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Akallabeth in August
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Yet they achieved only the art of preserving incorrupt the dead flesh of Men, and they filled all the land with silent tombs in which the thought of death was enshrined in the darkness.

The Embalmer's Apprentice: Chapter One by Lyra

My story begins on the day that I thought my life was over. Strange: These days my age makes me forget whom I met yesterday, or what I had for breakfast this very morning, but that day I still remember clearly. Fear, I think, has etched it into my memory.

That day I was waiting for my death; and I was afraid.

I did not want to die. More importantly I did not want to die then. I was young – my life had barely begun. I had been married for a mere year, and my wife was expecting our first child. I challenge any man to look at death with a calm mind under such circumstances – I challenge any man not to be afraid.

Still they called me a coward, the guards, and my so-called friends who had brought me there in the first place had called me a coward, too. They were dead already. Narakôr had been executed two days ago, and Lôbar had died the other day; and I was waiting, terrified, for the guards to come for me.

It was all Narakôr's fault, though the idea had been Lôbar's. I had only followed them. I had told the guards so, right from the beginning – I had admitted everything forthright; they really needn't have beaten me. They still did, and called me a coward and a weakling when I did not resist, when I pleaded for them to spare me. And maybe I was weak and cowardly – but why should I have shown futile bravery to earn myself more lashes yet? It was all Narakôr's fault anyway. It was Lôbar's plan. Why should I suffer for them? The guards, had they been in my place, would surely have acted no different. Yet they thought themselves better than I – thought even Lôbar and Narakôr better – and had punished me as much as them, though my part in the crime was so much less. And now the other two were dead, and my time must be close at hand.

I wondered whether my death would be quick and quiet, or drawn out in public. I could not decide which option scared me more. I wondered whether my wife would come to my execution, if it were public. I half hoped that she would; at least I would see her one last time, and could tell her that she had been right. She had not wanted me to go with Lôbar. I remembered our parting in the dusk, her eyes glinting, her lips pursed in anger, her hands folded across her chest, resting on her swollen belly. "Why can you not be content with what we have?" she had said, quietly. "Why can you not trust that we will prosper lawfully? Why must you endanger yourself?"

"Lôbar has done this a dozen times," I had replied. "There is no danger. The owner of the house is a Venturer, and out at sea. He will not be back for months. And we will not take much. He will not even notice that we were there." And I told her what Lôbar had told me: "Is it not unjust that one man has more wealth than he needs, and is at sea half the time with his wealth unattended, while we are poor and always will be?"

"It may be unjust," Amraphel said, "but stealing from another is unjust as well, whether he needs his wealth or not."

I could make no answer, for of course she was right. I could only reiterate what Lôbar had said: We would not take much – the theft would likely go unnoticed, for months if not forever.

"That makes it no more just."

"I will do it just this once," I had said. And, "I am doing this for you." And that was true. I loved my wife dearly, and wanted her to lead the comfortable life she had led with her family, not one of ceaseless hard work for little gain. She should not have married me in the first place, I knew. Her family had certainly disapproved, and indeed her father refused to support her after the wedding. Yet she loved me. I wanted to show her father that I could very well support her myself, that I could offer her as much as he. I would never achieve that by my usual trade, which was none in particular – I was a day-taler in the market. We never exactly starved, but we never had more than just enough for one day, either.

Lôbar und Narakôr, too, had been day-talers, but Lôbar had managed to start a business, importing wool from Êmarâi1. He had simply been lucky, I had thought, but he had told me the secret of his good fortune: Sailors and warriors never took all their money on their journey. Most of their wealth they hid in their houses. Then when they were away Lôbar found a way to enter their empty house, and he – or later, he and Narakôr – went in, and took some coins or some jewels. It was easy, Lôbar said. There was practically no harm done, for he only stole from the rich. They did no damage to the house. Hardly anyone noticed.

Of course, now that I knew he would have to make sure that I would keep my mouth shut, he said. I offered an oath, which he declined; instead he asked whether I would not come along when next he broke into a house. He had one in view already, a rich Venturer's home. If Lôbar's business took off, that would be the last time he had to do this, he said. And surely I could use a little silver, or some jewels for the wife?

Of course I could, and the way he had described it, it had sounded very simple and, well, harmless. So why not? It could only help my prospects.

Except that it had gone terribly wrong. The house was not wholly unattended. The groundkeeper, who should by rights have been sleeping in his own small house, across the court, hearing nothing, had been alerted somehow; and when he came in on us, Narakôr had struck him down. He had not stopped there. Suddenly instead of no harm done and no trace left there was a dead body, and the expensive carpet soaked with blood. I admit that I screamed like a child, and yelled at Narakôr to stop, which was a foolish thing to do, at night in a strange house. Lôbar and Narakôr told me that it was my crying that alerted the guards, but I think the groundkeeper may just as well have sent a runner before he ventured into the house himself.

Either way, we were arrested and questioned and imprisoned; and nobody cared that only Narakôr was the murderer, and that I'd had no part even in the planning. I had told the guards the whole story, and they had laughed at me; I had pleaded for my life, and they had spat in my face and called me a coward.

I shifted unhappily. It was dark in the cell, for they had given me no light. Perhaps it was better that way. I did not want to see my surroundings too closely. I had seen enough of them when they had brought me here, and I could feel the dank straw and smell the refuse in which I sat. Nor did I want to see what I looked like – bruised, even bleeding in places, from the feel of it. I tried to sit a little less uncomfortably, which seemed impossible; I shivered, and I waited. I tried to judge the passing time by counting my heartbeats, but I lost track eventually. I could not tell whether it was one hour or several until I heard the familiar scraping of keys in the lock.

Four guards came in. Two carried torches that allowed me to see the low stone ceiling and the straw-covered floor. Two more had their swords drawn, and one of them also had iron shackles with him. Quite unnecessary, I thought; they should know that I could not fight them. I had tried to struggle against them when we had been arrested, and they had overwhelmed me easily using only their fists. Now I was cold and hungry and terrified and aching all over, and even less fit for a fight than I had been that night. I would not struggle. Instead I curled up and started to weep, though not of my volition. I did not want to show them how afraid I was. It just burst out of me, like a sneeze.

"Now look at that pathetic little rat," one of the torchbearers said. "Bitten more than it can eat, and now it can't take the consequences." His words stung, and I sobbed violently. He spat out, though thankfully only at the ground, not at me. "Get up, rat," he said, and I scrambled to obey – they kicked you in the ribs when you did not get up fast enough – and got to my feet, shakily. I still could not stop crying.

"Give me your hands," said the one who held the shackles. His voice was kinder than that of his colleague, though he looked no less disgusted. And I was a disgusting sight, I was certain. I could smell sweat and blood and excrement, and my face must be blotched from crying and bruised from their fists. I tried to take a few steadying breaths, but they turned into high-pitched sobs. I clenched my eyes shut and held out my arms. They were trembling.

"Oh, for Eru's sake2," the soldier said while he cuffed my hands. "At least try to behave like a man."

"I do," I sobbed.

"Try harder," he said. "The King wants to see you," and they all laughed. I did not see the joke.

"Perhaps we should clean him up a bit," the other torchbearer spoke up.

"You clean him up, if you want to," the first torchbearer spoke. "I'm not going to touch that thing."

"I am no thing," I protested. My voice sounded annoyingly whiny, but the guard who had told me to behave like a man still said, "There, that's better." The others laughed again.

"Well, no time for that, anyway. Don't keep him waiting," the fourth man said; and already they were half-dragging, half-pushing me out of the cell.

There were two more guards waiting outside, so I had an escort of six men while they marched me through the dark corridor. Even in my despair I couldn't help thinking how absurd that was. I was no match even for one of them; six was certainly overdoing it. I was half-blind with tears. I wish I could have wiped my eyes, but as they dragged me by the chain linking the shackles, my hands weren't mine to command. I tried to wipe my face on my shoulder, and promptly stumbled, causing the torchbearer on my left to snort with disdain. I would have liked to make a scathing remark about how easy it was to look down at a man who had not slept or eaten properly in three days, and how he was as pathetic as I if he believed himself stronger for that reason. But I did not trust my voice, and wasn't certain they wouldn't beat me again if I spoke uninvited.

When they had brought me here the way to the cell had seemed endless to me, but now that I wished for it to last longer, to postpone my death, it was over in a blink. We came through the entrance hall where more guards were sitting and staring at me, and then to my confusion they did not take me out through the main doors, to the plaza where criminals were commonly executed, but through a back door to a pleasant courtyard.

And there, upon the stairs that led to another part of the building, stood the King.

This was in the days of the old King, Tar-Ancalimon. He was an old man already, then, though not old enough yet to have lost his impressive stature, nor his sharp mind. He stood tall, with a heavy-looking golden coronet upon his grey hair and more gold on his collar. He made a dazzling figure in the sunlight (especially for me, who had spent the past hours in the dark) as he wore robes of pure white, as though he had just descended from the hallow upon the Holy Mountain, with costly embroidery at the hems. A scribe stood on his left-hand side while some councillor or lord or otherwise stood on his right. Behind him were more soldiers, wearing the blue and silver livery of the King's own household guards instead of the black tunics of the watchmen who had brought me here.

When the guards had told me that the King wanted to see me I had thought it a meagre jest – perhaps the King was going to be present at my execution, or something of the sort. I had certainly not expected to get some kind of private audience. But the man on the stairs was unmistakeably the King, though the face was more wrinkled than it was on the coins. What was he doing here? Certainly cases like mine were not judged by the King. Was I to die for his personal amusement? The idea seemed strange. And the courtyard did not look like the kind of place where people were killed. There was a well in one corner, and two small trees, and vines growing along the walls and pillars. The ground was paved with grey cobbles, and there was not the slightest trace of blood in the cracks. I could hear birdsong and the rustling of leaves on the wind, and voices from the world beyond the walls. There was nothing grim about the place.

I was puzzled.

I was so puzzled that I gaped at the King like an idiot for a good while, before I remembered my manners and hastily dropped to my knees. Too hasty: The cobblestones were hard. I managed to suppress a gasp, though my eyes welled up again. I placed my hands on the ground to steady myself, and stared at the cracks in the paving; and I waited. I did not dare to speak.

For a while the King did not speak, either; instead I was acutely aware of being mustered. I wished now that the guards had cleaned me, or allowed me to clean myself at least. I had been wearing the same shirt for three days, and I had soiled myself in my fear: I was not fit to see the King. I would not have passed any muster favourably under better circumstances, but now I was a more shameful sight than ever. My face grew hot with embarrassment.

Finally someone said, "So you are Azruhâr." The voice came from the King's right, and I surmised that it was the councillor or whatever he was who did the talking.

I nodded.

"Son of Narduhâr. A day-taler from Arminalêth3," the voice continued.

I nodded again.

"Married to one Amraphel, daughter of Amrazôr the horse-dealer."

I nodded for the third time. The pavement blurred with the movement.

There was some rustling from across the courtyard. "Ask him whether he is dumb," the King said, and I thought he sounded amused. I felt the heat in my cheeks intensify.

"Can you not speak, Azruhâr?" the councillor asked.

I took that as an invitation to open my mouth. "No, lord," I said, and realised how odd that sounded. "I mean, I can, lord."

I half-expected the councillor to repeat my words to the King, but he did not go that far. Instead there was some rustling again, and then the voice said, "You stand accused of base murder, burglary and theft. What have you to say to that?"

Murder, burglary and theft! Put that way, my guilt was heavy – heavy enough, maybe, to explain why the King took an interest in my case. Then I discarded the thought. We had not actually managed to steal anything, certainly nothing of worth. And unless the servant Narakôr had killed had in fact been a disguised nobleman, I could not imagine that his death mattered to the King. Had Lôbar and Narakôr, too, had the honour of being judged by the King himself? It made no sense.

I forgot to reply in my confusion until one of the soldiers behind me barked, "Answer!"

I winced. "I murdered no one, and stole nothing," I whispered.

"Speak up," the councillor said in a stern voice. "We cannot hear you."

It took me a moment to gather enough strength to answer a louder voice.

"But certainly he would have stolen something, had he not been stopped by the watch," the King told his councillor. "Is it not so?"

I waited until the councillor had repeated the King's question. Then, because I did not dare to lie, I said, "Yes, lord."

"And he does not deny the burglary, does he?"

Again I waited for the councillor before replying, "I took part in that, it is true. I did not plan it."

"So we have been told," the King told his councillor. "Let us come to the murder. He says that he did not commit it. Is that true, as far as can be discerned?"

This time the reply came from the King's left: the scribe, checking his documents. "The murder was commited by a certain Narakôr. He has been executed the day before yesterday, your Highness. Flogged, drawn and beheaded."

I shuddered.

"Ah," the King said. "And why did that Narakôr murder that man?"

I only realised that he was addressing me directly when I was again commanded to answer. "The gamekeeper surprised us, your Majesty. Narakôr stood closest to the door, and struck him down with a chair."

One of the guards spoke up. "He lies. The man was not simply struck down. We found him with his head smashed to a pulp."

I clenched my eyes shut at the memory. "Narakôr struck him more than once." My voice was quavering again; I had to swallow the bile that had risen in my throat. "Even after the man was down."

"And you, of course, would not have done that?"

"No, your Majesty."

"Of course not. You would, of course, merely have struck him unconscious?"

I grimaced at the ground. "Not even that, your Majesty," I whispered.

That, apparently, gave him pause. "No?"

"No, your Highness. I am too craven for that."

Laughter arose among the watching soldiers. "Now that is likely true," I heard the familiar voice of the torchbearer, and expressions of agreement from various others.

The King's voice had not changed. "Come here," he said, and I blinked, and for a moment did not know what to do. Was I allowed to rise, or was I expected to shuffle forwards on my knees? I got to my feet, very slowly, and when nobody hindered me, I walked closer towards the King. Before I could make my obeisance he had gripped my chin firmly. I flinched at the touch, but at the same time I felt hope spring up in my mind like a fire. If the King did not shrink from touching me, I must be cleared of the suspicion of murder. Surely the King would not sully himself by contact with a murderer.

"Look at us," he said, and I obediently raised my eyes, regarding him anxiously. Tar-Ancalimon might be old, but his eyes were still those of a younger man, alert and intent. They bored into mine, studying me as I stood before him, and again I was painfully aware of my shameful state. I was not surprised to see the King's lip curl scornfully before I dropped my gaze. He snorted in disdain, and I sank to my knees again.

"Your wife," the councillor on the King's right finally explained, "has applied to the King's Mercy. Can you imagine why?"

"The little rat must have hidden qualities," one of the soldiers jested, and I felt my face grow hot again. "Begging your Majesty's pardon," the man added hastily. I looked up in surprise. The King was no longer looking at me, but at the guard behind my back, one eyebrow raised in bemusement. I was tempted to turn and stare at the guard in question to take some satisfaction from his embarrassment. I had to force myself to keep my eyes ahead.

"Be that as it may," the councillor said, and his eyebrows were raised as well, "your wife has pleaded your case and her belly, and his Majesty is feeling merciful. How, then, shall your case be judged?"

I was silent. I did not know what to say. Did they even expect an answer? Doubtlessly they knew how I wished my case to be judged: that I was innocent or at least not so very guilty that I could not be set free, if possible with all my limbs intact. Again there was silence. I stared at the gold embroidery of the King's robes. The hem was so low that the border lay upon the steps, the white fabric greying slightly from touching the dust. I wondered idly how much the delicate gold thread for the embroidery had cost, and whether it would survive even this one day, dragged through the dirt and over stones like that. The silence still did not end. The soldiers whispered amongst themselves, but I was too far away to understand them. The sound of my blood was loud in my ears. "I… I would like to live, so please your Majesty," I heard myself say, in a small voice.

"It's all the same to us," he pointed out. "Do you love your life, then?"

I almost said, Not right now, but caught myself in time. It was strange enough that I was being tossed a chance to save myself. Any condemned man could bargain for the King's Mercy, of course, but I doubted that many did. I would not have dreamt of trying it, and I had no illusions concerning the outcome of this audience. It was hopeless from beginning to end. I had nothing to offer. Even if the King was inclined to believe that my crime was not so very bad, in the end I was simply not important enough to make him change my fate, I thought. As he had said, it was all the same to him.

Still, it would not do to hasten my ruin by trying to be witty. "Yes, your Highness," I said. "I do."

"And your freedom, too, we assume," he said, and I realised in dismay that perhaps I might be granted my life, but might not be set free. I wondered what would be worse, death or an indefinite term of imprisonment. Both were horrors I did not want to ponder too much. Still I knew the old tales: Most prisoners eventually were released, and lived their last years in freedom. I wondered how long twenty, forty, sixty years would stretch out in that dark, dank cell. It was unimaginable. But I would be alive, and might be released one day. There was hope in that. The only thing that lay in death was certainty.

"It – I should like to have both," I said, not without difficulty, "but I love my life a little bit more."

Laughter again from the onlookers – but the King sounded neither amused nor moved.

"Well, we must send you to the dead either way," he said. I felt what little composure I had left crumble, despair overwhelming me like a dark wave. I could no longer hold the tears back, and when I covered my face with my hands, they shook so hard that the chain jingled.

And the King said, "But we can give you a choice."

I tried to stifle my sobs for long enough to listen.

"You are accused of base murder, burglary, and theft. You may think that you did not and would commit the murder, but the fact remains that you were involved in the crime. For that you may be sent to a murderer's death, which, we believe, is a somewhat painful business."

I no longer had the strength to hold my head up; I rested it against the cobblestones. They were warm from the day's heat. I felt very cold.

"However, it so happens that we have a certain… undesirable position to fill, among the Keepers of the Dead," the King continued. "Master Târik is in need of another assistant, and it seems that there is none willing."

I was not surprised. Who would willingly surround himself with dead people? It was bad enough that one had to die at all; dealing with the dead even in life was a bit much. I remembered doing the funeral rites for my father, anointing the hardened, clammy flesh with scented oils that had cost far more than I could afford. Father's skin, ruddy in life, had gone pale, almost blueish; his eyes had rolled up in his head, and it had been difficult to close the lids. The Eldar tell us that death has been given as a gift to our people, but my father had not looked like a man who had received a gift. He had looked as though he had been robbed. I shuddered at the memory.

Still, it would be life. And maybe one could get used to it, like one got used to carting manure or to the smell of a tannery?

"You could be sent there," the King said.

"Frankly, your Highness," the councillor interrupted, "I am not certain that he will be of much worth. He seems to me very weak of character, very unfixed. Unreliable. Not the brightest, either. And he does not even have strong arms to make up for it. Master Târik will have more work with him than without him."

"That may be true," the King agreed. "We are doubtlessly wasting our time. Still, his wife was pleading so…"

My wife, I thought. My sweet Amraphel, who thought me worthy of her love, worthy of leaving her wealthy family to live in my hovel, worthy even of applying to the King for my sake. That was a powerful thought. Amraphel still loved me, despite my crime. Amraphel had pleaded for me, was, perhaps, even now thinking of me, praying that I might be spared. How cruel it would be to disappoint her! No, that must not happen.

I raised myself to my hands. I swallowed my tears and took a deep breath. I had hoped that this might steady my voice, but it was still tear-choked. "I beg your Majesty to let me try."

"Should we?" the King said, more to his retinue than to me. "We might save ourselves a lot of hassle if we just concluded this business here and now."

"Indeed, your Majesty," said the councillor, but the scribe spoke up in my favour.

"Oh, why not give him a chance? Your Highness can still send him to the block if Master Târik is displeased by his efforts."

"Please," I whispered. The King's hand tipped my face up. I felt all my muscles tense as I waited for his judgement. He seemed to study me for a long, long time. I barely dared to breathe.

"Very well," he said finally, and relief surged through me, so overwhelming that I could hardly think. I clasped the King's hand and pressed my lips to it, clenching my eyes shut against the tears. I was trembling like a man pulled out of cold water. Eventually the King withdrew his hand, and I was dimly aware that he was speaking to his councillor again, though I did not understand a word of it. Then the councillor addressed me by name, and all the cold disapproval in his voice could not quench my relief.

"Azruhâr son of Narduhâr, you are hereby released under condition at the King's behest. You may return to your home. Tomorrow is Valanya4, so you have a full day to rest. On Elenya you will present yourself to Master Târik at the royal morgue in the citadel. You will be expected there by the third hour after sunrise. You will be further instructed then." He paused, and I nodded to show that I had understood.

"I hardly need to tell you what consequences await if you fail to show up there. No matter where you hide, you will be found, and no mercy will save you then. The same will happen when you shirk at your work. Is that clear?"

"Yes, lord," said I. I had no intention of hiding. I swore in my heart that I would work myself to pieces if need be. I would not throw away this gift of life, no matter how miserable the work and how harsh Master Târik.

"Then I think this will be all. Your Majesty?" He turned to the King, who nodded.

"That will be all."

"Thank you, your Highness, with all my heart," I felt compelled to say. I would have done anything to show my gratitude, that moment. I would have kissed his feet, had he wanted me to.

Instead he nodded, sternly; then he turned away. There was a rustling of fabric and clinking of armour as the guards behind me knelt in farewell. The King's guard lined up, and he walked out, accompanied by the scribe and the councillor. None of them gave me another look. They already discussed other things, things I could not understand, in the language of the nobility.

One of the soldiers removed my shackles and told me to go home. Other than that no one spoke to me. I got up slowly. I felt dizzy and drained, yet oh so relieved. I made my way through the streets, slowly at first; then another bout of crying came over me, and I clung to a pillar, overcome by joy and relief. The evening breeze cooled my burning face, and through my tears the fading sunlight was splintered into golden pearls. Even the pain in my back and knees was welcome. Mere hours ago I had thought that by this time I would no longer feel anything. I must have made an astonishing spectacle, besmeared and beaten, swaying through the streets as if drunk, then running, tears streaming down my face all the time. I did not care.

Amraphel was no longer expecting to see me alive. I saw her before she noticed me: She sat in the small patch of garden we had, picking peas for supper. She was not crying. Instead her face was set in a kind of mask, stern, almost furious. Her red-rimmed eyes betrayed that she had cried earlier, however. She had to pause in her work frequently to catch her breath, her round belly impeding her movement.

"Let me help you," I said quietly when I had almost reached the garden. My voice was hoarse from crying.

She recognised it nonetheless, or maybe she only recognised me when she looked up: But look up she did, staring at me wide-eyed, and then she gave a small cry and jumped up much faster than she should, and flung herself into my arms. Peapods scattered all over the ground. "Azruhâr," she managed to say, and then the flood-gates broke.

We held each other for a while. Finally I found my voice again. "I am so sorry, my love," I said. "You were right."

"Damn right I was," she said, eyes glinting. "I almost lost you, you bloody fool." I hung my head, and she clasped my face and kissed me firmly before speaking on. "I have talked with Lômenil today. She's quite desperate. She had to give up everything to the family of the killed housekeeper; now she's back in the hut."

Lômenil had been married to Lôbar, and would have inherited his business under normal circumstances. I grimaced. "Was it not punishment enough to kill her husband?"

"One should think so. But then, none of the money he used was his own. It was not surprising, really."

"At least they could not have done that to you," I said thoughtfully.

She snorted. "What a consolation." Her face softened, and she stroked my puffed cheeks. "But I have you back. My poor love, whatever have they done to you?"

I shrugged, and hoped she would not examine me much closer. "It's over. The King had me released." And I added, wonderingly, "I owe you my life."

The words seemed to hover in the air between us like a dragonfly, strange and marvellous. It was true, I realised. I owed her my life. What an odd thought.

She gave me a lopsided smile then. "Don't let it go to your head," she said, wiping her eyes with one hand; the other still clung to my shoulder. "At least half of it was pure selfishness."

I kissed her then: her hair, her forehead, her full lips. "It's not going to go to my head. I feel every bit as unworthy as I should."

She gave me a reproachful look. "Foolish you are. Not unworthy. I would not have pleaded for your life if you were unworthy, you silly man - nor would the King have granted it."

"If you say so," said I. "Nonetheless I owe you my life. How strange." She was stroking my face again, and I leaned into the touch. I had always loved her gentle hands, but after three days of scorn and humiliation they were more precious than ever. I closed my eyes, and sighed, and finally was able to feel safe.

When I had gathered the scattered peas I had the time to clean myself. We had no tub, nor would I have wanted to wait until we had heated enough water. Besides Amraphel needed the fireplace to make pea soup. So I washed first myself and then my clothing with the help of a bucket filled at the well. I tried to take stock of my injuries. I could not see much of my back, but what little I could see over my shoulder sported several darkened stripes, and from the way the rest of it felt, there were more hidden where I could not look. For a moment I debated putting my wet shirt on again, but then I thought better of it. I could not risk falling ill, and Amraphel would see the bruises sooner or later anyway.

Of course Amraphel noticed them at once, and I got a brief moment of feeling heroic when I assured her that it looked worse than it felt. She gave me a look that clearly said that she didn't believe it (nor the heroism); but there was little that could be done about it either way, so in the end we turned to other topics. While I wolfed down my bowl of pea soup (I was so hungry that I hardly tasted the first couple of spoonfuls) she recounted how she had, as soon as she had heard of Narakôr's impending execution, made for the citadel. In those bygone days the King still spent half an hour each morning listening to the pleas of his subjects; Amraphel, her belly heavy with child, had incited pity in the others, so she had been able to gain entrance almost immediately.

"Then our child, too, saved my life," I said. "Before it is even born."

Amraphel smiled. "Oh yes. I'm sure it was quite instrumental in lending my words urgency."

Once before the King, she had simply described my case and tried to convince the King that I deserved his mercy. "I lied a little," she admitted with a blush. "I did not say that I had known about your plans, only that you had left the house with Lôbar and Narakôr and had not returned, and that I now worried that you had somehow become involved in the same crime that had overthrown them."

"My clever wife," I said admiringly, setting my empty bowl down.

"Would you like more?" she asked, ignoring the compliment.

I would indeed have liked more; my stomach still felt half-empty. But there was not much soup, and she needed it more than I did. I shook my head, smiling. "Thank you, I am full. You take the rest."

She did, and then sat down again. "After that, the worst part was the waiting." She frowned deeply. In the dancing light of our tallow lamp, the harsh set of her mouth was almost intimidating. But then she smiled again. "Well, here you are. It was worth the wait."

I did not know what to say.

"Just promise me that you'll never, never try anything of the sort again," she said, almost as an afterthought.

I took her hands. "I give that promise gladly. Though I suspect that even if I meant to, I would not have the time." I grimaced.

"What do you mean?"

I suddenly could no longer meet her eyes, bright and inquisitive, and looked away. "The King has decreed that I must serve the Keepers of the Dead."

She did not immediately reply; only held my hands in one of hers, stroking them with the other.

"All days?" she finally said.

"I think so," said I. "I am not certain. I will only be told the details of it when I first go there, the day after tomorrow." I looked back at Amraphel, and was relieved to see that her expression had softened. She squeezed my hands. "If that is what the King commands, it must be done. But how shall we live?"

I had no answer to that.

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  1. Emerië; adûnaicised by me. If Quenya lië turned into lâi, I feel relatively justified in the –râi; the rest is conjecture.
  2. The guard is not being particularly Faithful here, just using a common formula. I have assumed that the Númenoreans, pretty much like the modern English, did not necessarily put much thought in their mild swears. On the whole it seems to me that the people who curse a lot (in the name of whatever deity) are not actually overly religious. The really religious folk tend to avoid swearing.
    ... especially after the First Age, which should have made sufficiently clear that swearing is very serious business indeed.
  3. Armenelos
  4. Friday by our calendar, the holy day in the Númenorean week. For the purpose of this story, I've interpreted it as a work-free day. Elenya corresponds to Saturday in our calendar. Appendix D of the LotR states that the Númenorean calendar used the Quenya names, so I went with those. At this point in time, Elvish is not yet out-lawed (nor entirely out of fashion, at least among nobility).
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