23. The Twins
I agree that this chapter might seem like a big WTF to many. My excuse is: it will not be the last.
"Queen of the Seas
Mother of All..."
"Here it is! I... I have it!"
"Guide of ships
Mother of All"
Inziladûn heard a sharp growl, among hurried whispers of midwives and the sound of stirred water. Then, the silence.
"Lady of Shadows
Mother of All
Fairer than silver..."
Even the litany died after a while, with the faded voice of a shaking woman. Zarhil, strong as she was, had been terrified to give birth unless the attributes of Uinen were sung by her bedside, but now he did not hear her asking the singer to resume her task. Far in the distance, someone was wailing.
Inziladûn laid his forehead against the cool wood, impatient and worried. A strange feeling of urgence was on him, and he wondered if this was what a man was supposed to feel when his wife was away from his reach, writhing to give birth to his children.
Or was it something else?
The wail became sharper, turning into a scream that pierced even the thick closed doors. Inziladûn went pale, trying to remember where he had heard this sound before. It was high and shrill, and it filled him with an instinctive dread.
Death and smoke... The boy´s eyes widened in fear, as the fumes closed around him. His sister ran towards him. She opened her mouth to let go of an ear-shattering scream...
Seized by panic, Inziladûn knocked at the door. Nobody answered.
"Zarhil!" he cried. He heard a faint stir.
Feeling his determination grow, he pushed harder and harder, until it eventually gave way with a sharp click. A pungent smell of sweat and medicine, mingled with the insidious sweetness of blood assaulted his nostrils. Pieces of white linen were strewn across the floor at his feet, but no one came to greet him.
Suddenly, Inziladûn remembered that empty corridor. His mother´s small and white body, lying on her bed under a violet garment. He recoiled, and yet now as well as back then, the need to know proved greater than the fear.
As his steps led him to the Lie-In Chamber, the wails were already becoming deafening. There was a baby somewhere, of this there was no doubt –his baby, he told himself, torn between conflicting hypotheses. But he heard no other voice, no other wail, no other woman telling Zarhil to push harder until the second child was born. And Zarhil was lying on the bed, her eyes staring into nowhere.
"Zarhil!" he cried, rushing towards her. They have killed her and fled, was the first idea that formed in his mind when he found no one at her bedside. Trembling, he took her callused hand into his – and felt a slow, steady pulse bring back life to his deathly pallor.
"Zarhil." he repeated several times, as if the very name had the power to dispel the shadows. She stirred a little, mumbling something incoherent. "Zarhil."
Now that his most pressing concern had been answered, the awareness of what surrounded him returned little by little, as if he was waking up from a dream. The sheet where he was sitting was smeared with dark bloodstains. Around him, the room lay in an abandoned disorder of dirty water tubs, towels and ceramic jars, except for a lone woman who cradled a wailing creature in her arms.
As his attention turned sharply towards her, he saw her flinch, and pull back until her back was pressed against the stone wall. She could not be older than twenty-five, with a pale round face, and dark eyes widened in fear. A book of litanies was lying on the floor at her feet.
"What happened?" he asked her. She shook her head, pressing the crying child against her chest. His impatience grew.
"Speak! Where are the others?"
"It was not me." she muttered. The baby´s noise smothered the sound of her words, and she tried again, louder. "It was not me! I did not... help the Lady give birth. I... I was here to read..."
The panic, momentarily quenched as he saw that Zarhil was alive began to grow in his chest anew. He wanted to grab that woman and search her glance for the truth of what she had seen, of what had frightened her so deeply.
But then, she was holding his child in her hands like there was no other protection left to her.
"Come forth." he tried again, in a kinder, reassuring voice. "I will not harm you."
She made a nervous gesture of denial –obviously, she did not believe him. Little by little, she seemed to be reaching some kind of determination, and struggled to stand up. Eyeing him warily all the time, she tiptoed towards an ivory cradle that stood around three metres away from Zarhil´s bed. Inziladûn´s attention shifted towards it, and he saw that a wrapped bundle was lying on top of the purple covers.
His sense of foreboding increased.
The young woman took the crying child, and carefully laid it next to the bundle. As if taken by a powerful spell, the wailing immediately ceased.
"This is your daughter."she said. Then, before he could react, she made a quick bow and ran past the door, raising her long silk sleeves with trembling hands.
Inziladûn swallowed deeply, but did not follow her. Instead of this, he knelt next to the cradle, and picked up the bundle to unwrap it with a heavy heart. The baby –the girl- started wailing anew, the same, broken-hearted sound of the twin of her dreams.
His son was dead.
It was useless to attempt a pursuit, even an investigation of those women´s whereabouts. A peek at the next room showed Inziladûn the existence of another door, which they had no doubt used before when they fled. And there were so many enigmas, so many questions floating over the silent emptiness of the room. How had it happened? Had it been one of them, several, or all? Had they been paid?
There was only one person in Númenor who would inspire them with the sacrilegious audacity of killing a royal prince. One, who would not suffer him to have male heirs. The King´s bloodied hands at the sacrificial altar came back to his mind, and before he could even feel pain, he felt sick.
Zarhil´s eyes opened soon afterwards. At first, she began to move restlessly in her bed, muttering incoherences and fragments of litanies –had she been drugged? Then, she saw him, and immediately asked for her two children.
In other circumstances, Inziladûn would have carefully reflected on what should be said to a sick woman and what should better be left in silence. But the baby´s corpse, pale and swollen, was still in front of his eyes.
"He is dead", he said simply, in a toneless voice. Zarhil´s eyes widened, and she let go of a strangled cry.
"Give him to me!" she demanded, tearing at the sheets in an attempt to lift her body to a sitting position. Alarmed, Inziladûn ran towards her, just in time to prevent her from falling off the bed.
"Zarhil..." he began, holding her down. She tried to struggle, but she was too weak, and her well-honed muscles were of as little help to her as her desperation. Her head thrashed from left to right, like an injured lion in a wall painting. "Zarhil, he died in childbirth..."
"I heard him!" she yelled. "I heard him cry! He was alive!"
He swallowed, livid. Only the sense of purpose needed to calm her down could prevent him from letting go of his grief and nausea. His mouth opened several times, trying to find words to explain the horror of what had happened –until a terrible certitude assailed him, and put an end to his frenzied attempts.
She should not know. Nobody should know about this, ever.
"Yes. He was alive." he nodded, with studied calm. "But he was the... last to be drawn out from you. The birth was difficult, and he was suffocated. Soon after he was born, he died."
She stared at him, uncomprehending.
"It was said that you were too old to withstand a double birth. "he lied. "We should count ourselves as lucky because you survived."
His very innards trembled at the hurt in her expression.
"It was my... my fault, then? This is what you mean?"
"No!" he cried. She seemed to have gone limp under his restraining efforts, so he moved aside and let her go. Tears welled in her eyes, but she did not move. "It was nobody´s fault. You did what you could, they did what they could. Our son did what he could. But he could not survive." Lies, all of them, lies. A monster´s deadly poison lived in the Palace. Shaking, he held on to the only thing that was true, and uncontrovertible."It was not your fault, Zarhil."
The woman shook his head. Suddenly, in an unexpected movement, she grabbed his sleeve with a white-knuckled grip, and pulled him towards her. Afraid that despair would bring her to violence, he tried to hold her again, but to his surprise she merely fell in his arms. Her body shook with sobs.
Inziladûn did not know anymore if he was comforting her or himself, but cradling this woman of rough skin and dishevelled grey hair made the most immediate knot in his throat untangle. After a long while, he pried away from her, and picked the living baby from the cradle.
She had begun to wail again, thrashing with her hands and feet as if she was trying to escape from something that his eyes could not see. Darkly, he wondered if she would ever be free from the evil whose shadow had already touched her.
Zarhil was wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, and he sat next to her, laying their daughter in her arms. At first, there was nothing but a distant awareness, slowly building in her eyes as she looked at her. After a while, however, fear came to her eyes, and with it the first spark of love for the child that had been about to die. She extended a tentative finger towards her.
"Feed her." he whispered in her ear. A shaken hope lighted her face for a moment at the proposition, but it soon disappeared.
"It is not my place. "She grimaced bitterly. "And I - I probably do not have milk anymore."
You were too old to withstand a double birth.
He cursed at himself.
"Nobody cares for that. Feed her." he said, in a stronger tone. "See! She wants you to feed her. She is your daughter."
Tentatively, Zarhil manouevred her in what she thought to be the right position. The baby´s face was red from her ininterrupted crying, and yet she writhed and tried to twist backwards from her grip. Zarhil´s hands shook in renewed terror.
"I will drop her. She will die, too."
"She will not." Taken by a strong determination, he took the child in his own arms while she clumsily bared her breast. In such an awkward moment, he felt glad that they were alone.
At last, the child was ready to be laid again on her mother´s lap. Zarhil watched him do it in quiet fascination, and only when he tugged at her sleeve she realised that she had to lift her in her arms. The process of adjustement was slow, but finally the baby could find the way to her first source of food.
The woman´s expectation was tense, and painful. It felt as if everything in her world, her pain, her exhaustion, and even her grief for her dead child, had been reduced for a moment to this only object of her care and anxiety – the fragile child´s elusive face and a pale breast.
Then, the wailing fell into silence. To Inziladûn´s marvel, and as if she had always known what she had to do, the baby pressed her mouth against her mother, and began to suck.
A smile broke upon Zarhil´s face.
We must trust the will of Ilúvatar.
He was aware that the easiest thing would be to lose faith. To turn his back on the one who had not wished or had not been able to prevent it from happening.
And still, deep inside his soul, he knew that this would be nothing but a foolish simplification. It was the immediate, beastly, naked logic of any of the thousands who sacrified to Melkor and Uinen. To give in order to receive. To receive in order to give. Divine figures built by men and for men, with the only mission of fulfilling their desires.
His friends, the Exiles, had taught him to recognise the true gods by their names and attributes. For long, Inziladûn had listened to their teachings, but though he held every single one of their words in high honour, there had always been a doubt that he had kept to himself.
For him, -and in this he had also clashed with Maharbal- the true gods did not answer to the vulgar requests of Men. They were the creatures of his vision, sitting on their thrones of light while their glances encompassed the whole world. The imperfect soul of Man, bereaved of the inmortal brilliance of the fëar of Elves, could not reach their heights unless it could be possible to purify oneself so completely that all the shameful human thoughts and urges would fall to one´s feet like a discarded garment. The anguish, the longing that he felt were the curse of his Elven blood, but his human heritage was too corrupted.
Eärendur, back when he still lived, and Valandil, had reluctantly agreed with this. They had added that not even all Elves could reach the purity of the Valar anymore, and that many had lived -and still lived- in Middle-Earth as exiles. The Valar, after all, were also creatures like them, and they had their limits. But - they had added- Ilúvatar was Father of All, who covered everything, and there was no place that he could not reach, or voice that he could not hear.
For a time, Inziladûn´s skepticism had held this belief at arm´s length. It was not that he thought that Ilúvatar would be unable to hear him – Ilúvatar could not be unable to do anything – but his awakened disgust for the vulgar materialism of the false religion had made him recoil from the idea of such a relationship of giving and asking with the Creator of the World. How could Ilúvatar accept a cow in exchange of bringing someone luck in a naval expedition without destroying the very concept of what He was supposed to be? How could He let a man believe that he did not depend on his own actions, but on an invisible providence that could be paid in gold? Would such a conception not destroy whatever good was left in this world, a good that He himself had created?
And yet, this view, and he had to admit it with a renewed sense of shame, was not what had guided his thoughts and actions for all his life. Man was weak, and the common sense of youth hard to keep when facing the perils of the adult world. The sincere beliefs of the Western line – beliefs that had kept them alive, but theirs were not the same fights as his- had crept into his heart, and he had come to relate things with the divine providence that he had once despised. After all, wasn´t the Wave dream a proof of its existence? Would they be fighting to save a sinking world if not for His mercy? And to save Númenor, Ilúvatar had to save him first. His reign would bring a change to the World of Men; he had been chosen for this since his birth granted him both the Sceptre and the ability to find the truth.
Alas! he had failed to see in time how this belief would weaken him. Instead of fighting, he had simply accepted, feigned, and waited. He would be given the means, the Sceptre, the heir that he needed, he would triumph no matter what his father or his allies did. And with an exalted, confident heart he had become unworthy of his mission, allowed the servants of Melkor to weave their insidious nets around his future reign, and now, terrible wake-up call, the last and most sacrilegious of all crimes had taken place in front of his nose.
It was his fault, and no one else´s. The death of this unfortunate child with no name would even be a small price to pay for the realisation that he had to fight or perish. That in this world of murders and strife, in this world where his own father had his son strangled in his mother´s womb for the sake of his policies, things would never come, without pain and sacrifice, to lay themselves upon his outstretched hand.
He could hate Ilúvatar. But in the end, he had to be brave and hate himself.
Could it be said, he wondered, that it was already too late? Were their hopes meant to be quenched by this terrible blow? His heart twisted in his entrails, remembering his beloved mother´s suffering, and the sacrifice of their kin. They had understood well enough, and in spite of their beliefs, never lowered their guard. Would all their struggles be for nothing?
There have been three ruling Queens in Númenor before. He had thought that once in the first years of their marriage, flippantly, because with all those years ahead of him and the arrogance of youth he had not thought there would be a real need. But now, they came back at him. For he would never have sons, and only his daughter had been considered harmless enough to live.
This, if nothing else, showed that his father –for the first time, he felt nauseated at the title- was not posessed by a mindless evil, but filled with a cunning purpose. In this decadent Númenor, the great Ancalimë was seen as little more than a legend, and the last woman who had claimed a right to the Sceptre had been abandoned, by all but a few, to a terrible fate. Custom had become stronger than the ancient laws that Aldarion established before the decline, and nobody would fail to find ludicrous and intolerable that a woman, who had been banned from all public offices except priesthood, could rule the Island as Queen. The God King was male; no female could be his reflection.
Inziladûn swallowed, suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling of helpless tenderness as he lay eyes upon his daughter. For days and nights she had been crying without stop, unable to find rest even in dreams, until he had the occurrence of showing her Inzilbêth´s jewel. The baby had stared at it, mesmerised, and immediately held two enticed little hands towards the shiny thing. Somewhat worried, Inziladûn had finally allowed her to have it, checking that it had no cutting ends and was too big for her to swallow. She had calmed down then, to his surprise, sucking at the jewel with her toothless mouth. And when those grey eyes, wide and serene, had been lifted towards him for the first time, he had realised with a start that they were the eyes of his mother.
How could she, this baby, have the strength to fight the Merchant Princes, the false gods and the zealous evil of her own family? How could she, like the unfortunate Alissha, be thrown into the middle of a cruel war between kinsmen, and prevail? Inzilbêth, who had always smiled, who had always been strong for her son, had perished in one of those dark halls. Would this child, who had already seen death with her own eyes, have to fight those shadows one day?
She will not, he thought, feeling a fierce determination fill him with a new strength. Because when she grew up, this tainted world would not exist anymore. He was still there and he would bring the change to Númenor, no matter the pain and no matter the cost. Not even if he died in the attempt would he try to flee his fate or lament it.
One day, his daughter would be the fair Queen of a peaceful land, beacon of light for all kindreds, where the ancient arts would recover their ancient splendour under the guidance of the Immortals and nobody would try to take what was hers by violence.
Suddenly, he felt as if the purpose that he had lacked until today had come crashing on him at last.
"My lord, it is the hour."
Inziladûn forced himself to abandon his musings, and gave a brief nod to the Second Royal Nurse, who held the child in her arms. Careful not to wake her, he pried the jewel away from his daughter´s fingers.
"Let us enter, then."
He was ready.
When they entered, the King was already sitting upon his throne. At his left and right, the Palace Head Priest of Melkor – Inziladûn´s old teacher Hannon-, the Keeper of the Chapel of Ashtarte-Uinen and the Seer waited, in perfect ceremonial gravity. No one else had been summoned: as the child had been born female, it had been ruled that the ceremony should be a private one, far from the indiscreet glances of strangers.
In perfect calm, Inziladûn took the child from the woman´s arms, and knelt to wait for the summons. As he heard his name being called, he stood up with downcast eyes, and handed the sleeping bundle to Hannon.
The priest made no comment. Softly chanting a prayer, he unwrapped the baby until she was fully naked, then took her by both hands and skillfully held her over the flames of the sacred fire. This woke her up at once, and soon her scared wails were hurting the ears of everyone in the room.
Next, it was the Keeper who took hold of her. Accompanied by the repetitive words of a litany, he submerged her in the Queen´s holy water. Her cries were choked and resumed several times, until Inziladûn began to fear that she would drown. He had to do great efforts not to interrupt the ceremony.
Finally, she was given to the Seer, who had already inhaled those vapours that, according to the late Eärendur, increased the natural gift of foresight of Elros´s line even as they drowned its truth under a stream of false hallucinations. The man, a prematurely aging creature with a pale face and bags under his eyes, stared in many directions with a haunted look. His hands were shaking.
"There is a woman... no! A goddess, standing upon the white peak of a mountain. "he muttered, in a hoarse voice that did not seem to belong in his mouth and that brought a shiver to Inziladûn´s spine. The King and the priests listened to him with reverence. "Her hair is black, like the wings of a raven. She is fairer than silver, and ivory, and pearls." That accursed litany, again. "She looks into the horizon. She looks at the sea. She..."
Suddenly, the man was taken by violent convulsions. He stumbled, and fell, but did not cry as the cold floor struck his left shoulder. The others watched him in silence, calmly waiting for him to stand up and resume his prophecy.
But he shook his head, refusing to speak.
"I can see no further. Everything is dark." he muttered. From the corner of his eye, Inziladûn saw Ar-Gimilzôr frown, but it did not last more than a second.
"Praised be the gods of Númenor." he said. The others answered in unison, and he nodded. "You may leave. Inziladûn - stay, and bring me the child."
At those casual words his son froze, in spite of all his previous resolutions. The moment had come. The time to give a step forwards, raise his glance – and meet the man who had killed his son face to face.
To his somewhat irrational shock, Gimilzôr did not look any different from the man he remembered since his childhood. His face was still the perfect mask of royalty, with lips pursed in a firm line, a high, slightly pointed chin and carefully arranged dark curls. His expresionless black eyes took a warmer tinge as he laid them on the baby, who was still bellowing her heart out.
Inziladûn tried to focus in calming her down, muttering words and cradling her in his arms. The nausea he thought he had mastered was coming back in a rush. He frantically wondered if it showed.
"Does she usually cry so much?" the King asked.
"Yes. "Inziladûn replied without thinking. "She... has good lungs."
Ar-Gimilzôr extended his arms to receive the child. In spite of his revulsion, Inziladûn was forced to surrender her to him, but the King merely stared at her with a fond attention.
"She is a beautiful and healthy child. You are to be congratulated, Inziladûn. Have you already thought of a name for her?"
The Prince nodded mechanically. The feeling that he had experienced when he had first seen her calm down and stare at him, chewing at Inzilbêth´s jewel grew in his mind until it took a definite shape.
"Zimraphel. Her name will be Zimraphel."
Ar-Gimilzôr nodded in approval.
"An appropriate name. For she will be the fair jewel of our house, the first woman to have been born to the lineage of Ar-Adunakhôr."
Even though he had to raise his voice to be heard above the ruckus caused by the baby, he still kept giving the same studied inflection to each and every one of his words. Fascinated by it, Inziladûn had the sudden crazy notion that nothing of this had ever happened, that the King was nothing but a caring grandfather who was seeing his granddaughter for the first time. A part of him refused to believe that this nauseating normalcy could be feigned, that such an everyday conversation could hide a murder, and a growing feud.
Could it be true? Could his father be such a monster?
...Hail the Father who sacrificed his son...
An old religious text crept into a corner of his brain, clear and insidious. The expression that his features took should have alerted Gimilzôr of the fact that something was amiss, because he handed Míriel back to him with a frown.
"You do not look well." he stated. Inziladûn made a brief attempt at protesting, but it died in his mouth before it could acquire any coherence. "About what happened to the other baby... it was a tragedy. Our family is grieving with you."
Inziladûn could do nothing but nod this time. Míriel, who had calmed down a little upon finding herself back in his arms, writhed back and buried her face in his sleeve. The resulting silence was positively deafening.
"He was to be the heir to the throne of Númenor. As such, he will be buried with the Kings in the caves of the Meneltarma, and a full month of mourning will be decreed."
A vision of the swollen corpse of his son came to the Prince´s mind. For a moment, he wondered how he would look after he was dissecated and embalmed, and covered in finely sculpted plates of gold to live a life of eternity.
The idea disgusted him. That a child who had not been allowed five minutes of life would be made to endure centuries of preserved sleep, that someone who had been so little would last so much – there was a kind of horror in it, but still not as much as the look of sympathy in the King´s eyes.
He would do this to show the people of Númenor that his elder son´s lineage was cursed, and quench his remorse at the same time. Again, as always, the remarkable ability to accomodate everything to his policies– everything, except the existence of this grey-eyed stranger who had sworn that he would stop the evil that was spreading through Númenor.
Again, Inziladûn´s confidence grew, but this time out of a terrible feeling of dissociation. He bowed to the man who sat upon the throne.
Hail the Father who sacrificed his son...
He, not his unfortunate child, was the son who should have been sacrificed. Inziladûn did not know when Gimilzôr had seen this for the first time, if it had been back when he was born, or that other day –so vivid in his memory- when they were talking in the Princess´s gardens, and he had suddenly seen the horrible change in the eyes of a father with whom he had been having his first enjoyable conversation. Yes, he thought, it should have been that day, the last time that he had seen any love in Gimilzôr´s eyes, little before his brother had been conceived. And though back then he had not understood, and felt hurt, now it was as clear to him as the gleaming blue crystal of the Elven stone in his pocket.
Gimilzôr had known. With the foresight of their race, he had seen that his son would one day despise the world that he and his ancestors had made, and that he would be summoned to destroy the last stone of the tainted edifice built by their hands. He was trapped in darkness, cursed to defend it until his death, while the child with penetrating eyes who innocently feared his cold glance would one day bring light and purity to their world.
They were born enemies. And now he knew, too.
"I thank you for yor generosity, my King, but I respectfully decline. "he said, formally. "It might not be advisable for the people of Númenor to learn about a weakness in our lineage."
If Ar-Gimilzôr was surprised at his words, he did not show any sign of it. He merely nodded.
"Your counsel is sound. It will be done as you request."
And that was all. As soon as he had pronounced those words, he made the customary gesture of dismissal, and Inziladûn found himself bowing in reverence to the throne and walking out of the hall. Outside, the Second Royal Nurse was waiting; he took the baby –who had fallen asleep again-, and handed it to her.
That night, for the first time in a week, he felt calmer. His head was clear, the customary nightmares did not assault him in his sleep, and to his surprise, he did not even resent the King for the role he had to play.
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.