36. The Lady´s Battle
After biding his time in the Forbidden Bay for years, Amandil receives iportant news that will change his life again. Thanks to Pandemonium for her help correcting this chapter!
The Lady´s Battle
It was midday when the gates opened. The sound of many voices singing in a choir wafted from inside the temple, woven into the gusts of sea breeze. An ocean of heads and outstretched arms immediately gathered around, threatening to drown a figure in fluttering robes of blue, whose silver crown gleamed with pearls in the sunlight. She was raising her hands in the air, both frozen in a gesture of petrified might.
Amandil watched the statue of Ashtarte-Uinen as it was rocked left and right, in its slow and laborious procession through the petal-flooded avenue that led into the sands of the beach. Thousands of locals and pilgrims pressed around, trying to touch an inch of the fabric of her dress.
In the twenty years he had spent at the Forbidden Bay, he had never yet been allowed the honour of carrying the Lady to the sea for her trip, something for which he felt guiltily thankful. How did those priests avoid being crushed or suffocated by the mob was something that remained a mystery to him.
Above his head, the white houses of the outskirts shone, their front splendidly decorated with flower boughs and the sensuous scarlet fruits of the Goddess. Even further, the cloudless sky of the summer solstice stretched in an endless patch of radiant blue that matched the robes of the Lady, who received the homage of her faithful Bay this morning.
Amandil did not know when or how this festival had originated, but he knew that it was ancient. It sank its deep roots on a legend, a tale of much older days when maybe Númenor did not exist, and the world was shrouded in darkness. According to that tale, one of Darkness´s own creatures, a monstrous serpent of terrible and unpredictable moods known as Yam, had once held sway over the seas. In rebellion against Eru and the world, he had plunged them in a perpetual, raging gale, where no ship could sail, no fish could dive, and not even the Immortals could draw close.
In defiance of him, the Goddess had stood upon the shore, and stars pierced the clouds to shine on her crown. Their battle had lasted thirty years and thirty months, and its clatter could be heard in the far ends of the world. At its end, the serpent had been subdued, and Ashtarte-Uinen had become the Queen of the Seas. That was why, once a year, a painstakingly carved and painted image of the Lady of the Sanctuary was dressed in all her finery and put on a ship that drifted away from the shore, in commemoration of her feat and her victory.
Though it was too crowded for Amandil to see much in front of him anymore, he felt the soft crunch of the sand under his feet, and realised that they had arrived to the beach. Now the multitude would disperse in all directions, and stand on the shore to watch the Lady´s departure. He remembered the first time that Amalket had seen this, how she had followed the boat´s trail with awed eyes while she took advantage of the crowd pressing around them to lean against his shoulder. Out of an impulse, he sought around him for the hundredth time, in search of a glimpse of soft brown hair and honey eyes.
He swallowed, wondering why he felt so disappointed. He had known, hadn´t he, that she would not come. Since the untimely death of her father, the force of circumstances had tied her to her frail mother´s side. And their son...
For a moment, he remembered the flustered face of a young, dark haired boy of ten, seeing his father for the first time.
"Hannishtart?" Amandil jumped as he heard the voice of the senior priest behind his back. "You are not supposed to be talking to the pilgrims when your duty lies in the Cave!"
A hungry, last look, carefully schooled into a vacant expression. A polite bow.
"I hope you will find your way from here, foreigners."
He would be around twenty, now. A man, he thought, almost incredulously. Would he have joined the Guard, as his grandfather before him?
Distracted, he watched the crowd scatter around the shore, and walked towards the circle of priests who were preparing the boat that would carry the image. He knew better than to approach them and offer his help: he was barely worthy to be in the procession. The special goodwill of the Lady had granted him the first two of the five degrees he ought to achieve, but the high priests here, just as those of the god-he-could-not-name-anymore before them, had not forgotten his lineage. Nor the fact that the rich extensions of lands in the West that were now theirs had once belonged to his family.
Still, he had to admit that, compared to the temple of the Great God in Armenelos, life in the Forbidden Bay was freedom. Beauty alone was truly worshipped in the ancient Eldanna: to tend to the Lady´s silk embroideries, her complicated hairdresses, the sorting of the precious offerings of rich visitors and the rare flowers, trees and plants of the sacred gardens were the only religious duties of the priests of the Cave. Asides from this, they were allowed to train in the military arts by a warrior High Priest who set enough store in being prepared for combat –even though his dangerous neighbours had now gone-, their practice disturbed now and then by the crystalline laughter of the priestesses who spied on them.
The notes of a song broke around him, and Amandil knew that the boat was now ready. Together with the thousands of people who surrounded him, he watched how they set it free, and how, slowly and clumsily, it began to sail. The wooden statue leant dangerously to the left for a moment, pushed by the waves, then regained its balance. Sunlight casted dazzling reflections upon her crown.
Blinded by their light, he closed his eyes, and suddenly felt a strange sensation creeping over him. It was a pang of anguish, like mourning for someone that he did not know had died. The waves crashed behind his back, and he was sitting on that boat, his fist clenched over a rope as he forced himself to surrender to the mysterious, windless pull that took him away from the shore.
He blinked, and then it was gone. He was standing on the beach, and everybody around him was singing as the boat drifted farther away and, in spite of the winds and the currents, headed straight West.
* * * * *
As he knelt before the Cave´s dark altar to replace the burning inciense, sounds of laughter and merrymaking reached Amandil´s ears from the distance. Outside this humid, secluded place people were feasting on the beach, eating and drinking until their bodies could hold no more. Once, he remembered wistfully, he had done it with Amalket – the only hour of unrestrained bliss that they had shared since their secret wedding had been full of drunken cries and elbows and the ocassional flying object.
Standing on top of her mountain of sacred boughs, the statue of the Lady loomed over him with her smile of frozen ivory. He left the silver casket before her feet and bowed to her nervously, as he would a living Queen.
Sometimes, he could not help but feel that such a magnificent being had to be alive in some form. Were those eyes, filled to the brim with silent acceptance, truly fixed on him as he walked away?
Almost at the same time, he scoffed at his own imagination. After all those years! The gods of Númenor despised him.
The whispered word broke the sanctuary´s spell of quietude, forcing him to blink his musings away. He bowed thrice, and turned back to meet the gentle face of a young priestess.
Nodding in silence, she moved towards the gate, and he followed her. Outside, the shadows had become long, and the Sun reminded him of a great ball of fire plunging into the waves.
"What do you want?" he asked, as both waded past the closest groups of faithful with garlands on their hair. She walked slowly, as all priestesses did, with small and graceful steps, and he had to do a conscious effort to tame his long strides.
"His Holiness sent me to find you", she replied, recoiling in horror as a flying jet of wine made a purple stain on her tunic. "He – oh, how I hate this!- wants to tell you something."
Amandil frowned, surprised. It was very rare that the High Priest would want to speak to him; in fact, all the priests of rank seemed to make a point of ignoring him as much as possible. The Forbidden Bay was the centre of power in the West of the Island; politics were nearly as important here as they were in Armenelos. Anyone found consorting with the heir of the ancient neighbour and rival, convicted for treason, would not have a very bright future.
Back in the capital, Amandil had realized soon after his departure, Yehimelkor had been quite reckless to become his protector. Nobody in this sanctuary was willing to take such a risk, but after all that had happened to him in the past, for Amandil this had so far been a relieving experience more than anything else. He had no need for any more conflicted feelings.
The avenue that headed towards the temple where they lived was still covered in dirty and trampled flower petals. A cool breeze whispered on the tree branches, already obscured from sight as they reached the building.
Thanking his companion for her trouble, Amandil went to his room and cleaned himself thoroughly. He also changed his robes, and combed his hair –Yehimelkor had been right, it tended to be in disorder- before he finally decided he was presentable enough for an audience with the holy Itashtart. He knocked at his door, and waited in perfect silence and a swiftly beating heart until he was summoned.
The elderly man was sitting on his desk, busy with some papers. In spite of the lines of his face and the grey of his hair, he still had the bearing of a warrior. The first time that Amandil had laid eyes on him, he recalled with a jolt, he had felt more affinity with this man than he had with the priests of Armenelos in fifteen years, but Itashtart –not unsurprisingly- had never wanted anything to do with him.
Amandil knelt on the floor and bowed, keeping a respectful silence until he was addressed. He heard a loud rustling of papers, then, finally, a grave voice addressing him.
"Raise your head."
He obeyed and sat back on his feet in the most comfortable position he could manage. Itashtart was staring at him, just as intensely as he crushed a discarded draft on his fist or shattered his wooden targets in arms practice.
"I will be quick and direct", he announced, picking up a new document and playing with it in his hand. "There will be an army leaving the harbour of Sor by the end of the month, and our people are going to be on it. The King wants new temples to be consecrated in the vicinity of Umbar, to keep away the shadow of Barad-dûr. Abdashtart will lead them, and he has requested you to be on the party."
Amandil´s eyes widened, and he had to forcefully suppress a start. Whatever he had been imagining, it had not been this.
"I had to agree. I have followed your arms practice, and there is no one here who is half as good as you are."
The young man could not muster the wits to be thankful for this unexpected praise. He was too busy analysing this new situation.
Many years after he arrived to the Western sanctuary, he had to admit, his wish to travel eastwards had remained undimmed. Pharazôn had visited several times –paid his respects to the Lady on behalf of his family-, but he never brought anything more than the usual news. In the end, Amandil had decided to banish those foolish hopes from his mind, at least for the time being.
Now, however... A blind excitement began coursing through his veins. He would see Pharazôn, and Amalket, and his son. He would see the world. The prison that had held him for so long would be broken.
"Thank you very much, Your Holiness", he recited, trying to keep his voice carefully devoid of any emotion. Why had he been summoned alone? "I will uphold the honour of this sanctuary."
"I thought it was me who was supposed to say that", Itashtart remarked, but then waved his apology away in some impatience. "Never mind. You are surely aware that not many people trust you, here or in the East."
Amandil swallowed deeply. So there it was. His glance became fixed on a dot of the floor.
"I solemnly swear to you that –"
Itashtart waved his words away once again.
"I know what you are going to say. You are trustworthy. However, it is not enough if you say it, you must prove it as well. And this is a good opportunity to do so."
Amandil nodded in silence. He was beginning to understand. It was not only his fighting skills what had made his superiors choose him for this mission.
He thought he could guess the relief of the High Priests once that such a compromising novice was safely away from their hands, beyond the Eastern Sea, and maybe getting killed by Orcs or barbarians. This was their answer to the King´s manouevres.
He, once again, was right in the middle of it.
As he spoke again, he did his utmost to sound as thankful as he could, bowing several times and promising not to disappoint. Deep inside, he was convincing himself that he should not care about what they thought as long as this would enable him to see his family, his friend, and the vast shores of a land that had meant freedom to him since he was a mere child who was taken away from his parents.
A strange dizzyness took him, so strong that he was almost forced to close his eyes. Could it be this, what that morning´s vision had announced?
"You may retire for now." the High Priest dismissed him. He bowed deeply once again, then stood up and headed towards the door.
Out of an impulse, he broke into a run, causing two priestesses to shriek in surprise as he almost crashed against them. Barely stopping to breathe an apology, he pushed the door of his room open with a loud clang, and grabbed his sword. The weight felt familiar and comfortable in his right hand.
At night the practice grounds were usually empty, as it was impossible to see an inch apart from one´s nose. Amandil was not deterred. They said it was like this in the deep recesses of Middle-Earth, where Orcs crawled and waited for their enemies to wander off. Their eyes could pierce the darkness to hunt for flesh, and if he gave them a chance they would feast on it. The fact that he was a priest of the Lady would matter as little to them as it did to the holy Itashtart and his counsellors.
Thrusts alternated with parries, with a ferocity that would have sent a real opponent reeling against the walls. Amandil had no lack of those in the Forbidden Bay, and each one of them had fallen to his blade. That had not helped him make friends, either.
Many times, he had wished fervently for Pharazôn to be there, to face him with his unbreakable vanity. He remembered the boy in the Temple, the gleam of determination in his eyes whenever he struggled to his feet and demanded another round. The prince was also a true warrior, one who wouldn´t hesitate if fate brought him to the ancient enemy´s black gates. How he would envy Amandil for being sent where he himself had always wanted to be, into the thick of the battle!
No poisoned gift would have been able to daunt him, either.
"Hannishtart", a voice spoke behind his back. Startled away from his thoughts, he froze and turned towards its source.
It was a young priest, about ten years younger than Amandil himself. He had been among those who engaged in arms practice daily, a pale-faced would-be warrior who held his sword too tightly and tensed his limbs too much. Amandil had floored him a couple of times, and after that he had sought less intimidating challenges.
"Eshmounazer", he greeted him, putting his practice sword aside. "What brings you here at this late hour? The feast must be getting quite rowdy by now."
"I was wondering..." The young man advanced a few steps, and Amandil could hear their echo in the growing darkness. "Have you heard of the... summons? The summons to the mainland, I mean."
"Are you coming, too?" Amandil wiped his forehead, and looked closer at him. Eshmounazer´s eyes were brimming with some emotion. "I see. Did you come to test your skills before our departure?"
"Not really." The dismissal sounded hasty, as he raised both hands. "I... knew you had to be coming, of course. They wouldn´t leave someone like you behind!"
"I´m not too good at consecrating temples", Amandil retorted dryly, thinking of all the problems that suddenly arose whenever it seemed like he might apply for the next degree of priesthood. "I´m not holy enough."
"But we aren´t going there just to consecrate temples! We will take part in the battles, like the others", Eshmounazer insisted. "Even if we don´t, the battle will be exactly where we are."
And someone won´t be praying for my safety, Amandil thought to himself.
"That´s so", he replied. Someone was lighting the lamps at the other side of the yard, and under their light he finally saw the anxiety in Eshmounazer´s face. "Is something worrying you?"
"Why are you always so brave?" the younger man suddenly burst, unable to keep it to himself for any longer. "Nothing ever affects you. Not even the idea of..."
"... fierce barbarians and Orcs who will eat you or tear you to pieces?" The words echoed harshly in the night, and Amandil realized his rudeness. He had been rememebering a child who had been alone in a temple, searching the darkness for signs of Orcs and Balrogs who would come to get him.
Then again, Orcs and Balrogs were said to be terrible, but here in Númenor the will of one man was enough to kill him. That threat was hanging continuously above his head, but it would never face him head on.
"Aren´t you afraid of them eating you?"
"Not if I have my sword", he replied. That, at least, depended on him. "And you should think the same. Isn´t that why you learned to wield it?"
"I never thought I would be sent to Middle-Earth! Maybe fight some rebels from Andúnië, but even they are gone now. Númenor is a peaceful realm."
"The colonies are part of Númenor, too."
"I forgot. That´s where you are from, aren´t you?" Eshmounazer seemed to forget his worries for a moment to give him a curious look. "You´d be... going home."
Amandil thought of Armenelos, the home of his hidden wife and son and the man who would never set eyes upon him again. Then, he thought of Sor, and the prisoners who spent their lives in the upper floors of merchant palaces.
"Yes", he nodded. "You could say that."
"I see. I´m... happy for you, then. See you." Eshmounazer waved to him, and started walking towards the lights of the porch. Amandil watched him leave in silence, until the words that had been so slow in coming finally found their way through his mouth.
"Believe in your strength and your training. If you do that, you will feel much better."
Eshmounazer stopped in his tracks. He seemed to think of this as he wiped his eye with the back of his left hand, then shrugged.
"It seems easier when you say it."
It seems easier when you´ve been afraid since you were a child. Amandil smiled tersely.
"With the help of the Lady, we will manage", he said, waving at his companion´s retreating figure. Then, he knelt to pick back his sword, and resumed his thrusts with renewed ferocity.