40. Interlude V: Crossroads
"Min...tâd... nel... canâd. Min...tâd... nel... canâd." The woman opened her eyes again to search the book that lay on her lap. A large, yellowish stain obscured the lower half of the page. "Leben, eneg, odog, toloth, neder." She looked up. "Leben... eneg... neder... no, leben, odog, neder... curse it!"
She slammed the book shut, causing a cloud of dust to rise in the air, and glared at the cover.
"Why are you doing this?"
Zarhil´s brow unfurrowed. Puzzled, she turned towards her daughter, who at some moment had entered the room and sat on a low chair near the window while she was engrossed in her study. She didn´t know how long she had been there, watching her struggle with the slippery language.
"Oh, Zimraphel." Her lips curved in a welcoming smile, and she beckoned to her. "Come closer... look at this."
The young woman did not move. She sat like a queen, pale white against black and the gleam of silver jewels.
"Why are you learning Elvish?" she asked. Zarhil set the book aside with care, as if suddenly remembering how frail it was.
"When your father is the King, he intends to restore the use of the Elvish tongue, as it was spoken in the Númenor of old", she explained. "If we use it daily, and also the lords of Sorontil and Andúnië, who are the oldest noble houses in Númenor, the others will think it´s distinguished and they will follow."
"So you are learning it for him." Zimraphel frowned. "Why?"
"Why, because he is my husband, and this is important to him!" Zarhil replied, shaking her head as if it was something obvious. But her daughter wasn´t impressed.
"You didn´t choose to marry him. You don´t owe him anything."
The Princess of the West bit her lip. Since she had been a little girl, shaking from her nightmares, Zimraphel had had a penchant for saying things that would upset her. It wasn´t her fault, her illness made her act like that. And still...
"It is true that we didn´t know each other when we were betrothed, Zimraphel, my child", she explained, in the gentle tone that she had learned only after the girl was born. "But after living together for years, love will grow between two people. The proof of this is that you are here."
This angered Zimraphel.
"I am not a child." Her tone was cutting. "A baby isn´t proof of anything, even rape can produce it."
"Well, that´s definitely not what happened!"
Zarhil had lost her patience for a moment and raised her voice, appalled at such a crude statement. However, she regretted it almost at once, when Zimraphel´s eyes became veiled and strange.
"I am sorry, my dear." Zarhil struggled to her feet, and stood behind her to stroke her hair. "I only wanted you to understand." I only want you to stop hating him. It´s not his fault, it never was.
For a while, there was silence.
"Mother... did you ever go to Middle-Earth in your travels of old?" the grey eyes asked then, becoming larger as they looked up to search for hers. Zarhil´s hands stopped stroking, and for a moment she looked at them in wary silence. Why would she bring up this subject now? Would she try to twist her finger inside the wound, to see if she could bring forth a hidden resentment?
Sadly, she wondered when she had started attributing such dark thoughts to her own daughter.
"I have sailed the shores of the mainland, and laid anchor on them countless times. I have seen the frozen North and the deserts of the South, and the barbarians who live there."
"Is it dangerous?"
Zarhil shrugged, surprised.
"It can be. Middle-Earth is so large that it would be able to hold a thousand islands the size of Númenor. It also holds many races, animals and plants that we have never seen here, so it would be as difficult to describe it as it is to describe the colour of the sky when the sun sets."
Zimraphel pressed her cheek against her mother´s hand, so that her voice came out a little muffled.
"Have you ever been to Umbar?"
"I have. Why?"
"Is it safe?"
Zarhil did not know where her daughter wanted to lead this. She wasn´t going to Umbar. She didn´t know anybody there. Maybe, in one of her vivid dreams...?
"It is. The King´s soldiers are there to protect the people against Orcs and the barbarian tribes."
"Have you ever seen an Orc?"
"Yes. They are foul creatures." Zarhil almost spat on the floor, but then she remembered that she was a princess. "Cowardly, too. They will crawl out of their holes at night, when it´s dark, and will only attack a Númenorean if their numbers are much greater."
Zimraphel seemed to ponder this for a while.
"I see. There should be nothing to fear, then."
Zarhil shook her head, and caressed her daughter´s cheek. Almost surely a dream, she thought. Triggered by something she must have overheard, as everybody in the Western wing was under strict instructions not to tell any tales to her.
"Of course not, my child. You are safe here. Orcs fear water as much as they fear Númenoreans."
Zimraphel smiled. This was so rare a sight that it brought a knot to her mother´s throat. It was as if the sun shone in her face, and gave it a new life.
If only she smiled more...
The young princess leaned forwards, and picked the Sindarin book that she had discarder earlier. She passed a finger over the unfamiliar letters, as if tracing an invisible line, and handed it back to her mother.
"They look like worms", she laughed.
* * * * *
"So you wanted to see me?"
Halideyid turned towards the source of the voice: a bulky man who wore a leather overcoat under the folds of a green cape. Though the top of his head barely reached the young man´s chest, he stood before him with an air of impatient superiority, fixing him with a stare of his small, beady eyes.
"I did." In a gesture of respect, Halideyid lowered the wooden sword that had been slung over his shoulder, but did not bow. Their glances met. "I... wanted to ask something."
"Then go ahead and ask it. I have things to do."
Behind them, the sound of a hundred boys and young men gathering their things and talking among themselves grew as the other lessons were also finished. Halideyid tried to speak, but the noise drowned his words. For a moment he hesitated, turning a furtive look towards the source of the ruckus, but he couldn´t wait for it to stop. Taking a sharp breath, he raised his voice.
"Am I going to be made a Guard soon?"
The man did not look pleased.
"Eh? What kind of question is that? Even if you´re allowed to give those lessons, you´re nobody special here. You will wait like the others did!"
Halideyid did not back down. He stared at the points of his feet, his forehead curving in a frown.
"I have waited more than any of the others did. And my grandfather..."
"I know, I know, he was a good friend of mine." The Guard´s tone became less agressive, almost friendly for a moment. "Look, son, you have to understand. We´ve had no vacants in a while. If you wait for a while longer..."
"Three have been filled only this year. I taught two of them." Halideyid retorted. The man´s good mood vanished as soon as it had come.
"You forget your place", he hissed.
The young instructor looked directly at him again. He seemed to be gaining aplomb at each word he said.
"I just want to know what my place is. And why people who are younger, more inexpert with the sword and with a lesser claim are put before me, one after another."
The Guard seemed about to burst. His face took a deep purple colour, and for a moment it seemed like he would try to strike him. Halideyid´s size, however, gave him pause.
"With a lesser claim? With a lesser claim?" he laughed loudly instead. "Who has a lesser claim than you? We don´t even know who your father is!"
Halideyid paled. After a moment, he nodded.
"I see", he said, his voice much lower than before. "Just as I thought."
"Now, I can leave this place with no more regrets."
"What?" The Guard looked as if the floor had been suddenly pulled away from his feet. He stared at him, his small eyes bulging, and his mouth half-open. "Wait! You can´t be serious!"
Halideyid slung the wooden sword over his shoulder again, and for a fraction of a second the man stepped back, feeling instinctively threatened. This gave him the opportunity to turn away.
"You... don´t know what you are saying! If you go now, you will walk away on your mother´s family and their heritage! You will have no future!" the Guard yelled behind his back. A few stragglers from the lesson stopped in their tracks, shocked at the scene. Halideyid concentrated on ignoring them, as he concentrated on ignoring the raging man.
"Come back! I won´t tell anybody what has happened here!"
With one step, he crossed the threshold. With the second, he was in the street. He turned briefly to look at the gates, gates he would never be able to cross again. Nobody came after him.
It was done.
As he walked through the crowded alleyways towards his home, still shaking, Halideyid could not help but wonder if some power in his father´s blood could have given him the courage.
* * * * *
"Halideyid! What are you doing?"
The young man looked up from his work, and found his mother standing on the threshold. She was holding a piece of paper in her hands; other, identical ones were lying on the floor at her feet.
"Advertisements", he said. "For lessons."
"I can see that." Amalket made her way through the room, trying not to step on any of the papers. "And when are you going to teach them, at midnight?"
"During the day. I will have more time for that now, since I left the Guards."
It was a bit cowardly to disguise it like that, almost as if he was expecting that she wouldn´t notice. A far cry from his determination that morning, but this was his mother, and the truth was that he hadn´t even decided what he would say to her yet.
"You left the Guards", she nodded, also mirroring his deceptively calm tone. "I see. Why?"
Halideyid drew the last letter, and crossed it with a sharp line.
"Because..." He sought within himself for the courage he had felt before. It had to be there, somewhere. "I asked them if they would honour my claim, and they said they wouldn´t. So there was no point in staying."
Amalket nodded again, this time in silence. Halideyid winced.
She knelt on the floor, and started picking up scattered papers to arrange them in a neat pile. Her eyes showed no emotion.
"Indeed not." Suddenly, her lips curved in a strange smile. "No point at all."
"Eh?" Halideyid stared at her, puzzled. Whatever reaction he had been expecting, it hadn´t been this.
The pile of papers fell on her lap, and scattered again as a tear ran down her cheek.
"Mother, I´m sorry, I didn´t want to make you upset..." He stood up, and walked towards her, but she grabbed his hand.
"Your... grandfather wouldn´t have... stood for it either", she said, in a tremulous voice. "H-he would have said you´re well rid of them. They would have never w-wanted you there." Anger veiled her eyes. "Well, we don´t need them!"
Halideyid watched in astonishment as his mother started picking the papers back with a feverish determination. He did not know what to say, but she saved him the trouble.
"Here", she said, handing the pile to him. "Do you want me to help you?"
"What?" He blinked, thinking. "I... I would be grateful, but... well... I can´t very well offer swordmanship lessons in a woman´s handwriting..."
"You idiot!" she cried. Then, she threw herself against him.
Slowly, Halideyid reacted, and laid a clumsy arm around her shoulders. He felt a knot rise in his throat, and wondered if the world had gone mad.
"One day, your father will come back", she whispered against his chest. "I promise you, he will."