9. Studies in Confidence
We enter the gates of Tharbad in the late afternoon. The Istyar looks at the sky and makes a suggestion.
"What do you say to dropping by the inn for a pint or two before we go to the Prince's residence? I daresay we could both use a drink before we face that experience."
"That's fine with me, sir," I reply, silently relieved that the prospect of ale will delay our arrival at the Lord of Tharbad's headquarters. The Istyar's description of the Prince's perversions has rattled me. I'm increasingly nervous as I contemplate the Istyar's plans: deep probing of this Man's disturbed mind with me in tow. I had hoped that we would stop at the inn during this visit to Tharbad, so sooner is better than later, even if it just puts off the inevitable.
My sense of dread lifts when we arrive at the comforting familiarity of the inn. The groom happily takes our horses. Even Mori snorts amiably at the boy. The Istyar tells him to leave the tack on since we will only be here shortly, but that the horses would appreciate water and some hay. The groom, gloating over the small yellow citrine that the Istyar gives him, leads the horses away, chirruping their names as if they are his old friends.
Zadanu pops up from behind the front desk. Evidently, he has been sitting idly during a lull in his usually busy day. He greets us amiably.
"What a pleasure to see you again, Lord Annatar, Master Sámaril! I have a fine room available in a quiet corner upstairs."
"Thank you, Zadanu. I regret to say that we will not staying here this evening as we have obligations with the Prince. We're just stopping by for your fine ale."
"No need to apologize, Lord Annatar," Zadanu smiles, trying to hide the disappointment that we will not rent a room. "We are grateful for any of your business."
With that bit of obsequiousness out of the way, we remove to the common room where about a dozen Men are seated, taking long drinks of ale. From the strands of conversation I overhear, I deduce that the Men - apparently all merchants - are discharging their frustrations and triumphs from the day's business. Nîlozimra nods with a smile at us as we seat ourselves in the middle of the large room. She doesn't even ask, just draws two tankards of ale from the cask.
"My lords, it is good to see you. Shall I get you some bread and cheese? You're here a bit early for the evening meal."
"No, thank you, Nîlozimra. Sámaril and I are just here for the ale. My business is with the Prince during this trip. Another time though."
"Certainly, my Lord Annatar. You are always welcome here." Then she's off to another table.
The kitchen door opens, and Zirânphel enters the common room, carrying a tray laden with plates. She is a young woman now, growing up faster than my little sister. She sees me, smiles but hustles off to a table to discharge her burden. We have become friends over the past several years as my fellows and I make frequent excursions to Tharbad and stay at the inn. She no longer fears us -- the apprentices and journeymen -- although she remains circumspect with the Istyar. Yet she still lacks confidence, and all too often derides herself.
After we finish the ale and settle up with Nîlozimra, I tell the Istyar I will be along in a minute. He looks at me quizzically and tells me he will wait but not to take too long.
I enter the kitchen and find Zirânphel. I ask if she might speak with me outside. We step out into narrow alleyway and the soft evening air.
"Is something wrong, Sámaril? I am sorry that I didn't bring you the ale earlier, but..."
"No, nothing's wrong at all. I have a gift for you." I reach into my pocket and pull out a simple silver ring with a blue topaz set in it, the ring that I made for her just before the Istyar and I departed from Ost-in-Edhil.
"Here, I made this especially for you, Zirânphel." I take her right hand and slip the ring on her fourth finger, the cantëa.
Her hazel eyes widen as she looks at the ring then back at me.
"What a beautiful ring, Sámaril! But I can't possibly accept this."
"Why not? I made one for my sister, and so I made one for you. She is most grateful for hers. You should see her hair now!"
"Her hair? What about her hair?"
"After I gave her the ring, her hair became lustrous, just as she always desired."
"Is this a magic ring then?"
"If you wish to call it so, yes, it is. This ring will let you know that you are worthy, Zirânphel, my sister among Men." I lift her hand and kiss it, as I have seen the Istyar do graciously to women of both kindred. "I'd better go, or the Istyar will have my skin."
"Thank you, Sámaril. Please tell your sister 'thank you' as well since she inspired you to think of me."
She beams and admires the ring, holding out her hand to let the topaz catch the light streaming out of the window. She reaches out to me, and I hug her. She gives me an affectionate peck on the cheek.
"I may have lost a brother," she says, gently smiling, "but I have gained a friend."
At the arched entryway of the inn's stable, I find the Istyar holding the reins of the horses and crooning to both of them. My bay nibbles on a chunk of apple that my master has offered as a treat.
"Ah, there you are! That didn't take long," he says, sounding pleased that I have not inconvenienced him with tardiness.
"I just wanted to speak to Zirânphel. Thanks for waiting, sir."
"You spoke with Zirânphel? I thought you young men had all sorts of taboos against consorting with mere mortal women."
"No, sir, it's nothing like that. I don't know. Ever since I met her when she was a girl, I've felt affection for her, not unlike my own sister." This is not entirely true, but I cannot safely acknowledge anything more. I reinforce my feelings by continuing, "It's clear her feelings for me are the same. I don't think all mortal women are bowled over by Elvish fairness, sir."
He laughs at that. "I think you're right there. It's that overweening Elvish sense of entitlement that makes many of our menfolk think mortal women should throw themselves at their feet, yet Elven men will not deign to have much to do with these women." He snorts in derision. "Great Yavanna, and you're the same damn species. I don't know if I will ever fully understand your cultural oddities. Well, Sámaril, you at least have some humility, although perhaps not concerning your intellect." He smirks since he knows that I swagger among my peers. "Zirânphel seems a decent sort even if she is so insecure about herself."
"I hope that the ring I gave to her will help with that."
In an instant, his iron-hard hand grips the collar of my tunic, and he pulls me up so that my eyes are only centimeters from his, now enflamed with silver fury.
"You gave a ring to her?" he hisses. His breath is as hot as steam on my face and does not carry the wet grainy scent of ale, but instead the scalding fumes of molten-fired cataracts. A pulsating headache begins to close viselike around my skull.
"Y-yes, I made a ring for her," I stammer. "A benign one, as you said, Istyar. All I did was cast thoughts of confidence into it."
"That was idiotic, Sámaril!" he snaps, pulling harder at my collar, which now tightens against my throat. "The project is to be discussed only among the Otornassë Mírëtanoron - no one else!"
The vise around my skull clenches tighter yet. Grimacing, I squeeze my eyes shut and stifle a moan. Then he releases me and pushes me away. I stumble and gasp, my hand against my throat where the skin has been rubbed raw by the force of his grip. Every instinct tells me to flee, but then the Istyar sighs in resignation. My rapid heartbeat slows, and the excruciating headache disappears as abruptly as the change in my master's demeanor.
"Well, there's not much to be done about it now," he says. His disappointment in me is abundantly clear in his tone, if not his exact words. "It would be crass to take it back from her.
"Sámaril, lad, you must realize that the effects of the rings are different for the Firstborn than for the Followers. I know that I often emphasize the similarities between Elves and Men, but our psychology diverges in profound ways. A ring that has a benign effect on an Elf will have a much more powerful - even detrimental - one on a Man. This is why Istyar Tyelperinquar and I specified that the practice rings are to go to our people only. Let's hope that this ring causes no problems for Nîlozimra's daughter. I'd hate to offend Nîlozimra and Zadanu and forego that ale."