42. Land of Shadows
The priest raised his head a few inches, and peered uneasily at his surroundings. The mosaic-laden walls of the Palace seemed to loom over him, and his look trailed from one shape to another without taking any of them in. In the middle of this brilliant blur of colours, standing in sharp contrast, two dark eyes were coldly set on him. Their intensity crushed him like an almost physical weight, and he lowered his forehead again.
The obsidian floor felt hard and cold against his knees.
"There was an... agreement. Between me and Abdashtart, may he live eternally in the light beyond the Darkness, and the Commander of the garrison at Umbar", he explained, willing his voice to sound confident though his throat was dry. "The son of the traitors would accompany Abdashtart in a journey to a trading outpost, under the pretence of consecrating the ground for a temple. The plan was to kill him on the way, my lord king, and blame it on the Orcs that infest the region. "Regaining some of his courage, he looked up again. "We would have rid you of a sworn enemy, and your kingdom of a threat, if we had succeeded."
Ar-Gimilzôr frowned. The crease in his brow was one of many, for which no dye or artifice had yet been found. Under his royal purple, the King had been growing old for years, many whispered that ahead of his time, and yet the glare with which he pierced the High Priest of the Forbidden Bay would have cowed much younger and stronger men.
"So you would take upon yourself to rid me of my enemies?" he asked in a soft voice. "But why in secret?"
Itashtart squared his shoulders, which had once suffered the weight of armour.
"To prevent the spread of rumours."
"To prevent censure, you mean!" the King hissed. "That man was protected by the gods, and consecrated to them. How could you presume to gainsay their will!"
"Enough!" Itashtart lowered his head, flinching at the anger in that voice. "The Goddess´s displeasure is upon you! She foiled your plans and destroyed your allies, while Hannishtart himself was allowed to live. And your manouevres almost cost us the prince Pharazôn´s life!"
"That..." The priest´s face reddened. "That was an accident! He insisted on going with the others, there was nothing they could do to convince him!"
"And are you so blind that you still cannot see the hand of the Goddess in this?" a softer voice spoke from behind the throne. Gimilzôr nodded, leaning back in silence as the Princess of the South Melkyelid walked forth, red robes swishing behind her measured steps. Two silver-plaited braids slid down her front as she stood before the man and slowly bent towards him. "Can´t you see that she used the prince to save Hannishtart, and Hannishtart to save the prince?"
The voice was almost a whisper, and yet Itashtart seemed more unsettled than when the King had yelled at him. He gazed ahead, trying to focus on the throne, but her reproachful eyes were mere inches away from his now. He could feel her breath tickling his skin.
"I bear you no ill will for putting my son in danger. I know that his destiny is well out of your reach", she whispered against his cheek. Suddenly, she pulled back, and her words became loud and clear. "But how can a High Priest ignore the will of the gods?"
Ar-Gimilzôr picked up the Sceptre that lay across his lap, and turned it on his hand with a pondering look.
"My lord king..."
"The Princess is right. You should resign."
"What?" The golden features smiled blandly, like those of a statue. "But... my lord king..."
"Silence!" Gimilzor shouted; this time his voice reverberated against the high walls, breaking into a hundred echoes. "Your conspirations have brought us enough trouble! You should be sent to the mainland yourself, to fight the Orcs until you died! Now leave this place and do not have us look upon your face again!"
Itashtart did not leave at once. Melkyelid stared in silence as he bowed and retreated with slow, almost drunken movements.
"He was already High Priest in the days of the late king. Is this what they mean with the uncertainty of fate? Today here, tomorrow there", she wondered. Shaking her head with a sigh, she walked back towards the vicinity of the throne. "Only the gods are powerful."
"And they blind those that they want to destroy", Ar-Gimilzôr retorted harshly. At the far end of the hall, a cluster of courtiers whispered as the priest walked past them. "Come closer."
Melkyelid tore her eyes away from the scene and leaned towards the king, her head curved in a graceful bow. For a while, he did not say anything, gazing at the mosaics in the wall as if he expected to find a living person hiding among the painted figures of the sailors who set foot on the island for the first time.
Finally, his eyes met hers. Uncertainty clouded them, of the kind that only she was allowed to see.
"Do you think this was a warning?" he asked. Melkyelid frowned.
"This was the second time that someone tried to kill him. The first time, there were wolf howls and a stubborn priest. This time, people died." She nodded thoughtfully. "Leave him alone. He is under our protection. That is, indeed, what they seem to be saying. And that both gods would speak with the same voice is unheard-of. This is a matter of great import, for us and for Númenor."
"She used the prince to save Hannishtart, and Hannishtart to save the prince", Gimilzôr repeated, laying the Sceptre upon his lap again. Rubies gleamed under the dim lamplight. "That is what you said to Itashtart."
"And also what I said long ago." The last doubt fled her countenance, and she turned towards him resolutely. Her eyes shone with purpose. "Without the son of Númendil, there will be no dawn for Númenor, and the altars of the gods will forever remain cold. Can´t you see? They are with you. They want to fight for their island!"
"You seem very sure that he will turn against his lineage, even under a king who will favour them. "Gimilzôr snapped, untouched by her enthusiasm. "There is no reason why he should bear us any good will."
"He saved my son. He dragged him all the way through the desert and stood against their pursuers", she argued. "What does this tell you, my lord king?"
"That you are a mother", he retorted dryly. She smiled, unabashed.
"So I am. And if there is anyone in this world I would trust with the life of my son, it would be Amandil. Because he stood by him when nobody else would, and will do so again." The smile turned into a grin, gleeful and impish, as she leaned close to his ear and her voice became a whisper. "Because, one day, he will make Pharazôn King."
* * * * *
Amandil rubbed his face with his hand. Drops of sweat trickled down his forehead, making the hair stick to the back of his neck even though it was well past midnight. There hadn´t been the slightest breeze in days, and the hot air remained floating around them instead of being blown away. The feeling was one of oppresion, of being buried in a hole from which he could not get out.
Close by, in the large open space before the Commander´s house, the soldiers were holding a feast. Drink flowed freely, and roast meat served with a sweet-smelling dried fruit. There was dance and song, of a sort that would have made the Armenelos revelers he had once frequented blush in shame. Men and women mingled freely for both, joining their voices and their bodies in a bizarre and outlandish mixture. Above them, the stars shone in a clear sky, the stars of Númenor that looked uncongruously upon a strange world.
A loud laugh pierced briefly through the music and the sounds of merrymaking. He gazed down and saw a woman run past him, the folds of her dress gathered up so it would not hinder her long strides. As she laughed, the white of her teeth constrasted sharply with her dark skin. Remembrances of the girl with the knife and the black eyes flooded his mind, that girl they had killed in barbarian land. He grasped the leaves against his hand, but the fragrance was gone.
A man appeared in the shadows, running behind the woman. He caught her some twenty steps away from where Amandil was sitting, and dragged her under the wooden porch. The screams of pleasure, barely smothered by the rough structure, made him so sick, that for a moment he wanted to vomit.
"It´s always better when you do it yourself", a familiar voice remarked behind him. He did not acknowledge the new arrival, until he saw a cup of wine dangling before his face. It was pure wine, undiluted and unspiced, and his nose itched when it caught the smell.
He took it.
"This party is for you, too. You defeated Orcs and barbarians who outnumbered you, earned the Commander´s approval and got rid of that fool Abdashtart." Pharazôn sat next to him, as oblivious to the noises as if courtiers rolled under tables at the Palace everyday. "You should be happy, so why the hell don´t you stop moping?"
It was true that Amandil´s life seemed to have taken a better turn since Abdashtart perished in the Orc ambush beyond the mountains. Everybody had praised him for his skill and courage in the wilderness, and for saving the Prince´s life. Even the Commander, who had sent him away without a second glance, had suddenly developed a great interest in him. He had named him captain and accepted him into his council, which was unprecedented. Amandil had argued that he was a priest and depended on the Cave of the Forbidden Bay, but the man had merely shrugged and said that the Forbidden Bay was very far away, and that Amandil was too good a soldier to dance attendance on people who had never set foot outside Númenor. And so it was that his life had taken a new turn yet again, in this place where rules and priests and kings seemed to matter much less -in this vast continent beyond the Sea where he felt trapped.
"I am glad that we survived", he answered carefully, taking a sip of the wine. "Thinking back, I suppose that we were quite lucky."
"We did some stupid things, didn´t we? Especially you." Pharazôn laughed; he had drunk his share of that dreadful wine. "Oh, it was very brave, charging alone against those riders though you had no idea how to fight on a horse. And that woman! Really. What were you thinking?"
Amandil´s stomach sunk again, and for a while he was unable to speak. He wanted to forget about her, forget that she ever existed. And yet that, too, was impossible. Not because he couldn´t compel his mind to dismiss her words as lying gibberish, to remember the knife instead of the proud look in her naked eyes, or to be ashamed of his own cowardice only, and not of being made to feel like a murderer, a thief and an usurper. He could not forget because now, he knew that he would have to go back and see her again, and again, hundreds of girls with knives and wailing women and weather-beaten warriors sneering in contempt. And he would fight them over and over, and kill them over and over, unless they killed him first, and the Wave would become a wave of blood and corpses.
He drank the rest of the wine. His throat burned.
"She told me a story. Before..."
"...she pulled a knife on you?" his friend finished for him. Amandil ignored this.
"They have the same High God as we do. Eru. Did you know that?"
For a moment, Pharazôn stared at him. Then, he laughed out loud.
"Really? Then he must not like them very much, don´t you think?"
"They think that we stole something from them. That made them angry."
"Well, that´s rich! They were dressed in animal rags before we came, and ate tree barks. What could we have stolen from them? Lice?"
"This." His free hand, which had been balled into a fist, opened to reveal the crushed, dry leaf. "The leaf of the visions. You had it on you when we set out, didn´t you?"
It hadn´t been difficult to guess the procedence of the plant after he had the leisure to think again. If it belonged to the King, and nobody else could use it, it couldn´t have been the soldiers. The Orcs had taken Pharazôn´s armour away when they were on the cave, and this is how it had dropped to the floor, where it stayed unnoticed until he picked it up.
For the briefest of moments, Pharazôn looked taken aback. Then he shrugged defensively.
"This came from the King´s own fields. And I did not steal it. I am his grandson, which gives me the right to use it."
"I healed your wounds with it. It is truly a miraculous plant", Amandil observed, staring at it with a thoughtful frown. "No wonder they held it in such reverence..."
Pharazôn´s eyes widened in surprise at the first statement, and he didn´t even hear the second. He picked up the leaf between two fingers.
"Healed my wounds? That´s not possible! This plant wouldn´t heal a cold, it only brings the holy visions. And it came from Númenor in the first place. Maybe those louts are confusing it with some other plant that looks similar. I would expect that of them!"
"But your wounds healed!" Amandil insisted.
"That´s because I am strong!" Pharazôn retorted proudly. "I am of the blood of kings."
I am of the blood of kings, too, and I still have every cut and every scratch, Amandil thought, unconvinced. But something else had occurred to him.
"Why did you take it, then?
"Those people! Are they going to keep it up all night?" The cup Amandil had emptied drew a practiced arch in the air and shattered exactly above the place where the man and the woman were hiding. The noise stopped for a moment, then it was resumed. Pharazôn muttered something about drunken soldiers.
All this gave Amandil the definite impression that his friend was trying to avoid the question. He was about to use this as a cue to announce his departure, as his head was starting to ache, but right then, Pharazôn spoke again.
"I wanted to see if it worked."
"The plant, of course!" He looked away, and his voice became lower. "The visions run in my family. The King is good at them, and so is my uncle, the Prince. And then, my cousin... she is very good. She sees things day and night." A second pause followed this, until he continued in an even lower voice. "I have never seen anything. My uncle and his supporters would argue that this is because we are not the main branch, that I am unfit and all those things they usually say. No matter that I am the only male descendant in my generation!"
"You want to have visions?" The idea sounded as ludicrous now as it had the first time that he heard it from the lips of a soldier, during the march from Umbar. He remembered the visions and dreams that had shaken him before he arrived there, and how they had become bloodier and more terrible after they returned from the trading post. "That´s... that´s absurd. You don´t... "His tongue seemed to have knotted, maybe from the effects of the wine. "You don´t know what you are saying, visions are... they are not a good thing."
"See? Even you have them, and you are from a junior branch!" Pharazôn insisted. "The very fact that I don´t have them, that my father doesn´t have them, is taken as proof that I am not meant to rule."
"The visions do not help you to rule. They do not show you what to do, they are confusing and insane. If you saw things day and night, that alone would make you unable to rule", Amandil replied. For once, his friend seemed too stunned to make a reply.
He sighed. Why were they talking about this?
Because that is what worries Pharazôn, a voice answered inside his mind, and maybe he feels as trapped inside his problems as you are inside yours. But he had no strength left to care for others´s problems now. He didn´t even have the strength to deal with his own.
Suddenly, he longed to be alone again.
"In any case, you were right before. I did stupid things back then, and I am sorry. "He stood up, and the planks creaked noisily under his feet. "I had second thoughts."
The prince snapped back from his own musings, and gave him a close look.
"Well. That alone would make anyone unable to fight", he said, echoing his friend´s own pronouncement. Amandil started walking away, not towards the feast but towards the back of the house, where it was dark and the noises came as if from very far away.
"Stop fooling around! Who cares about a plant or the religion or the claims of a barbarian? You have a wife and a son in Númenor!" Pharazôn shouted after him. Amandil heard movement of a new kind under the porch, as if the man and the woman had finally stopped their lovemaking and had started listening to them. "If you don´t kill them, they will kill you. That is the only truth!"
Or the only truth that mattered. Which should amount to the same thing, and yet some part of him refused stubbornly to admit it.
Maybe he had a death wish. But if he did, he wouldn´t want to escape from this place with every fibre of his being. He would stay, and stop caring whether it was licit to ignore the Cave, or drink undiluted wine, or mate in public, or kill barbarian girls as if they were Orcs. He would be swallowed by the shadows.
"If you don´t like it here, surely you don´t want to die here?" his friend insisted. This had hit so close to his own thoughts, that Amandil paused in surprise.
"No", he mumbled. Pharazôn stood up as well, and walked until he came at barely one place away from him.
"I will stop trying to have visions. You opened my eyes. It´s foolish to look for complications where there aren´t any", he declared. "I only wish you would do the same."
And walking past him, he headed back to the drunken throng, and the light.
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.