27. The Wolf´s Howl
Note: I had abandoned this for a very long time. Now I am back.
Previously on "Full of Wisdom: Gimilzôr became King, sought the alliance of the Merchant Princes from the colonies by marrying his younger son to the daughter of Magon of Gadir, and started coming hard on the Faithful in order to anticipate his heir Inziladûn´s attempts to restore the Old Ways. The family of the Lords of Andúnië, who had been restored to their ancient seat in the beginning of Ar-Sakalthôr´s reign, were disposessed again and put under the custody of the merchants of Sor, in the East of the island. The existence of Númendil´s young son, Amandil, had been passing unnoticed until Magon lets a careless word escape in front of Gimilzôr during a Court celebration, making Inziladûn (who already lost his newborn son to his father´s manouevres) fear the worst. But first, he must keep Númendil, whose Elven blood is uncommonly strong, from fading away - the scheming will come later.
The Wolf´s Howl
He opened his eyes in confusion, wondering if someone was calling him. Everything was empty, except for some twisted shapes that gleamed on the wall.
He closed them again.
An irregular darkness enveloped him, like a mantle with tears and holes. Strange images came to haunt him in his retreat, a frightened child, a silent plea for help, a woman crying. He curled under the blankets in an attempt to suppress the growing feeling of loss. It was as if there was a gaping hole in his soul, but he could not remember why.
Father! I want to play!
There was the distant remembrance of a hand, grabbing his arm and pulling him into a world full of loud laughs, of quick and immediate words. A small hand... a child´s hand.
Where had it gone? Why couldn´t he feel it anymore?
Sleep beckoned to him, and its lure was stronger than ever. It promised rest and warmth, whispering in his ears that there was nothing left to care about. But Númendil had an instinct, somehow, that still forced him to fight it. The child´s hand was not there anymore. He was afraid.
If nobody pulled him back, he would never wake up again.
Something cold touched him. It was not the cold of tears as they dried, but a different, intense and solid kind of cold. An object numbed his fingers, robbing him of the warmth of the blankets.
Now, for the first time, Númendil could hear the Voice. It was the voice of a man, strong and commanding. Galvanized by the shock, he opened his eyes wide, and met another pair of sea-grey, determined ones.
"The Shadow is taking you. You must fight it, Númendil!"
The Shadow... In a first moment, the words rolled inside his mind, their meaning unknown. Little by little, however, an awareness began to dawn upon him. Someone was breathing loudly and irregularly over his neck.
His hands held a black stone, which commanded his attention. He remembered having held that thing in the same manner days ago, when Amandil asked to see it for his birthday...
The name was like an eruption, wreaking chaos in his mind as the remembrances resurfaced. The sea-grey eyes stared at him in silence, allowing the pain to pierce his soul.
"Do not worry about your son. He will be the King´s honoured guest in Armenelos."
The exultant spark in the merchant´s eyes belied the concern in his tone. Emeldir held back a sob, pressing her hand against his.
Behind Azzibal, and between two men who flanked him as if he was a prisoner, the boy shot bewildered glances in their direction, still unable to wholly understand what was going on.
"But I do not want to go to Armenelos! I want to stay here! Mother, I want to stay here!"
Emeldir supressed a whimper.
"Young and noble guest..." Azzibal began, but Amandil bolted off, and the merchant´s politeness was changed into an adamant expression as he ordered the men to hold him back. Undaunted, Amandil struggled, bit and kicked their legs.
"Let me go, worshippers of Morgoth!"
"There is no need to be so rude." Azzibal frowned in disapproval. "The King would not like to hear those words. Everything is ready, take him away."
"No! I do not want to go!"
Númendil stood still, watching the men as they pulled his son away. He could not move, or think of anything to say; the many different, lightning-quick emotions had paralysed him. Azzibal bowed, then retired, allowing him a last glimpse of the terrified plea in his fearless child´s eyes.
Wordlessly, he muttered the litany of his five generations of prosecuted ancestors. The sacrifices that each of them had made to save Númenor from the Downfall, and the prophecies of the Ultimate Sacrifice that would come before the end. A part of him wondered if it could be this.
We were sent that dream so none of us would ever forget our mission. his grandfather had said. Because if we forget, Númenor will be lost.
The words of duty finally found their way to his mouth.
"Amandil, remember us. Do not forget..."
But then, he felt himself pushed aside by an unexpected force. Astonished, he turned towards his attacker, and saw Emeldir step forwards, mighty and regal in spite of her short stature.
"No, Amandil! Forget us!" she cried, with a strength that belied the traces of tears upon her cheeks. "Forget us and live!"
The door was closed behind their backs. For a moment, both stood in silence, too thunderstruck to say a word. Then, Amandil´s voice reached them from outside, and she fell to the floor, her body racked by sobs.
Back then, he had not wept. He had comforted her as well as he was able, feeling how her crying was gradually muffled as he held her in his arms. Then, he sat on his chair, and began to forget everything. In his dreams, only the vivid scene was replayed again and again, and he stood still for a hundred times while his son was taken away from him.
As the days passed, even this had become blurred. Now, for the first time, the emotions assaulted him as strongly as they had back then. He stood, shaking, once more paralysed by their intensity.
"My son..." he mumbled. Emeldir´s hand pressed his shoulder.
"Do not grieve for him, Númendil." the grey eyes told him. "Once, you offered him to me freely, and I did not accept your gift. But I accept it now. He is under my protection, and I will let no harm come to him."
Valandil´s heir blinked in admiration. Those were the words of a king, a king that he had never met before. Was he the one that Eärendur had announced?
Emeldir was staring at the ceiling, and muttering something like a prayer. He heard some of the words, shaken by a tremulous joy.
"Thank you, lord Inziladûn... thank you..."
For the first time in what felt like an eternity, he was truly warm.
"And now, you must carry on with your mission." the voice continued to speak in his mind. "If you die, your death will only become a triumph for your enemies. Live, and I swear to you that your son and you will see happier times."
Númendil´s admiration gave way now to a different sort of emotion. There was a new strength seeping through his limbs and soul, encouraging him to fight and resist. To discard his apathy, like cristal shards that had to be taken away from his still bleeding skin.
Encouraging him to live.
"Bear more children. Strenghten your line."
Númendil nodded, feeling tears trail down his cheeks. He felt like he had just awakened from a long and dreary nightmare, drawn by the light of that man who addressed him. The King had been found, and he would save his son.
The end of their sufferings was near.
"I will." he swore, his ability to master the Seeing Stone restored at last. A beautiful smile lighted Emeldir´s features, and she pulled him into an embrace "I will, my King."
* * * * *
Amandil advanced as swiftly as he could, yet his steps seemed small and slow in the midst of a boundless immensity. Above his head, the ceiling shone like a million stars, and the intense colours of the columns dazzled him.
"We must hurry. The King is waiting."
He did not reply. Looking down, he bit his lip, and tried to get the flutter in his stomach to settle.
During the last days, he had travelled a very long distance across the Eastern regions of Númenor. Once, this would have seemed terribly exciting, and he would have peeked through the curtains of his carriage to see the people, the cities, the villages that had all been part of fabulous dreams and bedtime tales. But instead he had curled in the darkness like a baby, and forced himself not to cry as he was dragged farther and farther from his parents. Each mile, each shout announcing that they had passed a new landmark was a new cause for dread – even if he could escape, how would he go back on his own now?
In front of them –the Morgoth worshippers!- he had pretended to be brave, like an adult. Adults were not always brave, and he had seen tears in Mother´s eyes when he was taken away, but he would never show his fear to those people. When they tended to his needs they were always polite, but he had heard them calling him "the prisoner" when they thought he was not listening.
They also said many other things. One morning, a merchant of Sor muttered something about "the family of the traitors", and added that the King feared the deceitful plots of Amandil´s father and grandfather. This had made the boy indignant, and he had been about to step out of his carriage and tell him that his father had said that they had to obey the King always, no matter what he did.
When they reached Armenelos, it had been night. Of the "greatest and most powerful city in Númenor" of Father´s tales he had barely seen some blurred lights, and a narrow street full of people watching from doorsteps. The Palace was made of long corridors that never seemed to end, and dark chambers where he was left alone to sleep.
That night, he had finally broken down and cried.
Early in the next morning, a woman woke him up "because he was going to meet with the King", and he had felt his hopes rise a little. Thoughts and ideas ran like wild horses in his mind... first he would bow, and look at him in a very serious and sincere way. Then, he would tell him that his father and grandfather did not want to deceive or fight him, and that they would always obey him no matter what he did. He would surely understand –he had to. He just couldn´t look intimidated, or let fear get the best of him.
Those were the words that Amandil repeated over and over to himself as he was taken into an even bigger hall, and made to bow in front of a small man in red silks who gave him a cursory glance and stood up to talk to someone else. He was alone here, to fend off for himself. No Father or Mother.
He could not be afraid.
This started to become very difficult when the man in red silks and another one in yellow beckoned him to follow them through an imposing archway of porphyry and ivory. Inside, there was yet another hall, the likes of which Amandil had never seen in his life. It was bigger than the whole house where he had lived until now, counting all the floors – maybe as much as three or four times as big. Colourful mosaics covered the walls, ivory carvings filled the ceiling, and the polished obsidian floor gleamed darkly under his feet.
Amandil did not like the smothered yet reverberating noise of his footsteps. Swallowing, he forced his eyes to focus and search for the King, and saw a golden throne upon a flight of stairs. A man sat upon it, rigid and still like a statue.
Once again, the boy had to battle his fears. He kept walking forwards with a high chin, and the two men fell at his sides. Many echoing steps later, he reached the bottom of the stairs –where there were more men, standing and peeking at him- but as soon as he tried to climb the first of them, he felt a strong hand grab at his shoulder.
"Lower your eyes, and bow!" a voice whispered on his ear. Taken by the urgency in its tone, he obeyed.
"Raise your head." another voice said, calmer and graver. Amandil obeyed again and sought the King´s face, feeling small because of the throne´s height. He saw a tall and thin man with a sceptre, already giving signals of old age. There was a diadem upon his forehead and a beautiful purple mantle over his shoulders, but his eyes were dark and cold, and his lips tight. Amandil had never been judged so unkindly by anyone.
His spirits sank.
"I..." he began. The hand pinched his shoulder again, and he repressed a yelp of pain.
The man in the throne did not move.
"We bid welcome to Amandil, son of Númendil, to our city of Armenelos." he said, in a strangely monotonous voice. Amandil tried again, as quickly as he could.
"Thanks, but I..."
A rustle of robes reached his ear, and he fell into a bewildered silence. The King´s mouth moved as if he was going to say something, but he just stared at him and closed it again.
Suddenly, he stood up from his throne, turned his back to them, and left. Everybody bowed deeply to the retreating figure except for Amandil, who sat there, thunderstruck.
"The audience is over." one of the men-in-the-stairs declared in a solemn voice.
* * * * *
This audience with the King put an end to Amandil´s expectations. Barely half an hour later, back into the dark room and still dressed in his rich, useless robes, he could do nothing but wonder forlornly at what had just taken place.
He did not understand. Why had the King not wanted to listen to him? He had taken him away from his parents, brought him all the way here, and now he did not even allow him to explain. It was not fair!
Shaking a little, he curled over himself. That stare had made him feel horrible, like he was alone and had done something very bad and everybody hated him. He thought of Mother, and how she smiled whenever she said that she was so proud of him. Somehow, it all seemed so distant now.
He felt the urge to cry again, and there was no willpower left to repress it. Warm tears gathered in his cheeks. What was going to happen now?
Taken by this anxiety, he did not hear the voices outside the door, or the sharp click as somebody fumbled with the handle. A light fell upon his face, and he hid it between his hands in alarm.
"Stand up and kneel!" a harsh male voice ordered him. Amandil was growing tired of everybody making him go up and down like a puppet, and he refused to obey. A soft hand caught his wrist, trying to pry his hands away from his face.
The boy resisted, ashamed of his tears. Between his fingers, he had a blurred glimpse of a green flowing robe, and recognised the woman who had dressed him that very morning.
"The Prince of Númenor is here to see you." she announced quietly. Amandil shook her off, then quickly brushed his cheeks clean before she could react. Two men were with her in the room, and there were lots of light now.
He blinked many times, glad that he could pretend it was the light what hurt him. The Prince of Númenor? Now, who was that?
Before he could wonder more about it, a third man walked inside. The other men bowed and left at his signal, and the woman followed them. Only Amandil stood in place, watching him warily.
It was a tall man, with a diadem and a purple cloak that reminded him briefly of the King. But the ressemblance ended here: this one was younger, with a sharp nose and sea-grey eyes that made him look remarkably like Amandil´s father. The boy stared at him, astonished, while his forehead curved in a pondering frown.
Suddenly, the man knelt in front of him, and sought for his glance. His eyes were bright and deep, and Amandil felt as if he was sucked away.
"Amandil, son of Númendil, I am your father´s friend."
Shock turned to wonder, then to a tugging sensation of recognition that almost brought the tears back to the boy´s eyes. Those words were in Mother and Father´s language!
"Who are you?" he asked, willing his voice not to sound tremulous. The man shook his head.
"I am Inziladûn, son of the King. But there is no time for this now." A bit awkwardly, he fumbled with his cloak, and took out a small brown bag which he laid on Amandil´s hand. The boy stared at it, wondering if he should be more surprised at the man´s uncanny ressemblance to Númendil, at his goodwill, or at the fact that he was the son of that horrible man. "Keep this hidden. When dinner is served to you, you must slip this into your drink. Swear that you will not forget!"
The man´s look became even more intense.
Amandil´s head hung down. Here, nobody liked him, and he should not trust them. And yet– this man was different. He looked familiar. He talked like his parents. He did not make him bow and then refused to meet his eyes.
So in the end, he nodded, even if he had no idea why.
"I... I will."
The man –Inziladûn- smiled, a quick, relieved smile that made him feel warm.
"Thank you. Now, listen to me." His tone was laced with compassion. "You must be strong, even if you are afraid and you miss your parents. You must be brave, no matter what happens. One day you will be free, and you will see all your loved ones again."
Amandil swallowed the funny feeling in his throat.
"My... my father said that one day the King would give us back our freedom, our lands and our honour." he managed to stammer. "But the King did not want to... even listen to me. He stood up and left!"
For a moment, he thought he saw a strange expression cross Inziladûn´s features. Before he could decide what it was, however, it disappeared again, leaving nothing but a frown of determination.
"Your father does not speak lightly. What he said will become true one day, but you must wait. We all must wait." As if in a sudden hurry, he stood up again, and arranged mechanically the folds of his cloak. "Do not forget what you swore!"
"Wait!" Amandil saw the man turn back to leave, and panic filled him. "Do not... do not go!"
The man stopped in his tracks. His shoulders tensed, as if trying to shake an unwelcome feeling away.
"I have no choice." he said, his words already muffled by the distance. Then, he crossed the threshold, and he was gone.
* * * * *
"To the lady Hanni, daughter of Imubal heir of Maharbal, greetings..."
Inziladûn stared at the letter that he had just written with his own hands, studying its contents with a critical look. Once that he was satisfied, he summoned his secretary, and handed it to him together with the necessary instructions. Then he sat back to wait, while a sigh escaped from tightly pursed lips. One.
Making promises was easier than finding the means to fulfill them, he thought in this brief instant that was allowed to him between careful and time-consuming manouevres. To have allies in the Palace and the provincial courts was a must, without which not even the exalted heir to the Númenorean Sceptre was worth anything. And for this, he needed to bend to others, be attentive to their needs and even –sometimes- play games with them.
Once, he remembered, he had despised those practices as part of the Merchant Princes´s artifices, and lived in proud isolation from the corrupted world that surrounded him. He had kept himself pure, Eru´s Chosen One and the bearer of true doctrine. He had studied the ancient texts, written treatises where he proved the truth and logic of the Faithful´s beliefs, until one day he found himself holding his son´s dead body in his arms and understood that none of those high-flowing theories would give him the power to change this forsaken land.
Years had passed since that day, and now, once again, a child was in danger. A child that was much more than those terrified sea-grey eyes, and a small body huddled against the walls of his room. If Amandil was killed, the Western line, the bearers of the Wave Dream, would be broken. He would be king, but his allies would be no more.
Inziladûn was sure that the Merchant Princes and his father had thought the same thing. The boy had been brought to the Palace to die. For a long time, remorse –he knew- had stayed the King´s hand, but finally the avidity of Melkor and his power-hungry allies had not allowed him to redeem the murder of his grandson.
This remorse, for Gimilzôr, was a terrible weakness. He had been trying to get rid of it for years, knowing that his enemies could find a way to profit from it. And now, he thought, the time had come to use it for their own advantage.
A servant knelt upon the threshold, announcing the arrival of his guest. Inziladûn nodded, and told him to lead him in. Mere seconds later, the round silhouette of Hannon walked into the room, and the deep bows of the old priest of Melkor greeted him thrice.
Years had been anything but kind to the Prince´s chief tutor. The wrinkles of old age marred his once elegant face, and abundant grey locks had overshadowed the chestnut brown of his hair. Furthermore, as it happened to many pleasure-loving Palace courtiers -many of whom had grown old during Inziladûn´s larger lifetime-, a life of luxury had finally taken its toll and made his body grow in width almost as much as in height. The Prince saw the enormous belly, which seemed about to burst under the white and gold priestly robes, the plump cheeks and chubby fingers full of rings, and wondered if one chair would be enough to hold so much weight.
Still, undaunted by the ominous crack of the perfumed sandalwood, the man accepted a tray of honey sweetmeats with enthusiasm. Even as they were still busy exchanging greetings, he swallowed two and considered a third with an appreciative glance.
Inziladûn felt the need to shake his head. Hannon was the least spiritual priest that he had known, the most immoral of tutors and the most immoderate of courtiers, and yet the cunning that sparkled in those small eyes could hardly be dismissed. From a relative low position, he had entered the Court, became chief responsible for the education of a heir to the Sceptre and finally the Palace head priest. Since the very beginning, he had set his intelligence and resources to work for his own advancement, as well as the amassing of riches that provided for his pleasures. He had cared for nothing besides himself, and this with a trained and focused dedication that other people, who worked for worthier causes, would easily have envied.
This was why all the Palace had been in an uproar when, nearly twenty years ago, Head Priest Hannon announced that he was marrying a young and beautiful woman, daughter of a Palace provider. Though her Sorian ascent had become respectable in Ar-Gimilzôr´s time, she was still beneath a long-standing courtier and a priest. And several years later, to their even greater shock, his wife had given him children. All those who saw the unscrupulous hedonist dote immoderately on his adolescent daughter and infant son had to stop and rub their eyes, then shake their heads in disbelief.
Inziladûn, however, had thought differently back then. Until that moment, Hannon had been lost to him, firmly anchored in a present whose last days he would never see. His daughter and son had been his ties with the future, with the Númenor of Ar-Gimilzôr´s death and his old pupil´s rule. Worried for their advancement, he had suddenly developed an obsequious interest in the wayward prince that the Melkorian and high merchant circles had so maligned.
And this was why his help would be so useful.
"My dear Inziladûn!" The old man shook his head in mild reprobation, as he eyed the whole contents of the room. "Still so austere, I see."
"After all those Court ceremonies, I feel the need to rest now and then, in the solitude of my own quarters." he replied with a modest shrug. "To have some hours of quiet, simple life – and see a few old friends."
Hannon bowed at the compliment. Another honeycake –the fourth- found the way to his mouth, while a servant poured tea in his cup.
"Some rose petals in the tea would be nice." he observed thoughtfully. Inziladûn ordered them with an indulgent smile, and watched how he raised the cup and smelled it like a connoisseur before taking his first sip.
"Your hospitality is far more magnificent than your rooms, my lord." he finally declared. Inziladûn frowned.
"Should I take this as a reproach, or as a compliment?"
"I suppose it would be more advantageous if you took it as a reproach. You never cared for my compliments." the priest joked. The Prince nodded – he remembered well Hannon´s jealousy of his subordinate Maharbal´s strange hold over their young charge.
But Maharbal was long dead now, and he needed this man´s help.
"I always held you in the highest reverence." he assured him, drinking a cautious sip of the rose-petal tea. As he had feared, it had a sickly sweet taste that he found almost unbearable. "This was why, I was thinking of late...."
Inziladûn´s voice trailed away deliberately, and he was rewarded by the glimpse of an interested expression in his old tutor´s guarded features. Encouraged, he waited for a while before he continued.
"I have been in talks with my noble brother-in-law for a while, the lord Zakarbal of Forrostar." he said. "Due to his unfortunate lack of heirs, he has been thinking of adopting Hiram, the son of the chief of the Palace Guard."
Hannon nodded, without betraying any sign of surprise. Maybe he had already gathered it from other sources, the younger man thought.
"An auspicious decision, my lord."
Inziladûn took a distracted sip of the cup, repressed a grimace, and continued.
"Indeed. And still, there are some loose ends yet in the matter. You of all people might know that the chief of the Palace guard has been the target of some... malicious gossip within the walls of the Palace."
Hannon frowned. This time, Inziladûn was certain that his ignorance was feigned.
"They call him impious, and even Elf-friend. Of course, the life he leads is as respectable and honourable as any, but you know the power of envy." The Prince shrugged. "It is enough that someone has heard about the adoption plans to incite the jealousy of all those who might have hoped to see a kinsman of theirs rule the North."
The old priest sighed.
"This is indeed true, alas! People do not pay heed to moral precepts anymore, and have forgotten to strive for perfection. Pettiness and smallness of heart grow day by day in this sinful city."
Inziladûn took breath. In his childhood, he had grown used enough to his teacher´s flawless hypocrisy, but as an adult he did not feel like listening to his sermons.
"The matter is, I have thought of several ways to solve this. And there is one, which I intend to pursue above all others, that interests you particularly."
"Interest me?" Hannon´s curiosity was back. He nodded.
"It has not escaped my notice that you have grown a fine family in those last years. Those who know her have nothing but words of praise for your beautiful and virtuous daughter."
The flicker of interest became an avid gleam, that all the old man´s skill could not hide from the Prince´s prying glance.
"You are a highly respected member of the Great God´s clergy, and a good friend of mine. I have thought that a match between this Hiram and your daughter would be advantageous to the young man and a fine gift for her. What do you think?"
For one of the few times in his long career, Hannon was stuck with words.
"I... my lord..." He bowed. "As a father... I have no words..."
Inziladûn cut him with a gesture.
"There is no need for them. I am... grateful for all the years you spent teaching me. There are still some impediments looming in the horizon, I must confess, like Zakarbal´s consent and, of course, your own..."
"My daughter, like me, is at your service for whatever need you may have of us, my lord!" Hannon exclaimed, still incredulous. Inziladûn imagined how the sweet thought with its various spreading branches was invading, little by little, every corner of the man´s mind.
His daughter, the future Lady of Forrostar. His daughter, the wife of one of the most respected Council members, and kin to the King. In all his years, his ambitions had been many and high, but this has remained even beyond the reach of a powerful priest of Melkor. Not of one who did not have a drop of the blood of Elros running through his veins.
"I was sure you would accept, as one who understandably has her best interests in mind." he said, with a grave nod. Then, his features relaxed a little, and he sighed. "Such is the sway that our children hold over us! Since we cradle them in our arms for the first time, we know that we would do anything to make them happy. Why, as you know, I am a father myself..."
"May the gods bless and keep the life of the young princess." Hannon recited obligingly. Inziladûn nodded, while his thoughts wandered for a moment towards the child of the shadows. Would she ever have a happy marriage?
But his musings were brief, and he forced himself to return to the matter at hand.
"Our children are our soul." he sentenced. "They are pure and innocent, as we once were, and have so many years, so many joys to live yet."
"Indeed." Hannon ate another cake, signalling his agreement. He looked exultant.
"Which brings me to a different issue..." Inziladûn continued. Something in his expression, despite his casual tone, warned the experienced priest that what he was going to say was important. His features sobered, and he gave him his full attention.
"Yes, my lord?"
"As you surely know, a certain child arrived to the Palace yesterday, summoned by the King."
Hannon blinked, then made a cautious gesture of assent.
"The grandson of the prisoner of Sor, yes. I... was told."
Inziladûn sighed again, allowing his glance to grow lost in the distance.
"I saw him this morning. He... looked quite scared, of course. I felt pity for him."
"He is the King´s honoured guest."
The Prince shook his head in impatient dismissal.
"You know as well as I do that he will not survive much longer."
Shocked, Hannon surrendered to the instinct of staring left and right in search of indiscreet ears. His body tensed, causing the wooden chair to screech again.
"I do not know..."
"I want to save that boy." Inziladûn interrupted him. "He is my kin on my mother´s side, and I have an obligation towards him."
"But..." As if his calculations told him that his position did not allow for objections, Hannon let the words trail away in his mouth, and changed to a more obsequious, almost caressing tone. "My dear lord Inziladûn, I agree wholeheartedly with your noble feelings. That unfortunate child deserves all our compassion, and I pray to the Great God whom I serve that his life will be long and prosperous. But we are mere mortals before the might and wisdom of the Sceptre." He bowed formally. "We must abide by its decisions."
"The King found his family to be guilty of treason and impious practices, and abolished it." Inziladûn nodded. "But the boy was not even born when this happened. He is innocent."
"And yet, "Hannon´s face was a perfect mirror of regret "he is their heir."
"And yet," Inziladûn insisted "there could be a second way. Something... that could preserve his life and reassure the King at the same time."
"And what would it be? Of course, such a thing would ... bring great happiness to me."
In spite of the approval in his words, Hannon looked a bit wary. He was right to feel that way, Inziladûn thought – his quick mind should have already begun to suspect that the ultimate purpose of this conversation had been to win him as an ally for this perilous cause. And still, his daughter´s marriage with the heir of Zakarbal was too great a prize to back down.
In any case, it was time to reassure the old man a little.
"You are a priest of the King of Armenelos. Of course, I am not an expert in custom and ritual, and I could be wrong in this," he bowed as a signal of humility "but I have thought that to have him enter Melkor´s service would not be a difficult thing."
Hannon let go of the cup he was holding, as quickly as if a stray droplet had scalded his hand.
"Enter Melkor´s service, my lord? But... he is..."
"The grandson of the Former Lord of Andúnië, yes." Inziladûn finished for him. "But now he has no family; the law erased their names and the King´s summons broke their ties. Think about it, Hannon. If the Great God claimed him, the Western line would be broken, and the King would need not fear the traitors anymore."
"And he would live." the priest added, mulling it over. "But... how would that come to be? The King..."
Inziladûn summoned his willpower, and fixed his sea-grey eyes on Hannon´s shifting ones. The old man held his glance, uncomfortable and mesmerised at the same time.
"I will ask this one favour of you, as a token of our friendship and our long years of close acquaintance. If you advise the King to take this course of action, invoking the will of the god that you serve, he will listen to you, of this I am certain. Do this for this boy, and I will reward you as if it was my own son you had saved."
Hannon´s forehead was creased in a deep frown. He was thinking it over –pondering the benefits and dangers of saving Amandil´s life, Inziladûn guessed. But what else could be his ultimate conclusion? Since the beginning of the conversation everything had been made clear enough; for the sake of his daughter´s marriage, and the hopes of further favours, the ambitious man would not say no. He was caught in a sweet snare, too difficult to undo.
"The King speaks with the Great God." he objected. "He may receive a signal..."
"The King would never take the words of a priest lightly." Inziladûn argued back. "And the King of Armenelos will rejoice in his new servant."
Hannon took another cake with a distracted hand, and began munching at it.
"I could try..." he ventured. The Prince cut him in exasperation.
"I am sure that you will not deny me such a small thing." His tone grew confidential, almost like a secret whisper. "I do not know what is it that made me feel so strongly for this boy´s fate, but now I can hardly think of anything else. Maybe it is because he reminds me of myself, when I was a child... or maybe it´s the thought that, had he been alive, my son would be his age."
The priest looked out of sorts at the mention of the longly-silenced tragedy. In a dull voice, he muttered a short prayer to Melkor the Soul-Deliverer, and gave him a look of sympathy that for once Inziladûn did not feel to be wholly feigned.
After all, he was also a father.
"I understand." he nodded, swallowing his last reluctance. "I will do my best."
The Prince smiled warmly. He had won.
"Thank you, Hannon. May the gods be with you always, and guide you in your tasks."
* * * * *
Amandil lay wide awake in bed, tossing and turning under the covers. The silk sheets were already tangled in such a mess that it was impossible to see where each of them began or ended anymore.
He could not sleep. Back home, it was long ago since he ceased being afraid of the dark, but in that shadowy Palace his baby fears had come back with a vengeance. He could not see the things that lurked behind the heavy curtains, the long galleries or the labyrinth of chambers in the wing where he had been imprisoned. And when he closed his eyes, it was even worse, as sleep brought him nightmares where a man with dark eyes and tightly pursed lips wanted to hurt him and refused to listen to him.
The boy curled under what remained of his sheets, even though there were drops of sweat upon his forehead. Somehow, this made him feel a little more protected. He could stay there, he thought, and pretend that his mother was the one sleeping next door.
Tomorrow, everything will be all right. Tomorrow, everything will be all right...
He was awoken by a persistent tug in his left arm. Mumbling something, he refused to open his eyes at first –in the last days, he had grown less and less fond of the reality that surrounded him-, but then the tug became a hurtful grip, and he jumped in his bed.
Before he could yell, a hand closed upon his mouth. Bewildered, he stared around, and realised that it was still night. The woman holding him was the young lady who had been there since the first morning, Hanni -she tended to his needs by day, but she had never entered the room like this when he was sleeping.
Without wasting any time, she grabbed him by the hand.
"Come with me!" she whispered in his ear. "And be quiet!"
Amandil felt himself pulled out of bed, and dragged towards the door. Surprise, as well as the lingering haze of sleep made him unusually docile to her manouevres. As they entered her own chamber, the disquieting sounds reached his ears for the first time.
Footsteps. Hushing. Whispers.
"Quick!" she said, holding a big box of clothes open. "Enter, and do not make a noise!"
A providential instinct brought Amandil to obey without question. Curling against the soft fabrics of dresses, and hugging his knees with his arms, he lowered his head and let her pull the lid back in place. Complete darkness followed, and he swallowed deeply to repress a wave of fright.
Meanwhile, the noises were becoming clearer and stronger. They came from the adjoining room, the one where Amandil had been sleeping a moment ago.
"Thrice damn our stupid luck!" a man complained. "Where could he have gone?"
A sharp bang ensued, and the various noises of things being thrown upon the floor.
"Not here, either. He´s not anywhere in this room!"
"Maybe he went to have a piss?"
"Shhhh!" A sharp whisper cut the growing ruckus. "If he is around, your noises will scare him away!"
"I still think that this is too... strange." another of them insisted. "He is here all night! Why would he disappear just when we...!"
"Maybe he knew?"
"Nobody could have told him!"
"And what if he had a... vision, or something? After all, he is kin to the King, too."
"Don´t be stupid!"
"Listen." The man of the sharp whispers commanded the attention of his companions once again. "We have not been paid to build wild theories, but to do our job. Let us search the adjoining rooms, maybe we will find a clue there. And you two, stay at the corridor, in case that he returns!"
Some grumbling ensued, and finally Amandil could hear footsteps approaching them. Blood curdled in his veins, though he was not able to explain very well why. He hugged his knees harder, trying to compress his body in an even smaller space.
Then, just as he thought that he could not be any more scared, a new sound made him freeze. He repressed a startle, as it seemed to come from the same room where he was hiding. It was an inhuman, almost painful sound, like the yelp of a beaten dog but much, much deeper. Amandil cringed, trying to cover his grated ears, but there was no way to escape its penetrating cut.
Letting the lid slide a bit out of place, he ventured a peek outside. What he saw augmented his shock even further: the sparse glow that came through the window fell over Hanni´s crouching silhouette. The horrible howl came from her throat.
A renewed buzz had erupted in the neighbouring room.
"The- the Sacred Wolf!"
"Run! This boy is protected by the Great God!"
"But the King said..."
"Bugger the King! I do not want to die!"
At the third of Hanni´s attempts, their growing agitation degenerated into panic, and running footsteps were lost in the distance.
The silence that fell upon them felt strange and heavy, only broken by Amandil´s gasps. The air in that box of clothes was becoming suffocating, and he tentatively pulled the lid away.
"Hanni?" he asked. The woman was lying on the bed, and she did not answer.
His determination already growing back, the boy stood on his feet to leave his hiding place. As he reached the woman´s side, he studied her features in some worry.
Hanni´s eyes opened wide.
"Come." she said, grabbing him by the clothes and pulling him into the bed. He opened his mouth to protest, but she began to touch his face as if she still had to make sure he was there.
"Stay with me." she ordered, though the voice was so full of urgence that it almost felt like a plea. "Stay here, with me, tonight. Stay with me..."
Amandil had never seen an adult act so upset, except his mother the day that they had taken him away. Not knowing what to say, he nodded in silence, and suffered cold hands to crush him against a swiftly beating heart.