31. Weaving Threads
Hi people! This is the end of the fifth arc, which has lasted more than any other because of the long hiatus. I hope you have enjoyed it, and will look forward to the start of the sixth, which will take place years afterwards. But this time you won´t have to wait that long, that´s a promise.
Meanwhile, I have posted a forum thread at HASA, which can be found here: http://www.henneth-annun.net/forums/messages.cfm?confID=0&forumID=927&messageID=53998
If you have any reviews, comments, suggestions or complaints about this fic, you are welcome to post them there -or here, using the review function. We authors have a little author heart, and want to know what people think of our fiction. :)
The Princess of the South sat on her porch, protected from the sunrays by the twisted boughs of a vine tree. Chestnut tresses fell freely down her back, as she let the warm breeze dry the golden dye of her upper locks.
"Yes?" she asked, in a deep, sleepy voice. The woman advanced a few steps and bowed in front of her, letting the folds of her dress fall at both sides. Her hand was holding a folded piece of paper, humid from her sweat.
"The Lady of the Keys gave me this letter for you. She told me a strange story about it: according to her, a beautiful girl asked one of the women to give it to your son."
Melkyelid frowned, and extended a hand imperiously.
"Give it to me, Mehedya."
The woman obeyed, a small, amused smile dancing in her lips. As Melkyelid unfolded it, her eyes fell on a message, written in small and spidery letters. She cleared her throat.
"To the prince Pharazôn, greetings. I have dreamed of you again..." she began, then stopped. Her eyes widened. "What is this?"
Mehedya shook her head.
"I do not know, my lady."
Melkyelid stared at her in incredulity, and after a while she saw her fingers start to fidget with the golden hems of her dress.
"You have read it already." she stated. "Oh, I know of your curiosity."
"I am sorry, my lady."
The Princess dismissed her apology with a casual wave of her hand.
"Images of you plagued my mind day and night, and I had to draw you to get rid of them. "she continued reading. "Now, I feel alone and empty. Why have you abandoned me? If you are afraid of the people who watch over me, we can meet in the corridor that stretches past the Great Western Hall. There is an empty room there, and I know how to steal the key. Wait for me in the early hours of the afternoon; there is no one around then. The Princess Zimraphel... "Her voice trailed away, and she looked at the paper with increasing surprise. "Why... if this is...!"
Mehedya allowed herself a rippling laugh.
"Now, this is something that would have read alarming enough, had they been a dozen years older! My, my." She affected to wipe her eyes with the back of her hand. "The prince is a handsome and precocious boy, but who could have imagined that he would take the Western Wing by assault and start breaking the heart of maidens? Not I, indeed."
Melkyelid did not smile. Instead, she focused in the message, which she reread several times with a thoughtful frown.
"If there is someone being... precocious here, I am sure it is not my son." she muttered. Mehedya forced her tone to become solemn.
"Of course, my lady. That girl... the daughter of the Prince of Númenor... is not what anyone would call a normal child. I wonder in which circumstances did those two meet. "Her countenance perked up once again. "In any case, this is nothing we cannot be informed of. Shall I summon the little scoundrel here, so you may ask for explanations?"
Melkyelid threw a last glance in the direction of the girl´s lively script, wondering at the tiny, tense fingers which had written it. Then, she folded it again, and held her back with a movement of her hand.
"On the contrary, you are going to give this back to the servant who received it. Who will give it to my son, as our young maiden intended."
"And then you will have him followed." the lady-in-waiting guessed. "A clever plan."
Princess Melkyelid bit her lip in annoyance.
"Do you think that I need to spy on my son?" she asked, with a proud frown. "Know that I do not need any underhanded methods to be aware of his wishes and desires."
Mehedya shook her head
"And yet he is hiding from us."
"Not yet. Not yet." the Princess repeated, in a lower, more thoughtful voice. Then, she gave back the paper, and gestured with her chin. "Go. I would not want him to miss his little appointment."
The woman seemed about to add something else, but a quick assessment of her lady´s mood convinced her to swallow her words. Lowering her head in a bow, she left without further discussion.
As soon as she crossed the threshold of the porch, Melkyelid´s frown returned. She stared at the vine branches above her head, muttering a name with her beautiful lips.
"Too soon." she said, with the smallest sigh of regret. A small, speckled bird with an orange chest fluttered among the leaves, searching for its nest. "My Queen, my Lady, isn´t it yet too soon?"
* * * * *
"See?" The boy stared at him proudly, trying to hide his gasps for breath as both wiped the sweat from their foreheads. "I told you that it wouldn´t be so easy for you anymore."
Amandil nodded, impressed in spite of himself. His arm stung, and he knew that he was sporting a growing bruise under his white robes.
"So you took lessons, after all."
Pharazôn shook his head.
"I practiced on my own, just like you." After a moment of thought, however, honesty took the better of his determination, and he blushed. "Well, all right... I convinced the armsmaster of Lord Zakarbal´s household to correct my stances a bit. He asked for the person who had taught them to me, and he was impressed."
"Huh?" Amandil frowned. Pharazôn looked at him in newfound appreciation.
"He said that they were good."
"Did he? Well... I cannot be so good if I let you hit me." the Temple servant grumbled, a bit embarrassed. The last thing he wanted was for a courtier to ask inconvenient questions about him.
"Of course I hit you." Pharazôn protested, furrowing his brow. "Mother predicted I would be the greatest warrior in this land one day."
Amandil was about to make an unpleasant comment about mothers being partial about their sons, but he finally chose not to open his mouth. Pharazôn was his friend, no matter how naive and spoiled he could sometimes sound like. It was not his fault that he had a family and a whole army of courtiers fawning over him.
"A warrior king." he muttered, thoughtfully, remembering what the boy had said to him on their first encounter. Would he be the one who would free his family, as Father had said?
"And you? Are you going to be a warrior priest when you grow up?"
Amandil bit his lip, and reflected on this. To be a priest wasn´t among his future prospects, but it was prudent not to let anybody know about that.
"I suppose." he shrugged.
"Why?" Pharazôn insisted. Amandil stared at him in surprise.
"Why do you ask?"
"Because Mother told me one day that all true warriors must aim for greatness. Do you aim for greatness, Hannimelkor?" the Prince asked. "I do."
The older boy wrinkled his nose. Greatness is for kings. he thought.
"I am sure you´ll be great for both of us." he finally said, but there was no hint of mockery in his voice. "After all, I´m the one who is teaching the King to fight."
Pharazôn nodded, proudly.
"The day I have Sauron at my feet begging for mercy, I will tell him that my swordsmanship is the work of Hannimelkor of Armenelos, the most skilled warrior in Númenor after myself!"
Amandil snorted. The ego of a prince really knew no boundaries.
"You have not even defeated me yet."
Pharazôn grabbed his sword, and waved it in the air with ferocious movements.
"Then, let us fight again!"
"Are you rested?" Amandil asked, doubtfully. The younger boy gave him a cheeky shrug.
"Are you tired?" he retorted at him. Amandil growled, and fell back into a stance.
Fine, then. No fooling around anymore. He would not go easy this time.
Both wooden swords crashed in mid-air with a sharp noise. The boys fell back, panting as they studied each other´s movements.
"Take this!" Pharazôn yelled. Amandil blocked his thrust easily.
"Do not tell the enemy what you´re going to do!" he scolded. As if to underline his words, his own thrust came from an unexpected angle, a move that Abibal had recently taught him –and which had allowed him, once perfected, to defeat the bigger boy.
Pharazôn clenched his teeth to repress a hiss of pain as the wood connected with his hip. He stumbled a bit, but managed to regain his footing quickly enough. Where did he get that impressive endurance from?
As Amandil waited for him, a different noise reached his ears from behind his back. Whirling around, his glance met the white face of a priest, who was staring at them in astonishment from the courtyard gate. His hands carried a roll of ritual cloth.
Next to him, Pharazôn´s movements also froze to a halt. Keeping his aplomb, the Prince advanced a couple of steps, and sized the man up with a determined look.
"He did not defeat me yet." he assured him, tightening the grip of his fingers on the makeshift sword hilt.
* * * * *
"Do you know what you just did?"
Amandil kept his eyes religiously fixed on the floor patterns, still like a statue under the scrutiny. The High Priest´s voice was calm - soft, even, and yet the boy was not foolish enough as to try to breathe a word in his presence.
Besides, anything he could say would only make the situation worse.
"You attacked – you hurt the grandson of the King." the voice continued. "Have you an idea of how serious this is?"
The boy heard the sound of footsteps behind his back, and then the rustle of heavy robes as Yehimelkor knelt at his side. He ventured a brief look at his face from the corner of his eyes, forcing himself to be brave and keep his composure. Deep inside, however, he was positively screaming for help. Please, let him not be furious. If he decided to wash his hands on him now... he shuddered to think of what would happen.
"Will you defend his foolishness, Yehimelkor?"
The priest bowed respectfully.
"Your Holiness, it is well known to you that I will never defend mindless fighting." he said, sending an ominous look in the boy´s direction. Amandil swallowed. "I do have to say, however, that I do not think that this child is any more guilty than the prince in this issue. As it seems, they were practicing swordmanship like friends, and he had been asked, if not ordered, to teach the son of Prince Gimilkhâd."
The High Priest thought about this for a moment.
"What you say may be true, but he was still careless. Compared to the life of a child of the royal family, his own is worth little. He should have thought about it before."
"He rarely thinks about anything, Your Holiness." Yehimelkor sneered. "And yet, he was chosen by Melkor, so his life is as much under the Lord´s protection as that of the prince."
Amandil felt his chest burst in gratitude at those words. If he got out of this unscathed, he thought, he would always respect the man, and never, ever do anything against his wishes again.
"So what?" The High Priest frowned, and his eyes bore upon him. "What is your opinion? Should this Temple surrender the boy to the prince´s family so they can obtain their revenge?" he sighed, oblivious, it seemed, to the sudden pallor in Amandil´s face. Surrendering his stoic pretence at last, he sent a terrified glance in Yehimelkor´s direction.
Images that he thought he had left behind forever fought to enter his agitated mind again. The defiance that he had been mustering for all that time left him in a rush. He saw the fire once more, and the King´s cold eyes passing through him as if he was nothing but dirt in front of his eyes.
He shivered. No!
Yehimelkor´s eyes became hard.
"My opinion is that it would be a grievous error, Your Holiness."
"I will." The priest bowed again. "For many years, we have kept our position carefully balanced with that of the Kings. We are the Great God´s chosen servants, keepers of the holy rites and interpreters of his wishes. Much depends on this state of things, as you well know. "The High Priest nodded slowly to each of his words. "But since Ar-Gimilzôr took the Sceptre, this balance has become more... tenuous than ever. The Kings have always had the right to share in our ceremonies, but none of his ancestors had been so intent on it as he is now. In the last years, he has taken over many of our duties with great zeal, and some have been dreading that he intends to proclaim himself the only keeper of the wisdom of the Lord. This will imperil the influence of this Temple and that of his High Priest."
Amandil listened to this torrent, half-dazed. A part of him wondered what could be the relationship with the issue at hand, but the High Priest seemed to be interested on it anyway. So much that he seemed to have even forgotten about his presence.
"If you humble yourself in front of him, everybody will think you weak, and you will have less power. We must keep our dignity, and protect it at all costs. It is the only way."
The High Priest arched an eyebrow.
"Do you think me weak, Yehimelkor?"
Amandil wondered if there could be some sort of dangerous edge to this question. His tone sounded only mildly interested.
Yehimelkor shook his head.
"I do not, Your Holiness."
The High Priest´s lips curved into a smile.
"Then, there is only one way, indeed. You may retire."
"My deepest thanks to Your Holiness."
Still bewildered at the strange exchange that had just taken place, Amandil reacted to the man´s bony touch upon his shoulders, and struggled to his feet to follow him.
As he crossed the threshold of the High Audience Chamber, he felt the knot in his throat dissolve at last.
"What will.... happen to me, then?" he asked in a whisper, needing and dreading the confirmation at the same time. Yehimelkor stopped in his tracks and turned back to measure him up with an annoyed glance.
"You have been caught disobeying my orders on weapons yet again. This makes seven times, Hannimelkor. Seven. Sometimes I still wonder if you do understand Adûnaic like everybody else."
Amandil lowered his face, humbly.
"I am sorry."
"You will not step outside your room for ten days. Maybe this will stop your frenzied activity enough as to allow for a bit of reflection."
Amandil pondered this briefly, then nodded. Had it been twenty days, or forty, right now he could not have brought himself to care. As the realisation that he was, indeed, saved, crashed into his mind, he felt a wave of gratitude fill him until he was about to burst.
"Thank you. I mean... "he rectified, not sure of what he was supposed to say. "I am sorry. I will not do it anymore."
"Short is the memory of a mindless young boy." Turning back again, he continued his way through the corridors, and Amandil followed him in silence.
As they were already reaching their chambers, Yehimelkor spoke again.
"Your closeness to the prince Pharazôn worries me, Hannimelkor." Amandil blinked in surprise. "I trust that you remember who wanted to kill you back then."
The boy shook his head.
"I remember." he said in a hoarse voice. "But he... he is nothing like that. He is... a friend. We were not fighting, it´s all... well, practice. We like each other."
As nobody else had liked him there, he thought, somewhat bitterly, but he kept that last thought to himself. It would not do to complain to the priest about that.
Yehimelkor, however, looked at him with a strange, surprised expression in his face. Amandil thought he could even distinguish a brief flicker of pity in his eyes, but it was gone before he could wonder.
"This is all well. But you must be careful. Your impulsive nature might still get you killed." he grumbled. The boy nodded at this, without much difficulty. A selfish part of himself was exultant and relieved at the fact that he had not been forbidden from seeing his friend.
"I will be careful." he promised solemnly.
* * * * *
"Why did you have to make such a fuss?" Pharazôn stood on the glazed tiles of the Prince of the South´s chambers, his golden frown fixed on his father in anger . "He will not want to teach me anymore!"
Gimilkhâd´s features were tense, and he stared into the palms of his hands. His voice came out with a hissing sound, as if he was speaking between his teeth.
"This is just as well, then, because you will not see him again."
The boy´s outrage flared up in a rush.
"Because he is dangerous." his father replied. Then, he continued in a lower, if not less stressed tone. "I do not want to speak further on this subject."
Pharazôn glared, putting his hands on his hips.
"Then do not speak about it! But you will never stop me from seeing him!"
"What?" Gimilkhâd looked at him, livid.
"He is my friend!"
Several attempts to form words became tangled and stuck in the prince´s mouth, and for a moment he sat, opening and closing it and breathing heavily. Undaunted, the boy withstood his glance.
"Well, I do not... I do not allow you to be his friend!"
"I am his friend already!" the boy replied, yelling back. "You can´t do anything about that!"
"How dare you talk like this to your father!"
Pharazôn lifted his chin in a disdainful gesture.
"I am the future King! You cannot order me around!"
Whirling round, he gave his back to Gimilkhâd and stormed out of the room. Everything around him became blurred, and he almost crashed against a long-robed figure who stood in the corridor, quietly waiting for him.
"My son." Melkyelid scolded in a fond voice, stopping his mad rush with her hand. Pharazôn looked up at her, and blinked furiously as she knelt in front of him and the hand caressed his chin. He never cried. "Is this the look you gave your father?"
The boy bit his lip, trying to break free.
"If you are going to side with him, leave me alone!"
The Princess´s features hardened.
"Insolence towards your father is one thing. But your mother gave birth to you, and the Lady in Heaven will punish you if you ever treat her disrespectfully." Seeing his anger cool down at those words, her lips curved in another loving smile. "Tell me what happened, my child. I will help you."
For a while, Pharazôn considered her in silence, his determination battling with need. As always, his pride eventually surrendered to that beautiful face that promised him a solution for everything that troubled him. He swallowed.
"He... told me I couldn´t be friends with Hannimelkor. He says that he´s dangerous, but that´s not true! He was teaching me swordsmanship. He´s very good at it... and he´s my friend!"
Melkyelid nodded attentively.
"I understand." One of her long tresses, brilliant with perfumed oil, fell over her shoulder, and she pushed it back. "Still, you must know that your father has his reasons. Do you know who your friend Hannimelkor really is?"
"He is the only heir of the former lords of Andúnië." she whispered softly in his ear. "That was why the King forced him to become a priest, or be killed."
The boy´s eyes widened.
"The traitors?" he mouthed in shock. "But... how´s that possible? That happened before I was born!"
"Of course, my son. He was born in exile, from outlawed parents. He has no name and no honour, and a clouded destiny."
The boy lowered his glance, reflecting on this. His brows began to knit in a frown, but his mother´s keen eyes also perceived a glint of awe in the corner of his eye. She laid a hand over his shoulders, and smiled.
"This does not deter you, I see."
Pharazôn shook his head.
"I... were they really going to kill him?"
"Miraculously, he managed to wriggle himself out from all threats. Your friend has lived through more than you can imagine, son. Maybe that is why he is a better warrior." she muttered in a lower, more thoughtful tone. Her son stared at her, now in open fascination.
Upon noticing his expression, she broke in a ringing fit of laughter.
"Why? You still want to be his friend?"
Pharazôn pursed his lips in determination.
"I do." he stated. "If... if he was an evil Elf-friend, he would not be a priest of Melkor, would he? Melkor wouldn´t have chosen him!" he added in flawless logic. Melkyelid laughed again.
"Indeed, he would not! You are wise, my son." Her hand caressed his rebellious curls, and the soft fabric of her long sleeve touched his face, leaving a perfumed trail in its wake. "I will help you, as I promised. But there is one condition."
The Princess´s features sobered for a moment.
"You will offer your apologies to your father."
Pharazôn´s features tightened in surprise, then creased in distaste.
Melkyelid raised her hand, interrupting her son´s budding protest.
"I will need to work, lengthly and tirelessly, in order to fulfill your wishes. If you do not do my bidding, and apologise to your father, you will make things even more difficult for me. "She sighed, reproachfully. "Would you do that, my son? Would you scatter hardships in my way, when I am labouring for your sake?"
The strength of the boy´s denial was quenched by those words. Somewhat ashamed, he stared down in painful hesitation, and Melkyelid smiled.
"I knew you would not." Gracefully she stood up, in a soft rustle of colourful silks, and took his hand in hers. "You and I, my son, will forever be allies."
Pharazôn stared at her in grave silence. Inside him, there were some emotions in conflict, but he was not skilled at considering them and determining their nature. So he merely stood there, and nodded dutifully to his mother.
She would put everything in order. She always did.
But one day, he would not need her help anymore.
* * * * *
When Melkyelid entered the Prince´s chambers, she found him sitting in front of an ivory table, looking into a glass of wine with a stormy frown. She approached him with her soft steps, and cautiously sat at his side.
A long and uncomfortable silence followed.
"Has our son displeased you?" she finally asked, touching his arm with delicate fingers. He shook himself away ill-temperedly, and glared at her.
"A nice piece of work, indeed, is what you have you made out of him!" he hissed. "You and your... accursed airs! Since the very day he was born, you have always spoken of him as if he was a king, a deliverer, a god, instead of a mere child. And now, look at the results. He does not even respect his father!"
Melkyelid weathered the storm in silence. As Gimilkhâd made a pause to drink, she opened her mouth to reply, but he interrupted her again.
"And this is not the worst. Oh, no, you have even infected me with your overblown beliefs! He is standing there, in front of me, opposing my will, and I cannot even bring myself to open my mouth! "His words died in a humiliated, half-drunken groan. Muttering something, he emptied the cup, and allowed his glance to trail sourly over the distance.
The princess lowered her eyes in regret.
"Great is the weakness of a mother." she admitted. "I beg you to forgive me."
He did not answer.
"He was taken by his impulsive nature, and now he regrets it deeply. "she continued. "He only wishes to apologise to you."
"Apologise?" he snorted in disbelief. Still, his haughtiness also seemed a little surprised, if not mollified. "So he wants to apologise, now? The nerve...!"
"We never know to which purpose do the gods govern the impulses of a young boy." she added, furrowing her brow. "His friendship with this Hannimelkor..."
"His name is Amandil." Gimilkhâd cut her. "And I do not want to discuss him."
"I am sorry." she said, "but what if...?"
"Enough!" he yelled. "I said I would not discuss him!"
Melkyelid stood up. Her chair made a loud noise as it was dragged back across the floor, causing Gimilkhâd to look up sharply, but she simply joined hands over the robes that hung in heavy folds over her stomach.
"Excuse me. " she began. "Since the day I was born in Gadir, the Goddess bestowed all her blessings on me, welcomed and nurtured me as her only and most beloved child. She taught me the many paths and ways of her service, and I laid my heart and soul at her feet. She gave me a brilliant future, wove it into my dreams, and wrote it in the stars." Her husband, taken out from his drunken sulk by shock, studied her in quiet astonishment. She withstood his glance, and continued her passionate speech. "When my son was born, I took all the favours, all the joys that the Lady had destined for me, and heaped them upon his head. Both our fortunes are his, and this is why I know that he will be King and that no evil will ever be able to touch him. The Goddess guides his every step towards his destiny, and I am a mere servant to her will." Her eyes narrowed in determination. "It was not by mere chance, or ill luck, that he met the heir of Andúnië, I know this. So please, listen to me. Help me to reach an understanding of her message, for us and our son´s sake!."
The uncomprehending expression became more and more pronounced in Gimilkhâd´s features as he listened to his wife. He shook his head, confused.
"Help you? What message?"
Melkyelid smiled, encouraged, and looked down with a blush.
"I... am a woman, and I know little about politics. My only knowledge comes from the times when you have chosen to share your problems with me. And yet... there is one thing that is obvious to all those who live in this Palace, even the serving girls. Your brother, the Prince of Númenor, will one day be King."
Her husband nodded, reluctantly.
"And once that he does... would he not want to restore the traitors –may the Doom take them!- to their former honours?"
Gimilkhâd frowned in deep distaste at the question.
"He probably will." he finally muttered, with a grimace. "He is a traitor, himself. My father..." His voice trailed away, then he shook his head as if to chase a dark thought. "Only his blood protected him from suffering their same fate back then."
Melkyelid wrinkled her nose in distaste.
"And... do you think they would hold a seat in the Council? After having been pronounced traitors to Númenor?"
"The day my brother has his way... yes. They will try to rule through him." her husband explained. "Luckily, our supporters are a majority in Númenor, and we will not let them do as they please."
The Princess smiled.
"That sounds reassuring. Still..." She frowned again. "I have lived in this Palace for long, and heard things. Sometimes, I cannot help but wonder how many of those supporters are really loyal." Gimilkhâd looked about to protest, but she quickly continued before he could speak. "Oh, I do not mean that they are traitors. But when there is civil strife, many people survive by following the flow of the tide and weathering the storm. Now that your father is king, they are with him, but will they be against your brother once they see him holding the Sceptre? Will they rise and fight their King, even if they are against his policies?"
Gimilkhâd sought for the wine jar, and filled his cup again. For a while, an uncomfortable silence reigned in the chamber.
"Go on." he said at last, surprisingly quiet. "What are you trying to get at?"
"I think that Amandil, future Lord of Andúnië, may be one of our greatest allies in years to come." she complied. "And that this is the splendid gift of the Lady of Storms to our son."
Then, before her astonished husband could come up with an answer, she bent her head in a parting bow, gathered the folds of her dress in her hands, and discreetly left him to ponder her words.