wearing an almost eye-blinding armour, all set in silver steel, and covered in a purple cape with gold embroideries.

Feeling how everybody´s eyes were set on him, Amandil dismounted. He did not know if he wanted to hug his friend or punch him in the nose. In the end, he showed enough reflexes to kneel and bow low.

“What are you doing?” the fool cried, almost as loud as before. “Stand up and look at me, I have been waiting for this moment! Since I read the names of the priests who were coming with us...”

A vein seemed about to break in Abdashtart´s forehead. As Pharazôn lifted Amandil, something in the latter´s eyes seemed to inform the prince that his old friend did not appreciate everyone hearing such a familiar address. Changing track, he whispered some orders to his escort not to let anyone approach them while they talked.

“Are you mad?” Amandil hissed as the space around them emptied. Eyes, however, still followed him wherever he looked. “What if the King hears about this? He will have me killed!”

“The King is just a sour old man these days. He will be so pleased when I earn renown in Middle-Earth that he will have to grant whatever I ask of him”, Pharazôn explained. “And I will ask that you are allowed to leave the Forbidden Bay and join the army.”

“If you ask anything of the sort, he will pretend to agree and send assassins that very night to finish me in my sleep,” Amandil growled. “I hope you earn renown, because then he might be too busy to hear about this. Please, treat me like any other priest.”

“Fine, fine”, Pharazôn looked barely ashamed. “My mother already told him you were a bad influence on me, back when she convinced him to send you away. Surely it will not look suspicious for me to greet an old bad influence I have not seen in years.”

He turned away, and called his escort back as if nothing had happened. Amandil watched him as he left, thoughtful. Back when they used to play together with wooden sticks, they had spoken of Middle-Earth plenty of times, of the monsters they would slay and the victorious wars they would lead there. Now that both of them were part of an expedition that would take them across the sea to the lands they had dreamed in their childhood, however, it felt like a strange coincidence -and, somehow, an ominous one.

Maybe he just thought too much.

“Let this be the last time you approach the son of the Prince of the South.” Abdashtart warned him between clenched teeth, as he struggled to mount back his grey mare.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

The Arms of the Giant, the great harbour of Sor, was a mere two days by horse from Armenelos, but as there was infantry it took them four. It was relatively easy to avoid Pharazôn, as he was always surrounded by people, but this did not give Amandil as much relief as it might have. The truth was that he would have wanted to speak to him, a good long conversation to tell him about the things he had revealed to his son, and his mixed feelings about this expedition. Pharazôn had a way to assuage his worries, to make him feel like nothing in the world would hurt them. Listening to his words was sometimes like wine; they gave him courage without a reason. And courage, be it without a reason, was the best thing he could hope for right now.

They reached the coast on the morning of the third day, and looked upon the ancient harbour of Rómenna, ensconced in the narrow bay between the roots of the Orrostar and the Hyarrostar. It seemed a venerable place even from the distance, a city of ancient houses and empty stone harbours. Amandil remembered Yehimelkor teaching him that this had been the greatest port of Eastern Númenor once, where the first ships departed for Middle-Earth and came back loaded with all kinds of strange animals and plants. It had been there, too, that the first sacred objects of the cult of Melkor had arrived from the temples in the colonies, but now the old docks held naught but fishing boats, floating still in that windless place.

Next, the road followed the coastline for some thirty winding miles. To their right stood the great forests of Hyarrostar, under the authority of the governor of Sor, which furnished timber for the Númenorean fleet. To the left, the Eastern sea, bluer than the sea of the Forbidden Bay, came to die in barren coasts of rock and sand.

There was a high elevation in their way, whose sandy slopes proved difficult for the horses. Few trees had taken root there, and the East wind, which was becoming stronger as they approached the first peak of the Hyarrostar, brought volleys of sand upon their faces. Amandil´s face had almost sunk to the neck of his mount when they finally climbed it, though the sight under their feet made him look up at once.

The road came down on a city of tall houses set upon the slope. Proud red towers rose at every turn, each vying with the others for the prized view of the ships coming from and to the harbour. Beyond them, the Arms of the Giant, the enormous artificial harbour built by Ar-Adunakhôr, stretched for almost a mile into the sea, holding a thousand ships in its embrace.

Each arm ended in a pronounced curve, upon which stood two red statues of the Great God. One of them was clad in full armour and holding a sword; the other wore a crown and a sceptre. Statues of Melkor were blasphemous, Yehimelkor had always told him, but these were said to have the features of Ar-Adunakhôr himself.

Amandil remembered only two things from the city of his birth: the sea of red towers and one of the statues, the one with the sword, which he had been able to see whenever he tiptoed on Azzibal´s balcony. Still, as he rode past the steep and crowded streets, he could not help feeling that the place was familiar to him somehow. He looked up at the towers and balconies, wondering which of them belonged to Azzibal the associate of Magon.

“Make way, make way!” somebody was shouting at the head of the column. The Sorians were as used to soldiers riding through the streets in their way to the ships as they were to caravans of merchandise and riots. They left their business and talking circles and stood aside to let them pass, but they did it slowly, almost defiantly, as if they wanted to show them that they were not afraid.

The accommodation process was much slower this time than it had been in Armenelos, since the two hundred priests had been joined by a thousand soldiers and a prince. Amandil had the unpleasant feeling that they meant for him to be the last to get a bed, to make him pay for his insolence on the first morning of the trip. Finally, he was given a tiny room in an inn by the harbour, which smelled strongly of fish from the vendors that crowded the doorstep.

“Where are you going?” Eshmounazer asked him as he saw him going downstairs.

“To buy fish”, Amandil replied. Trudging past the vendors without as much as a second glance, he found himself in the street.

The harbour, despite its size, was so crowded that it was barely possible to walk through it. People sold, bought, begged, talked, shouted, laughed and pushed each other under the shadow of large merchant vessels. Amandil walked past all of them, until he reached an area full of timber barges which was less congested. His pace slowed, and he approached a man who sat behind a pile of coloured fabrics for sale.

“Do you know the house of Azzibal, a rich merchant of this city?” he asked. The seller nodded, barely surprised at the question.

“Aye, over there, third street to the left. You will know it by the ship mosaics on the front.”

“Thank you.” Amandil bowed courteously, and turned his steps in that direction. As he did so, he ran into a beggar who grabbed his cloak.

“A coin, good sir, just a tiny coin!” he said.  Amandil had barely stopped in his tracks, however, when the man gave a cry of surprise.

“You!”

“I do not know you.” Amandil grabbed his cloak and pulled firmly, but the man jumped to his feet and ran to fall on his knees before him, barring his escape. He wore tattered robes and a beard, but no matter how closely he looked at the features behind the tangles of dirty hair, Amandil was still at a loss.

“You have his face! The same face, I remember it well! You came to deliver us, as it was promised!” The beggar had tears on his eyes now, which gave Amandil a moment of pause. Wiping them with the back of his hand, the man laughed; half of his teeth were broken. “You are the Lord of Andúnië, our rightful lord! Praise the Baalim and Baal Shamem, the King of the skies!””

The young priest saw other beggars drawing closer to them, attracted by the commotion. His instinct yelled at him to escape, to run back into the shadows and the safety, but the man´s happy smile held him transfixed.

Those people... they were...

“Stand back, you Nimruzîrim dogs!” The man who sold cloth, whom Amandil had spoken to before, strode towards them at the head of a small group of vendors. They seemed very angry, and one of them was wielding a loose stone from the pavement.” You are not permitted to disturb our customers!”

The beggars retreated, but the one who had touched Amandil did not move. The priest did not even think; he stood before him and turned to face the men.

“He was not disturbing me!” he claimed, searching his pocket frantically. Feeling metal inside, he grabbed it and put it on the beggar´s hand, before even checking how much it was. The vendors stopped in their tracks.

“You should not encourage them!” the one with the stone scolded. Next to him, another spat on the ground. “Because of them, Rómenna´s gone to the dogs, and now they are trying to do the same here too, in the city of Ar-Adunakhôr! The nerve!”

“They look like simple beggars.” the cloth seller told him in a confidential tone. “But at night they crawl back into their holes, oh yes, where they perform evil rites and commit all sorts of crimes.”

For a moment, Amandil felt a forgotten fire burn in his chest, and he wanted to challenge those words. But then, he remembered that he was no lord of Andúnië, just a watched man who tried to survive by not turning anybody´s attention towards himself.

There was nothing he could do.

“They lost their lands, and I am sorry for them. Just let him go”, he pleaded. The man spat again, and the beggar exulted.

“Soon you will sit in your rightful seat, and all these people will be taken by doom and darkness!” he cried. Amandil winced, feeling the weight of everybody´s stares.

“Just leave now!” he hissed, then turned towards the others. “I think he´s not right in the head. He kept telling me about a lord who would come.”

“The traitor of Andúnië”, the cloth seller supplied. Amandil nodded, and walked past their looks of suspicion. As soon as he turned his back to them, he could hear whispers.

His thoughts grew darker and darker as he wandered through the streets, the beggar´s rotten smile, seared in his mind like a burning brand. The Nimruzîrim... the Elf-friends they called them, his family´s people who had once lived in the lands of Andustar. For generation after generation since Ar-Adunakhôr, they had lived in exile, and today he had seen what they had become.

You came to deliver us, as it was promised!

Amandil´s grin was bitter. He couldn´t deliver anyone, not even himself. He had no choice in the matter -did he?

Those people had been exiled, but they held to their beliefs even in the face of poverty, contempt and persecution. While he, Amandil of Andúnië, had been hiding under a cloak of lies and false names and forced devotion for gods that were not those of his fathers, just to cling to his miserable life. The thought made him cringe.

As he mulled over those discouraging comparisons, he found himself standing before a mosaic of grey and golden ships on a white wall. He stopped in front of them; night had almost fallen by now, and the street was empty.

He did not remember the walls, as he had never seen the outside of the house before. When he looked up, however, he saw the tower, and the balcony where he used to tiptoe to look at the sights.

There were latticed windows on the ground floor, and a low roof, covered in red tiles. If he risked it, he could climb to the first floor at least, and find a way to his parents from there. A recklessness that he had never felt since he was a child and practiced swordsmanship in secret was taking hold of him as he stood there. He would prove that he was no craven. He would brave all dangers, forget his cowardly prudence and find them, and he would tell them...

Tell them what?

Back then, he had been a child, and his parents had been proud of him. They had told him tales of his lineage, of their friendship with the Elves and their battles with Morgoth. He, Amandil, would one day be the next of the line, and he would worship the Valar and befriend the Elves as his father and grandfather before him. But instead of that, he had worshipped the gods they hated, prayed to them every day and tended to their fires and altars. Worse, he had loved a woman who wasn´t one of them, impregnated her with the next heir of the Andúnië line, and then assumed the identity of a merchant in order to marry her in secret. And when one of their own people had recognized him, he had pretended to be someone else and walked away.

Hating people for their family or their beliefs is more complicated than it seems. He had told his son that, and he had felt strongly about it. But what if it was just him, who had become so tainted that his soul was torn forever between two worlds? What if they perceived this, and shunned him?

“He is my external grandfather´s associate”, someone spoke. He turned, his turmoil too great to be shocked at Pharazôn´s presence next to him. The prince was wearing a cloak that covered his features, which he had probably used to give his escort the slip, but his manner and voice were unmistakable. “I can get you inside. I will be paying a visit and you will be my escort. What do you say?”

Amandil shook his head. He felt cold.

“But they are your parents!”

The birds were raising a great ruckus, as flocks of them fell upon their night refuges in the towers of the city. Amandil´s father had used to sit before the window, watching them for hours until darkness fell. The dark sterlings were his favourites, he had told his son once.

“No”, he said. He grabbed Pharazôn´s shoulder, and the prince couldn´t suppress a start as the fingers clawed into his flesh. “Do you know of any good places to drink?”

“What?”

“Take me there, then. I am thirsty. Please.”

Their eyes met, and those of his friend were positively brimming with questions. And still, for once in his life, Pharazôn had the good sense not to say a word as they walked past the empty street towards the docks.

Chapter Text

Amandil did not fear the Sea.

It came as a surprise to him, as it had figured in his most ominous dreams of waves that swept him and boats that carried him away, but once he stood on the deck of the ship and the breeze touched his face his anxiety vanished. So did the headache that he had acquired after drinking himself under the table last night, and even the dark broodings it had failed to quench. The rocking movement of the waves as they crossed the mouth of the harbour felt like being cradled in the arms of a lover, or a mother. And then, as Melkor became gradually smaller in the distance and disappeared behind the horizon, the euphoria of freedom, of adventure took hold of him, and he couldn´t sit still.

First, he rushed to the back of the ship to look in the direction of Númenor until the Meneltarma, too, disappeared in the distance. Then, he was distracted by the evolutions of a school of dolphins, crossing the side of the ship in graceful formation. He blinked the sunlight away to venture into the inner quarters, where many of his companions sat with pale and dejected expressions. One of them threw up when he passed by, missing his foot by inches.

As he came out again, Amandil heard a sailor laughing and calling the priests landlubbers who had never even set foot in a fishing boat. Amandil had not, either, but he remembered his descent from a lineage of sailors and sea-lovers. That part of his blood, at least, had not been tainted.

Relishing in that thought, and drawing from it some of the comfort that he hadn´t found in the wine, he asked the captain if he could be of any use during the trip. His offer was received with a snort at first, and he was told not to get in the way. But after they were hoisting the main sail and he jumped in to help them with his own strength, he was at least allowed to remain around. A few days later, he was already sharing tales with the sailors, who, ignorant or indifferent to his identity and the mistrust of his superiors, did not have problems befriending him. Amandil had never felt so comfortable before, as even around his best friend he had to remain aware of everything that stood between them.

Pharazôn was ahead of him now, sailing in the main ship. Abdashtart, to Amandil´s great relief, was there as well, and the other priests were rarely seen on deck. Sometimes, he could even have closed his eyes and pretended that they didn´t exist, that he was sailing this ship on his own like the Andúnië lords of old. Pretending, however, was an idle game, which made him feel acutely aware of his own position, so he did not engage on it.

“Where are you from?” one of his new companions asked him one night, as they stood watch on deck repairing old sails. “You are a born sailor, you are. I bet you must be from Sor.”

Amandil nodded.

“You should stay here. A priest of the Lady of the Seas always comes handy on a ship.”

“And even more if he does not throw up”, another sailor chimed in as he passed by. Both laughed aloud, and Amandil was briefly tempted to join in.

“There is a lot of fighting in the mainland right now”, the man continued, cutting the hard thread with a magnificent row of teeth. “The barbarians are not just petty raiding tribes anymore. They have made an alliance with the king of Mordor, and filthy Orcs follow their trail wherever they strike. It has made them bold, it has. They have attacked trading settlements, caravans, even the crops! And in the bay of Gadir they have been having trouble too, I hear. Too close to Mordor, if you ask me.” He shook his head, fixing such a grave stare on Amandil that the priest felt it would be only courteous to stop darning and reciprocate. “Do not go there, lad. They say a lot of things about it, but the sea is less treacherous than the land is down there. Even if it plays a nasty trick on you, that death is a thousand times better than what those bastards would have in store for you. They have always hated us, called us usurpers, tyrants and thieves. And the Mordor folk... those hate all men. To them, we are only good for eating.” He chuckled with some trepidation at the thought. “Stay here with us.”

Amandil bit his lip, and resumed his work. The scenario that the man was laying in front of him sounded like the stories of First Age heroes his mother told him, when the land was full of dangers all around their ancestors. Back then, with the simple logic of a child, he had thought that the Orcs and the monsters were there just for the hero to kill them and prove his worth.

“That choice does not lie with me”, he explained. “The Cave rules my life, and the lives of all who are consecrated to the Goddess.”

“That is tough”, the sailor grumbled. “Well, good luck down there, then. You are no soldier, maybe you can stay out of trouble.”

“I am good with the sword”, Amandil retorted, with some pride.

“Are you? Well, I hope you are best with it than you are darning sails, because your life will depend on it!” For a while, the man´s eyes became lost in the darkness, as if he was checking something that only he could see beyond. Then, he shrugged. “We will be setting anchor by tomorrow. Umbar is not far.”

“Already?” Amandil had always heard that Middle-Earth was even farther from Númenor than the land of the Valar. As the latter was untouchable for mortals, he could hardly imagine something even more remote, but the trip had lasted a mere fifteen days.

The sailor laughed at his surprise.

“Well, the wind is not always that good. Sometimes it is against us, sometimes there are storms or there is calm. But you being priests of the Sea-Queen and all, she was really nice to us this time.”

Amandil made a sign of reverence for the Goddess, and observed the handiwork that lay upon his lap. For a moment, a petty part of him couldn´t help but wonder what was so bad about it.

“I just meant that you would have to be even better with the sword to face them Orcs and barbarians down there”, the man explained, as if he had guessed his thoughts. “No offense to your work.”

“Oh, I understand.” He laid it down, cutting the thread with a knife, and his lips curved in a smile. “Well, as you can see, I learn quickly.”

And the first thing I ever learned was that many people wanted to kill me, he thought, trying to look past the same darkness where his companion´s glance had been lost. Orcs and barbarians he could kill, at least -and that was why he had wanted to learn swordsmanship in the first place, had he not? To be able to face something head on, as he could not face the merchants who held him prisoner, the King, the High Priests or their gods.

He could not tell the sailors any of this, though.

“I suppose you will”, his companion admitted grudgingly, folding his part of the fabric over Amandil´s and looking for more.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

The sailor had been right: the next morning, at dawn, the flight of seagulls over their heads heralded the proximity of the mainland. Such was the anticipation raised by the arrival to the Land Beyond the Sea that even the priests who had spent the whole trip complaining in the cabins rushed on deck to look. This angered the captain, who yelled that they were interfering with the ship´s manoeuvres and sent them downstairs again. Amandil, however, was suffered to stay, as he was making himself useful by helping to pull up the sails and rolling them in coils.

For the most part, he was content with standing on the deck, catching whatever was hurled in his direction. As the manouevre progressed, however, he felt bolder, and started climbing up the ropes. His movements were clumsy at first, though after a few attempts he managed to strike a pace. Higher and higher he climbed, trying not to look down, until he reached the men who were tying the knots.

“Coming to lend a hand, landlubber?” one of them laughed.

“He´s going to shit himself as soon as he looks down!” another shouted. Amandil looked at them: their hands were free, and they were busying themselves with the sails or even throwing coils of rope from one to another. He became aware of his own hands, grasping the cords for dear life, and wondered how he was supposed to break free without falling. His idea of climbing there began to seem more foolish by the minute.

“Land!” someone cried from afar.

Amandil forgot his fear for a moment, and stared ahead. His head turned violently, and for a moment he was really about to fall. He felt he was dangling over the waters, the ship deck nothing more than a small and narrow strip of wood that was pulled away from his feet with each lurch of the current.

Beyond it, the sea was full of ships, more ships than he had ever seen while he stood below. They were surrounded by white sails, tall masts, and tiny men who climbed on them just like he was doing. Before them, far ahead, sailed the biggest ship of all, the Lady´s Crown, where Pharazôn might be leaning on the railing for a glimpse of the land he had always wanted to see.

That land lay already in front of them, visible first for the sharp eyes of the lookouts, then for the rest of them as they abandoned their tasks for a moment to gaze ahead. It looked like a bare strip of rock, with none of the green he was used to see in Númenor. No houses, towers, or harbours were to be seen on the coastline, only cliffs and long, spidery arms of what looked like reefs, and he turned towards those next to him in some puzzlement. As he did so, he felt his head turn again.

“Where is Umbar?” he asked, afraid to sound ridiculous. The sailor closest to him laughed.

“There it is”, he said. Amandil frowned; his sight had always been good, but there was nothing like a city there. When others started to laugh, he wondered if they were making fun of him.

“Come on, let us get the job done! And if you cannot do it, landlubber, you should better get back on deck and leave us at it!”

Piqued by this, Amandil gathered his courage and freed one of his hands; then, slowly, he freed the other. As he did so, he pressed himself against the mast, his body rigid as cold stone. Then, he stretched two tense arms to pick up his end of the sail clumsily. His eyes were fixed on it; he couldn´t look anywhere else.

After he had folded it and tied it to the mast, there was much joking among the sailors at his difficulty to climb down as easily as he had climbed up. Amandil bore this with good enough grace, even when he almost collapsed after setting foot on deck and the laughter reached the lookout on the topmost mast. But the matter of the invisible Umbar still bothered him.

In the following hour, there was too much work to be done to investigate the approaching continent. After the ship was gliding over the waves at a sleepy pace, however, pulled by oars, he looked over the railing and realized that most of the ships that used to be ahead of them had suddenly disappeared. He ran towards the prow, and caught the first glimpse of the Gates.

It was a huge, gaping mouth of a cave, standing in the midst of the cliffs of the shore. Two of the ships were disappearing through it, as if swallowed by a sea-monster such as used to battle with the Lady for dominion of the Seas in the lore of the Cave. They entered side by side, and even then they had no problem fitting in.

“Helm!” the captain shouted. They were going to follow next: one of the ships behind them was positioning itself at their side, and they were steering towards the opposite direction. The mouth was growing closer, and larger, and Amandil saw an enormous inscription hewn in the rock right above.

The Bright King, who conquered darkness and superstition, settled this land

In the year 2280, fifty-nine years after his accession to the throne

His sixth generation descendant, the Lord of the West, made it prosperous and great

To the West, he built powerful walls that the fury of the Sea cannot breach

To the East, he built powerful walls where his enemies shatter and disperse

And then he looked at what he had taken for reefs, and realized that they were man-made, stone foundations that had been built to keep the deadly flux of the current away from the passage.

Powerful walls that the fury of the Sea cannot breach. Astonished, he forgot that he was supposed to help and stood there, drinking the sight with large, wide eyes.

The ship´s prow was eventually positioned at the mouth of the cave, and they were swallowed like the others. Amandil had expected darkness, but he found it was not so, for the walls had lights that cast an orange glow upon the palm of his hand. Those lights were reflected on the water, drawing undulating shapes on the ceiling. It was an ancient ceiling, maybe older than Men themselves, full of shards of weeping stone that threatened to break their masts. The ship, however, waded easily across the passage, and he realized that it was but an illusion: they were too high to be touched even by Númenorean ships.

Their journey through the shadows finished in a second mouth, as large as the first. An onslaught of sunlight came through it, and Amandil had to blink. He could not afford to be blinded, even for a second; he did not want to miss any of those marvels.

When his full eyesight was restored, he found that they were on a bay, similar to the one in Rómenna. The harbour and city of Umbar stood before them, holding almost as many ships as the Arms of Sor. Behind the tangle of masts and sails, a large wall loomed protectively over a city of terraces and low towerless houses, made with the sand-coloured stone he had seen in the Middle Earth cliffs

“To the East, he built powerful walls where his enemies shatter and disperse” he muttered to himself, remembering the words of the inscription. Someone caught his arm, and he turned around, still shaken.

“Are you going to help, or will you just stand there mooning over the landscape?” a rough voice asked. Still, in the captain´s eyes there was a spark of understanding that told Amandil that he could still remember going through the same experience, the first time he had seen this place.

Now, it was time for the ropes, which had to be uncoiled, and heavy anchors which had to be carried by eight strong men. The ship was brought to the dock where many others from their party were already anchored, and a crowd of men who walked under colourful parasols welcomed those who came down Pharazôn´s ship. Soldiers with red crests prowled around, keeping other people away from the place. Umbar was ruled by two magistrates, but since King Ar-Gimilzôr had given them voice in his Council one of them was usually in Númenor. The other was left in charge of the city and its domains, and judging by all the fuss he should be part of this distinguished group of merchant princes. The arrival of a real prince surely deserved his presence, even though he came as part of the army, and the Goddess would also claim her due.

When Amandil´s ship stood finally in a row with the others, the welcoming party had just dispersed, and the Umbarites were starting to fill the place again. Colourful dresses seemed to be restricted to the rich merchants in this place; most people were clad in white, and their clothes also covered their heads, to shield them from the sun. Only their faces were visible, and though he could detect Númenorean complexions he also saw darker skins, reddish and coarse, and even some that were black like the obsidian floors of the Palace.

“They have all kinds here. This part of the city is where the rich merchants and magistrates live, and those have plenty of slaves. You will see more Númenorean faces beyond the first wall, in the farms and the crops. Funny, right?”

Amandil turned towards his source of information; it was the same man who had shared his watch last night and warned him about the perils of the land. Though he had been about to step on the plank, he stopped in his tracks and seized the cue eagerly.

“First wall? Are there more?”

“There are two, one for the city and the harbour and the second for the fields. But since most soldiers are on that one, and they were bored out of their wits, a second city was built around them. The whores and the priests all moved there.” The sailor started to laugh, then sobered and made a respectful gesture with his head. “Sorry. Didn´t mean no offense.”

“None taken. You remember the Lady, her whores and her priests with enough respect when you are caught in a storm in the open sea”, Amandil replied coolly. Devotion springs chiefly from fear - two gods had already won him for their service in that manner. But they did not look so awe-inspiring when setting foot on solid ground, or walking under the mallorn trees in the peaceful Bay.

Which reminded him...

“I am told that the soldiers of Umbar worship no god but the Lord of Battles”, he said. “Ours is a goddess for sailors, and yet they are expected to welcome us here.”

The man laughed.

“A soldier and a sailor will believe in anything that can get them out of a tight spot alive.” He scratched his chin, his look meaningful. “Not to mention that war is not the only spot of trouble they can get into, you know. The watches are long, the service lasts years, and whoever of them has a wife will have even forgotten how she looked like.”

Amandil nodded, in cautious understanding. He had never forgotten Amalket in the Forbidden Bay, he told himself, and nor would he here.

“In that case they should have asked for priestesses, not for us. The Forbidden Bay is full of them”, he jested. The sailor laughed, too, and patted his shoulder.

“You have done well, Hannishtart. Even though you stood gawking all the way through the passage and almost shat your pants when you tried to climb that mast, it was good for a first time. I wish you could be a sailor, but wherever you go you´ll be fine. I am sure of that.”

“Thank you.” Amandil looked at the rugged face, at the dark eyes that could see things in the night. His throat itched for a moment, forcing him to swallow. “May you have a good journey home, and may the Lady of the Seas guide you.”

And with a last nod of farewell, he walked down the plank, and set his feet on the land of Middle-Earth.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Abdashtart, Pharazôn, and the people on their ship had been invited to the Magistrate´s house for a banquet, which meant that, for the next hours, Amandil was left to wander the streets of Umbar alone. Food was not hard to come by, he discovered shortly after venturing on land. Meats that smelled strongly of hot spice were sold at every turn, and as soon as he had a spit in one hand an old woman rushed to press a cup of tea into the other.

Umbar had narrower streets than the Númenorean cities, and they were also more crooked. All the houses had low ceilings, and the only point of reference, besides the harbour that stretched in parallel with most of the city, was the temple of Melkor, one of the Four Great Temples. Compared with the one in Armenelos, however, even with the one in Sor, it seemed small and unworthy of its title. It was built with the same sandy stone as the rest of the houses, and only a colourful dome, whose lacquered tiles gleamed in the midday sun, made it stand out from the rest.

As a priest of the Lady, Amandil could not visit that temple, nor could he wander far in any other direction for fear of getting lost. So instead he sat on the doorstep of one of the buildings in the harbour, and ate his food while watching the movements of ships under the walls of cliff and rock that hid them from the open sea. The first bite brought tears to his eyes; after the fifth, he had already drunk all his tea. The old woman pressed a second cup to his hand, smiling a toothless grin. He was running out of money, as the one he had given to the beggar in Sor had been his weightiest coin.

After a while, the Umbarians that walked past him started diverting his attention from the landscape. Amandil had never seen such strange looking people. Now and then, a group of men with long, braided beards and naked to the waist walked past him, their sun-battered skins and grave expressions lending them a solemn appearance. Black women carr