46. Chapter Forty-six
To an Elf, this wound would not have been fatal. But mortals were frail. Though his mind shied from the horrible truth and his hands kept attempting to stop her blood from deserting her body, Gildor's heart knew that Zaba was dying. Why else would it hurt so much?
Because it was all his fault, of course. Because there had been to many moments when he could have protected Zaba from herself but had failed to do so. He had been unforgivably foolish.
She was a fool, an icy, disdainful voice spoke inside him. A fool to attack the admiral-
She wanted to expose the man! came the heated reply. Both opinions were his but he preferred the latter. This was the one he wanted to be true.
He thought he saw her lips move and bent his head towards her. What was she saying? If his ears had been any less sharp he would have thought it was just another laboured breath. `Danger,' she whispered, or so he thought. 'Dangerous... Must be... destroyed.'
Somewhere above him, Glorfindel was talking to the Ciryatur, and Gildor found himself wishing he would hold his tongue, wishing that the guard who left the pavilion would cease stamping and his armour cease jangling. He held Zaba's pain-clouded gaze with his own, willing it to stay alive, forbidding the eyes to break and glaze over - they could not, they must not -
Her lips, unnaturally pale, opened slightly, as if she invited him to kiss her once again, one last time. And nodding - yes, I will - he found his face descending and his mouth brush hers, a ghost of a touch; the lips relaxed, and when he looked again he thought it was a smile he saw there, but his own smile was a dismal failure.
When the guard returned with a hurdle, Zaba was dead.
Her severed fëa, he knew, would wing away and cross the boundaries of Arda to where he could never follow her. But when he tried to fathom what 'never' meant, he was at a loss. For the first time he understood that mortality was inconceivable for someone who could never grasp death other than as a long absence or the end of the world. Separation for all eternity was too large a concept for his finite mind.
What made it worse was that most of it was his fault. He should have left Zaba in Mithlond. He should have done more to prevent her from entering that tent. That there was no way he could have kept her from doing what she did, from freely staking out her own path towards this end, was not something Gildor wanted to accept. Nothing had been wrong with his reflexes when he had thrown himself between Beregar's dagger and Gil-galad. But he had doubted Zaba. He had kissed her, yet he had doubted her purity of heart, and his doubts had lamed him. I am to blame for her death, he thought dully.
The Ciryatur said something that sounded like 'take her out of here', as if anyone in his right mind would have left her with her murderer. It was Glorfindel who carried her from the pavilion in his arms. Gildor had wanted to do that but the other Elf briefly shook his head. And wisely so: when he stood, Gildor discovered that his legs were hardly steady enough to carry his own weight.
Outside, he was surprised to see that Beregar had come along - so much, in fact, that it cleared his head a little and made him aware of his surroundings again. 'I thought you refused to follow us?'
'I refused to flee again,' Beregar replied hoarsely. 'The admiral said that Glorfindel could take me along,' he added almost as an afterthought.
Gildor had missed this somehow. He did not understand. 'Why?' The man was evil - killing Zaba, threatening to torture Beregar... He shivered when he recalled the Creature's attempt to insinuate that Gildor Inglorion had more right to be High King of the Noldor than Artanáro Gil-galad did, and he felt more ashamed than ever at the willingness of his own ear, that day. Corrupt to the core - Sauron Gorthaur would have little difficulty to enrol this man into his service.
That was an even more chilling thought. 'Why would that murderer let you go?
Beregar gazed at him for a while. Then he shrugged. 'Your king seems to have a better claim on me than my own commander has.' Gildor could not tell whether he thought this was a good thing or not.
'I suggest that we leave.' There was a trace of worry in Glorfindel's voice. He turned to the young mortal. 'Beregar. Will you take my horse to carry Zaba' - he did not use the word 'body' - 'to the High King?'
Beregar nodded. Strangely enough, he appeared to mourn Zaba as well. But why should he be the one to take her to Gil-galad? Gildor was about to offer his own services when it occurred to him that he was the only one who knew where his horse was.
And indeed: 'Where did you leave your mount?' was the first thing Glorfindel asked as Beregar rode away, the dead girl - Gildor's heart lurched - cradled in the crook of his left elbow, the reins in his right hand.
'In the bushes outside this camp. Away to the East. I left part of my armour there as well,' Gildor replied while they set out. It occurred to him that by filling the silence with the sound of his own voice, he could prevent it from swallowing him. Quendi were supposed to be prolific talkers, and he had always been able to vie with the best. `By the way, Glorfindel, I believe that Zaba found a riderless Númenorean horse, or she could never have reached this camp ahead of me. Unless she let the horse run free it should still be out there. If we can find it we will not have to ride pillion. Of course it belongs to the Númenoreans, but we can always return it later...'
Glorfindel did not interrupt him while he jabbered on, something for which Gildor was grateful, even though it did not help much.
So the strange girl who had lodged complaints against both the Númenoreans and the Elves was dead. Very sad. And sadly convenient. But that was an unworthy thought, and the King rebuked himself at once.
Meanwhile, Beregar's account was rather garbled, and part of what he told them was difficult to believe, Gil-galad thought. His own cousin, breaking into the Ciryatur's pavilion together with Zaba? Zaba, stabbed to death because she attacked the Ciryatur, whom she suspected of having the ring? A tall story. The King decided to wait for Glorfindel and Gildor, preparing himself to blast the latter back to Mithlond and beyond for his folly, should it turn out to have been his idea to add a back entrance to the Ciryatur's pavilion.
Meanwhile, the young mortal knelt beside Zaba's body like someone about to hold a lyke-wake for a loved one. She will have to be buried before we march, Gil-galad thought, feeling ill at ease, as if he was the perpetrator of some shady and dubious deed who wanted nothing more than to rid himself of the evidence.
A few steps away, Tárion stood gazing down at Beregar and the girl with a grave expression on his face. A star for your thoughts, Vlanya.
Thank you - I could use a spark of light... We have one deeply troubled young mortal here. Tárion's reply was tinged with sadness. But that was not what you wished to speak of, or was it?
Gil-galad sighed. Suspecting someone was one thing. But being presented with evidence of his guilt... I am attempting to wrap my mind about the idea that it was the admiral who took the ring. A high-ranked Númenorean who has Tar Minastir's ear and who is Tar Minastir's sword-arm in Endor - sneaking into our bedroom as a thief?
Our bedroom? Gil-galad sensed a brief flash of mirth from his lover, but the next instant, Tárion seemed to berate himself for being amused at this hour. Beregar believes it was he. I deem him to be right, seeing what else the man has proved himself capable of. No one is safe from the lure of evil; even the most powerful of the Ainur succumbed to it. But I suppose you could have the girl's body searched to be certain.
Gil-galad shook his head, and not merely because the suggestion had been less than enthusiastic, or because he doubted there was much certainty to be had these days - save the knowledge that they were marching against Sauron and his own vow to fight this ancient foe of Finarfin's house. But he was loath to disturb the dead. Even in the unlikely case that Zaba had the ring, the best thing would probably be to bury it with her.
He was still dwelling on this when Glorfindel and Gildor arrived. The former looked merely sad, the latter seemed to be fraying at the edges, as if the mortality of Endor's shores began to unravel the undying sureties of Aman that seemed to have wrapped him like a cloak since his arrival. Did he take Zaba's death so badly, then? Gil-galad's outrage at Gildor's behaviour began to dissipate a little.
Glorfindel's account was more composed and detailed than Beregar's, but basically the same. It left hardly any doubt that the Ciryatur now possessed the ring. The question remained, what he would do with it. 'Beregar,' Gil-galad began, motioning for the young man to rise. 'Did you not mention that your admiral wished to know if it was Sauron the Deceiver's voice that you heard while you wore the ring.'
'I did, my lord King,' Beregar replied quietly. `And I confirmed this. He also wished to know if I had asked the Dark Lord why he had attacked the Elves of Eriador.'
`And did you?'
`I cannot remember doing anything of the kind, my lord. As I told the admiral.'
'Are you absolutely certain?' The King eyed Beregar gravely. He saw that the young mortal felt ill at ease under this close scrutiny, but it could not be helped. It was too important to find out whether or not the Ciryatur knew what lay behind Sauron's onslaught and his unforeseen strength and mastery. The Númenorean commander was more than enough of a liability without such... incriminating knowledge. With it -
`I mean, I did not ask. I was overwhelmed by Sauron's evil presence.' Beregar cast Gil-galad an imploring glance.
The King held his gaze for a few more moments, observing him closely.
Beregar swallowed and nodded. He seemed to be speaking the truth - or what he perceived to be true. 'I warned the admiral against the Dark Lord,' he offered after a pause. `More or less. I said that Sauron tempted me to act against my better knowledge.'
'And do you believe that he heeded your warning?' Glorfindel's friendliness contrasted markedly with Gil-galad's much colder voice.
'No. He accused me of making it up.'
'Despite the fact that you attacked the High King?' Tárion spoke suddenly.
The young man nodded mutely.
You are both intimidating him, my lords. Glorfindel looked from the King to his Captain. Maybe you should desist?
'Well,' said Gil-galad after a tension-filled silence. 'As we cannot determine what goes on inside the Ciryatur's mind, we had better let it rest now.' He saw that Gildor had taken Beregar's place beside Zaba, the very image of sorrow and regret. Once more, he wondered why his cousin was so stricken. 'I believe,' he added to no one in particular, 'that we can safely assume the ring was never in Zaba's possession.'
Gildor looked up, blinking. 'Of course we can. Why else would she have gone all the way to the Ciryatur's pavilion, risking discovery and perhaps worse?' He closed his eyes. 'But I do no longer believe that she tried to retrieve the ring. She whispered something to me, before... she died.' His voice faltered. `Something about destroying it.' With an almost deferential gesture he touched Zaba's hair, brushing a stray lock away from the bandage around her head.
He seemed determined to believe in the purity of her intentions, and one could think worse of the dead. Yet Gil-galad could not refrain from asking: 'Did it ever occur to you to try and keep her from entering the pavilion in the first place?'
Gildor's throat moved. His fingers kept touching the dead girl's hair. `I did not want to use force. An error of judgement.'
Faced with this self-recrimination on his cousin's part, the King decided to let this rest as well; no point in creating further discord. 'Let us hope that she has found peace.'
His gaze shifted. 'Beregar, I assume that you know a Númenorean prayer for the interment of the dead?' He doubted that hymns to the Valar would be fitting: the Powers seldom dealt with mortal Men, whose ultimate destiny was beyond their authority and ken.
Straightening, Beregar replied. 'Yes, my lord King. I know the appropriate prayers.'
'Then let us bury her,' Gil-galad said. The matter of the ring and the danger posed by the Ciryatur could be addressed afterwards.
When he gazed up from the freshly filled grave he saw that he was not alone. The others had left, but Gildor remained standing near the moist patch of loose soil amidst the flattened grass. One of the King's guards - the Elf-maiden Celebrían, as Beregar had noticed to his surprise - had placed a wreath of grass blades and leaves on it, at which Gildor was staring now with an appearance no less mournful than Beregar felt.
What was Zaba to the Elf? He recalled that it had been Gildor in whose company she had walked during the first days of this campaign. It had also been Gildor with whom she had broken into the Ciryatur's tent. How close had the two become? He felt a sudden resentment. That fool of an Elf should have prevented her from endangering herself.
Would you have seen it coming? asked an infuriatingly reasonable voice at the back of his mind.
Suddenly, he thought of Gildor's words to Gil-galad: She whispered something about destroying it. 'Gildor,' he murmured.
The Elf looked up. His face was wet, but that could be the drizzle; Beregar felt it on his own face as well. However, Gildor's eyes looked slightly puffed, and the first, weird thought that came to Beregar was: so not even the Firstborn weep beautifully. The second was, that something eluded him here. A violent death ought to be a demise that even the deathless could comprehend, yet Gildor appeared lost and confused.
'What is it?' Gildor asked listlessly when Beregar did not immediately continue.
'Do you truly believe that Zaba did not want the ring back? Not for herself, I mean?'
Briefly, the Elf's spirit seemed to burn a little brighter. 'I do,' he replied.
The conclusion was inevitable: Gildor believed it because he wanted to. Dearly. At the same time Beregar, the sailor of Númenor, the fisherman's son of Romenna, realised that he did not believe it. The Elf was deluding himself.
What did it say about them, and about him in particular? That he distrusted Zaba unto the grave? That he still considered her a fool? In that case, part of what he mourned was his own inability to mourn truly. The very idea that he could have come to love her was preposterous, and his interest in her had been nothing but the basest desire to possess her. While Gildor, amazingly, must have loved her indeed - for he was apparently blind to the truth.
Well, he would have lost her anyway, Beregar thought, and that too, confirmed his own opinion about himself. He was no good. Not even as a spy. Glorfindel was too optimistic to think I would be given the grace to redeem myself.
He hissed softly.
'Beregar?' Gildor was staring at him with an strange expression on his face.
Shaking his head Beregar said: 'Nothing,' and walked away to ponder his options.