10. Heart of Darkness
We arrive at the Prince's residence at sunset. Elaborately carved columns and other architectural embellishments grace the imposing building, constructed predominantly of wood. Uniformed grooms lead the horses away with Mori requiring reassurance from the Istyar. A liveried footman escorts us to our rooms, separate but adjoining with a door between the two. I'm puzzled as to why we need an interior entrance between the rooms, but the Istyar just rolls his eyes at me. "You are so naïve, Sámaril." The servant informs us that we will be summoned to the evening's repast in a couple of hours.
The lavatory, which is shared between the two rooms, is luxurious, and I don't have to fret whether I should bathe first or defer to the Istyar since two copper tubs filled with steaming water await us. After bathing, I plait the sides of my damp hair and pull them out of the way, otherwise allowing my locks hang loose like my mentor's. My dark green robe, which complements the color of my hair, according to my mother, is a bit short since I have grown since I acquired the garment. The gold belt, chains, and jeweled circlet that I crafted hopefully will detract from the less than ideal length. The inner door opens, and my master, draped in a wine-red robe and dripping with his elegant gold finery, enters my room. As before, he wears the circlet with the eye of wisdom centered over his forehead.
"We must discuss our study of the Prince tonight. I think it's best if we wait to begin the examination until we are well into the evening meal, and he is relaxed. Be aware that you must be alert and observant, and you'll need to be prepared for what you'll see."
The Istyar pauses, shuts his eyes tightly as if he has been struck with sudden pain, and rubs his temples.
"Istyar? Are you well?"
"I think so. I simply have this blasted headache. I wonder if Nîlozimra's cask was cleaned properly? Well, I'll live. Are you ready, Sámaril, to see some of the worst of Mankind?"
"I suppose so, sir." With my heart pounding, I follow him to the dining hall as the chime of a bell summons us to the evening's repast.
We enter the dining hall, an expansive space lined with chestnut paneled walls decorated with colorful tapestries. The Prince sits in a carved chair with a high back at the middle of the long table where his retinue of courtiers are already drinking and laughing merrily. Even seated, it's evident that the Prince is a tall man, and the hints of the Eldarin bloodline can be seen in his features. He does not rise when we approach him but languorously addresses the Istyar.
"Welcome, Lord Annatar. I see you've finally brought one of your pretty lads with you this time. I trust you find the accommodations to your liking?" The Prince's pronunciation of Sindarin and Quenya words both is flawless.
"Yes, the accommodations are adequate," the Istyar answers after bowing, his demeanor gracious and regal in spite of the Prince's discourtesy of not rising to greet us. "Allow me to present Sámaril, one of the most talented journeymen of the Gwaith-i-Mírdain."
The Istyar's description of me -- one of the most talented journeymen -- causes my heart to leap, but I recover enough to remember my manners. Because this Man is a prince from the royal house of the Númenóreans, I assume a deferential gesture is in order so I bow my head.
"I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Sámaril," the Prince says. "I am sure you are every bit as talented as your master says." The words themselves are not salacious in the least, but his unctuous tone is.
The prince's innuendo is peculiar. Does he think the Istyar and I are lovers? The absurdity of the notion almost makes me laugh out loud, but I discipline myself to do so internally. I set my face in what I hope is a mask of Elvish inscrutability. The Istyar catches my eye with a shrewd sideways glance and winks almost imperceptibly. I know he's thinking the same as he skims the outer shell of my thoughts. I hear his voice in my head: Just play along. The Prince makes all manner of assumptions.
The Istyar is seated immediately to the Prince's left, and I am on the other side of the Istyar with a high-ranking courtier to my left. Servants bring platter after platter of delicious cuisine: roasted boar, braised venison, and something the Númenoreans call noodles - a dough of eggs and Eregion's hard wheat flour which is then shaped into flat strips and boiled. The red wine is excellent: dry, tart yet floral. It has been imported from the island, and it is served in a delicate crystal glass as fine as any in Ost-in-Edhil.
The Prince drinks copiously from a gold chalice ringed with jewels. The cupbearer, who serves the wine to him, is a beautiful youth. When the boy brings the third cup, the Prince stops him, and slowly strokes the boy's cheek then brings his hand down to rest against the boy's chest. The Prince dismisses the boy, but orders him to stop after he turns. The drunken Prince then boldly caresses the lad's buttocks.
Queasiness unsettles my full stomach as I observe this and other decadence. I will be inside that Man's head soon, and I dread what I will see. The Istyar, on the other hand, is in fine form. His headache seems to have disappeared as he trots out his sardonic wit and banters with the Prince. The courtier on my left has engaged me in conversation and asks me various things about Ost-in-Edhil, so I am distracted when I overhear my name. The next thing I know, the Istyar's hand is on my right thigh, stroking me, while he laughs and tells the Prince that I am "a good sport," or was it "good sport?" I tense but my master's familiar voice, speaking in my mind, reassured me: Relax, lad. It's only for effect. Be ready though.
Within seconds, the saber-shrills of my master's strange language course through my mind. I find myself in a human brain with its cascades of glistening particles flowing and then fitting into miniscule pits like keys in locks, which in turn trigger another cataract of sparks. The thoughts resolve into coherence.
I see the Prince's unbridled ambition that has been checked by his exile to Tharbad, something that he feels is an injustice of the worst kind. He hungers for more power and more control. He is completely self-centered, cunning and cruel. Although I remove myself from his dark ambitions - observing them analytically - what comes next is far more difficult just as the Istyar has warned me.
The faces of young women and girls contort with pain and terror while others are blank masks of abject resignation as their bodies and psyches are assaulted. The pale faces of young boys grimace with fright: terrible damage is inflicted upon them as the Prince compels them to suck on his tumescence and then buggers them. The Prince's heightened arousal derives from his victims' agony and fear. His lust for power is coupled to his bodily lust, and thus I am sickened by this man's motivations. The Istyar holds and guides me; his strange words reach into the depths of my brain, advising me to pay attention to every last detail, no matter how horrendous it is, and commit it to my memory.
We linger in the Prince's mind much longer than is usual for these studies. I perceive that my master wishes to gather as much information as we can. In the meantime, the outer shell of my mind remains functional, making small talk with the courtier on my left. The best I can manage are monosyllabic responses because my mental entanglement with the Istyar and the perverse mind of the Prince. My distraction is further compounded by the Istyar's distress, a highly unusual state, or at least one that I have not hitherto experienced on one of these excursions.
Then a strange and terrible thing happens. As we course through the Prince's mind, a singularity of absolute blackness appears. I am not sure of its origin, from the Prince's debased mind, I think. The tenebrous mote expands rapidly as the tentacles from a chthonic monstrosity ooze from a cage. The tentacles twist around the Prince's most perverted desires and caress them, triggering much worse possibilities. The stygian horror tempts him with grotesque aberrations, their depravity bleeding across the images.
The horror, its tentacles churning, whispers to him, Is this what you desire, or is it this?
The Prince, instead of being frightened by the writhing darkness, embraces it, offers himself to it.
Yes, that is what I desire and more.
Terror threatens to overwhelm me, and I lose my grip on the Istyar when his presence becomes tenuous. I sit paralyzed next to the Prince's toady while my outer shell of action and thought has shut down. The black vortex threatens to swallow me whole. All hope has vanished, and I find myself faced with the potential of my own death as my spirit begins to separate from my body. I cling to my master's essence only by a mental fingernail, ready to spin into the gaping maw, drawn into it like light never to escape. My fëa may become trapped in this Man's mind, but I don't care. Let the heart of darkness take me. I cannot hold on any longer.
Just as the last flicker of my life's light sputters, ready to be snuffed out, I sense a cold, detached presence. Fast and forceful, the syllables ring and glitter again, but they are not directed at me. I have no comprehension of what is said, but the tentacles of blackness quickly retreat, hissing as they disappear into a vault. As the cool presence pushes back the darkness, faint silver light returns. I feel the aura of my mentor again, but weakened. In an instant, our connection is severed, and I return to the material world.
The Istyar sits beside me, still chatting idly with the Prince and smiling, but he is pale. His hands grip the sides of his chair so tightly that his knuckles are white. Overcome with nausea, I leap up and run out of the hall. I find a door and lurch outside where I proceed to expel the entire contents of my stomach. I cannot stop retching, my eyes tearing from the pain as my stomach tries to turn itself inside out. Spasms rack my body. I am deeply cold as if the abject fear I experienced has not retreated but has become entangled in the core of my being.
I am not sure how long I am bent over, heaving out my guts, trying to dislodge the malignancy embedded in my mind. A familiar arm, strong and reassuring, drapes across my back.
"Sámaril. You're safe. You will be all right. Listen to me."
My mentor proceeds to soothe me as if I were a little boy, a baby. Warmth returns to my body, the fear retreats, and my stomach's spasms finally cease. I stumble, leaning against him as he guides me back to my room. After sliding out of my robes, which I drop carelessly to the floor, I fall into the bed. The Istyar covers me with blankets, assuring that I remain warm. He tells me he will be back shortly, and that he will bring back something for me to drink since I must get fluids back into my system.
He returns with a hot aromatic tea with a sharp yet sweet, biting flavor. "Ginger tea. They brought it from Númenor. It's an anti-emetic, that is, it settles the stomach. Drink it slowly or you'll bring it all back up."
I slowly sip the tea as he sits on the bed beside me. I say nothing of what happened. I do not want to dredge up the experience, but the Istyar brings it to the fore.
"I am sorry you had to experience that, Sámaril. As I warned you, the Prince has most disordered thought processes."
Finishing my tea, I lie back in the bed, exhausted and still sick. The Istyar strokes my forehead, pushing my hair off my forehead in a practiced, paternal manner. He sings softly, his beautiful voice weaving together images of a violet sky ablaze with strange stars that shine over a wine-dark sea. I fall into a dreamless sleep.
I awake late the next day, and although still weak from the bout of vomiting, I am better. While I relieve myself in the lavatory shared between the two rooms, I note the precisely folded but damp towels, indicating that the Istyar is already up and bathed. Lacking the energy to wash and dress, I return to bed and lounge, reading for a while.
The door of other room opens and smacks shut, and shortly thereafter, the Istyar bursts into my room through the interior door, not bothering to knock, but that's nothing unexpected. The fresh scent of charged air fills the room. He's in good spirits and dressed for riding. I find myself hoping that he is prepared to depart this stolid city with its rotted core of decadence.
"How are you this afternoon, lad? The color's back in your face, so I assume you've recovered."
"Much better, sir. I'm still feeling a little drained, but I expect if I have something to eat, I'll be fine."
"Then get yourself something to eat and drink and be quick about it. The servants are still in the kitchen and can find food for you. Then dress for riding. We will accompany the Prince and his entourage on a hunt at dusk. This will afford us another opportunity to examine him as well as his courtiers."
My heart sinks. The last thing I want to do is spend more time with this abominable specimen of Númenórean royalty. Aghast at the prospect, I speak up.
"Sir, I do not think I can do this. My experience with the Prince last night was terrible, and I fear a repeat of it if I go with you into his mind again."
The Istyar responds coolly, "Sámaril, this is not an option. We must gather as much data on this Man as possible. You also need to round out your overall understanding of Men by examination of his courtiers.
"You do understand that this is required for your advancement to master smith, do you not? I have been studying him for some years now, but it is you who will forge a ring for him. If we are to work together on this, you must fully comprehend the Prince's nature. If it's any consolation, the Prince will not be into his drink as he was last night, which may mitigate some of the worst of what you observed. Now get out of bed and prepare yourself."
Later, as the sun creeps to the horizon, I meet my mentor and the rest of the party at the stables. We ride out of the city into the denuded landscape of Mirhiriath where the Númenóreans have laid waste to the old growth forests. It is a depressing sight, even for a Noldo who is less enamored of the woodlands than the Sindar and Silvans. Even if we cut the trees from the groves of Eregion for woodworking and to fuel the furnaces in the House of the Mírëtanor, it is in a controlled manner. Our foresters plant saplings to renew the woods. Not so here. In addition to the wanton destruction of a resource, the Númenóreans have earned the enmity of the indigenous tribes of Men who lived in these forests.
We hunt for boar, which live amongst the scrub that now grows where the trees once stood. I ride with the lesser courtiers toward the back of the hunting party while the Istyar is at the fore with the Prince. Distance means little when my master yanks me into the entourage's thoughts, and we leap from Man to Man. Through my observations, I perceive what is of paramount importance among these Men of nobility as opposed to the common people. The need for power suffuses the courtiers' motives. They hunger for wealth and command of others, much like the Prince.
My master pulled me again into Prince's brain, and I cleave to Aulendil as we careen through the Man's active thoughts. Fortunately, the Istyar's assessment was correct: the lack of alcohol keeps the worst from being so obvious although I can still detect ghastly images churning below the surface.
The desire for power is ever at the forefront of the Prince's mind with mundane flickers of thought at the periphery: this shirt itches; I should examine the ledgers tomorrow. The most prominent theme I see today is the thrill of the hunt, an arousal that builds in the Prince, eventually driving away his mind's trivial concerns. The hounds corner a boar. When the Prince spears the beast, his bloodlust is so intense that it makes him erect. Even if I find the response repulsive, the writhing black tentacles of the Prince's mind are absent, so I can bear this. My master releases me at last. I am so exhausted that I am lucky not to fall off my horse.
Upon returning, I fling myself onto the bed, fully clothed and boots still on, and sleep for a while, then awake and bathe and dress for the evening. The air of decadence at the late meal is just as evident as it was the previous night with a number of young boys acting as servants to the Prince and his entourage. The boys are thrilled to be a part of this lofty company. They have yet to suffer at the hands of the Prince and a few of his sycophants who actively engage in the same perversions as their lord. The Istyar already informed me that we would not be taking any deep mental dives this evening, so I am spared that at least.
We ride out of the city at dawn the next morning. My master is more than ready to depart.
"By Námo's cold bone, we can't get away from this wretched city fast enough!"
But the Istyar stops his horse and looks back at the docks, the market, and the wood and earthen walls of the fortification with its towers at its corners. His mithril gaze is sharp and calculating.
"The Prince will get what he desires and deserves."
He laughs, neither with sardonic humor nor with avuncular indulgence, but with a chill that sets my teeth on edge and raises the hairs on the back of my neck. He then flicks the reins on Mori's headstall after we have passed over the bridge, and the stallion springs forward. My bay needs little encouragement to follow. We gallop away from Tharbad and fly toward the Ford of the Glanduin.
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.