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 signification. 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 told in such extensive detail, the 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 those same men who had slept in exhaustion after escaping the lands of darkness, 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 sucessful 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 to 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... and even that he had not changed things 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 fulfillment 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; if all, they must have been ensnared by the shadow of Melkor that still lay in Middle-Earth. There had been a moment when they grew too vain and refused 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 it had been the first word 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-, and 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 a rush. 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 the warning of some kind of misfortune that would fall upon Númenor if they continued to ignore their ancient sources of learning and virtue and turned to the enemy of all gods. And yet such an advertence 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 expert in the art of visions, and even had 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 opressing ritual of gods and courtiers so it could become 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 naught but a first indice of what Gimilzôr would be able to do if he felt that his son had definitely 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 of his studies, when the conflicting pangs of eagerness and terror faded to a foggy feeling of impotence and confusion. He felt like 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, together with the manouevres and dangers that he would one day have to face, the future of Númenor and the world of the Elves, while he was 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 here before his time, 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 go 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 him, preferring to go himself to his modest quarters.
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." the old man commented as they were left alone, in a tone of slight reproach. Inziladûn nodded in silence, but this answer did not seem to satisfy him. Shaking his head, he pointed an admonishing finger in his 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, however, 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 pleasure that he allowed himself.
Inziladûn´s eyes wandered through the dark, alien-looking place to which he had grown so accustomed. The shelves that did not contain dusty books were full of clay pots with aromatic plants, that Maharbal used to tend everyday with something akin to reverence. 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.
And 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 made the old man descend.
Several others showed Melkor, whose representation for cultual purposes was forbidden in Númenor. One of them, especially fascinating, pictured the moment of the Sacrifice, with a long serpent crawling out of 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 saw nothing but the man whose 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?" he 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-" commented 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, taken by 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 horrid words in public or private." the old man scolded him. 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 to say to 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 a bit of 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 of 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 sucessful – 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 fulfills his obligations towards his people, whether he has fought against other gods, broken their lamps" Inziladûn´s brain caught the alusion, 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 formularies 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 immediately 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 of 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 in his life, but this discussion was piercing the thick skin of the Umbarian.
Had he hurt him?
Did he feel disappointed?
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 that it made his austere, 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 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.