Amandil didn´t fear the Sea.
It came as a surprise to him, as it had been in his most ominous dreams of waves that swept him and boats that carried him away, but once he stood on the deck of the ship and the breeze touched his face his anxiety vanished. So did the headache that he had acquired after drinking himself under the table last night, and even the dark broodings it had failed to quench. The rocking movement of the waves as they crossed the mouth of the harbour felt like being cradled in the arms of a lover, or a mother. And then, as Melkor became gradually smaller in the distance and disappeared behind the horizon, the euphoria of freedom, of adventure took hold of him, and he couldn´t sit still.
First, he rushed to the back of the ship and looked in the direction of Númenor until the Meneltarma, too, disappeared in the distance. Then, he was distracted by the evolutions of a school of dolphins, crossing the side of the ship in graceful formation. He blinked the sunlight away to venture in the inner quarters, where many of his companions sat with pale and dejected expressions. One of them threw up when he passed by, missing his foot by inches.
As he came out again, Amandil heard a sailor laughing and calling the priests landlubbers who had never even set foot in a fishing boat. Amandil hadn´t, either, but he remembered his descent from a lineage of sailors and sea-lovers. That part of his blood, at least, had not been tainted.
Relishing in that thought, and drawing from it some of the comfort that he hadn´t found in the wine, he asked the captain if he could be of any use during the trip. His offer was received with a snort at first, and he was told not to get in the way. But after they were hoisting the main sail and he jumped in to help them with his own strength, he was allowed to remain around. A few days later, he was already sharing tales with the sailors, who, ignorant or indifferent to his identity and the distrust of his superiors, did not have problems befriending him. Amandil had never felt so comfortable before, as even around his best friend he had to remain aware of everything that stood between them.
Pharazôn was ahead of him now, sailing in the main ship. Abdashtart, to Amandil´s great relief, was there as well, and the other priests were rarely seen on deck. Sometimes, he could even have closed his eyes and pretended that they didn´t exist, that he was sailing this ship on his own like the Andúnië lords of old. Pretending, however, was an idle game, which made him feel acutely aware of his own position, so he did not engage on it.
"Where are you from?" one of his new companions asked him one night, as they stood watch on deck repairing old sails. "You´re a born sailor, you are. I bet you must be from Sor."
"You should stay here. A priest of the Lady of the Seas always comes handy on a ship."
"And even more if he doesn´t throw up", another sailor chimed in as he passed by. Both laughed aloud, and Amandil was briefly tempted to join in.
"There´s a lot of fighting in the mainland right now", the man continued, cutting the hard thread with a magnificent row of teeth. "The barbarians aren´t just petty raiding tribes anymore. They´ve made an alliance with the king of Mordor, and filthy Orcs follow their trail wherever they strike. It´s made them bold, it has. They´ve attacked trading settlements, caravans, even the crops! And in the bay of Gadir they´ve been having trouble too, I hear. Too close to Mordor, if you ask me." He shook his head, fixing such a grave stare on Amandil that the priest felt it would be only courteous to stop darning and reciprocate. "Don´t go there, lad. They say a lot of things about it, but the sea is less treacherous than the land is down there. Even if it plays a nasty trick on you, that death is a thousand times better than what those bastards would have in store for you. They´ve always hated us, call us usurpers, tyrants and thieves. And the Mordor folk... those hate all men. To them, we´re only good for eating." He chuckled with some trepidation at the thought. "Stay here with us."
Amandil bit his lip, and resumed his work. The scenario the man was laying in front of him sounded like the stories of First Age heroes his mother told him, when the land was full of dangers all around them. Back then, with the simple logic of a child, he had thought that the Orcs and the monsters were there just for the hero to kill them and prove his worth.
"That choice does not lie with me", he explained. "The Cave rules my life, and the lives of all that are consecrated to the Goddess."
"That´s tough", the sailor grumbled. "Well, good luck down there, then. You´re no soldier, maybe you can stay out of trouble."
"I am good with the sword", he retorted, with some pride.
"Are you? Well, I hope you´re best with it than you are darning sails, because your life will depend on it!" For a while, his eyes became lost in the darkness, as if he was checking something that only he could see beyond. Then, he shrugged. "We´ll be setting anchor by tomorrow. Umbar´s not far."
"Already?" Amandil had always heard that Middle-Earth was even farther from Númenor than the land of the Valar. As the latter was untouchable for mortals, he could hardly imagine something even more remote, but the trip had lasted a mere fifteen days.
The sailor laughed at his surprise.
"Well, the wind isn´t always that good. Sometimes it´s against us, sometimes there are storms or there is calm. But you being priests of the Sea-Queen and all, she was really nice to us this time."
Amandil made a sign of reverence for the Goddess, and observed the handiwork that lay upon his lap. For a moment, a petty part of him couldn´t help but wonder what was so bad about it.
"I just meant that you would have to be even better with the sword to face them Orcs and barbarians down there", the man explained, as if he had guessed his thoughts. "No offense to your darning."
"Oh, I understand." He laid it down, cutting the thread with a knife, and his lips curved in a smile. "Well, as you can see, I learn quickly."
And the first thing I ever learned was that many people wanted to kill me, he thought, trying to look past the same darkness where his companion´s glance had been lost. Orcs and barbarians he could kill, at least -and that was why he had wanted to learn swordsmanship in the first place, hadn´t he? To be able to face something head on, as he couldn´t face the merchants who held him prisoner, the King, the High Priests or their gods.
He couldn´t tell the sailors any of this, though.
"I s´ppose you will", his companion admitted grudgingly, folding his part of the fabric over Amandil´s and looking for more.
* * * * *
The sailor had been right: on the next morning, the flight of seagulls over their heads heralded the proximity of the mainland. Such was the anticipation raised by the arrival to the Land Beyond the Sea that even the priests who had spent the whole trip complaining in the cabins rushed on deck to look. This angered the captain, who yelled that they were interfering with the ship´s manouevres and sent them downstairs again. Amandil, however, was suffered to stay, as he was making himself useful by helping to pull up the sails and rolling them in coils.
For the most part, he was content with standing on the deck, catching whatever was hurled in his direction. As the manouevre progressed, however, he felt bolder, and started climbing the ropes. His movements were clumsy at first, though after a few attempts he managed to strike a pace. Higher and higher he climbed, trying not to look down, until he reached the men who were tying the knots.
"Coming to lend a hand, landlubber?" one of them laughed.
"He´s going to shit himself as soon as he looks down!" another shouted. Amandil looked at them: their hands were free, and they were busying themselves with the sails or even throwing coils of rope from one to another. He became aware of his own hands, grasping the cords for dear life, and wondered how he was supposed to break free without falling. His idea of climbing there began to seem more foolish by the minute.
"Land!" someone cried from afar.
Amandil forgot his fear for a moment, and stared ahead. His head turned violently, and for a moment he was really about to fall. He felt he was dangling over the waters, the ship deck nothing more than a small and narrow strip of wood that was pulled away from his feet with each lurch of the current.
Beyond it, the sea was full of ships, more ships than he had ever seen while he stood below. They were surrounded by white sails, tall masts, and tiny men who climbed on them just like he had done. Before them, far ahead, sailed the biggest ship of all, the Lady´s Crown, where Pharazôn might be leaning on the railing for a glimpse of the land he had always wanted to see.
That land lay already in front of them, visible first for the sharp eyes of the lookouts, then for the rest of them as they abandoned their tasks for a moment to gaze ahead. It looked like a bare strip of rock, with none of the green he was used to see in Númenor. No houses, towers, or harbours were to be seen on its surface, only cliffs and long, spidery arms of what looked like reefs, and he turned towards those next to him in some puzzlement. As he did so, he felt his head turn again.
"Where is Umbar?" he asked, afraid to sound ridiculous. The sailor closest to him laughed.
"There it is", he said. Amandil frowned; his sight had always been good, but there was nothing like a city there. As others started to laugh, he wondered if they were making fun of him.
"Come on, let´s get the job done! And if you can´t do it, landlubber, you´d better get back on deck and leave us at it!"
Piqued by this, especially after being laughed at, Amandil gathered his courage and freed one of his hands; then, slowly, he freed the other. As he did so, he pressed himself against the mast, his body rigid as cold stone. Then, he stretched two tense arms, that picked up his end of the sail clumsily. His eyes were fixed on it; he couldn´t look anywhere else.
After he had folded it and tied it to the mast, there was much joking among the sailors at his difficulty to climb down as easily as he had climbed up. Amandil bore this with good enough grace, even when he almost collapsed after setting foot on deck and the laughter reached the lookout on the topmost mast. But the matter of the invisible Umbar still bothered him.
In the following hour, there was too much work to be done to investigate the approaching continent. Only after the ship was gliding over the waves at a sleepy pace, pulled by oars, he looked over the railing and realized that most of the ships that used to be ahead of them had disappeared. He ran towards the prow, and for the first time he caught a glimpse of the Gates.
It was a huge, gaping mouth of a cave, standing in the midst of the cliffs of the shore. Two of the ships were disappearing through it, as if swallowed by a sea-monster such as used to battle with the Lady for dominion of the Seas in the lore of the Cave. They entered side by side, and even then they had no problem fitting in.
"Helm!" the captain shouted. They were going to follow them; one of the ships behind them was positioning itself on their left, and they were steering right. The mouth was growing closer, and larger, and Amandil saw an enormous inscription hewn in the rock right above.
The Bright King, who conquered darkness and superstition, settled this land
In the year 2280, fifty-nine after his accesion to the throne
His sixth generation descendant, the Lord of the West, made it prosperous and great
To the West, he built powerful walls that the fury of the Sea cannot breach
To the East, he built powerful walls where his enemies shatter and disperse
And then he looked at what he had taken for reefs, and realized that they were man-made, stone foundations that had been built to keep the deadly flux of the current away from the passage. Powerful walls that the fury of the Sea cannot breach. Astonished, he forgot that he was supposed to help and stood there, drinking on the sight with large, wide eyes.
The ship´s prow was eventually positioned at the mouth of the cave, and they were swallowed like the others. Amandil had expected darkness, but he found it was not so, for the walls had lights that cast an orange glow upon the palm of his hand. Those lights were reflected on the water, drawing undulating shapes on the high ceiling. It was an ancient ceiling, maybe older than Men themselves, full of shards of weeping stone that threatened to break their masts. The ship, however, waded easily across the passage, and he realized that it was but an illusion: they were too high to be touched even by Númenorean ships.
Their journey through the shadows finished in a second mouth, as large as the first. An onslaught of sunlight came through it, and Amandil had to blink. He could not afford to be blinded, even for a second; he did not want to miss any of those marvels.
When his full eyesight was restored, he found that they were on a bay, similar to the one in Rómenna. The harbour and city of Umbar stood before them, holding almost as many ships as the Arms of Sor. Behind the tangle of masts and sails, he could see a large wall that loomed protectively over a city of terraces and low towerless houses, made of the same sand-coloured stone of the Middle-Earth cliffs.
"To the East, he built powerful walls where his enemies shatter and disperse" he muttered to himself, remembering the words of the inscription. Someone caught his arm, and he turned around, still shaken.
"Are you going to help, or will you just stand there mooning over the landscape?" a rough voice asked. Still, in the captain´s eyes there was a spark of understanding that told Amandil that he could still remember going through the same, the first time he had seen this place.
Now, it was time for the ropes, which had to be uncoiled, and heavy anchors that had to be carried by eight strong men. The ship was brought to the dock where many others from their party were already anchored, and a crowd of men that walked under colourful parasols welcomed those that came down Pharazôn´s ship. Soldiers with red crests prowled around, keeping other people away from the place. Umbar was ruled by two magistrates, but since King Ar-Gimilzôr had given them voice in his Council one of them was usually in Númenor. The other was left in charge of the city and its domains, and judging by all the fuss he should be part of this distinguished group of merchant princes. The arrival of a real prince surely deserved his presence, even though he came as part of the army, and the Goddess would also claim her due.
When Amandil´s ship stood finally in a row with the others, however, the welcoming party had dispersed, and the Umbarites were starting to fill the place again. The colourful dresses seemed to be restricted to the rich merchants in that place; most people were clad in white, and their clothes also covered their heads, to shield them from the sun. Only their faces were visible, and though he could detect Númenorean complexions he also saw darker skins, reddish and coarse, and even some that were black like the obsidian floors of the Palace.
"They have all kinds here. This part of the city is where the rich merchants and magistrates live, and those have plenty of slaves. You will see more Númenorean faces beyond the first wall, in the farms and the crops. Ironic, isn´t it?"
Amandil turned towards his source of information; it was the same man who had shared his watch last night and warned him about the perils of the land. Though he had been about to step on the plank, he stopped in his tracks and seized the cue eagerly.
"First wall? Are there more?"
"There are two, one for the city and the harbour and the second for the fields. But since most soldiers are on that one, and they were bored out of their wits, a second city was built around them. The whores and the priests all moved there." The sailor started to laugh, then sobered and made a respectful gesture with his head. "Sorry. Didn´t mean no offense."
"None taken. You remember the Lady, her whores and her priests with enough respect when you´re caught in a storm in the open sea." Amandil replied coolly. Devotion springs chiefly from fear; two gods had already won him for their service in that manner. But they did not look so awe-inspiring when setting foot on solid ground, or walking under the mallorn trees in the peaceful Bay.
Which reminded him...
"I am told that the soldiers of Umbar worship no god but the Lord of Battles", he said. "Ours is a goddess for sailors, and yet they are expected to welcome us here."
The man laughed.
"A soldier and a sailor will believe in anything that can get them out of a tight spot alive." He scratched his chin, his look meaningful. "Not to mention that war isn´t the only spot of trouble they can get into, you know. The watches are long, the service lasts years, and whoever of them has a wife will have even forgotten how she looked like."
Amandil nodded, in cautious understanding. He had never forgotten Amalket in the Forbidden Bay, he told himself, and nor would he here.
"In that case they should have asked for priestesses, not for us. The Forbidden Bay is full of them", he jested. The sailor laughed, too, and patted his shoulder.
"You´ve done well, Hannishtart. Even though you stood gawking all the way through the passage and almost shat your pants when you tried to climb that mast, it was good for a first time. I wish you could be a sailor, but wherever you go you´ll be fine. I´m sure of that."
"Thank you." Amandil looked at the rugged face, and the dark eyes that could see things in the night. His throat itched for a moment, making him swallow. "May you have a good journey home, and may the Lady of the Seas guide you."
And with a last nod of farewell, he walked down the plank, and set his feet on the land of Middle-Earth.
* * * * *
Abdashtart, Pharazôn and the people on their ship had been invited to the Magistrate´s house for a banquet, which meant that, for the next hours, Amandil was left to wander the streets of Umbar alone. Food was not hard to come by, he discovered shortly after venturing on land. Meats that smelled strongly of hot spice were sold at every turn, and as soon as he had a spit in one hand an old woman rushed to press a cup of tea into the other.
Umbar had narrower streets than the Númenorean cities, and they were also more crooked. The houses had low ceilings, and the only point of reference, asides from the harbour that stretched in parallel with most of the city, was the temple of Melkor, one of the Four Great Temples. Compared with the one in Armenelos, however, even with the one in Sor, it seemed small and unworthy of its title. It was built with the same sandy stone as the rest of the houses, and only a colourful dome, whose lacquered tiles gleamed in the midday sun, made it stand out from the rest.
As a priest of the Lady, Amandil could not visit that temple, nor could he wander far in any other direction for fear of getting lost. So he sat on the doorstep of one of the buildings in the harbour, and ate his food while watching the movements of ships under the walls of cliff and rock that hid them from the sailors at open sea. The first bite brought tears to his eyes; after the fifth, he had already drunk all his tea. The old woman pressed a second cup to his hand, smiling a toothless grin. He was running out of money, as the one he had given to the beggar in Sor had been his weightiest coin.
After a while, the Umbarians that walked past him started diverting his attention from the landscape. Amandil had never seen such strange looking people. Now and then, a group of men with long, braided beards and naked to the waist walked past him; their sun-battered skins and grave expressions lending them a solemn appearance. Black women carried jars of water balanced on their heads, and a rich merchant, who probably had left the banquet earlier because of some trouble with a ship, walked away in all his green, gold and blue dyed finery, a trail of associates and slaves following his steps.
When one of his fellow priests arrived to fetch him, he was looking at two children who wrestled with a large green bird that growled like a dog.
"We go. " the priest said, panting. "They want to reach the Second Wall with the last light, so hurry up."
Amandil tore his eyes away from the fascinating creature, and followed him.
* * * * *
Pharazôn´s white horse had been brought all the way from Númenor, housed in the large ship with the rest of the crew. Amandil´s mare, however, had stayed in the Sorian fields with the rest, and he hadn´t regretted it much until he was made to walk through all the territory of the City. The Magistrate had offered horses to the party, but they were no more than a hundred and the bounty had not reached him.
At first, it was all he could do to keep the pace of the soldiers, who still had enough breath inside them to shout and point and make bawdy jokes as they made their way down the winding path that meandered between the fields. As the First Wall shrunk in the distance, however, and the Second was already a sandy strip on the horizon, he began to find his own pace.
"Whose fields are those?" he asked, surprised. The farm on their right was surrounded by a fence, so high as to be almost a wall, and there were soldiers standing at the entrance. Amandil saw the head of the column stop by them, but he couldn´t distinguish anything else.
"The King´s", a soldier replied. "That´s where they grow the leaf that gives them visions. It can only be burned at the Palace and the Temples, anywhere else is treason."
The visions... Amandil shuddered in spite of himself. He had never been allowed to burn it, but they came to him all the same. And they weren´t good.
"And they need to guard it? Who would want to be made to see... who knows what foul things?"
"Oh, but they say you can see the future." The soldier looked at the fence in some longing. "An useful skill, all the same."
"Superstitions." Amandil shrugged, not as nonchalantly as he would have expected. A doubt had assailed him.
Once, he remembered, Yehimelkor had told him that the Lord of Armenelos sent him warnings. Before they parted, he had warned him that a great disaster was in store if they ever met again, and it hadn´t sounded like a mere threat. But Amandil had never seen him burn any leaves, either.
Other farms had no fences, and they could see the day´s work coming to an end as lines of people slowly trickled away from the fields. A group of women carrying baskets stared at them in quiet fear, standing at the side of the road.
"Aren´t barbarians good looking?" the soldier who had satisfied his curiosity earlier asked Amandil, in a conversational tone.
A red dusk was falling over the Territory as they came to the Second Wall at last. It was an impressive work of Númenorean architecture, even larger than the one they had left behind, and a second city basked in its shadow. This, however, was not a city of harbours and merchant houses, like the Umbar on the bay. It was a city of barracks and tents, wild looking and strange. Clumsily built temples stood next to whorehouses, and barbarian concubines herded naked children away from the horses´s hooves. Amandil felt, here for the first time, that Númenor was hundreds of miles away, at the other side of the Great Sea.
The commander, a burly man that looked bald from afar, stood in front of his house to bid them welcome: a building made of wood and which looked rather like a bigger barrack than the others. They were told that suitable accomodations had been erected for them in the Western quarters, that the priests would have their temple built soon so they could start "bringing in the whores" -Abdashtart looked like someone who had chewed on a lemon believing that it was an orange-, and that the prince could stay in his own house if he wished.
"No, I want to live with the others", Pharazôn said. The commander looked surprised in turn, but he did not argue.
Amandil was directed to a "provisional accomodation" that he shared with nine other priests. There were no beds, but there was straw and blankets for everybody and he helped himself to a large heap. He was feeling tired, and in need of a good washing. The soldier who had showed them in had told them there was a washing house behind, with buckets and soap and everything he required.
That this place was used more as a washing house for clothes than people became apparent to Amandil as he found his way among lines of shirts, blankets and even more intimate clothing, of the kind that no Númenorean would ever display in public. Nobody was inside at the moment, but there was no way to bar the door, and he wondered if he was supposed to show his naked body to whoever, man or woman, happened to pass by. He did not like the idea.
Leaving that dilemma for later, he sought until he found a place where tubs could be heated for washing, but found no indice of firewood. Thanks to his years with Yehimelkor in the Temple of Armenelos, however, Amandil had become quite used to cold water. He washed his face, then his hands and his neck, and finally, after looking through the door several times to check that nobody was coming, he took his clothes away and poured water over his body. Then, he rubbed quickly, and put them back again.
After he was done, Amandil felt more relaxed than he had been in weeks. Each of his arms and legs seemed loaded with a heavy weight, and he sat on the logs of the makeshift porch. A warm night breeze was blowing, drying his face and hair.
The feeling was so pleasant that he closed his eyes for a moment. Far in the distance, there was a sound of laughter, and he could hear the notes of a song. Drops of water trickled down his fingers, and he wiped them against the wood.
It was coursing around him, the current growing swifter and higher with a deafening roar. He was sitting on a boat, but it was too small to resist the pull, and the waves tossed it around like a child´s toy. And then he felt it... the sea was retreating, and he with it, and he needed to escape but there was nothing he could do except sit there, helpless, waiting for the Wave to engulf him.
Suddenly, an acrid, terrifying smell reached Amandil´s nostrils. He looked back, and screamed. The Wave was made with blood, the blood of thousands.
"Will you shut up?"
The pull became focused, warmer and harder as he shook against it. Someone was cursing as he struggled with him, and he knew that voice. It made him remember that it was not real; the sea, the boat, the Wave...
His hands were dripping with blood. A face, covered in blood appeared before his eyes, and he was about to scream again.
"Stop it! The whole camp is going to hear you!"
"Blood..." he mumbled, shivering. Pharazôn nodded.
"Yes, that´s right."
Slowly, Amandil became aware of his surroundings. He was lying on the porch of the washing house, and his hair was still humid. He was shivering, and his head hurt.
Pharazôn, meanwhile, sat back on his feet, staring at him. Blood covered not only his face, but his clothes, hair and body. It was forming a puddle on the logs where they both sat, and Amandil felt an urge to avert his glance to quench a sinking feeling of horror. He would have believed it a hallucination, a figment of his dream that refused to leave even after he opened his eyes, for his friend didn´t look hurt... but the smell was too strong, too real.
"You were screaming and thrashing like someone who´s been burning those leaves in the field beyond", Pharazôn said. He looked about to ask something else, but Amandil cut him before he had the chance.
"What´s that blood?"
"Bull", the prince explained. "There was a ritual... the soldiers do it. You have to lie inside a small cave, under a hole, and then they slaughter a bull on top of you. "Pride crept into his voice. "I belong to the Lord of Battles now."
Amandil was appalled.
"You let them... you let them shower you in some animal´s filth?" Reality was coming back, and as everything settled in its proper place the story seemed even more disturbing. "While... lying inside a hole?"
"They said they´ve rarely seen anyone who took it so bravely", Pharazôn boasted. "The Lord of Battles must be really pleased."
Amandil could not help thinking of Yehimelkor in Armenelos, of what choice words he would have awarded the very idea of that ritual... and of a Lord of Battles. Impious and bloody superstitions that turn men into beasts and dishonour the god´s name.
Then, he looked at Pharazôn. He did not need to undergo any of this, as the royal family had been under Melkor´s protection for centuries. No more than he needed to mix with the soldiers or sleep on their beds, or even be there. But there he was, and he looked radiant under all the bull´s gore, like someone who had accomplished a great feat. Amandil could not help but feel dizzy at the gulf that stood between them, making them more different than ever.
"Bathing in bull´s blood. Why not throwing yourself off a cliff?" He grumbled, struggling to his feet. "You believe in all those things, don´t you? No matter who says them."
"And what do you believe in?"
Amandil froze, wincing at the challenge. Pharazôn knew everything about his family, and their beliefs as seen by the King and his courtiers, but he had rarely said a word on the subject before -or asked. Amandil had assumed that his sucessive priesthoods in the service of the Númenórean gods had convinced him that he had renounced the ways of his ancestors.
What did he believe in? After years of thinking that the answer to this question should be kept in secret from others, he had realized that he was also keeping it in secret from himself. His mind eluded the thought, and there was pain in the struggle.
He shook his head, deflecting the barb of the question.
"I believe this is stupid. And why are you here, anyway? Shouldn´t you be celebrating with your new friends?"
Pharazôn took the cue.
"I came to wash myself." He muttered something about not wanting Lord Belbazer, chief of his escort, to see him like this, and turned away to grab a bucket. Then, he realized it was cold, and hissed a curse.
"Is there a way of heating this?"
"No. Sorry." Amandil replied with his best smile. The stars were beginning to disappear from the sky, had he been sleeping for so long? "But if you withstood the holy rain of blood a drop of cold water will seem but a trifle to you."
As Amandil stepped on the humid ground, he could hear a loud splash, followed by more curses. Feeling better than minutes before, he wrapped his cloak tightly over his shoulders, and quickened his pace through the sleeping city of wood.
With some luck, nobody would have noticed his absence.
"Hannishtart?" Startled, he looked up. He hadn´t seen Eshmounazer at all.
"Hello." The young man looked anxious; looking at his face under the dim light gave Amandil pause. "What´s the matter?"
"The Commander has summoned you. And me, too. I... wonder what he could want from us."
Nothing good, Amandil thought, the beginnings of his good mood quenched under a dark premonition.
* * * * *
The Commander was waiting for them in his house. He was sitting in front of a low tea table with their superior Abdashtart, who was dressed as if for travel. Unlike what had seemed to Amandil on the previous day, he wasn´t bald, but his hair had receded considerably, leaving him with a long and brilliant forehead.
"Oh, here they are." Abdashtart pointed out. Both men turned towards them, and Amandil bowed low.
"There´s a trading post about a hundred miles away from here. It´s there that the merchant caravans strike deals with the barbarians from Harad." the officer´s deep voice informed them. "Lord Abdashtart here is going to consecrate a temple to the Lady of the Forbidden Bay, and you have been chosen to accompany him."
Amandil felt Eshmounazer shift uncomfortably at this news. From what the young priest had told him that night on the Cave, he guessed that the idea of venturing into barbarian territory wasn´t of his liking.
He, to an extent, shared the feeling himself. He wasn´t afraid of fighting, but something else was bothering him -and it had to do with Abdashtart. If he had to lay a finger on the reason, however, it would slip away like the Wave after he woke up shivering.
Bowing again, he willed his voice not to show any emotion.
"I am honoured, my lord."
"You will be given arms, just in case. I will send a party of soldiers with you, but the area is getting eventful. I trust you know how to fight."
"I do", Amandil replied, the firmness in his tone more sincere this time. Eshmounazer mumbled something after him.
"Then follow me." Abdashtart stood up, setting the cup aside, and motioned to them. Both priests obeyed in silence, each of them lost in his own thoughts.
They were brought to the armoury first, where each could choose the weapons that they liked. Amandil found himself a good sword without rust, and tried its balance before tying the scabbard to his waist. He also found two knives, which he also appropriated for good measure, and a heavy chainmail whose weight was so unfamiliar to him that he was about to leave it behind. They would be going by horse, however – and the feeling that he might need it was too nagging to ignore.
Then, they were given food to eat and spare, and were directed towards the stables, where they were offered "the best steeds that hadn´t been claimed by anyone else", as the horse master informed them in a somewhat sardonic tone. Amandil´s didn´t kick or bite, and even if it was a bit old he took it as an improvement. He grabbed it by the reins and took it to the main square -an empty patch of earth in front of the commander´s house- where Abdashtart was waiting for them with his own horse and an escort of ten soldiers.
Dawn was already breaking behind the Second Wall, giving the sky the colour of pale red wine. Under its light, the camp was stirring awake, and he could hear the clang of armour of the soldiers on duty, the cries of children and the morning call of the roosters. He gathered his reins, willing himself to discard his apprehensions.
"Wait! Hey, wait!"
The soldier at the head of the column made his horse stop sharply, and everybody followed his example. Eshmounazer, who was not paying attention, crashed against the man before him, and almost fell off.
Hardly daring to believe his ears, Amandil saw a white horse galloping towards them like a vision, mounted by a young man in a purple cloak and an armour of silver steel and gold. He came to a halt right before Abdashtart, and the horse reared back with an impatient kick.
"I am coming with you."
The priest´s face went pale.
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.