22. The Lady Melkyelid
A fog wove its warm tendrils over his soul. He looked down, forcing his mind to surrender to the glimmering precipice that stretched in the dark. Fear seized him in its cold grip, but he had learned long ago that he was brave enough to surrender.
All their voices were there, floating in the air that rose slowly to meet his trembling face. The grave voice of a man, the concerned voice of a woman, a young lady who smiled and a pale young man who studied the lines of his countenance in quiet fascination.
Even she was there, with her sad, beautiful smile. But unlike the others, she did not call him.
Inziladûn bit his lip, banishing the ghosts of the past from his mind. There were pressing issues at hand, reasons that had pushed him to contact the Exiles for the second time in the last three months – in spite of the danger.
With a firm gesture, he reached to the precipice, and took the light in his hands. Images of vast distances passed him by at a vertiginous speed, of hills and crops and temples, and a tall, magnificent city on the shores of the Great Sea. Crying seagulls settled upon a red tower with a quick flapping of wings. He steadied his grip.
Zarhil´s time is over. he said, searching for a point of support in the grey eyes of Valandil, which widened a bit before they were shadowed by a dark cloud. I will not have heirs.
A heavy silence followed his words, as the Exiles pondered the disheartening news. Somewhere, a current of despair screamed briefly before it was subdued into the usual harmony of resignation.
We must trust the will of Ilúvatar.
You feel no grief.
Surprised, the Prince of Númenor recognised the soft voice of Artanis. For the first time in years, her eyes pierced his light, and he remembered that they had been the colour of the sky on a foggy Andúnië dawn.
Artanis... her father´s voice interrupted, but she did not back down.
Inziladûn has a greater gift than any of us. We must trust his foresight, even if he does not trust it himself.
Shocked at the strange reasoning, Inziladûn tried to pull away from the link that joined his soul to the community of the Faithful. He needed to be himself again, to reflect on her words without other people´s thoughts brushing against his and gently mingling in a choir of whispering voices.
You feel no grief.
As he returned to the –now so narrow, so excruciatingly narrow- confines of his own self, he saw his wife´s sour expression turn to glowering anger. A vase shattered against the floor in a thousand shards.
"All those years for this?For you to mutter empty words of comfort when I tell you I will never be able to bear your child?"
"It is not your fault, Zarhil."
Puzzlement gathered in his entrails, together with a weird feeling of inadequacy. It was as if – somehow, the news did not reach the sentient part of his soul. As if they were vain words, nothing more.
For all those years, he had been waiting, hoping. Having faith, in spite of the quickly diminishing chances. His father had been no fool, even though he believed in oracles.
Had his faith created such a gulf between him and reality, that now he was unable to accept it even as it was yelled to his face?He could not be angry. He could not feel despair.
Maybe everything had been in vain all along - and maybe he had known.
Artanis´s faith still reached him, now similar to a faint echo in the distance. But, he wondered, could foresight work this way? Forbidding his heart to follow the logic of his brain? Maybe, what had happened to him in other ocassions could have been explained this way – that night when against his upbringing he chose to trust the Lord of Andünié and forsake his father´s gods-, but face to an inexorable law of Nature, the very thought seemed pretentious and empty.
Only He who created Nature holds power over His creation.
More shaken than what he had felt back when Zarhil gave him the news, Inziladûn focused back on the palantír. They were all waiting for him, and their minds opened gladly to pull him in. No one questioned him.
This presence was the most vague of all, with the ethereal quality of morning fog among trees; an Elf whose light had been dimmed by time and shadow. And yet, his voice was firm.
Númendil. he acknowledged him.
My wife is expecting a child, and I feel that he will be male. I will glady give him to you. the voice said.
There are many ways to introduce a baby in the Palace unnoticed. Valandil added in tacit agreement. And there are also ways to feign a pregnancy.
Shocked, Inziladûn felt their sincerity reach him in waves. There was no suffering, no conflict, no more than a passing regret in the heart of Númendil and his family. They would surrender their homes, their freedom, their lives –their nieces, he remembered with some bitterness-, and even their yet unborn children in their quest for salvation.
He had been their friend and ally for many years now, and yet, at such moments he suddenly became aware of the width of the gulf that lay between them and him. Unlike them, he had never sacrificed everything. He could not wholly fathom the depths of devotion that lay behind their veiled glances. At those times, he felt ashamed – and afraid, knowing that one day he, like them, would have to face his destiny.
I congratulate you warmly, Númendil. Your son will carry the line of the Lords of Andúnië in brighter times.
His words, at least, were received with due acceptance. Feeling his refusal, they did not insist, and soon afterwards he pulled away in silence.
That night, Inziladûn dreamed of a boy and a girl, holding each other´s hands as they ran to escape the might of the wave. Their hair was black, their eyes grey and full of terror, and they were both alike.
The King´s Festival was especially solemn that year, as whenever Númenor or its colonies were waging war on other peoples. In mid-winter, Armenelos had been mildly shaken when some ships bearing the King´s ensign had set for the colony of Gadir, with the mission of "mediating" in the uprising of a faction of citizens that had rebelled against Magon´s leadership and accused him of despotical ways. Contrary to the example of their metropolis, the people of Gadir, composed by a great majority of merchants, had always prized themselves for the relative equality of their social status. There had never been any great differences between the richest families, and an uncommon growth in the fortune of one was felt as a terrible insult by the others. Magon´s prosperity upon reaching the King´s ear had threatened them more than what any foreign foe ever could.
Still, Ar-Gimilzôr would never have been so careless as to send his ships to wage war on citizens. The raids of some Belfalas tribes were causing some ruckus in the trading posts of the colony, and under the grand pretext of fighting them he had declared the War Year. Thus, the altar where the flame of Melkor burned had been decorated with branches that smelled strongly of myrrh, and gold and purple offrands glistened upon the white flight of stairs. And, while the choir of priests sang the sacred litanies, the King performed the feat of sacrificing not two, but twelve black bulls and cows.
Inziladûn watched from a retired place, as always hiding his disgust at the spurts of blood under a seamless mask. He liked to believe that he had not needed Eärendur´s words to hate such a violent and dirty ceremony – deep inside his heart, even back when the lulling whispers of priests assaulted his ears like a continuous torrent, he had preferred to adopt Maharbal´s belief that purity could never come from uncleanliness and pestilence, or rejoice in it.
Next to him, Zarhil and Gimilkhâd followed the ceremony in religious silence. His brother, always devout, was forming a prayer with his lips, but Zarhil stood still in her place like a rock battered by the winds of Soronthil. The glow of the flames lighted her face in undulating patterns, bringing out the pallor in her features.
A powerful bellow echoed through the hall, momentarily smothering the litany of chants. Inziladûn saw the dying bull fall to its knees in agony, and his father´s hands smeared in blood. A shiver ran through his spine.
At a short distance, priests in white were already hauling the first victims to throw them into the fire. The sacred flames rose to give their flaring welcome to the carcasses, and then the fumes became darker. A deep stench filled his nostrils, almost causing him to grimace in repugnance.
Elbereth, he muttered, remembering stories of how the Lady´s light had defeated this darkness when the world was new. But She was a pure thought of the One, not an imperfect soul where two kindreds battled each other continuously, locked in a prison of soiled flesh. And yet no, not even this - he was nothing but a human, the last fruit of a cursed lineage.
And he could not save Númenor.
As this morbid thought formed inside his mind, Inziladûn was shocked at himself. At once he turned back, trying to breathe clear air to purify his mind, but the pestilence had already impregnated everything. He coughed, unable to stop the dark flow of images. Everything that he had been unable to feel since Zarhil gave him the news assaulted him now with an unstoppable violence.
He imagined the black cloud spreading over cities, land and mountains, smothering everything under its suffocating stench. People fell to their knees with tortured gasps, unable to breathe, until a terrible yet beautiful wave restored their purity in death.
Shaken, and unable to think of the repercussions of his action, he turned away from the altar, and left the hall of sacrifices under Zarhil´s surprised look.
As fresh air reached his nostrils again, Inziladûn felt the sickly visions start to dissolve, like a child´s nightmare under the comforting light of the day. And still, something lingered in spite of his relief, while the pestilence of burned flesh still adhered to his skin and robes. Nauseated, he took the direction of the gardens, swearing to himself that he would never hold a single sacrifice as King.
The royal backyard of the Temple, located behind the altar, was one of the most lovely places in Armenelos. Driven by that year´s unaccustomed heat, the orange trees had bloomed early, and their fragrant white flowers fell in clusters that floated upon the waters of its twelve running fountains.
Somewhere behind the bushes, the sound of a woman´s soft laughter reached Inziladûn. Suddenly aware that he was not alone, he washed his face with the sweet-smelling water and tried to regain his royal composure, banishing the last ghastly shreds from his mind.
The lady he had heard was sitting upon the blue glazed tiles of a fountain, together with seven companions. In their centre, protected from the sunrays by a heavy branch whose flowers fell upon the pages at intervals, the lady Melkyelid was reading aloud. Her hair, as was her custom, was braided into a complicated headdress with gold and red gems. The silk dress that she wore was also red and embroidered in gold, and even her lips were skillfully painted with tiny patterns of both colours.
Upon noticing his presence, she laid the book down, and signalled the other women to bow. In the middle of the minor ruckus that ensued, only she stayed in place with courteously downcast eyes.
"You will not like my smell." he told her, with studied lightheartedness. He had never felt comfortable around the daughter of Magon, in spite of her many fine qualities and her ability to give a good impression.
She merely smiled.
"Yet it is the smell of the Divinity." A divinity whose threshold she was forbidden to cross, but whose power any true daughter of Gadir would rever. Inziladûn had heard many times that the cult of Melkor had originally hailed from their Temple – and yet, he did not have any intention of talking about the dark god in this beautiful place.
To his relief, she did not make any reference to his presence in the gardens before the ceremony was over. If she found it odd, or if it confirmed the rumours she had heard about his impiety, she preferred to let it pass in silence.
"It is well that we have met here. "she said instead, standing up from her seat. "There is... one thing that I wanted to tell you, and I did not know if I would ever have the chance."
One of the women knelt to shake the petals off the folds of her dress, and she waited patiently for her to finish. Then, she gestured at them to stay back, and turned a beseeching look in Inziladûn´s direction.
"Would you walk with me?"
He nodded, more than slightly puzzled at the proposition. Since her arrival to Rómenna, there was no way to keep count of the pleasantries and formalities that they had exchanged, but they had never held a personal conversation.
For a while, they walked in silence through the carved paths and fountains. The vivid greens of the plants, the clear blue of the sky and the red in her dress were a welcome relief after the altar´s darkness, and he took every chance to bathe deeply in them.
Finally, she spoke again, carefully honing her Eastern eloquence.
"My heart was shaken when I laid eyes upon the illustrious lady Zarhil."
Inziladûn hid his shock. Even if Zarhil´s sourness had been apparent to an observing outsider, it was not this woman´s place to comment upon it. And since he had known her, Melkyelid had never done anything that it was not her place to do.
"What do you mean?" he asked, forcing his voice to sound neither accusing nor defensive.
His sister-in-law´s lips curved into a new smile, this time strangely close to a grin. Before he could wonder at her sudden change of attitude, however, she laid a careful hand upon his shoulder, and calmly broke her news.
"I think that the illustrious lady Zarhil is pregnant."
The hard, dark-grey eyes narrowed ominously.
She pulled back from him, until her head almost collided with the opposite end of the covered carriage, and let go of a derisive laugh. Inziladûn nodded, unfazed.
"This is what she said."
"And you believed such a ludicrous story?"
"She said that she knew it as a woman. And then I remembered that it was two months ago when we last..."
Zarhil shook her head with violence, interrupting him.
"Nonsense! What... what can she possibly know about me? She was lying, lying like her whole breed!"
He crossed his arms over his knees, patiently. The carriage was crossing a street with irregular pavement, and both felt the wheels jump under their feet.
"And why would she?"
"Oh, who knows? Unlike her, I do not claim to know other women´s inner secrets!" she replied, making huge gestures with both hands. "She is not a good woman. Maybe... maybe she wants to have a laugh at my expense. Or she does it to introduce further disension between us!"
Even further? he thought, in somewhat bitter sarcasm.
"Since she came, her reputation has been spotless." he told Zarhil, in an attempt to quench her quickly growing rage. "The King is very fond of her, and my brother loves her dearly. I do not think there are any grounds to..."
"Your brother loves her dearly!" The woman´s grimace showed well enough what she thought of Gimilkhâd´s affections. "A priestess of Ashtarte-Uinen is worth a hundred women"... is that what they say?"
"Enough, Zarhil!" Inziladûn grumbled, at last close to losing his patience as well. In this, at least, they were still partners, he thought: there never was a single time when one of them failed for long to rise to the other´s provocation. "The lady Melkyelid is not the subject of our discussion, but whether you are or not pregnant!"
"Pregnant!" she cried. The carriage had slowed down; they were probably entering the Main Courtyard."Of course I am not pregnant! I told you that the time was over for me, do you remember? How do I need to say it in order for you to understand? I do not bleed anymore!"
The Prince swallowed. A belated awareness that this subject should have been calmly discussed instead of yelled, -and that it was somehow the fault of his earlier wording- assaulted his mind, but today´s aggressivity was becoming too much even for her usual standards of behaviour. She was positively seething, glancing left and right like a lion in a cage.
"Do pregnant women bleed?" he asked, forcing his voice to adopt a kinder tone.
Zarhil stood up, grabbing the velvet curtain with her strong fist.
"Will you never cease tormenting me, Inziladûn?"
Before his astonished eyes, she jumped. Outside, someone shouted in surprise. A horse neighed loudly as it was reined back by rigid, frightened hands, and the impulse of the sudden stop caused him to fall back on his seat.
For more than a month, Inziladûn saw nothing of Zarhil. She withdrew to her chambers, forbidding him entrance, and he was left alone to wonder about the puzzling turns of events.
Returning to their conversation, and recalling the ferocious hurt in her eyes before the jump, he realised, with the clarity of belated awareness, that her unability to have children had haunted her too. He cursed himself for his blindness, he, the man who looked into the hearts of people and had failed to nail his wife´s elusive and shifting distress! But no matter how many times he tried to talk to her again, he was not allowed into her rooms.
At days, he kept helping the King with the affairs of governance, unable, as in a nightmare, to prevent the many grains of sand from escaping his grip. Ar-Gimilzôr controlled everything now, his allies were rich in Middle-Earth and strong in Sor. The exiles would not return to their homes; their lordship had been revoked and they lived as virtual prisoners of the Merchant Princes of Sor. Their harbours were exploited by the King, and by the most powerful merchants under royal leave. People from other parts of Númenor had been relocated to the West, and offered farms in the lands of Andustar, which had come to fall under the lordship of the Governor of the Forbidden Bay. In the South, Umbar had been recently fortified. And reigning supreme above all this Magon, the magnate of Gadir, restored as undisputable leader of the colony, furnished the royal house with enough riches to produce two hundred thousand suits of armour, a hundred thousand swords and a thousand warships at the slightest sign of war, controlled Sorian traffic and held most nobles of Númenor –even Zarhil´s father- in the list of his debitors.
At nights, weary and dispirited after endless ceremonies in caves and smoking altars –Ar-Gimilzôr, in his old age, had become more religious than ever-, he lay in his bed and immediately fell asleep. But his eyes, closed to the waking world, were opened to a legion of eerie and persistent visions whose meaning evaded him. He saw the Wave, and the foul smoke, and in the centre of everything, the Twins. They held hands and stared at him, with grey eyes full of a quiet insistence.
One of those days, as he returned to his chambers in the evening, he was startled to find a hunched figure lying upon his bed. With a strange mixture of caution and urgence, he approached the dark silhouette, and two fearful grey eyes rose to meet his own.
"Zarhil?" he whispered, astonished. He tried to kneel at her side, but she shook her head and clumsily sat down on her own. Her movements ressembled those of a drunk man, but it was her pallor what alarmed him. "Zarhil! What is the matter?"
She opened her mouth as if to speak, then closed it again as if she did not know how to start. A faint blush began to spread across her cheeks.
"I was – I am pregnant." she stammered, in an almost inaudible whisper.
He did not understand the words.
"I am pregnant!" she repeated, mustering back some of her old irritation. "Have you gone deaf? Or you do not speak the language of the Men of Númenor? Is it so... so difficult to...?"
Her voice trailed away, and soon died down in a confused stammer. Swallowing deeply, he embraced her, forcing the news to sink inside his brain.
Her limbs were shaking, in constant but irregular spasms. At first, he thought that she had to be crying, but then realised that it was a silent laughter. As if it had been nothing but a funny tale, he recalled everything from the start: her announcement, Artanis´s faith in him –his own despair, Melkyelid´s perceptive words, and their terrible argument the day of the King´s festival. And then he remembered his puzzling unability to fathom the idea, punctuated by the visions of the Twins.
As a long, overdue explosion of relief, he felt the pull of laughter gathering also in his lungs. Everything, at last, was as it should be. The paradox had been solved; visions and prophecies would follow their normal course. His destiny was set, once again, in front of him like a beacon of light.
"I was a fool." she muttered. He nodded, falling upon the bed together with her. Everything seemed so comical now!
"We were fools, both of us. Fools, and unable to look in front of our noses!" And they laughed in unison, unable to care for this either, drunk with excitement and wonder.
That night, they slept beneath his covers, he pressing his face against her womb in an attempt to hear the beating of the heart –hearts!- of the forming bodies. But in his dreams, Death and Smoke still reigned, and one of the twins was covered by the dark fumes while the other raised a shrill scream.
...the threat has arisen again...
Outside, the night´s starry mantle shone dimly over the domes and towers of the Three Hill City. The gleam in Her face, veiled by a halo of clouds, lighted the steps of the women who perused the streets at midnight like ghosts of powdered cheeks. For an instant, he heard the distant yelp of a beaten dog– bad omen!-, but then there was nothing but the faint sound of the priest´s footsteps as he bowed and left him at the threshold of the Fire.
Careful not to stir the silence, he advanced towards the altar, muttering the prayers that would clean his soul from impurity. When he reached the while flight of stairs, he fell to his knees, prosternating himself thrice in front of the multifacetious, all-consuming giver of all power, the essence of life to which the God himself returned year after year until both were but one.
"The King of fire, of life and death, the son of Eru, Sovereign of Armenelos, will hear his favourite child." a voice chanted next to his ear in a monotonous whisper. A powerful smell assaulted his nostrils, and humbly, he extended his hands to receive the bronze pot where the sacred herb was slowly dissolving in fumes.
"Bestower of answers..." he muttered. The High Priest rose in a rustle of white robes, and left him alone.
Giving himself a moment to experience the sickness that invaded his very being, he forced his mind to master his body, and plunged inside. At once, the insidious smoke blocked the air away from his lungs, burning his face and bringing him close to the edge. The violent struggles of the deathbed ensued.
A while later, finally, his willpower waned, and he felt his soul start to leave his body as peacefully as if the horror of the Doom held nothing but a gentle sweetness. But before he could surrender to this sensation, in came the full might of his intruder – the Self that penetrated him like the edge of a brilliant sword once that his own self, the self of Ar-Gimilzôr, King of Númenor, Favourite of Melkor and Protector of the Colonies, had crumbled to dust.
The threat has arisen like a canker, both in the East and in the West. From the blood of the crushed serpent, evil will grow anew. The fallen lineage will give birth twice in a year, and weave the threads of our ruin.
Warm limbs writhed upon a cold floor. Each of the details of the dome´s paintings shone like a thousand diamonds under the sun.
A King´s weakness brings many evils to his people. Back then, you were weak. You were selfish. And you were criminal.
He was my son, he tried to hiss, but the overwhelming presence of the Other smothered this absurd, pretentious individuality. "He" - was nothing. He had no power, he had no lineage, he had no sons, it tore, mockingly, at his insides. He was but an imperfect mirror of the only true King who had existed since the Beginningborn to lend him a face and a voice in the mortal world for a while.He was a part of Númenor itself, and against His will and the Sacred Island´s prosperity there was no affection that was not criminal.
Not even I, powerful among the powerful, can escape Fate, and you are but a mortal. You may disguise your ineptitude behind a thousand clever schemes, but in the end, the sacrifice that you refused to make will come back to you. And fail! the serpent will grow to fill you with horror, until the whole of Númenor is taken by her deadly embrace and you are left, bodiless spirit, alone to mourn your cowardice.
The voice became silent, and the presence abandoned him with a mighty spasm. Shaken, Gimilzôr struggled to find a point of support, grabbing at the point of a marble step. He was trembling, and the sweat that soaked his face was cold and sticky.
At his feet, the bronze pot had been knocked over with violence during the ritual. The still steaming herbs lay scattered around the floor, and his left hand and arm were covered in angry red burns. He stared at it in morbid fascination for a while, then quickly hid it under the folds of his purple cloak.
Meanwhile, sitting next to the gentle fumes of a perfume burner, a woman raised her eyes to look at the stars. Her glance trailed from one to the other, following their lines –not with the abandon of a dreamer, but the practiced ease of an expert in their science who dutifully mumbled their names as she counted them, in a strange mixture of absortion and respect.
Suddenly, her forehead was creased by a slight frown. Something was out of place in the constellation of the Virgin, a glimmer... a shooting star?
Little by little, under her silent vigilance, the glimmer grew, until it became a constant glow that mirrored the golden hue of her face. For an instant –had it been a vision?- her placid features were lighted by a feral joy, but it died in a flicker, carefully hiding her secret from the prying eyes of the night.
A gust of cold wind dishevelled her hair. Burying her chin under her blue velvet mantle, she huddled closer to the fire, and caressed her stomach with a small smile.