11. Mother of All
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 on the cliff, and walked the enormous harbour from one extreme of the Bay to another, empty except for the presence of fishing boats tied to wooden poles. Inziladûn caught himself staring at the Western horizon in disquiet more than once, 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 in rosy hues, regretting his impending reparture, he heard a familiar light 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 to pester 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.
"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 follow the coast South until he reached the Forbidden Bay. This would have meant six days or ride in normal circumstances, though the carts and provisions slowed the process down to two weeks.
For those two weeks, the young man became taciturn and self-absorbed. He rode in the front, away from the rest of the party, and payed 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 of the 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 forest of glittering brilliance that hung over the heads of the astonished pilgrims as they made their way through the carved path.
All those people believed that all those 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? 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 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 to 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 with a bow, 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 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, 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 direcion 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 waned and died.
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 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 sucessful 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 ventured for the first time to look at her face. Her beauty surpassed that of her sister of 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 an intensity of feeling. 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 a slight 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 skillfully, 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 touchs, 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 Inzilbêth 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 were 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.
Frightened by the sudden 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.
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 his 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 inmortals 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 the 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 whisper of a feeling 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 feeling 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 him 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 its final end on 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 or 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, and took the stairs 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 on the face.
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 was her mother in a soft violet dress, lying with closed eyes and both arms stretched at her sides.
"... 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 do 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 posessed 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 give 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 an indice 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 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 strange 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.
Author´s Random Notes: You have maybe heard the words of the litany before... some of them, anyway. The "Vision" is the most awfully famous cliché to depict a conversion since the beginning of the existence of the religions of choice. And yes, so I introduced hierogamia in my fic. You have not seen anything yet. ;)
Thanks to my readers!