6. The Festival of the King
A bit more on the subjects that Tolkien disliked the most, plus the POV of the guy who has been getting the short end of the stick so far. Deep and sincere thanks to Aganaphel, for reviewing the other chapters so insightfully.
The Festival of the King
"The King has come!"
"He came back from the world of the Dead, and triumphed!"
"Hail the King!"
The sun was already high in the sky, bringing its scalding rays upon the heads of the numerous multitude who dared to brave them on that unusually hot day of late February. People marched in groups, dressed in light, colourful garments and shouting the traditional proclaims.
Seeking the shade of the smaller streets, those that spread across the older part of the city in an inextricable maze, vendors sang their merchandise: sweet figs, cooled in water, pomegranates –the Númenorean apples-, amulets in the shape of Uinen´s outstretched hand, and light hats made of hay. The haunting odours of spices and perfume that had become the particular scent of Armenelos reached Eärendur´s nostrils in waves, bringing a familiar feeling of unease to his heart.
On this morning of the annual festival, as he walked the city towards the temple where he was being expected, he was alone. One of the things he had learned, back when he set a foot on Númenor´s capital for the first time, was that unprotected anonimity was safer than going out of his house as the lord of Andunië with a sizeable escort. He was the enemy here, and would be so forever as far as Gimilzôr was concerned. He could stand in the unholy fumes of the temple a thousand times and watch as many sacrifices to the goodwill of the Dark Foe of the World, and he would still hear the word "traitor" whispered behind him as soon as he turned back
Sometimes, in his darkest moments, Eärendur wondered if there would ever be a justification to offer to his father beyond the Circles of the World for his actions. The fourteenth lord of Andunië, who lived a life of exile, was not the only person in his family who would not have approved of Eärendur´s policies; some were still alive and full of recriminations. But he had understood it clearly –or thought that he had- long ago: away from their sovereign´s sight, they would always be traitors and enemies. They would never know peace, and they would never have the opportunity of speaking the truth in front of the king.
Still, even Eärendur, who through his life had been forced to learn the virtue of patience, was already beginning to see nothing but despair on the road ahead of him. Ar-Sakalthôr had lifted the ban, yes, but any shrewd observer would notice that the King ruled little those days. His son Gimilzôr held the Sceptre in his hands, not in name but in fact, and as long as he was alive none of the Faithful would ever know peace. Through the years, this tyrant was developing the attributes that would turn man into monster –not cruelty or heartlessness, a will of iron or a murderous, bloodthirsty nature, but a penchant for suspicion and fear. A King in perpetual fear was the worst danger for his subjects, innocent or guilty, and no matter what Eärendur´s heart would tell him, his mind would only foresee bleak visions of the future.
The lord of Andunië reached the last step of the stone stairs that led to the summit of the smallest hill of those upon which Armenelos was built, and he paused for a moment. From that vantage point, he could see the enormous bulk of the holy mountain of Meneltarma, towering over the city with its ragged slopes and peaks covered by perpetual snows. Lost in a feeling of religious awe, he closed his eyes for a moment, and wondered sadly at the folly of people who failed to see the true works of the divinity that lay upon their very doorstep, while they rushed in crowds towards a temple built by the hands of man.
"The King has come back from the dead!"
Your King lies in the Void, and he will never come back, he thought, then shook his head and continued his way. At his right, the soft scent of perfume became stronger, and mingled with smells of food as he passed next to the huge marketplace. But today there were no shouts, no crowds of people coming and going with bags of fruit, vegetables and fish. Today, it was the festival of the King of Armenelos, and the smells were nothing but lingering ghosts.
At the other side, upon the left slope of the hill lay the King´s gardens, built by the king whose name was blasphemous. Eärendur had been there often, realising the irony that lay in searching for peace among the running fountains that his enemy and that of the Valar had built, and walking under the shade of the exotic and colourful trees –those with huge trunks and brilliant, unbreakable leaves, or tall like arrows with long and thorny fingers, and the giant red flowers that never died- that he had brought from his expeditions to Middle-Earth. The people remembered him fondly for such acts of civic generosity, but Eärendur kept records of times when the Kings were known among the subjects for themselves, instead of for the splendid parks that they built while sitting in the innermost chambers of their palace.
The king whose name was blasphemous had indeed been the first to be touched by the ominous shadow of fear, that now ran in the bastard blood of his descendence like poison. Eärendur stared in the direction of the Southern Hill, upon which the royal palace lay like a city of its own. Sunlight shone over the magnificent, lotus-shaped pillars wrought in gold and the russet tiles of the roofs, blinding his glance until he had to turn his eyes away, as if he had been looking into the eyes of Manwë himself. But behind that brilliance there were walls and fortifications, and guards, and a host of dependences, workshops, cellars, gardens, courtiers and servants that isolated the King from his city, and enabled him to live without crossing his own gates.
Eärendur continued his march. Pearls of sweat flowed down his brow from the heat of the day, but he could not take his cloak off. The crowd around him was beginning to thicken considerably, as he drew closer to the third and last elevation, the Eastern Hill, where the temple of Melkor had its location. It was a complex compound, crowned by a dome painted in hues of golden yellow, and tall white towers at its sides. Around it, there was a row of houses decorated with glazed tiles of many colours, the home of the priests, and the reddish building of the Superior School of Arts and Sciences, also built by the king whose name was blasphemous.
So much evil wrought in an appearance of beauty, he mused, realising that this could apply to the city of Armenelos as a whole, with its dazzling colours, sweet smells and proud buildings; with its rare trees, its large avenues and small, laberyintic streets, cunningly planned with a slight curve that prevented the gracelessness of the predictable straight line. It unsettled Eärendur sometimes, to see how evil could create beauty in defiance of the teachings of the Valar, and how an insidious sweetness still oozed from the corrupted heart of the first city of Númenor, stealing the heart and enchanting the senses of the most faithful. He remembered clearly the first time that his son Valandil had laid eyes upon the enchantress: after hours of silence, in which no one was able to wrestle a word out of him, he had told his father that even if they had to live ten lifetimes of exile, he would never wish the Wave to destroy such beauty.
Eärendur had not replied, confused as his heart had become through years of thought and pondering. The Wave dream had assaulted his bloodline since the time of their exile, and they had learned to accept that the Creator would not suffer this abomination to continue for long. And yet, his son´s words, in their strong and untainted simplicity had moved him, and he had thought that the day that such a city disappeared from the face of Earth the very stars of Varda would weep.
The avenue of palm trees that led to the temple was full of people, singing songs for their resurrected King and trying to push through the rest of the faithful to have a glimpse of the gates. When had those Middle-Earth heathen cults wormed their way into Númenor through the corrupted Merchant Princes -those bold, ambitious families who had not thought twice about leaving the land of their birth centuries ago, and seek fortune through trade and exploitation in the colonies-, was something that not even Eärendur´s father, master of lore, had known with exactitude, but the king whose name was blasphemous had been the one to give them official character, to serve his own purposes.
A breeze deigned at last to blow over the heads of the multitude, wringing a soft, musical sound from the leaves of the palm trees, and relieved sighs from many. Eärendur pushed his way to a small side gate, about to be crushed a thousand times until he reached a barrier of haughty looking soldiers. Usually he came earlier in the morning, when there were less people around the temple.
"Stay where you are!" one of them yelled at him. He took the cloak away, and a pair of sea-grey eyes stared at them inquisitively. The same soldier who had yelled made a face for an instant, then turned his back to him and left with a signal for him to wait.
Eärendur endured the indignity with patience. Worse was surely to come until he was allowed to reach his rightful place, and at least now the throng had ceased to push around him. He heard whispers behind his back.
As he had predicted, the soldier came back a few moments later, accompanied by one of Gimilzôr´s courtiers. He had probably seen him several times before, and forgotten his face just as many. It seemed to him in ocassions that everybody in that palace shared the same appearance, with rich yet orderly clothes and haughty, expressionless features.
"Excuse me, my lord." the man said in a formal tone, then proceeded to search him for weapons. Once that he was satisfied that he had not been planning an assassination, he allowed him to enter the temple.
The first time that his son Valandil had been forced to undergo this under the searching gazes of the people of Armenelos, he had not taken it well, Eärendur remembered. He, on the other hand, had ceased feeling anything ressembling shame after several years of alternate attendance –probably the first and hopefully the last in his proud family to reach this state of humiliating resignation. And even he had his own goals.
It was Zarhâd, the lord of the city that lay at the feet of Sorontil, surrounded by several men who proceeded to wash their hands and faces in the ornate fountain of the first courtyard.
"Lord Zarhâd." he replied genially, bowing in greeting. "It has been so long since the last Council meeting. Is your family faring well?"
The other man shrugged. Eärendur almost laughed at his forlorn expression, and not for the first time, he thought that if they hadn´t been forced by the circumstances, he probably would have liked him. He even suspected that Zarhâd might like him a little.
"As usual. My daughter away on her ship. My son trying to rule in my stead without messing things too much while I idle here."
"The joys of alternate attendance." Eärendur nodded with a smile on his lips. Unlike most timid or cunning lords of the court, Zarhâd did not change subject abruptly –and prudently-, but merely shrugged his shoulders and closed his expression a little.
"Well, I do not think it is such a bad idea. My wife is sickly, and the climate of Armenelos does her good. But let us go inside!"
The lord of Andunië nodded, and followed him through the courtyard and into the first gallery, whose shadows blinded him for a moment. The laws on alternate attendance had been passed in Ar-Zimrathôn´s time, but he had always suspected that Gimilzôr had had something to do with them. It seemed his kind of idea, to inflict separation upon families and take lords away from their lands for one year out of two, just so he could feel slightly more at ease about threats of rebellion. And at least the others did not have to suffer the fate reserved for the Lords of the West alone: to leave a hostage in the city at all times, no matter where the lord was or whether the year was odd or even.
The ascension of the narrow, spiral staircase that would bring them to their appointed places in the upper balcony was done in complete silence, and those who had arrived before them were already praying above. Eärendur occupied his place with polite bows of greeting to the others, who barely interrupted their repetitive mutterings to offer him a bow in return.
Downstairs, the great hall was already filled with people, except for the circle around the altar that nobody dared to tread. The holy flames had been kindled, and their fumes reached the dome, darkening it in spite of the efforts of the priests to paint them anew year after year. A dull chant reverberated across the stone building.
Eärendur tried to fight the sombre feeling that always came upon him as he was made to wait thus. He pretended to be muttering something, too, wondering why he cared to pretend when nobody was looking at him. Maybe he did it just to fill his mind with something that was not the vertiginous voices of the male choir, and the suffocation of the fumes, and Morgoth... who wasn´t anywhere where he could hear anything either.
Not before half an hour had passed, the door behind the altar finally opened for the procession of priests, dressed in white and almost translucent gauzes. The chant´s intensity augmented. Inciense was burnt, and the High Priest arrived with the royal family and several men who dragged two confused, spotless black cows.
Further interested, Eärendur leaned slightly forwards to look at his niece and her child. The boy was staring at the comings and goings around him with a mixture of shock and awe –it was only the second time that he assisted to such a ceremony. And it was also, Eärendur thought with sadness, the second time that he saw him since he was presented to the Court as a baby, as Gimilzôr had forbidden him access to his own kin. He wished that the air could be less thick and allow him a better view of the bright, grey-eyed child, the hope and future of the West.
One of the cows mooed loudly, distressed by the fire, and immediately started to struggle in its bonds, trying to kick the men who surrounded them. The High Priest gave orders in a sharp tone, and someone knelt to offer Gimilzôr a knife. Inzilbêth moved out of the shadows like a swift providence, protectively gathering the child in her arms to get him away from the danger.
Eärendur stared at his niece, and froze. At once, he stood up and leaned over the gilded railing, so abruptly that the High Chamberlain and the Lord of the Southwest sent some surprised glances in his direction.
She was gone from his field of vision, again. Alarmed, she walked away from the fire with her son, and Gimilzôr skillfully killed one cow and then the other, after they had been reduced to immobility by ropes and the strength of many arms. The chants changed their rythm as the corpses were given to the fire, in remembrance of Melkor´s sacrifice, and there she was again, walking forwards with hesitant little steps.
She was pregnant.
There was no doubt anymore, Eärendur realised as he saw the size of her curved belly under the rich garments. The sound of blood rushing in his ears was the only thing that he could hear for a moment, and he needed great efforts to relax and sit back in his place.
How was this possible? How could the worst senseless fear have brought Gimilzôr to this, to invoke ruin upon Númenor and his own family? To forsake his own child and see him as an enemy?
Inzilbêth does not know anything about this, he mused, letting his eyes lie upon her and surprising a furtive hand that stroked her belly. He could be far-sighted at times, yet now, as much as he tried, the only thing he saw in her was the subdued happiness of a mother who hoped that at least this child would be allowed to live at her side.
For a moment, the lord of Andunië´s heart wept for the fate of his niece, whom he had been forced to sacrifice for the sake of a greater good. He had sacrificed himself as well, yes, but she- what could she have known, the day when she welcomed her kinsmen back with tears of joy in her eyes? He wept for her son, too, young and still too naive to understand what went on in the mind of his own father. He tried to curse Gimilzôr, but in the end all he could do was to curse himself.
No. Never despair. He had sworn this back when he had been nothing but a child living among exiles in a barren land, and saw the families that had lost faith long ago and passed their miserable existences in the apathy of despair. I will not despair. His mind started working quickly.
Everything was not lost yet. The eldest child was at least the heir, no matter what his father did short of killing him. The yet-unborn child could also be female, and the later Kings had forbidden women from taking the Sceptre.
And now it was time for him to warn Inzilbêth, even with a letter that would put him at risk, if it was necessary. She needed to know about the prophecy of the serpents. Whether she had been the one to rouse Gimilzôr´s suspicions or not, whether it had been simply because of her mother´s kinship –but then again, he was having his second child with the same woman, despite the fact that those kings thought nothing of adultery-, or because of something that she had done in innocent carelessness, it wasn´t too late to change the tyrant´s mind. Her unfortunate child had to keep whatever he had left of his father´s love, or they all would be ruined.
The terrible thought crossed his mind that maybe Gimilzôr hated his son not because of his mother, but because of the child himself, for his ill-chosen features and the blood running through his veins. Because he was like them, and Ar-Adunakhôr´s lineage had been defeated by a superior power.
The chants grew louder than ever, in honour of the High Priest of Melkor and the royal family as they exited the hall behind curtains of smoke. A second before the gates were closed after them, Eärendur thought he saw little Inziladûn turn back, and dart a searching stare in his direction as if he knew, somehow, that he was there.
I am sorry, he muttered with fervour, feeling for the first time like he truly was praying.
(to be continued)
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.