44. The Fall
The King has died!
Smoke veiled his eyes, his glorious body was consumed by the flames.
The King has died!
Darkness shrouds his brow, and he will not be seen in this world again.
The King has died!
Now he treads the shadow paths, not to be seen in this world again.
He struggled against the chains that held his arms, desperate to find a way to smother the chants of the multitude. Beads of sweat trickled down his forehead as he fought, only to become further tangled and fall deeper into the darkness. He knew that he had to get out, open his eyes and see before it covered his face, but he could not. He needed... needed...
My lord! My lord, please, wake up!
Suddenly, he froze. That voice wasn´t part of the chorus, it addressed him from the urgence of immediacy. Everything else became blurred, as his struggles became weaker and died with a shiver. His eyes, those that were like chasms in his face were open, gazing upon the waking world.
Dark. Dark around him, dark outside him. Dark upon Númenor.
His terror knew no bounds. It was too late, he had failed. They all had failed, and there was no dawn left to free him.
My lord! Can you see me?
"No." His voice was hoarse. "No. Everything is gone."
Bring in the light!
Useless. There was no light left in the world. No light left if he failed, and he had failed. The King had died.
My lord, my King, can you see the light?
What had he done wrong? What had he overlooked? If only he could know... if only he could see...
"The leaf", he hissed. "Bring me the leaf."
But, my lord... you are feverish... you are in no shape...now, let the doctor look at you...
Couldn´t they understand? He had to see!
"The leaf. Now!" he shouted, trying to break free from the chains that now had turned into hands of wretched people. He understood now; they were trying to stop him from seeing. They were in league with him, with his son, who wanted to destroy Númenor.
"I am the King! If you hinder me, you will suffer my wrath!" he threatened. The hands loosened their grip, and some of them left. But two hands stayed, both pressing his right forearm.
Please, drink this. It will make you feel better.
A warm and sweet smell reached his nostrils, and he recoiled. This was not what he needed. This was an insidious trap designed to stop him from seeking the leaf. It would make him sink deeper and deeper, and forget.
He needed the leaf. He tried to grab at some point of support that would prevent him from slipping. He needed to know.
The King has died! The chorus sang around him. The King has died!
* * * * *
His body screamed for the comfort of the bed, yet Ar-Gimilzôr had made two chamber courtiers carry him to a chair in a private audience room. He had received his younger son and his wife with his head propped against pillows, but that wouldn´t do with him. Inziladûn would see him stand, or see him not at all.
Before he was allowed in, Gimilzôr called one of the two men who had helped him, and ordered him to check whether his hair, his diadem and robes were in order, and his face paint well spread. After the man had checked thoroughly, he told him to stand near the curtain, out of earshot but able to see everything that happened in the room. He would not be at a disadvantage, or take any chances in his own quarters.
Still, a mocking voice whispered, it was Inziladûn´s eyes, his bright, piercing eyes that could unravel secrets which had never been spoken aloud, the only thing that had ever put him at a disadvantage. Now, even as he heard the approaching footsteps stop before him, and the rustle of whatever cheap robes he had decided to wear as an insult to his majesty, a part of him felt calmer than it ever had.
"My King, I heard you were taken ill tonight..."
"There is no need for concern", Ar-Gimilzôr cut him at once. "It has passed."
"But you have gone blind!" his son protested, his voice moving closer in his direction. "Surely there is need for..."
"Stay where you are!" Gimilzôr hissed. "I did not give you leave to approach."
He did not hear any more movement in his vicinity, so after a while he allowed his aching back to sink an inch further down the chair. If he had been able to see, he thought, his head would be turning.
After a while, it was Inziladûn who broke the silence. His voice was low, almost a whisper, and yet it carried with a note of pride.
"Do I have leave to speak, then?"
Ar-Gimilzôr nodded. Reduced to a mere voice, his son´s pride seemed almost laughable. It was undistinguishable from the other voices that surrounded him, dressing him or carrying him or giving him ointments and medicines.
"I know what you think of me, and my motives. I know that you will not heed my advice just because it comes from my mouth", he began. "But you have ruled Númenor twice as long as any other king since the ancient times. Even back then, when Men were stronger and wiser, it was the custom to retire when one grew weary, and kings enjoyed a peaceful old age."
"You are crafty, but shameless." Gimilzôr laughed, and his laughter sent sharp stabs through his abdomen. "You pretend to care for my health, and yet you are saying "Give the Sceptre to me". And what then, I wonder? Should I kill myself to spare you my unsightly decline, as your friends the traitors of Andúnië used to do?"
"It is not me you should worry about, but yourself", Inziladûn retorted, unfazed by the accusation. "That was indeed the custom in ancient times, and I hope I will be strong enough to follow the right path when the time comes. I will not suffer needlessly through a greedy desire to live more than the lifespan appointed by the Creator."
"Fine words! Will your gods tell you when you should put an end to your life? Or will the friends of those gods be wise enough to tell you in their stead? Will disagreeing with them be the first sign of your decrepitude? Oh, and then I wonder if the Númenor you are so busy planning, the Númenor where everybody will fall back into the snares of the Elves and the Baalim, will force you to comply with their request!" Ar-Gimilzôr spat. "You think you are wise, but you are a fool. A fool who will stumble on a loose stone while trying to count all the stars. I must protect Númenor from your foolishness, and this is why I will not step down while there is strength in my body and my mind is sharp."
It was sharp now, as sharp as it hadn´t been in a long time. Especially when faced with his eldest son, he had often felt his thoughts blur in his head as he tried to hide them, and anticipate the next manouevre. But not now. He had worked on this for years. Everything was in place... everything except...
He winced, remembering last night´s terrible feeling of having missed something. It could have been an irrational fear, caused by his illness, and yet....
"It pains me that you have chosen to see me as an enemy. You exhaust yourself working against me, and yet we could have worked together in harmony."
Inziladûn sounded sincerely regretful. How presumptuous, Gimilzôr thought, his chest inflamed by anger.
"How dare you lay the blame on me! It is you, who decided to deny your ancestors and your father and destroy everything we had built! It is you, who spat on our gods and befriended the same people who would have destroyed our bloodline and seized the Sceptre! It is you who...!" His hands began to shake, and he pressed them against the armrests. Ride the pain, breathe calmly... do not show weakness. "But you will not succeed. Your endeavour is cursed by the gods."
"I do not deny my ancestors", Inziladûn argued. He did not remember how long it was since they last argued, or even if they had ever argued before. The relationship between them had been built of silences louder than any word, of secret manouevres and a long, unspoken feud. "My ancestors, and your ancestors, believed in the same things that I believe now, and the Powers that protected them will not curse me."
"I could have you killed for admitting your guilt. I should have had you killed when you first admitted it."
"So why didn´t you?" Inziladûn was losing his temper as well; everything that had always stayed buried under the silence was threatening to come to the surface now. "Because I was a child? You have killed children since."
His voice broke slightly, and yet Gimilzôr perceived it as clearly as the notes of a popular song. Blindness helped him to listen, as sharply as he had seen before. Inziladûn had long kept this hidden in his heart, together with the accusation that he could never utter, but the yearning to know the truth from his lips had remained unquenched.
The truth that did not exist. Gimilzôr winced. There was no truth, just a man who followed the capricious impulses of his heart against his better judgement, and tried to atone for it too late. A man who had felt less love for his unborn grandson than for his born son, even though he had already doomed Númenor to war and strife with his first decision.
There was no truth, only failure.
"You are out of line", he hissed. "I may be old and blind, but I remain King."
There was a long silence, as Inziladûn seemed to be having difficulties reining his temper after having gone that far. It must be excruciating, Gimilzôr thought, to be brought to the point of uttering the accusation he had been forced to swallow for years only to be deprived of an answer.
"And know this..." He paused to take breath, wondering how much more would his body be able to take before it collapsed. "I will not die unprepared. Even after you hold the Sceptre in your hands and wield its power, three hundred years will not be enough to undo everything I have done. When you reach old age and your limbs wither, you will not resign your Sceptre or give your life away, but crawl to the altars of your outlandish gods to beg for more years of life."
The last words had been hissed like a curse, and as he uttered them, Gimilzôr realized that they were one. It was a curse that had been patiently wrought through years of strategies and alliances, designed to endure and track every one of his son´s steps like a shadow. It would be fought, both in secret and openly, with force and with craftiness, but in the end, though it might diminish and waver, it would endure. Gimilkhâd in Armenelos, Melkyelid´s family in Gadir, their associates in Umbar, the priests in the Great Temples and Azzibal in Sor. Pharazôn in the mainland.
Amandil in Andúnië.
They would all play their part.
"You may leave now."
Inziladûn obeyed in silence this time, as if mulling over his father´s words. Before the footsteps disappeared in the distance, however, he stopped again.
"Father", he said. Ar-Gimilzôr froze. The last time he had heard that word from his son´s lips had been long ago, so much that he couldn´t even remember when. "Father, I..."
"Leave!" he yelled, shaken. The voice came hoarse from his throat, and he doubled over in a fit of coughing. Footsteps hurried towards him, and he tensed, wondering if his son would dare....
"My lord King! Try to breathe easily, the doctor is on his way. Now..."
Taken by a sudden repugnance, Gimilzôr broke free from the man´s obsequious touch. His son had left.
"I said leave. I want to be alone." he spat, mastering the cough. The man retreated as suddenly as he had come.
As he was left alone, the King pressed his hands against his face, and wept.
* * * * *
Long after the crise had passed, and he was back in bed, the small, insidious doubt would not let him rest. It gnawed at him as he sat in the dark, pondering his night visions and relating them to the conversation with his son. While he did so, the yearn to burn the leaves and find clarity in them augmented, until it became almost unbearable. He requested them, ignoring the nagging of the doctor, who claimed that it would bring further harm upon him in his condition.
"This thing calls to people. Once it takes hold of them, they can´t resist its lure. They will want more and more, and feel lost whenever they are not burning it", the man said. "I have seen it happen with seers and priests..."
"Those are lesser men", Gimilzôr cut him with a growl. He would not hear anything else, and when the man went as far as to suggest that the leaves could have been the cause of his blindness, he threw him out and summoned the old Palace Priest. Lord Hannon, always obsequious, was eager to be of service, and he ordered the preparatives to be started at once. The King was carried to the Fire Chapel on a litter, such as were used outside the Gates, to prevent the courtiers from seeing his weakness. Once there, two attendants grasped his arms, and with their help he could advance a few quivering steps before falling on his knees by the altar.
The stone steps were hard, biting his knees with a cold urgency that contrasted sharply with the heat of the fire in his face. He shivered and sweated, unable to remain erect even as he was. But he could not allow others to help him, not before the Great God.
"King of Armenelos", he chanted with a trembling voice, "Lord of Fire, King of Visions."
"King of Visions", a murmur answered behind his back.
"Hear my prayer, grant me knowledge and sight."
"Grant me sight." the echo sang. Slowly, he extended a hand, letting it crawl through the stone in search of the golden pot. Someone pressed it against his fingers, and he grabbed it as a starving man would grab a piece of bread.
As he held it, he realized that he was unable to raise it to his face, as he needed the support of hands and feet. At a loss, he hesitated, but the fumes were already reaching his nostrils, awakening and sharpening his senses. The God was upon him, and He revealed to him that nothing else mattered, that the dignity of his kingship was but dirt at the feet of the One King who had existed before him, and would exist after the descendants of his descendants had relinquished their Sceptres and crumbled to dust. A pale reflection of immortal perfection, distorted image of the Lord That Is.
Ar-Gimilzôr fell forwards, burying his face on the fuming pot like a dog on his food. There was a stir around him, the sound of worried whispers and a priest hissing to stay back. They reached his ears as if from another room, or another world; he had left them behind.
Here. Come here.
A voice that he had known since childhood guided him. Once, it had tormented him, hurting him to penetrate his proud self and gain the mastery of his body, but no more. Now, no pain was greater than being left on his own, a shell of the man he had once been, and the divine joining that raised him above this misery had turned into a welcome ecstasy. He followed it eagerly, no longer caring that, down there, his body was too weak to even struggle to its feet.
Poor blind cripple, lying at the foot of the altar. A dazzling onslaught of light filled his eyes with tears, and he blinked them away.
Behold the real light. Down there, you are all blind, you are all buried in darkness.
"Show me the way", he begged. "Show me how I can save Númenor."
Little by little, he grew accustomed to the light, and the haze began to dissipate. As it did, he saw two men standing in front of him. One had piercing grey eyes, and a beard grew over his chin, streaked with grey hairs. The other looked like a younger Gimilzôr, with an elaborately curled black mane and black eyes that did not, however, show any of his shrewd cunning. They were veiled, lost in feelings of inadequacy, jealous thoughts and the always reassuring embrace of alcohol.
His sons. The two serpents that would fight over Númenor, because he had made it so. One of them had everything, the gifts of gods and men thrown upon him like a jewelled cloak, but he stood alone before a raging sea. The other, who was nothing but a shadow and a name, would prevail in the end. And once that both had surrendered to the Doom and their bodies lay under the Meneltarma, there would only be one serpent.
The visions dissolved like sand blown by the desert winds, and in their place one, single figure emerged. Large, grey eyes rose to meet his, and he froze. His soul was filled by a sudden dismay, which crept in his entrails like a spilled cold draught.
"No!" he hissed. "It cannot be!"
She did not move or disappear, but stood there, as if challenging him. One of her hands was raised before her chin, and he caught a glint of red in one of the fingers. Looking closely, he could distinguish a ring, set with a ruby between golden encircling serpents. It was an old family heirloom, and he remembered wearing it once, until he gave it away to Gimilkhâd... but no, that was not right. He had seen it in Gimilkhâd´s hand, and then on his son Pharazôn´s, but originally he had given it to Inziladûn. He suddenly remembered it, with such clarity of detail that it seemed like it had been yesterday. How could he have forgotten?
And how could that be? How could Inziladûn have passed this ring to Gimilkhâd, his rival serpent? How could she have it now?
You felt that you had overlooked something, Ar-Gimilzôr King of Men. Now you know.
Zimraphel gazed at the ring lovingly. She brought it to her lips, and kissed the serpents. Suddenly, Gimilzôr´s eyes became more aware of their chiseled heads, and the minute detail of their fangs and their scale-covered coils. It was as if they were growing larger, or closer to his sight.
And then, they started to move. Their heads were raised to face each other, tongues hissing between their teeth as they prepared to strike. Suddenly, one of them darted forwards, but instead of mauling the enemy throat, it coiled around it. The other serpent did not flinch, but reciprocated and embraced its once rival until Gimilzôr saw but one single body where there had been two.
And then, he understood. Realization dawned upon him, first like a terrible certainty that robbed him of any coherent thought, and, once that his mind reacted, like a powerful feeling of revulsion for the divine will.
It had been long since Gimilzôr had rebelled against the God King. The last time had been when he was made to kill his grandson and spare that of the traitor of Andúnië, and he had almost forgotten the price. He felt himself fall from the heights they had reached, discarded like a piece of chattel after it broke. His limbs connected with the frozen stone floor with a shattering impact, and pain, excruciating pain racked them as he lay there.
My lord King!
He tried to move, to speak, but he couldn´t. The light, the glorious light had been taken away from him. There was nothing left... nothing.
Somebody held him, pulling him up, but he could not feel their hands.
* * * * *
She was no stranger to being summoned to the King´s quarters, even at the most awkward hours of the night. Sometimes he was assailed by doubt, and then he would share his concerns with her. She was the one he trusted the most, a woman, as he used to say, who was both sharp of mind and touched by the gods. Though she belonged to a short-lived merchant lineage, and hailed from barbarian shores, the Goddess had granted her knowledge of things that even they, with their visions and their fumes, could not discern.
This time, however, she could not help feeling uneasy as she told her women to dress her in red silk and braid her hair with gold and left the Southern Wing in haste. Of late, the King hadn´t been himself: years had taken their toll on him, and he had become frail and bitter. That very morning, they had hurried to his bedside only to discover that he had lost his sight. As she saw him then, pale and lying back on his pillow while his eyes gazed at a ceiling that he could not see, she had known that her direst battles were drawing close.
Her feeling of unease increased, mingled with surprise, when she walked through the Jade Gallery and caught a glimpse of the young Princess of the West between the columns. She was standing on the garden at the other side, as if waiting to be ushered in. Neither her father nor her mother were anywhere to be seen.
The Princess of the South signalled the women to remain behind, and stepped inside the Outer Garden. Zimraphel acknowledged her presence by smiling vaguely, but did not say a word. She seemed more interested in following the evolutions of the bright red carps in the pond than in discussing the reason for their summons.
"You may enter", a voice declared from the antechamber. Melkyelid gathered the folds of her robe to cross the garden, and heard the younger woman follow at a slower pace. Nobody else was there; nobody else was expected.
She did not like that.
Asides from being the wife of her father´s younger brother, Melkyelid had no other official connection to Zimraphel. They had never been seen together, or stood inside the same room except for the rare public ceremony that the volatile princess was allowed to attend. Of their other dealings nobody knew... or did they?
Her heart beating in her chest, Melkyelid bowed at the threshold of the King´s chamber and proceeded to walk in. She had to do a great effort not to turn her nose at the smell, acrid with sweat and medicine. Two men were carrying a basin and towels outside.
"Come closer", a hoarse voice ordered from the bed. Melkyelid obeyed, forcing herself to remain calm at the spectacle that was offered to her eyes. Ar-Gimilzôr lay there, looking like a broken doll which had been discarded upon the covers. His eyes were larger than ever, protruding from his thin and wrinkled face, which was raised a painful inch as she approached. The rest of his body didn´t -couldn´t?- move, though his fingers twitched upon his chest.
He looked so much worse than he had that morning, that she guessed that something had happened in between. Bowing again, she swallowed.
"My King, I hurried to your side as soon as I received the summons", she recited. As she did so, she heard a rustle of robes, and Zimraphel stopped at her side. She watched her grandfather in wide-eyed silence.
"There is no time. No time", Ar-Gimilzôr croaked. He seemed to be in an agitated state, but when Melkyelid leaned forwards sollicitously his look surprised her. It was as purposeful and formidable as it had been in better days; the look of a king.
"Your son" he spat, "is bedding his cousin."
Melkyelid rarely lost her composure, or showed a weakness, but this time she couldn´t help herself. Taken by a sudden terror, she flinched.
He did not need more.
"And you knew it. You knew it and turned a blind eye to their incestuous crime", he hissed. "What am I saying? You... you helped them. You did what you could to make them fall in each other´s arms and keep it a secret from everybody in the Palace. You..." His body was racked by a shiver, which made his fingers twitch even more. "That was your plan, wasn´t it?"
The Princess of the South listened to the accusations in a dazed silence. She did not know what to say, how to react to this slip that could ruin everything. For a moment, she surrendered to the sick fascination of watching the downfall of all she had built, like a sand castle crumbling before the Sea.
It was only a moment. Realizing the danger, she bit her tongue, and the pain helped her regain her focus. She muttered a silent prayer to the Goddess, asking her to preserve what mattered most.
"Yes, my lord King", she declared. Her voice did not tremble, at least this prayer had been answered. "It was my plan. I knew that the Princess and my son were in love, and understood it as a sign of the Goddess. I knew that this love was meant to be aided, not thwarted. My son was meant to inherit the Sceptre after the death of his uncle, and restore the ways of the gods to Númenor. This was the only way."
"It is not. Zimraphel cannot inherit the Sceptre. She is a woman. Moreover, her mind and body are... they are frail, she is not fit, she cannot rule!"
Next to them, the younger woman did not seem fazed by their exchange, or by the words spoken about her as if she was not present. She looked at the wall mosaics, absorbed by thoughts of her own.
"Her father would have married her to one of the kinsmen of the Andúnië lord, his ally", Melkyelid objected. "And, through that marriage bond, they would sit upon the throne of Númenor!"
This gave the King some pause. For a while he remained silent, his brow furrowed in thought.
"You claim that this is the will of the gods, and not... human plotting. But the Goddess would never condone incest", he argued. "It goes against her own laws!"
"Does it?" she retorted. "I have known other peoples who worship Her in Middle-earth, and none of them follow that law! The king of the barbarians who live in the Bay, a pious man blessed with every fortune, is husband to his cousin. Don´t you think, o King, that this could be like the laws on illegitimate children in Ar-Adunakhôr´s time? A custom that a different race established in ages past, brandished by our enemies to thwart us? Would the Goddess, who saved my life when I was born and to whom I consecrated my life blind and misguide me in this manner? Would she and the Great God, the one I am not allowed to name, prefer Númenor to fall in the hands of their enemies, and suffer their temples to be abandoned and destroyed by the impious?"
Realizing that she had gone too far, Melkyelid fell silent, and breathed deeply. Gimilzôr and Zimraphel were staring at her in silence, and it struck her then that both young woman and old man looked strangely similar, like statues left behind by a forgotten race.
She breathed again.
"In any case, if there is wrong in it, the blame is mine", she said, her tone even again. "My son would have fought his desires and turned his back to temptation if I had not convinced him that they were sent by the gods."
Ar-Gimilzôr nodded. For the first time since the start of the conversation his body stirred, but he did not move.
"We must be quick", he declared abruptly. "There is no time."
Melkyelid´s eyes widened a little.
"Do you mean...?" She let her voice trail away, in hidden trepidation. Gimilzôr was growing agitated again, and for a moment she had the mad thought that their argument had been nothing but a dream.
"Quick. We must summon your son back. He is in Gadir... fourteen days of travel if the Goddess is with him. Fourteen days, yes, and three to Armenelos."
"He will not come in time."
She had not spoken since she entered the room, and they had almost forgotten that she could speak. Therefore, her words caught them at unawares, striking them like the clear chime of a bell.
"What do you mean?" Melkyelid asked. The King, however, turned away from his granddaughter, focusing in the urgency of his plan.
"If I, the King, marry them myself, her father won´t be able to oppose it. And if it happens in private, it will not cause a stir. The folk of Armenelos will grow used to seeing them together, and by the time Pharazôn takes the Sceptre..."
"Marry them?" The Goddess was with her. "I... understand! I will call him back at once."
"Do it now!" the King urged, his initial opposition all but forgotten. And then Melkyelid knew how he had learned about it, and what had he been doing during the day that had affected him so badly. The Goddess was not the only deity who had helped her; a greater one, who could not hear her prayers, had seen fit to intervene.
This thought heartened her.
"I beg your leave from your presence", she recited with a low, ceremonious bow. He began a vague nod, but at that moment Zimraphel approached to take her own leave. His head froze in mid-movement, and his black eyes narrowed, then widened as if in shock.
"Inzilbêth", he whispered. "Inzilbêth..."
The young Princess of the West bolted away, and now it was Melkyelid who had to follow her quick steps past the people who bustled in the antechamber and back to the garden, where they finally stopped. A sudden unease had cast its shadow upon the Princess of the South, and as she gazed at her companion, she saw tears glistening in her cheek.
"Why are you crying, Zimraphel?" she asked. The young woman shook her head.
"He will not come in time", she repeated, distraught. "He will not."
Gathering her robes, she disappeared into the night, and a shiver pierced Melkyelid´s heart as she stood alone before the moonlit pond.