21. The Bride of Gadir
Note: The title of this chapter was taken literally from an old Spanish historical novel- take it as an homage. And thanks to all people who are following this!
The Bride of Gadir
The blue June day was magnificent at its zenith, like a gem of perfect rays. The sky was reflected over the smooth surface of the waters, and the people who crowded the docks sought in vain for a gust of sea breeze that would ease the weight of the burning sun. Everything was quiet, with the crushing calm of sacred ceremonies.
For the space of that one day, the small city of the Old Harbour had been revived from its long agony. Once again, visitors crowded the streets, vendors shouted their merchandise, and old women who leaned over their windows in mystified surprise were asked for the shortest way to the port that had once been the greatest in the world of Men, a word of fear for Middle Earth and a jewel of Númenor. The intense life of a royal seaport erupted in streets of old stone and neglected statues, where people exchanged rumours, confronted their divided opinions about the Newcomer and devised strategies to have a good view of the royal train.
As any pedantic library rat, or proud heir of an ancient family would tell anybody who wanted to hear, Rómenna had been the key of Númenorean expansion for so many centuries that they were now impossible to count. The ships that would found Gadir had set off from their docks, and silver had been poured into their hands in an unextinguishable torrent. Kings had embellished their streets, built magnificent public edifices and temples, and some ventured that even Gadir´s beauty had been nothing but a pale copy of its mother back then.
The beginning of the decadence had been Ar-Adunakhôr´s accession to the throne. The ambitious king had judged it insufficient for his daring projects, too small and old and full of memories. Not further than a few miles south, he had ordered the building of the Arms of the Giant, the weapon of Melkor fully equipped for both trade and war. The harbour of Sor was larger than three cities put together, and in the shadow of the new growing monster, Rómenna could do nothing but wither.
During the reign of Ar-Zimrathôn, to add insult to injury, the King had ordered the Western exiles to dwell in settlements near to the city, effectively crushing whatever remained of their ancient splendour. That impious rabble had suffocated them, forcing them to build walls and fences against their possible rebellions and attracting the King´s ill-will over their region. In the families of Rómenna, visceral hatred for those usurpers was transmitted from one generation to another as part of a sombre inheritance, the last remains of their ancient pride.
This year, however, many events had taken place to shake them away from this long lethargy of resentment. King Ar-Gimilzôr, in an unexpected decision that had provoked outrage and set many tongues wagging in the whole of Númenor, had chosen a bride from Gadir for his younger son, the daughter of the most powerful merchant of the colony. It was the first time that a woman of Middle-Earth married into an important family in Númenor –the King´s own family!-, and the whole Court had been set in motion to welcome her to the Island.
The first idea had, of course, been to have her arrive to Sor and welcome her in the King´s harbour. But when most preparatives were already completed, the priests had suddenly interposed their veto. If the Middle-Earth ship bringing the new princess to Númenor entered Sor, it would be a bad omen of conquest. Discontent was already seeping through the populace about what they viewed as a humiliating capitulation to the Merchant Princes, and her arrival could not take the appearance of a triumphal entrance in the greatest symbol of the King´s dominion over the world. Moreover, she was consecrated to the Goddess, whose dark feminine essence the Lord of Light despised.
And thus, the inhabitants of Rómenna had woken up one morning to find whole armies of servants of the King at their gates. For the space of a month the city had been cleaned and repaired, fences had been built throughout the harbour, houses had been restored to their former magnificence to accomodate great nobles, and the Western exiles who lived in the city as servants, artisans or vendors had been expelled once again. Everything that the Royal House of Armenelos had not done in a hundred years had been completed in a few days.
Most citizens, in spite of all, had not allowed themselves to be blinded by this new turn in their fortunes. Their city had once been great, and in front of those new visitors - both the humble and the illustrious-, they were determined to behave as if nothing was out of the ordinary. The lady whose family had been noble at the time of the Colonisers wore the finery of her great-grandmother, and stared with condescendence at the heavy golden veils of the Court ladies. The head of the City Council did not humble himself offering his thanks to the governor of Sor for having been chosen – echoes of a time where such a choice would have been obvious. Parents scolded their children for staring at the folk of Armenelos, and any circle of old wives felt entitled to criticise, in patronising tones, this new bride whom they fancied to be a distant descendant of one of the city´s wayward families, who had once left in search of a better fortune.
Still, the day when the royal train finally made it to the harbour, there were few who withstood the temptation of fighting for a vantage point from which they could at least catch a glimpse of the favourites of Melkor. None of the citizens had seen this new King before, except for the odd merchant who had travelled to Armenelos to conclude some business on the day of the Prince´s wedding. As he walked towards the docks surrounded by his train and guards, many women and more than one man stood on their toes, and let go of a sigh of wonder.
Now, that was a king. Some of the elderly people of the city still remembered having travelled to neighbouring Sor to see Ar-Sakalthôr more than seventy years ago, when he travelled there to consecrate the temple of Melkor in the first year of his reign, and his long, pale face, lost glances and rebellious hair had been found wanting. Ar-Gimilzôr, however, even at a distance, carried his royal dignity with all the required competence. His diadem, golden and set with rubies seemed to have been wrought with the sole purpose of ornating his proud frown. The purple cloak was folded with elegance, and the curls of long black hair fell down his back exactly as the most exigent of his examiners would have wished. All in all, he walked with assurance, seeing all but unmoved by everything.
Behind him, someone whispered, came his elder son, the Prince of the West. The looks of reverential approval that his father had earned turned to surprise, and then shock as he came in full sight. If he had not carried the purple, no one would have hesitated to believe that he was a lowly servant allowed into the King´s train by underhanded means. His mane, curly like that of his father, was as rebellious as that of his grandfather, and, horror of horrors! he had not shaved the hair in his face. He walked briskly, with none of the dignity that was required even of the humblest stablehand of the Palace, and his eyes, unpleasant and grey like those of the impious exiles, stared left and right with an unseeming curiosity.
At his side was his wife, plain and grey-haired like the wife of a barbarian. The daughter of a maid of the hairdresser of a Palace lady-in-waiting whispered to her friends that she had heard there was no love between them, that he was exasperated at her unability to give him heirs, and that she spent more than half of her years in her family´s house in the cold North.
Last, three steps behind them, the other son of the King walked at the side of the governor of Sor. His features mirrored those of his father, but coloured by the charm of a youth that refused to fade, and which the artful braiding of his hair with gold threads contributed to enhance. He wore a tunic of green and gold; the approval of the crowd was immediate.
As he made a move of his hand to elegantly brush a spot of dust from the hem of his cloak, a woman whispered in her husband´s ear that Prince Gimilkhâd would make a better King than his brother. The respectable shoemaker looked left and right and shook his head, vaguely afraid.
Because of the unfavourable currents, or a general error of calculation of the heralds, the ship was suffering a delay. The city authorities soon had to order a red awning to be brought for the royal family, and some murmurations could be heard from the rowdier part of the multitude as the sunrays started to grow stronger. More than one person, bedazzled by the light or simply with a penchant for jokes, announced the silhouette of the ship in the horizon, and caused the heavy calm to stir briefly before it died again in disappointment.
Still, the white sails did not appear unless well past noontide. They came floating over the calm surface of the Sea, agonisingly slow like a sleeping whale. A low buzz of whispers arose again, as the people forgot about the heat and the long hours of waiting to press against each other in their attempts to see.
The ship had ben made with the peculiar craft of the people of Gadir. Lower and wider than the Númenorean falcons of war, its curved hull had ample holds for merchandise, and the gentle, rocking movement it made suggested the graceful swing of a woman´s hips. On its prow, which did not end in the piercing spur typical of the ships of Sor, a tremulous, glittering spot attracted many curious glances, until it sailed close enough to the harbour for the people to distinguish the shape of a standing woman who looked into the distance.
The looks of curiosity soon turned to incredulity, and the intensity of the whispers increased. Rumour spread like fire that this woman was the merchant´s daughter, the barbarian who had the effrontery to show her face to the assembled crowd before her wedding, the sacrilegious priestess who did not mind the eyes of strangers! Some people turned back to steal a look at Ar-Gimilzôr, to see his reaction, but the King´s features showed none.
It was already under a slightly hostile climate that the ship, amid some yells of the sailors who manouevred to throw and tie the ropes, slowed and froze to a halt, and a gangway made of wooden planks was solidly fastened for the princess´s descent. And still, when she appeared at the top of the ramp, the scathing comments died in a renewed bout of astonishment.
The bride from Gadir stepped down, ignoring the changing emotions of the crowd. For a moment, she stopped to dart a few looks at the unfamiliar surroundings, and her throat bulged with a quick swallow. Her honey-coloured eyes blinked once, and many an angry woman had to elbow her enthralled husband while cursing this foreign priestess who was not a pale-faced girl with a deep glance.
There were many legends about the fair queens of old, and rumour had it that the late Princess Inzilbêth, the mother of the heir to the throne, had been the greatest beauty of Númenor before the Doom took her at a young age. But none, among the thousands of people who gathered in that old harbour, had ever seen such a sight in their lifetimes.
This bride was dressed with a magnificence that put every single courtier to shame. Even the King himself was overshadowed by the splendour of her extravagant attire of floating blue silks, covered in embroideries of the fine silver that had earned her city´s prosperity. Heavy necklaces hung from her neck, diamond and emerald bracelets covered her arms in an impossible profusion, and even her hair, long and of a rich brown colour, was almost buried under ringlets of silver and gems. No woman in Númenor had ever dressed like this – no, not even the goddess who stood in the darkness of her cave at the Forbidden Bay.
And yet, the beauty of the woman under the display of riches was well worthy, maybe even complementary of them in an odd way. She was very young –not yet twenty- with freshly formed features that were already tempered by a soft elegance. Beneath her robes, each of her small, balancing steps formed sensuous lines that brought a knot to many throats. And her skin –admirable thing!-, like yet another exotic jewel that had been wrapped over her limbs, was a softly golden colour, as if the sunrays, instead of burning it, had instead chosen to lend to it something of their own quality.
Someone could be heard explaining, to whoever cared to listen, that hers was the skin colour of the people who lived in the land where the sun was born. Those with an education smirked at his ignorance, but none looked aside.
As she arrived to the King´s proximity, her chin was still high. The onslaught of murmurs of disapproval was renewed, this time coming from the people of the royal train. Something in her eyes, in the way in which she walked suggested effrontery to the grave folk of Armenelos.
She seemed to have the presence of mind to notice, however, and lowered her eyes until she was close enough to kneel and bow in front of Ar-Gimilzôr. Gimilkhâd eyed her in bedazzlement, while a curious interest danced in his brother´s sharp eyes.
"Rise, Melkyelid." the King said, offering her his hand in a show of goodwill. She took it and stood up, just in time to find coarse fingers holding a red veil in front of her nose.
Realisation dawned upon the newcomer´s features, and she bowed in apology to the tall, forbidding figure of her sister-in-law. When she threw the red folds over her face, several muffled sighs of disappointment could be heard in their proximity.
Once that she had convenably covered herself, she turned again towards Ar-Gimilzôr.
"Protector and guardian of Númenor and its colonies." she began. Her voice came too loud, and coloured by the shadow of an accent, but it did not tremble. "Favourite of the Great God whose name I am not allowed to speak, ruler of Armenelos, receive this humble daughter of the city beyond the Sea in your sacred realm!"
For a moment, she raised her eyes again, and let them trail briefly over the royal persons. Gimilkhâd swallowed, visibly agitated at the blurred sight of her face. Inziladûn frowned, as if he had been assaulted by a sudden vision, but Ar-Gimilzôr merely nodded in approval.
"Come." he said. The members of the King´s train composed their robes amid the sound of swishing silks, and slowly set into motion behind Ar-Gimilzôr´s even steps.
Melkyelid stood there, frozen for a second of incertitude as she watched the complicated manouevre. Then, aware of the buzz that had been unleashed behind her back, she held the ends of the long veil with a determined grip, and fell into an empty space behind Gimilkhâd.
Her eyes were round and cautious, taking things in consideration with a sort of methodical slowness. Used to brief waits, to the intense moments and noisy chatter of a life of pleasure in Armenelos, this silent withdrawal into a world of her own could not help but make Gimilkhâd nervous. He turned aside from her, studied the mosaics and carpets of his own room; then turned back abruptly, ashamed at his own lack of majesty.
The young woman´s features, still brilliant from sweat, had only recently emerged from beneath the red folds of the veil. Now, a golden hand was trying to pull an element of her headdress back in place, with careful and precise movements that struck a quiet contrast with his wild behaviour.
As he stopped to look at her, she raised her head in answer. Both their glances clashed in the air, and he blinked, feeling explored – not pierced, like whenever those terrible grey eyes saw through his elaborate masks and broke his strongest defenses, yet he had never allowed any man who drank with him or any woman who entered his bed to stare at him in the face.
And he had always hated silence.
Melkyelid breathed deeply, and her lips curved into a tentative smile. Gimilkhâd, whose mouth had already begun to open, felt a knot gather in his throat, and let it snap shut again.
Too late, he realised that she was seeing him gape at her. Furious, he clenched his fists, trying to regain his dignity while she watched.
"I thought a former priestess of Ashtarte-Uinen would not be so shy on her wedding night." he blurted out, somewhat vengefully. "You cannot be afraid, can you?"
The expected –relieving- onslaught did not come. Maybe, a part of him belatedly thought, he had not even expected it, not any more than he would have expected a precious statue in a courtyard to yell back at him.
She smoothed out the blue and silver fabric of her dress over her knees, until there wasn´t a single crease left in the pattern.
"Might a stranger speak freely?" she demanded.
Since the last lady-in-waiting had fled their presence, with hurried steps and a pleased blush upon her downcast face, it was the first time that she had spoken a word. In spite of himself, Gimilkhâd had grown fascinated with that alien accent of deeper and longer vowels, and the soft tone that she had quickly learned to employ when she realised that the ladies of Armenelos were shocked at the loudness in her voice. He nodded, a gesture which she answered with a small yet grave bow.
"It is... more than mere shyness, what brings me to study my battleground with such intent care." she said, looking into his eyes again. "You have asked if I am afraid; my answer is that I am. From my island city stretching along the coast of Middle-Earth, I alone have returned to the land of my ancestors. I have achieved a place of honour that my family would never have dared to envision through the long generations that lie between me and our noble founder, even though we have become rich and powerful. "Lowering her glance a little, she joined her hands over the curve of her stomach, as if she was suddenly feeling cold. "And now, here, the princess of a house of colonisers is nothing but a barbarian. The daughter of Magon of Gadir is the daughter of a merchant, and the priestess of the Great Goddess is a prostitute who should not be shy in her wedding night."
She made a long pause, but did not seem to care for the badly dissimulated shock in his eyes. He felt an urge to say something, but he could not figure what or how.
"This city is full of unkind eyes, tall buildings, and streets that I cannot tread." she continued, in an even lower tone. The statue was beginning to dissolve in a fragile, longing image of vulnerability. Gimilkhâd sat at her side, and all of a sudden nothing mattered anymore, only a desire to hold those delicate fingers and tell her that there was nothing to fear.
And yet, he still did not know what to say.
"I have heard that there is a... rare kind of beauty in your city." he began. His voice, hoarse at first in his clumsy attempts at kindness, became firmer when he saw a tentative light begin to shine in her features. "That there are places where you can see the Great Sea in front of you, and the barbarian coast behind."
"Oh, yes! Our island is a small world of many horizons." she nodded, happier at the remembrances. Her honey eyes became lost in the distance, as if they were seeing the familiar lines and colours of the land of her birth. "Ours is the mysterious blue line where no land is seen, the passage to another world that is but a myth to the tribes of barbarians that trade with us. Ours is the distant sight of mountains, behind the fog of the Eastern world. Ours is the red sunset where the sky seems to be filled with blood, the crown of ghostly rays behind a mass of grey clouds, and the spark of green that superstitious eyes seek whenever a spotless yellow sun drowns into the Sea under a clear sky. "He pressed her against him, seduced by the enthusiasm in her voice, and she briefly rested her head against his shoulder. She smelled strange. "And ours is the sunset behind the branches of giant foreign trees."
"You will also like Armenelos." he promised.
For a while, he sought for words to describe the splendours of his city as she had just done with hers. But the flattering descriptions of Court poets rung hollow in his mind, borrowed words in face of the real love that breathed her high-flowing, solemn foreign eloquence. He gave up.
What could he know?
Gimilkhâd had lived all his life in Armenelos, and prepared countless escapades to the best and worst quarters of the Three Hills to find the objects of his pleasures. He knew of the magnificence of its buildings, gardens, temples and palaces, which had furnished the luxuries that had become his life´s most pressing needs. Nowhere else, after all, could he have found such refinements, such fine garments, such beautiful women and good wine, and for all this he liked the King´s capital. But he had never loved Armenelos, where the sombre corridors had once been a world of dread, and a Palace wing had always been closed to him.
For a moment, he imagined how it would be to be her, and went back to those nights of darkness when he fancied that the still unexplored galleries were a labyrinth that stretched infinitely in front of the awed child´s eyes, and his mad grandfather smiled at him from his throne. When he still didn´t have friends, or women, or anything who stood between him and the overwhelming presence of two dark eyes lit with a cruel hope, and two sea-grey eyes filled with contempt.
He looked at the woman who sat next to him, who studied the height of the ceilings with the careful mistrust of a barbarian or a child. And then, though he had never had a share in the perilous gift of the King´s line, he felt briefly as if a flash of insight had taken him.
Would this quiet beauty reign one day in those corridors that she now feared? Would her voice be heard, louder than his, firmer in her intent?
A feathery caress on his shoulder startled him out of those strange musings. He gazed at her, and she surprised his lips with a kiss.
For a moment, he stood there in shock. No woman had ever touched him first before, not even the boldest whores at the less reputable places he had visited. Then, however, as a pair of skilled hands touched and scratched their way down his back, he felt the beginnings of a fire burn and coil inside his chest, warmer than the others he had experienced.
Taken by the impulse, his own hands wandered towards her hair and neck, and he began to discard the precious silver ornaments, throwing them left and right. His own violence surprised him, and also the unexpected surge of wild relief when, at last, he saw them scattered upon the floor.
The naked goddess nodded gravely, stretching her golden limbs upon the covers.
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.