18. The Merchant Princes
Author´s note: Whoever knows me can tell that I have never been a review-monger or anything of the sort. But I feel it is really time to address this issue. Please – if there is anyone reading this, I would like to know. I don´t know about others, but for ME, correcting and reorganising chapters for publication is harder than writing them, and I would be very happy to stop taking the trouble.
The Merchant Princes
Year 3102 – 69th year of the reign of Ar-Sakalthôr
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.
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 old and 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 distant 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 Allfather 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.
"Iworship 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 that 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, he gave a snort and kept walking away from her.
She was only angry at their repeated failureshe 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 into 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 whohad started everything. She was the one who found it so difficult to live with him that she did not lose 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 in front of 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 somewhat 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 much, 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, 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.
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 invulnerable. 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 Hannishtart 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, 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 with 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.
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 needed manouevre. 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 her 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 fifty 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 piece of rock.
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; still exuberant 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 not 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.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.