26. A Careless Word
Her hands fumbled with the curtain in the dark, as she blinked the clouds of sleep away from her eyes. The sound was growing in urgency and intensity; a long and shrill scream that reverberated across the yard.
Curling up in a grey cloak, Zarhil ran across the garden, ignoring the glances and the voices whispered behind the shadows. There was light in her daughter´s chambers, and she charged in like a mad fury.
The women who were at the young Princess´s antechamber knelt to offer her a silent bow. She did not waste a moment with them, but instead rushed towards the entrance. Another woman was there –the Nurse-, muttering soothing words in a soft tone.
Zarhil pushed her away as well, and her eyes rapidly sought for the small figure who uttered the terrified screams. She found her crouching, her back pressed against a corner. Crossing the distance between them, she grabbed her hand, and held her down while she struggled and thrashed with a mysterious strength that the quiet girl did not posess during the day.
"Sssssh." she whispered in a hoarse voice. Tears gathered in her eyes, and one of them trickled down the hard skin of her face. "Mother is here. There is nothing to fear."
Slowly, the child´s struggles subsided. Her screams died in a choked sob, and two huge eyes flew open, shining in the dark like reflections upon the water of a well.
"You are with Mother." Zarhil kept crooning in her ear. The girl´s tense limbs relaxed slightly. Little by little, she even grew to accept the intrusion of her caresses, though she did not lean against her.
"You are safe. You had a bad dream."
Zimraphel shook her head.
"No! I didn´t. I never dream!" An anxious spark twinkled in her eye, and she went back to struggling. "Leave me alone!"
Zarhil dried her face with a swipe of her hand, and tried to smile.
"You did not dream."she nodded."You never dream. Please, let me stay with you."
After the initial fright had passed, the girl´s expression grew void and empty. In silence, she studied her mother´s anxious face as if it was but a mosaic or a painting.
After another while, she turned her back to her, and curled in her silk sheets. Zarhil laid a careful hand across her shoulder, almost expecting rejection, but her daughter did not move again.
Now that everything had settled back into an eerie calm, she felt more than ever the urge to weep against the sheets. Many times, she cursed herself for having allowed her family and the King to take her away from her sea-travels, her ship and her brave sailors, and imprison her on dark chambers where every shadow seemed to grow terrible and threatening. She cursed her own strength, of body and mind, that did not avail her against the spell of a suffering, cruel child.
Zimraphel, the baby that survived, was the only creature that she had ever loved with such a frightening intensity. Her family she had always respected, her sailors she had befriended - her husband she liked enough, whenever she was allowed to forget that he was the man who had taken the Sea away from her. But that fair, frail, fathomless creature who had grown in the Sea Lady´s womb by some poignant irony of fate had become her life. Her weakness inspired her tenderness, her pain made her suffer, her beauty excited her pride and wonder – her disease killed her.
How could such a small thing inspire so much passion?
Taken by an impulse, Zarhil hugged the tiny form tightly. The limbs went rigid again in silent protest, and soon she was forced to give up. Zimraphel had never accepted her mother´s blind love, never favoured her above her nurse or addressed her the words that she had heard his brother´s daughters whisper in their mother´s ears with a girlish smile. One day, as she had rushed back to her after a long and unbearable ceremony, the girl had turned towards the old woman who was combing her hair, and asked who she was.
It was the disease. The disease was at fault for everything, Inziladûn said- and sometimes, Zarhil was sure that there was something else that he knew. But who cared? He was even farther from Zimraphel than she was now, as she held her trembling body in her arms at night. Once, he had told her to ask the child if the dream that scared her so much had a wave in it. Zimraphel had merely shaken her head in denial.
A soft sound of fidgeting, coming from the other side of the bed, brought her to open her eyes. The girl was whimpering, caught into one of her horrible dreams. Zarhil cursed again, over and over, choking with the burning impotence of not being able to wrestle the demons away from her.
Lady of the Seas, she muttered an old prayer, in an almost inaudible voice. With her right hand, she caressed over and over the dishevelled threads of her hair. Queen of Ships, help her find her way home.
The summer sun was shining intensely, even though it was still early in the morning. Inziladûn made a signal for his entourage to wait, and entered the comfortable shade of the inner gardens.
His hands fidgeted with the purple folds, that billowed so conspicuously behind his steps. No matter how many times he wore those ceremonial robes, kept his chin high with hieratic dignity and accustomed himself to have so many people around, there was still some wild side of his soul that felt the urge to tear everything out and return to the lonely sanctuary of his youthful studies.
That day would be especially trying, he thought with a frown. The last war against the desert tribes had officially ended, and today the victorious general would bring his prisoners to the King and the people of Armenelos. The people were bad enough –they were always eager to see blood-, but some of those accursed merchants would also be there, and among them Magon of Gadir, kin to the King. Whenever that crafty serpent had access to the King´s ear, be it for an hour or a minute, the Prince of Númenor had to gather all his allies and double his precautions.
"Already in a hurry, Inziladûn?"
The Prince looked at his wife, who was surrounded by three serving ladies. They were arranging the folds of her robes, and giving the last touches to her braided grey hair while they whispered and prattled among themselves. As they noticed his presence, however, they fell silent.
"We are expected." he replied, then noticed the bags under Zarhil´s eyes. "You have not slept well tonight."
The woman shook her head, and a shadow tensed her features for a moment.
Inziladûn swallowed. Whose nightmares those were, he knew it very well.
"Where is she?" he asked then, wondering at the same time at the impulse that brought him to ask that question. He should greet her when he came to visit, a voice whispered inside his mind.
"In her chambers." Zarhil answered, giving him a somewhat surprised frown. Inziladûn nodded, and left her with a muttered indication to hurry that should have rather been addressed to the other women.
As he entered the dark halls, he had to blink several times before he grew accustomed to the new light. Some women abandoned their silent tasks to kneel; the Nurse bowed obsequiously and let him through the door of the antechamber.
Míriel was reading. Her grey eyes were fixed on the pages of an enormous volume in absorbed concentration, and she did not even blink at his entrance. For a moment he stood at the doorstep, wondering at that strange Inzilbêth who had come back to life, her serene beauty animated –tainted- by a kind of vivid insistence.
Back when she was a baby, he had alternatively blamed her disease on her unfortunate birth and her heritage, but years later he had begun to wonder. Crazed ideas crossed his mind, and he fancied that his mother had come back, to stare with huge and enigmatic eyes at those who had killed, buried, and then forgotten her.
In an attempt to dispel his unease, he coughed a little. Conversations with his daughter had grown more and more difficult as the years passed by. She looked at him with cold indifference, and the rare times that she spoke her words made his blood curdle in his veins. Once, she had asked him why did he let her brother die, and no matter who he interrogated about this, everybody swore by the gods that they had not said a single word about that incident in her presence.
Little by little, his visits had disminished. They brought too much pain and puzzlement, and he was too busy to allow her to interfere in his manouevres, his bargains for support, and the tenuous relationship with his father. He had left her to Zarhil and her women, who soothed her when she had bad dreams and looked after her in those chambers, carefully hidden from the prying glances and harsh realities of the world outside. With all his soul he wanted her to be happy - and yet, she would never smile to him.
"Father." she echoed. Surprised, he looked at her, and she lifted her glance from the lines. He was not used to have her attention so soon.
"What... are you reading?" he asked, feeling as awkward as he had not felt since he was a child and a mad King had stared at him. She frowned, and covered the pages with both hands.
And there it was, again. Her instinctive mistrust pierced his heart, then left nothing in its wake but a cold disappointment.
He took a sharp breath.
"Your mother and I are leaving for a celebration. She will come back at night to visit you."
Míriel´s voice came out muffled, for she had pressed her face against her protective hands.
"And I cannot go."
Shocked, Inziladûn gazed lengthly at her, but she did not lift her head up.
"I..." he began, unsure of what to say. He hid behind formality . "I... do not think it would be advisable."
"I do not care." she muttered. "I do not want to go with you. Leave me alone."
The Prince felt a knot gather in his throat. It was the disease. Nothing but the disease, he forced himself to remember. The Curse of Ar-Sakalthôr.
It was not her fault.
"Have a good day, Míriel."
As he crossed the threshold, and walked the length of the corridor in his way out, he had to force his rigid hands to unclench.
The triumphal celebration took place at the square that stood in front of the Palace´s front façade. Inziladûn watched the ceremony from the lower terrace, where some of the most powerful men in the realm had gathered around the King and his family.
Hours passed by, without a moment of respite for the chants and shouts. Prayers, sacrifices and dances gave way to a bloodier spectacle, as the enemy leaders were brought forth in chains and their throats slit to the crowd´s delight. Once that they were dead, voices were heard asking, demanding for more. The King nodded, -Melkor wanted his due-, and the higher ranked of the barbarians followed suit.
Inziladûn stood in silence, watching the rivers of blood flow from the stabs and the agonical expressions with repugnance. The soul of Man, unlike that of animals, Orcs or Elves, was a battleground where the god and the beast fought a perpetual struggle, the late Maharbal had taught him when he was a child. But at certain moments, when a kind of frenzy spread like a disease from man to man, from woman to woman and child to child, everything that was good was drowned under an animal bloodlust.
Next to him, Pharazôn was doing great efforts to appear brave in front of his family. His face was slightly pale, his jaw clenched, but he did not take his eyes away from the sight. His mother touched his shoulder with a proud smile.
One by one, they came to their ignominious end under the various curses and mockeries of their enemies. Inziladûn shivered. Even worse than the general madness, worse than the blood and the corpses that were taken away by piles, what shook him to the core was their glances just before they died. Their voiceless wonder as they stood in the heart of the Jewel of the West, and forgot knives, crowd and executioner to stare at the shimmering reflections of sunlight in the glazed tiles of the magnificent buildings, the white and ochre towers closing upon them like a beautiful shadow of death, haunted him even as he closed his eyes like a coward.
Once that the last of the bodies was dragged away, Ar-Gimilzôr turned his back to the crowd. The people in the terrace followed him to an exquisitely improvised banquet under a cover of braided branches of pomegranate trees. There, the victorious general –a nephew of the governor of Sor- was received with honour among the other guests, and was immediately taken under the wing of an insolent merchant whose long curls were held by gold ringlets like those of a woman. Azzibal of Sor, Inziladûn thought in distaste. The man´s father-in-law, asides from a long-standing associate of Magon of Gadir.
Refusing to be distracted by those thoughts, he watched the King in his throne. Gimilzôr was asking them something, with that severe expression that old age had sculpted in his features like a perennial frown. Gimilkhâd stood at his side, dressed in all his finery and crowned by a diadem of rubies. Under the gems, his dark hair shone like Umbarian ebony – the second in the family to require the services of their father´s favourite dyer, Inziladûn thought a little frivolously.
Soon afterwards, he also spotted his main enemy, Magon of Gadir. The fat merchant, dressed with his usual ostentation, was doting on his grandson in company of his royal daughter and another man. Melkyelid, who wore a flowing dress of yellow and gold with green embroiderings, frowned in disapproval at something that her son said, while Magon laughed loud.
"It is yet too soon for you to say such a thing!" he scolded, ruffling Pharazôn´s curly hair. That small gathering of golden-skinned people looked strangely eerie.
"Your grandfather is a man of extraordinary honour and renown in Númenor and Middle-Earth." Melkyelid told her son, vanity surfacing for a moment in her measured tone. Pharazôn stared curiously at the man.
"Do you rule a great kingdom?"
Magon gave a casual shrug, that was not devoid of affectation.
"Indeed. I rule a house in Gadir, and a couple of factories."
"That is true." the other, younger man nodded. Inziladûn did not see any similitude in their features, so he assumed that he had to be what those people called an "associate" – which, for them, ranked higher than blood kin. "And yet the most powerful men of Gadir, Sor and Umbar, the coastal outposts and harbours, the tributary barbarians and many nobles of Númenor bow before him and lie in his debt."
The young prince frowned.
"I do not understand." he stated, with the bluntness of a child. All the adults laughed.
"One day you will." Magon sentenced, ruffling his hair again. Inziladûn looked away, before they could see him and trap him with a polite and respectful invitation. Even farther, at the edge of the obsidian balustrade, his wife had spotted him and proceeded to call him with gestures. Talking with her was her brother Zakarbal, lord of Forrostar, and a man that Inziladûn wanted very much to have a talk with.
"Hail, Prince of Númenor!" the man saluted, raising his cup of wine. He answered with a nod, and approached them.
"Zakarbal of Soronthil." he greeted politely. "I am glad to see that you were invited."
Those words were not devoid of meaning. It had been some years since their common mistrust for the emerging merchant class, blood ties and a great deal of skill on his part had availed him to win the new lord of the northernmost province for his party, and Ar-Gimilzôr´s insane suspicions had haunted the man´s steps ever since. Zakarbal, a born warrior like his father, and therefore straightforward and not very subtle, did not know how to mince words at Court – and this, together with his devout reverence for the Númenorean gods was probably the only thing that had saved him from being considered a two-faced viper like the unfortunate people of the Western branch.
Still, the issue that had brought his name to the lips of the courtiers and people of Armenelos of late was of a very different nature. His wife had failed repeatedly to bear him a male heir before she was past the age, and now the prestigious Northern Branch, direct descendants of Tar-Anárion, ended with him. Inziladûn had sketched a plan to solve this problem that would reinforce his party at the same time, but it was very rarely that a high-born noble of the Line of Elros would be willing to listen to talks of adoption.
Zakarbal motioned to a servant, who brought wine to him. He accepted it with a smile, but instead of drinking it, he chose to stare into the eyes of his brother-in-law.
"Have you thought about it?" he asked bluntly. The nervous, uneasy shift that ensued told him better than any word that he indeed had.
Zarhil drank a sip.
"I... have." the man finally replied, looking at her. He was too proud to ask for support, but it seemed to Inziladûn that he was encouraging her to speak in some way.
"He was just saying to me that he had not found any other solution."she complied." I told him that our father´s line could not die, and that if he did not care for it himself, the King soon would."
"I do not want one of those accursed merchants to be my heir." Zakarbal mumbled, frowning at the idea. Inziladûn smiled in sympathy, though he was heartened deep inside.
"I do not think that it would go that far." he soothed him.
"No? Look around you." the Northern lord snorted. "They are everywhere. Even at the very feet of the Throne, so why not in my house?"
"Then, all the more reason for us to attack first." Inziladûn decided. "I have a candidate."
Zakarbal´s brow furrowed even further. It was obviously a very painful subject to broach for him, a decision that he had only made pushed by an even bigger threat. Inziladûn decided to offer him an arm where he could lean on.
"He is from the line of Elros, of course. Kin of Shemoun, the Southwestern lord, and son of a Council member. One of the very few who has not been bought by our worthy Gold-Makers, in fact, and therefore a natural ally."
Zakarbal drank again, mulling over these words.
"And... what about his father?"
Inziladûn shook his head.
"The gods are with us. He has a brother. An older brother." he added, after a moment of thought. "He is scarcely twenty, a very bright lad."
"And strong?" his brother-in-law asked. For the first time in the conversation, he seemed to be taken by an odd fascination for the idea.
"And strong." Inziladûn confirmed, encouraged. "So what? Would you ... agree to meet with him, then?"
The tenuous instant of trust dissolved in a rush, and Zakarbal instinctively recoiled.
"Well... I am heading North this month, as you know. There are many affairs I have to tend to, being the sole lord and King´s attendant at the same time." he mumbled, not unlike how a child who had been forbidden to talk to strangers would refuse a sweetmeat in the streets. The Prince sighed –too soon yet.
And he had already obtained a very important victory.
"Very well." he nodded, taking his first sip of the drink. "Take your time."
His brother-in-law´s eyes widened in slight alarm.
"Please understand that this is not a rejection of your generous proposal. I just..." he began, but Inziladûn cut him with a good-natured gesture.
"Of course not."
"He can look inside your soul." Zarhil informed him, in a mild yet dry streak of malevolence. "There is no need for explanations."
The Prince glared at her, then turned back to Zakarbal.
"That is very far from the truth indeed, in spite of the rumours. I simply understand that..."
Suddenly, however, a figure gesturing at him brought the thread of his words to die away in distraction. It was the Great Chamberlain, his chin discreetly pointing in the direction of the Throne. Careful not to startle his companions, Inziladûn ventured a brief look from the corner of his eye, and what he saw made his blood freeze.
Magon and the King were talking.
"What is the matter?" Zarhil -always so indiscreet- asked in surprise. He made a vague sign to her and her brother.
"I will be back." he mumbled, walking away. Zakarbal´s eyes widened, but he did not have time to do anything but bow in haste.
The figures of the guests came and went in a blur under the dimmed evening light. Inziladûn passed them by, in search of the man who had alerted him.
"There is an... interesting conversation going on." he whispered in his ear. The Prince nodded in understanding.
"Come with me." he whispered back.
Pretending to be deep in conversation, both walked side by side until they were near enough to the Throne. With great skill, the Chamberlain pretended to have been beckoned by a courtier and bowed to Ar-Gimilzôr. Inziladûn followed him.
"Congratulations on the victory, my King." he said, with another bow. His father´s eyes trailed over him vaguely, and he acknowledged him with a silent nod, absorbed as he was in conversation with the merchant. Profitting of this leave, Inziladûn stayed nearby.
"...his birthday was last week." Magon was saying at the moment. His lips curved into a smile that, for some reason, made a shiver cross the Prince´s spine. "A beautiful boy, they say, healthy and quite clever. Azzibal told me that he loves to wield toy swords and fight "filthy Morgoth-worshippers."
Ar-Gimilzôr´s features tensed. His eyes took that feverish glint that Inziladûn had learned to despise so much, and his hand tightened around the Sceptre.
Danger, a shrill voice pounded in his ears. He tried to choke his sudden fear, his bile as he met the golden merchant´s fatherly smile with a calm glance.
So this was what he had been planning to do...
"The line of King Elendil are proved traitors, who have been removed from the King´s august sight." he rebuked. "They should not be mentioned in his presence."
Ever gracious in his manners, Magon bowed low.
"Oh, dear. Indeed, I was out of line. I humbly beg for your forgiveness."
Inziladûn did not answer, but turned his attention to his father instead. Ar-Gimilzôr was frowning, and staring at a certain point beyond the terrace´s railing. He barely seemed to have heard his interventions, so absorbed he was in his own thoughts.
The light of the lamps and candles that servants were laying around them cut sharp lines on his profile, and lent a strange quality to his glance. With a startle, Inziladûn realised that he reminded him of the late Ar-Sakalthôr, brooding in the shadows. Out of a sudden instinct, he swallowed deeply and followed the direction of his father´s stare.
Down in the almost deserted square, under the faint glow of fannels, several men were washing the spurts of blood that remained upon the stone pavement.
For all the following days, the news of his informers were unanimously worrying. His father was oddly thoughtful, his nights were restless, and he had visited the temple of Melkor twice. Even worse, he had refused to meet with Inziladûn. Ar-Gimilzôr had always feared his son´s ability to unlock carefully guarded secrets and dark thoughts – this was something that he knew since he was a child.
Back when the Western line had been abolished, their lives had been spared, with the exception of Eärendur´s voluntary departure. This had brought some relief to Inziladûn, who had feared the worst for his friends. But, what about a new heir, the monster´s spawn, the continuation of their line and hopes? Would even he be innocent in the all-fearing, all-consuming eye of the King?
Ar-Gimilzôr had heard of the baby´s birth years ago, and done nothing. Probably, some kind of remorse for his grandson´s death –murder- had stayed his hand back then, but Inziladûn knew too well that the ambition of a merchant, the will of Melkor and a tyrant´s fear held a power that was all too terrible.
Curse that merchant! He had learned to read the King´s unlimited penchant for suspicion, and exploited it more easily and ruthlessly than his own son had done through the years. Númendil... Valandil... they might be ready to offer their own child as a sacrifice, but Inziladûn was not.
Day and night, he had the Merchant Princes who stayed as guests followed, and those from Sor with special care. But he could not follow the King´s every movement, not when his father denied him access, and this tore at his insides. He felt powerless, hurting himself over and over against the same stone wall. Disturbing visions plagued his mind, the same that had once warned him of his infant son´s birth and murder.
One night, as he lay restless in his bed, he was taken by an unnatural slumber, deep and fathomless like a black hole. Ghostly figures danced around him, of grey women whose eyes were brimming with tears.
All of a sudden, a pair of hands grabbed his cloak.. He turned around, searching for a presence, and found himself face to face with the anguished face of Emeldir.
Help us, Inziladûn! she cried. Shaken, he offered his hand to her, but it slipped away like a cloud of mist.
Even before the last tatters of the vision had relinquished their vivid hold on his mind, Inziladûn jumped from his bed, and felt his way in the darkness towards the hiding place of the Seeing Stone.
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.