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Akallabeth in August
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Now he learned that the kings of Númenor had increased in power and splendour, and he hated them the more; and he feared them, lest they should invade his lands and wrest from him the dominion of the East.

Into This Wild Abyss: The Talisman by Pandemonium_213

Iron hands locked on his thin wrists, yanking his own small hands away from his eyes. His uncle’s hot breath, stinking of hunger, burned his cheek.

“You must watch this, Shual! You must know what it means to be a leader of our people.”

The boy whimpered, squeezing his eyes shut but his uncle cuffed his head with the flat of his rough hand. “Open your eyes and look, little fool!” So he did, staring at his grandfather who loomed above the flat stone where his son -- Shual’s father –- lay, the man’s chest rising and falling with shallow breaths, waiting to be joined with the sky-father who had turned away from them.

The spring rains no longer came. Crops withered in the fields, the flock of sheep had thinned to a few pathetic animals, the chickens were ragged and only two goats were left. Mothers’ milk dried up in their breasts, and babies starved. Little children were listless, some near death. Shual’s little brother, Yaniv, no longer rose from his pallet; Shual’s belly had stopped growling, and he often felt too tired to move.

The desperate villagers cursed the sea-kings who had landed upon these shores, bearing hope and promise, but in the end, had driven the ancestors of the villagers from their homes along the fertile coastal lands and into the harsh desert. They cursed those who lived in the great city by the sea, those who extracted taxes from the peoples of the land, but gave little in return. The villagers decided they must do something to appease the sky-father. So they sacrificed chickens and doves. Then a ewe. But the sky-father did not heed their pleas. The sun beat down on them, burning the land. A greater sacrifice was needed.

Grandfather chanted prayers of supplication to the cruel blue sky, beseeching the sky-father. Then he raised the knife, and swift as an adder, he plunged it into his son’s heart. Shual watched his father’s body jerk, and he died before his eyes, the stone darkening with blood. He wanted to run away, but Uncle’s hands held him fast.

The women keened, but his mother was not among them. Somewhere out in the desert, jackals and vultures tore at her battered body, stoned to death for her transgression of lying with another man whose corpse also fed scavengers. “She is a whore!” the villagers had cried. They had stoned her and the man who had lain with her.

Now his father also lay dead, sacrificed by his own sire to appease the sky-father, but also to rid Grandfather of the shame his own son had brought upon the family, found out when he had confessed the thing he had done that had turned his wife from him. Shual did not know what his father's crime was, but he knew it was terrible. Two young men of the village and his mother and father were now dead because of it.

Another woman’s voice rose above the others, but she did not wail. She cursed. The old priestess of the earth-mother, clad in robes the color of clay, shuffled forward.

“You have murdered your own son, you jackal! You will pay for this!” she croaked at Grandfather. She raked her dark eyes over the crowd gathered around the stone of sacrifice and pointed her bony finger in accusation at them. “You will all pay for this!”

“Be gone, hag!” Grandfather cried, his white beard jutting. He swept his arm toward her, the sleeve of his robe stained with his son’s blood. “Stone her!”

Some grabbed stones, but none threw them at the old priestess. They mocked her, they kicked dust at her, but none dared harm her, for she belonged to the earth-mother, and they feared to anger that goddess. Bad enough that the sky-father had deserted them, denying them rain. To anger the goddess would only hasten their deaths.

The old priestess spat on the seared soil, gathered her robes, and walked into the desert. No one saw her again.

For six days after the sacrifice, they scanned the horizon, looking for a dark line of clouds that might bring rain, but still the sky-father ignored them. On the seventh day, when they looked to the horizon, they saw a small black speck emerging from the false lake that rippled across the parched land. The villagers gathered, watching the black speck approach. It became a man swaying upon a brown camel, an unremarkable beast except for its strange dead eyes. The beast eased itself to its knees, allowing its rider to slide off with a panther’s grace. The tall man was robed in black against the hot sun, but when he drew the protecting veil away from his face, the crowd gathered in the heart of the village gasped for the man’s pale silver eyes burned with the stabbing light of stars.

Grandfather bent to the ground in supplication.

“You are one of the nephilim. Please, I beg of you! Do not harm us!”

“Get up, old man,” replied the tall one, who had unwound the cloth that bound his head to reveal dark hair that reflected the sunlight like steel. He tucked a long-fingered hand under Grandfather’s arm and helped him to his feet. “I will not harm you or your people.”

Grandfather kept his eyes lowered against the stars in the man’s piercing eyes, beautiful stars that fascinated Shual. “We sacrificed to the sky-father seven days ago,” said Grandfather. “Are you a servant of the sky-father?”

“No. I am the servant of another god, a more powerful god than he. If you allow me to help you, I will teach you about him.”

“Who are you?” asked Grandfather.

“I have many names, but you may call me Shai.”

The first thing Shai did was to pace through village, past the dry well, and to a rise of land just outside the withered olive grove. He halted and pointed at the stone and dust beneath his booted feet.

“We will dig a new well here,” he declared.

The villagers were skeptical, but Shai asked for a pick ax and a shovel and stripped off his robes until he was clad only in cloth wrapped around his hips and through his legs. He swung the ax, his muscles bunching beneath pale skin, and struck the hard soil with such force that sparks flew from the metal of the ax. Grandfather, Uncle and the other men gathered their tools and joined him.

When Shai finished his first day of work digging the well, he then blessed what little stores of food the village had left. Overnight, the grain was richer, the chickens began laying eggs again, and the sheep became fatter. He laid his hands upon two dead trees: a fig and an olive, and the next day, they spouted new leaves and fruits. With the grain, the women made thick flat bread; they picked figs and olives; the children gathered eggs. The men ate these and swiftly gained strength to dig the new well. Babies no longer cried piteously, and Shual and Yaniv now had food in their bowls.

After six days, Shai and the other men could no longer be seen for they now dug deep in the earth, descending on a ladder to the bottom of the shaft at dawn and only coming back up at dusk. The other men pulled up heavy baskets of dirt and stone, which were dumped on an ever-increasing pile nearby. Just as the sun dipped to the horizon on the sixth day, water shot out of the new well. Shai climbed up the ladder and emerged from the deep well, his face and body caked with mud but his smile radiant. Shual, Yaniv and the other children danced about in the fountain of water, and women brought their urns, singing songs of thanks to the sky-father and the earth-mother. Shai frowned at that and said:

“You must learn new songs, for it was the Giver of Freedom who brought the water to you, not the sky-father or earth-mother.”

Sheepishly, the women nodded. “Will you teach us these songs, Shai?” the women asked. And he smiled while he laved his body with clear water, telling them he would do so.

Shai and the village smith set to work on a strange contraption that looked like a large wheel. The village potter was also busy at his kiln, making pipes of clay. Shual heard Uncle and Grandfather talking about these things: Shai, the smith, the potter and their helpers were making something that would bring water from the deep well to the fields so crops could be watered.

After the potter had completed crafting clay pipes, now stacked high near the dry fields, Shai told the villagers that they must remain inside their homes from sunset to sunrise for seven nights. Should any of them venture outside, he said, the consequences would be dire. He did not say what these consequences were, but because he was of the nephilim, they obeyed him.

On each of those nights, Shual heard shuffling, clanking and the sounds of earth moving. Harsh voices called out in the night…human, but not quite. The voices made Shual and his little brother afraid. Shual wrapped his arms around Yaniv when he cried, and they both buried their heads beneath the stifling blankets. Every morning, the stacks of pipes were smaller and fresh earth lay upturned in the fields where the pipes had been buried. Many footprints pocked the soil. A strong odor hung in the air on these mornings, like the scent of men’s sweat, but wilder. After seven nights, the clay pipes had disappeared, all buried beneath the soil. The strange voices and odors were gone, too. Shai told the villagers they could venture outside at night again. Shual was glad because he could now sleep in the cool night air on the rooftop of Grandfather’s home.

Shual and the other children played in the dust, now that their energy returned. Once, when Shual was jumping up and down with outstretched fingers trying to reach the ripe grapes of the arbor that hung above his head, strong hands circled his small waist and lifted him. He twisted his head around to see Shai smiling at him.

“So the little fox wants some grapes?”

Shual nodded, a little frightened, but the stars in Shai’s eyes were kindly and softened, Shual thought, by a deep sadness. Shai lifted him so he could pluck the ripe fruit from the vine and pop the grapes into his greedy mouth.

Often, Shual sneaked into the smithy to watch Shai, entranced by the nephil's beautiful voice that sang in a strange language and by his swift clever hands, which bore a simple gold ring on each forefinger. One day, Shai looked up from his work and noticed him.

“Come here, lad,” he called. Shual was frightened, but his feet moved as if they had their own minds. Shai squatted back on his heels, pinning Shual with the sharp stars in those grey eyes.

“Ah! Here is my little fox!” Shai smiled, his teeth even and white against his golden-brown skin, now tanned by the sun. “Come with me.” Shai rose, and Shual followed the nephil to a bench where they sat side-by-side.

Out of a wide-mouthed jar by the bench, Shai scooped a handful of wet red clay and began to fashion something out of it. While Shual watched, a small desert fox, curled around itself with its big ears pressed against its head, formed in Shai’s hands. Then the nephil wrapped both hands around the clay fox, and closed his glittering eyes, furrowing his dark brows in concentration. When he opened his eyes and his hands, the little fox lay there dark red and shining, as if it had been glazed and placed in the kiln. Shai rose from the bench, extracted a thong of leather from a basket sitting near the door of the smithy, and threaded it through a small hole near the fox’s curved back. Shai knelt before Shual who still sat on the bench.

“Shual, I believe you will become a strong leader of your people, but you will need to be as clever as the desert fox to do so. This talisman is my gift to you. I want you to have this because I may desire something from you in return some day. Will you remember that?”

Shual nodded enthusiastically, fingering the little fox that now hung around his neck. Although he was elated that Shai had favored him, he shivered when he touched the fox. Something was not right about it. Shai saw Shual’s fear, and wrapped his large hand around the back of the boy’s head in a gesture of comfort, but when the nephil touched Shual, something stirred deep in the little boy’s mind, something dark, that scuttled into shadows when the boy tried to look at it and see what it was.

The sky-father remained aloof, but the villagers were less worried and now had hope, brought to them by Shai, the emissary of the god who dwelt beneath the shadows of high mountains and in the darkness between the stars. While he worked on the well, Shai taught them about this god, the Giver of Freedom, in the candlelight of their homes at night and under the shade of the fig tree in the daytime.

One morning, two white oxen with large brown eyes were found tied to a stake by the well. Later on the same day, the oxen were hitched to the long shaft that connected to gears and other devices that formed the pump of the well. When the beasts turned, so did the gears. Water was brought to the surface, pumped to a pool where a wheel turned, dipping up the water and sending it to a channel that led to the buried pipes. The villagers ran out to the fields to watch the soil darken with water between the rows of seeds they had planted. Within a few days, the seeds sprouted.

The villagers slaughtered a lamb and roasted it for the feast in Shai’s honor. They even had wine to drink. That had appeared in two large clay urns by the well one morning at dawn. Footprints surrounded the urns, and the feral smell lingered in the air.

On the night of the feast, long after most had gone to sleep, their bellies full of food and wine, Shai and Grandfather remained awake and spoke long into the night on the rooftop under the heavens filled with thousands of stars. Shual opened his eyes to slits to watch them, their faces lit by a single lantern, and listened to their low voices.

“I will leave tomorrow at dawn,” said Shai. “But I will tell you this now. You must make offerings to the Giver of Freedom if you wish the well to flow and for your crops to flourish.”

“The white doves are plentiful and the ewes now birth many lambs. We shall offer the best of these to the Giver of Freedom,” Grandfather said, his gravelly voice confident.

“That is good, but doves and lambs are not enough, my friend,” said Shai. “The Giver of Freedom demands the greatest sacrifice.”

Grandfather did not answer quickly. After some silence, he answered, his voice hoarse, “I cannot do this…”

Shai’s calm tone changed abruptly to that of anger. “Old fool! Do you think I do not know that you have wetted your blade on a man before? Your own son? The Giver of Freedom desires the blood of men!”

Grandfather pulled at his sparse hair. “I cannot offer another of my own family!”

Shai’s voice became measured and reasonable again. “That is not required. You already wasted your son’s life. You killed a man with strong arms and a strong back because he wished to lie with a man instead of his wife, a man who could still plow or wield a sword. Your son’s wife could still have given birth to children by her lover and claimed your son as her sons’ father, and you would have had yet more grandchildren to become warriors and farmers. But had they spoken against the Giver of Freedom, your knife should meet their hearts, even if they are your own family. The Giver of Freedom does not brook rebellion and thirsts for the blood of traitors. Therefore, you will sacrifice those who speak against the Giver of Freedom and thus betray your people. You must be wary for betrayal is all around you. But know this: fail in your sacrifice and your village will fail.”

Then Shai turned and looked right at Shual lying still in the dark, and Shual had a brief vision of two fiery eyes like that of a cat staring at him. The secret thing in the boy’s mind clicked and twitched, like a scorpion caught in the light, before it scuttled back into hiding.

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They rode out of the desert: three figures wrapped in black robes, their faces covered against the drifting sand. The chieftain with the grizzled beard fingered the hilt of his knife while he watched them approach his village.

Two of the men kicked their mounts inexpertly, so that the camels groaned, recalcitrant to bend to their knees. But the man in the middle –- the tallest man -– neither kicked nor whipped his beast. He merely spoke a string of jagged words that made the camel’s eyes glaze over and sent a cold spear of fright down the chieftain’s spine. Once the camel knelt, the tall man slid off the beast. His boots ground against rock and sand as he walked toward the chieftain and his men. He halted before the chieftain.

The man pulled the veil away from his face, which had not aged from their last meeting even though the chieftain now had much silver in his hair and beard and deep lines in his face. Shai’s silver eyes gazed at him, but a consuming fire had replaced their stars. The chieftain’s guts twisted with the nausea of fear.

Shai’s two companions hung back. In spite of the heat, a chill lingered in the air near them. When a youth came forward with a jug of water, Shai took it, the gold rings on either forefinger gleaming in the sunlight, and drank long. One of the men in black robes reached out toward the jug with a thin white hand that was translucent like alabaster. Shai slapped his man’s hand away; the man hissed like a snake but retreated.

Shai returned the jar to the youth and said, “They do not require water.” He moved closer to the chieftain.

Shai reached forward and caught the leather thong around the chieftain’s neck between his middle finger and forefinger. He drew out the talisman from beneath the chieftain’s robes. He cupped the little fox in his hand, and his eyes drew the chieftain’s into their fiery depths.

“You disappoint me, Shual,” lamented Shai. “I gave you so much: your well, the pump, and the irrigation channels. I made your parched land bloom. Now you ask me for yet more -- for more weapons so that you may take back the lands that the sea-kings and the usurpers from Umbar stole from your people. Yet you have not sacrificed to the Giver of Freedom.” Shai enclosed the talisman completely in his fist, pulling against the leather thong so that it dug into the skin on the back of Shual’s neck.

“But no one speaks against the Giver of Freedom, Lord Shai.”

The nephil’s eyes bored into him. “No one?” Shai whispered, still grasping the little fox.

Before he could stop them, Shual’s eyes flicked toward Yaniv. Just as quickly, they returned to Shai’s face, so close to his own. Yaniv had protested the sacrifices to the Giver of Freedom, proclaiming them to be a vile punishment even against enemies. Shual, who had plunged the knife into his traitorous uncle’s heart after Grandfather had died, at last had listened to Yaniv, his beloved brother and comrade-in-arms. There had been no sacrifice for two years. Now Shai knew. The nephil smiled, but the expression on his handsome face was cruel and cold.

“You know what you must do as the leader of your people,” Shai said. “Do this and I will supply you with weapons to fight against the sea-kings and the thieves of Umbar. I will make you into one of my great warlords. But remember what I demand in return.”

Shai opened his fist that held the little fox, which now glowed like a coal, and with a snake’s strike, he grabbed the side of Shual’s head with his free hand and with the other pressed the fox against Shual’s cheek. Shual choked back a scream when the searing hot talisman scorched his flesh. Tears rolled down his face. Then Shai released him. The thing in Shual’s mind reared back, arching its black curved tail and clicking its pincers.

Shual’s eyes swiveled to where Yaniv stood speaking in hushed tones to a cluster of men near the well, its once abundant water low. Shual stroked the hilt of his knife as tenderly as he would a child’s face.

Yes, thought Shual. I know what I must do.

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End Notes:

Taking a cue from Tolkien who substituted names from known languages of our primary world for the Shire (Sûza) and its inhabitants, e.g. Samwise Gamgee (Banazir Galbasi) and Frodo Baggins (Maura Labingi), I have used Hebrew names for the characters in “The Talisman” as a translation of what might be a Haradric dialect of Adûnaic. I have not used any familiar name for the canon character of this piece, but I hope it is obvious, i.e., “Shai” as related to “Annatar,” without my having to spell out S-a-u-r-o-n. Giver of Freedom is a canonical title for Melkor (see “Akallbêth,” The Silmarillion).

Shual (Heb.) = fox

Yaniv (Heb.) = “he will bear fruit”

Shai (Heb.) = present, gift, offering.

Nephilim (Heb.); singular speculated to be nephil = a race of "human but more so" beings, fallen angels, etc. referred in the books of Genesis and Numbers as the sons of God who mated with mortal women. I have used this as an approximation of what Shai's form (still the same as he was in the Eregion of the Pandë!verse where literal shape-shifting is not so facile although the illusion of it is) appears to be: Firstborn, that is, human but Other.

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