48. The Return
Note: I´m sorry, but this update is not a sign of an immediate comeback -not yet. This was a chapter where I got really stuck because I didn´t like the ending and I couldn´t make it work. After almost a year, with the benefit of distance and perspective, it suddenly occurred to me that something that didn´t work in so many ways should better be cut entirely. So I cut it, and here is the result.
Dusk was speeding from the East. The sky grew darker by the moment, but for a spiral of clouds blazing red in the horizon, there where Hannishtart´s eyes could almost draw the shape of an irregular line of land trying to embrace the sea with two outstretched arms. Far in the distance, a seagull was crying.
"It can´t be far now. Tomorrow we´ll be able to see Sor."
Hannishtart nodded in silence. The sailor stopped behind him, holding a length of coiled rope with both arms and fixing his glance in the same spot that his passenger had been observing for a while.
"I´ve seen others like you", he said after a short, thoughtful silence. "Too many years in the mainland, huh?"
"What do you mean?" Hannishtart hid the unpleasant feeling in the pit of his stomach and adopted a mask of polite indifference. The other man laughed.
"I met a man in the Havens once. The day before he was going back, he drank with me. He said..." The sailor shook his head. "He said he couldn´t believe that the island was still there where he left it. That sometimes he was afraid he had dreamed it. Could you imagine? Of course, he was piss drunk by then..."
"Well, I am not."
Still, Hannishtart thought, as the feeling in his stomach increased, he had some idea of what the drunk soldier could have been trying to say. Sometimes, words were not enough to draw an accurate picture of one´s feelings, not of one whose life had been so different from that of the people who surrounded him. Númenor, he knew, was still there, and its people went on with their lives in exactly the same manner as they had before his ship left Sor.
That was what made it seem a dream.
Hannishtart sighed. The man was merely trying to be sympathetic, in his own fashion.
"Thirty years." Somebody had started shouting indoors. Maybe it had something to do with...
"That´s a lot of time", the sailor whistled. "I understand it now..."
"The boy." Hannishtart froze. "That you would want to bring him with you. Oh, there he is! Getting sick all over the place again, by the looks of it."
As the volume of the shouts increased, a man appeared on deck, with the struggling Ashad in tow. Ignoring the boy´s protests, he threw him against the railing.
"I´ve told you a hundred times, you mongrel! Do you people have sand in your ears? If you are feeling sick, you come up here and throw it into the sea! Into the sea, do you hear? The Goddess help me if I catch you again spewing your filth all over the ship!"
Hannishtart, still reeling from the sailor´s insinuation, needed a moment to collect his wits.
"Oh, leave him be. His kind is afraid of the Sea."
Muttering something that sounded like "his kind don´t belong here then", the man released the boy and left. Ashad immediately slumped down the railing and curled over himself like a frightened animal, just like the day when his village was destroyed.
"He is not my son." Hannishtart declared, in a voice that came out louder than he had expected. He is not a mongrel. "His father died in Umbar."
"Oh." The sailor blinked, then shrugged. The coils of rope almost touched the deck.
It should not be his concern, anyway, whether a sailor believed him or not. The frown that creased his brow as he walked towards the boy´s slumped form was not directed at him, though it deepened as he wondered whether this misconception could come back in a more ominous form.
Ashad was not trembling; his limbs, however, were rigid as wood. Hannishtart knelt by his side and laid an arm over his shoulder.
"It is only water. It cannot sink the ship", he lied. The world had shrunk, until there was nothing in it but the tiny vessel which held the four of them, and it was sinking...
"The blue is everywhere. It´s under the ship, too, I can feel it", Ashad murmured. "It can swallow anything."
"Tomorrow we will reach land. Firm land."
"It´s not firm land," Ashad shook his head, stubbornly. "The blue is all around it, too."
"Middle-earth is surrounded by the sea as well. Did you know?" Ashad shook his head again. "A ship could sail North from the Havens or Umbar and reach them from the South. They say that Aldarion did it, a famous mariner of old..."
"Could an island sink?" The boy interrupted his explanation as if he hadn´t been listening to a word of it. Hannishtart´s eyes widened in surprise.
"No more than the mainland could!" he snorted. But laughter would not come to his lips, and he remembered a great wave that engulfed everything in its way. Of all his nightmares, that one was the worst, except for the one he could never recall after he woke up.
"You will see how firm our land is under your feet." Raising his glance towards the west, he realized that the red glow had dwindled to a thin line that cleaved sea and sky apart. The first stars littered the dark dome above their heads, and he had to suppress a shiver. "But now you should go to bed."
Ashad did not move at first, but followed meekly when Hannishtart pulled him up and guided him towards the inside of the ship. Even when he couldn´t see "the blue", it still frightened him. It had not been like this when they lived by the harbour at the Middle Havens, not even when they sailed along the coast from Umbar to the Northern post. Only when they lost sight of the shore, and found themselves in the middle of the Great Sea, the boy had suddenly run below deck and refused to come up. The dark and stifling bowels of the ship had made his nausea worse, bringing frequent curses to the lips of sailors and soldiers alike.
The sky was fully starred as Hannishtart emerged on deck once more. Constellations seemed to swim lazily in the sea above, the one that not even Númenorean ships could sail. Their seafarers had, however, learned to read them, and by their position navigate their way through the open sea that frightened the other peoples so much.
They were all pointing at Númenor now, hidden somewhere on the vanished line of the horizon.
Hannishtart rested his back against the railing, and closed his eyes against the creaking of wood and the splashing of water in his ears.
* * * * *
He woke up to the shouts of the captain and the voices of sailors climbing the mast, and manouevring the hard and crackling sails against the morning wind. His body ached as he opened his eyes and rubbed the haze away from them with the back of his hand. He stood up, leaning over the railing to take in the view.
Sor was before them, the many-towered city set against the red sky of dawn. The Orrostar and the Hyarnustar had engulfed their ship while he slept, and now they stood on the brink of being swallowed by the tighter embrace of the two Arms of the Giant, doorstep of the Island and the largest harbour in the world. Hannishtart looked up, but as much as he stretched the muscles in his neck he was unable to see beyond the knee of the gigantic statue of the Warrior, and the bristling wolf that curled against his left foot, baring its fangs at incoming travellers. To the South, the twin image of the King raised his sceptre above the masts of a timber squadron returning from the Hyarnustar.
"Home, eh?" The indiscreet sailor of the previous evening jumped in front of him, holding a sail. Hannishtart shrugged.
"Your boy is disposing of his breakfast again." He turned back to meet the soldier who had fetched him from Ulfin´s cottage a thousand years ago. "I keep wondering why..."
"I will go", Hannishtart cut him before he could launch into a tirade about how a barbarian should be with the barbarians and not crawling like a mournful spirit on a Númenorean ship. Or before he could insinuate something else about the boy´s parentage.
"There is no need! For once he is fine where he is. They won´t appreciate him getting in the way of their manouevres," he shouted after him. Hannishtart stopped in his tracks for a moment, then continued on his way. All of a sudden, he felt like the boy himself: he wanted to hide.
Last time he had seen Sor, he had been young. He had wanted to see his family, and had drunk himself senseless instead.
The cold, viscous texture of shame crept down his belly at the thought.
"Ashad!" The boy was sitting in the dark, refusing to look at him in his embarrassment for having vomited again. "We are in Sor. The ship is coming into port now, and we must leave."
Dark, inquiring eyes shot up at him. He nodded, and the boy struggled to his feet.
"Where are we going?", he asked, his bravery returning at the prospect of land under his feet again. Hannishtart tried a smile, that came out more like a grimace.
If only he knew.
"Pack everything while I talk to the captain" he ordered.
* * * * *
The boy´s dispirited fear aboard the ship was immediately changed into wonder, as soon as the two of them set foot in the harbour. Hannishtart had never seen eyes grow so wide as they jumped from a line of vendors of coloured fabrics to a battalion of soldiers who sang as they marched towards a ship, and from there again towards a troupe of acrobats who had built a pyramid with their flexed bodies. He stopped in his tracks and blinked many times, as if he was trying to take all those sights in but his mind could not process so much at once. Then, drunk from the sounds and the colours, he started turning in circles, bumping into people who cursed when they saw him. Hannishtart had to grab him before he could run to the stalls and cause trouble.
"Stay with me. Sor is not a place to wander."
Ashad looked disappointed, but nodded. He seemed to perceive how tense Hannishtart´s mood was.
The merchants of Gadir are out for your blood, and so will those of Umbar and Sor. It had been many years since he had seen Azzibal or any of his associates, but he wondered if they could have been already informed of his arrival by their spies. Sor was the entrance to Númenor, but in the middle of such a crowd nobody would notice a man who suddenly went missing. And, as everybody knew, the merchants controlled the city.
"Are you Hannishtart the soldier?"
He froze, the thread of his thoughts broken by the harsh voice behind his back. Turning towards its souce, he saw a tall man, dressed in a way that reminded him of the Armenelos guard, except that there was no sun emblazoned in his chest, and he wore a dark blue cloak. A group of men, ten, or maybe fifteen, stood behind him, their raiment identical.
The instincts of the warrior heightened by the awareness of his own, dangerous position, Hannishtart´s right hand immediately flew towards the sword hanging from his waist. Ashad hid behind him.
"Who are you?"
The guards also carried swords, but none of them followed his example. The one who had addressed him first, who seemed to be their leader, stared at him gravely.
"Come with us. In the name of the King."
The King. The King had been the one to recall him to Númenor. He had also freed his family, or so Pharazôn had written in his letter. And still, how could he know that this wasn´t a trap?
"Prove that the King sent you."
The guard looked around him for a moment, then proceeded to whisper something in a low voice to one of the others. His expression struck Hannishtart as calculating.
Then, the second soldier started rummaging in a pouch, and produced a document. He handed it to Hannishtart.
"Here." Wondering if it could be a ploy to make him lower his guard, then realizing, as if from a distant remembrance of a more civilized life, that they could not attack him in front of so many witnesses, Hannishtart grabbed it. A royal seal, similar to the one he had seen in documents sent to the mainland in official ships, glared at him from the page. He folded it carefully, contemplating his options.
It could still be a trap. Those men had no crests. Whom did they serve? Whom could they be traced back to? He had been ambushed by people who pretended to be carrying the orders of their superiors before.
"Are you coming with us, or not?" the guard asked, with an air of impatience. While he spoke, he drew close to Hannishtart and his voice dropped to a hiss. "See that man in yellow? The one who was watching us a minute ago and now hides behind the white palanquin? We just dissuaded him from coming at you, but there are more. We must be quick."
Hannishtart thought furiously for a moment. People were starting to draw a circle around them, intrigued by their display and trying to hear what they said. Truths or lies, friend or foes; he had to make a decision now. He had barely set foot in the soil of Númenor after thirty years of fighting barbarians in a wild land, and he was already gambling on his life again.
"I will follow you", he finally said. "Lead the way."
A confused Ashad followed him among the disappointed murmurations of the crowd.
* * * * *
The guards were quick to leave the populated area of the harbour, leading them through a maze of deserted streets and dark alleyways. They seemed to have a fixed destination, towards which they persevered in grim silence. Nobody spoke to him, and they only seemed to communicate through wordless glances whenever someone passed by or edged close to them, as if trying to evaluate whether they posed a threat or not. Hannishtart had been placed at the centre of their formation, surrounded by armed men at every side, which made him feel vulnerable and trapped.
Finally, after what seemed like years, they reached a fishing village of the outskirts, and entered a large stable. The leader made a signal, and the others started untying the horses.
"We did not know that the boy was coming," he said to Hannishtart, with something vaguely ressembling an apologetic tone. "We must travel fast. Would you take him with you?"
The soldier dismissed this question with a shrug, then held to this opening at once.
"Where are we going?"
The guard leader shook his head, and sent a significant look in the direction of the stable master, who was counting coins in their vicinity. He did not seem to have heard their exchange, but still the infuriating man did not seem about to say another word in his presence. In a quick stride, he reached his horse and mounted it.
"Come, Ashad." Hannishtart helped the boy up, torn between frustration and shock. He had imagined that they were going to Armenelos. Wasn´t the King who had summoned him? Rómenna, however, was a small town in the middle of nowhere. Why would they take him to such a place, unless they meant him some ill?
"Who are they?" the boy whispered to him as he climbed to the saddle.
"They are the King of Númenor´s men", he replied, spurring the horse towards the others. Almost immediately the riders surrounded him, adopting the same formation they had kept while they walked. Still, he was determined to claim answers this time, and he almost clashed his mount against another in his forceful attempt to catch up with the leader, who was at the front.
"Why are we going to Rómenna?" he asked, shouting above the clatter of hooves. "And who are you?"
"My name is Adunazer" the man replied, looking over his shoulder, "and I am here to protect you from the machinations of the Merchant Princes of Sor."
"Then why aren´t we going to Armenelos, where the King is?" Hannishtart inquired.
"Taking the road through the Mittalmar now would be madness, without a sizeable escort", was the prompt reply. "In Rómenna, however, you have many friends."
"Friends? What friends?"
"Us. And many others." Somehow, Adunazer looked slightly ruffled as he said this. "The Faithful."
* * * * *
They made their way through the sand-battered road, edging the forest. The Autumn sea was dark and stormy, breaking upon the shore in sizzling bursts of foam in a way that reminded Hannishtart of the Havens, and Ulfin´s white feet the first time he had seen her walking in the beach to gather seaweed.
For the best part of the day after they left Sor, they rode past hundreds of travellers who came to or from Armenelos, peasants who returned to their fields after selling their goods in the city, or rich merchants who sought the calm of their country villas at night. Many of them stood at the side of the road and stared at them as they passed by, and some frowned and muttered words that Hannishtart could not make out in the distance. His escort -for so they had turned out to be- did not look ruffled by this, or seemed to pay much attention, but he could perceive that they never lowered their guard for an instant. When time came for the midday meal, they ate on horseback, not even slowing their pace for the sake of comfort. Ashad looked tired, but after his behaviour on the ship he seemed determined not to complain again.
As the sun sank in the horizon the leader turned away from the main road, which left the coast and stretched across the plain of Mittalmar, and herded the small force through the narrow road which slithered down a cliff towards the bay of Rómenna, between the roots of southern Orrostar and northern Hyarrostar. There were no travellers here, not a single soul except for a man who gathered shellfish from the pools a long distance below.
"Let´s hurry. It will be night soon, and then it will be too dangerous to proceed" Adunazer warned when they stopped for the third time to lead their mounts on foot through a difficult stretch of the road. It had fallen into disrepair, Hannishtart noticed. Even in Middle-earth, one would have to ride into the wildest areas on the edges of civilization to find a road so neglected.
"It might have been better to reach the place by ship", he remarked, helping the boy to climb on the saddle again.
"That would have been too risky. We would not hazard appearing on the docks of a city in broad daylight a second time", was the answer he got.
Hannishtart did not find it satisfying. He was growing restless, and he did not know whether the idea of being surrounded and protected by so-called Faithful made him feel better or worse. He wasn´t much more than a traitor to them, and their behaviour, in spite of their protestations of friendship, was aloof and suspicious.
"Why are you helping me?" he hissed, taken by a sudden fit of impatience. If only Pharazôn had been in Númenor...
Adunazer stopped for an instant to stare at him. No emotion showed upon his countenance.
"You are the son of Lord Númendil of Andúnië," he said, with a bow. Then he climbed his horse and spurred it forth, leaving Hannishtart to mull over his words.
He did not need to say it, for Hannishtart to know that he disapproved of him. The choice of words had been telling enough, and the tone in which they had been spoken ratified it. You are the son of Lord Númendil... not "one of us", or "our friend".
Nothing he shouldn´t have expected.
"Where is Lord Númendil now?" he asked, feeling a small stab in his chest as he spoke the name. His voice, however, came from his lips lower than he had intended, and the sound of the hooves drowned it. Cursing to himself, he followed, with Ashad´s eyes momentarily meeting his in an unspoken question.
It was night when they reached the foot of the cliff, and the city of Rómenna lay in shadow. There were some lights in the street, and here and there a few people came and went on unfinished business, but it was nothing to the boisterous squares of Sor or Armenelos, or even like the camps of the Havens and Umbar and their brothels that never closed. The stone buildings towered somberly over their heads as they made their way among them.
They crossed the centre of the city without stopping, then proceeded towards an area where houses became smaller and gaps between them more frequent. Here, darkness was absolute, and nothing was heard except the murmur of the sea.
"This way", one of the men told Hannishtart, heading towards a street that at some point became a road, leading away from the last signs of habitation and towards a rocky path. Before them, in the distance, there was a light.
As they advanced, the light started growing into the shape of a large house, whose walls towered over the cliff. The riders stopped before a large oak gate, and waited while Adunazer spoke to someone. Then the doors opened, and to Hannishtart´s surprise they were ushered inside a stone courtyard large enough to contain three times as many horses as their party brought.
"Follow me, if you please", Adunazer said, dismounting. Ashad had fallen asleep; his body leaned heavily against Hannishtart´s shoulder as he lowered him from the saddle. When his feet touched the floor, however, he jumped awake and his eyes widened in alert, trying to discern his surroundings from behind the sleepy haze.
"They are our friends", Hannishtart soothed him, before the bustle of armed men under the light of torches could awake unwanted remembrances and send the boy into a panic. Ruefully, he wished he could be as sure himself.
Other people hurried to take care of his horse, as Adunazer signalled for him to follow past the comings and goings of the men towards the main door. Ashad tottered behind.
The house was such as he had not seen in many years, full of large halls and well lit corridors. The walls were made of painted sea-stone, and Hannishtart could see large seashells incrusted in them. All the floors, however, were polished marble, shining dazzlingly white under his feet. Ashad did not say a word, but he looked every inch as tense as he himself felt.
"There." Adunazer stopped in his tracks at a doorstep, and nodded in their direction as if to beckon them in. The moment that his voice came from his lips, reverberating oddly on the walls, Hannishtart became aware, with an unpleasant jolt, of the silence that lay upon the house. There was not a single person walking or talking in any of those halls and corridors. "It would be better if you left the boy with me."
Ashad did not seem happy at this idea, judging by the baleful look that he gave the man. Hannishtart hesitated.
"Wait for me here", he said, but as he turned towards the man to ask the question that burned in his lips, he found that Adunazer had already moved to open the door. The light coming from inside the room was even brighter than the one in the corridor, and it forced him to blink repeated times.
"Welcome", a soft voice greeted him. It was the strangest voice, different in tone and quality and accent to anything he had ever heard, and still, somehow, it sounded familiar.
A moment later, he realized that it had not spoken in Adûnaic.
As he entered the place, he saw an antechamber before a larger door. A man stood against it, a man with grey eyes that reflected Hannishtart´s own like a twin mirror.
He tried to swallow, but couldn´t. His dizziness augmented, and for a moment his mind started feverishly calculating an escape route back through the corridors, the large oak gate, the riders and the road up the cliff.
"Father", he muttered, in a language he had forgotten.
"Welcome back", Númendil pointed at the door, and his ageless features became clouded by a touch of urgency. "Come .... Someone... see..."
Feeling the ghostly touch of a shiver cross his body, he followed.
* * * * *
The bed was close to a large window, from which Hannishtart could hear the Sea crashing against the cliffs of the bay of Rómenna. Above in the sky, the moon floated gently, veiled by tatters of clouds that the wind blew towards Mittalmar. During an interval, which seemed to him to have been frozen in time, it shone brightly upon a woman´s features.
She lay propped against the pillows, like a doll abandoned by a child after playtime. When she heard the door open and then close behind their backs she immediately turned her head in that direction, but her straining eyes did not seem to find what she sought. Númendil hurried towards her and took her hand in his; smooth whiteness pressed against wrinkled, spotted flesh.
Hannishtart´s breath died in his throat, just as the pain of recognition erupted in his chest. He looked at her, like a man who had been lost in a foreign city and suddenly realized that one of the strange houses that shocked him had been the place of his birth. Words he thought of, many words, some of which they would have thought insane, but none could make it past his lips.
None were in her language.
"Here...him", Númendil whispered. At this, the eyes that stared blankly at her surroundings seemed to be coloured by a ray of warmth, and the parched lips widened in a smile. He recognized this smile, too, though her face couldn´t be more different from the beautiful woman that he remembered in his dreams.
"She... waiting... years.... you." There seemed to be no accusation in the tone, yet Hannishtart thought he could perceive it in the words he could make out. All this time... all this time he had been gone, and he should have been here... here to see her before she withered... before she changed.
"Amandil", she called. Her voice was hoarse, shaky. "Amandil."
Amandil. It had been his name. Her name for him.
He advanced towards the bedside, as if in a dream, and lay his hand in hers while his father withdrew.
"Mother", he greeted her. That word he also remembered.
Her face grew closer to his, and suddenly he became aware that she was seeing him. Self-consciously, he remembered his unkempt hair, his unshaved chin, his soldier cloak, his sword. Why had nobody taken it from him? The symbol of the Goddess, cold against his chest.
"Amandil." Her hand moved up with great effort, trailing over his chest, his shoulder, his face. He stood still, until it dropped back on her lap.
His father shook his head, sadly.
* * * * *
"She … years... and now... life ...end..."
His feet left a trail of grime as they walked through the white marble floor. In Armenelos the floors had been black... in the palace, in the temple, swallowing the dirt so it would not show. Not so here.
Ashad was asleep before a plate of food, which he hadn´t even been able to finish. Adunazer was nowhere to be seen, nor was any of the other men that he had left at the entrance. All that he could hear was the sound of breaking waves and soft footsteps. And that language... that frightening language.
"She could not... Armenelos. ...why she... stay here...wait for you. Lord Valandil... Andúnië... now..."
"Stop!" Shocked by his sharp outburst, which reverberated through the corridor like the twang of a bowstring, Hannishtart-Amandil stopped in his tracks and pressed a hand against his temple. His voice came out as hoarse as that of the old woman in the bed. "I can´t understand. I can´t understand your language."
The silence he had asked for was thunderous like the howl of a hundred wolves. Suddenly unable to withstand it, he turned around and fled, away from the moonlight, away from the whispers and the breaking waves.
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.