17. The Witch-Finder
With Tarmanaz left behind to attend Ingwion, the Hands, led by a servant who had appeared sometime during the meeting, took Sidaizon to his appointed chamber. It was considerably better than what he had been expecting: no mean holding cell for the King's prisoners, but a true bedroom fit for any visiting lord. Spacious and airy, a row of small glazed windows overlooked the dark mountainside at the far end. In the centre of the room against one wall was a canopied bed, easily large enough for four people and containing more pillows than an entire family could use. Thick carpets covered the tile floor, and, most welcome of all, a large ewer of water stood beside a basin on the hearth to warm before a merrily dancing fire.
Sidaizon did not even care that the Hands locked the door when they left, sealing him safely inside. The servant had done a cursory job of explaining where he could find everything he might need: a pot to relieve himself, a basin for washing, a silver mirror on the wall above a table with a comb for his hair, a platter of olives and bread should he be hungry, and even a closet full of more firewood to ward off the mountain's chill. He welcomed it all gladly.
After relieving himself and placing the pot in a small cupboard for the night soil collectors as the servant had instructed, Sidaizon set to washing. The fire-warmed water flowed over his aching neck and shoulders like liquid hands, massaging away a bit of the road-weary stiffness. He washed his hair with delicate ginger-scented soap, and, once he was clean, there was oil perfumed with lemon to soften his skin. The luxury of warm water coupled with these small extravagances made the burden of fatigue weigh twice as heavily on his mind. With a cursory rub of the bath sheet over his wet hair, he crossed to the bed and fell gladly onto its surfeit of pillows. He crawled between the sheets, which had already been warmed against the cold mountain night with hot irons, and closed his eyes.
It was a very large bed. Stretching his arms out as wide as he could from where he lay in the middle, the edges of the mattress were inches beyond his fingertips. It was large, and it felt empty: empty and unnaturally peaceful in the silence of Taniquetil. Even the air of the bedroom itself, its sounds and smells, were different. No firelight from a neighbour's house flickered in through the window. No goats bleated in the courtyard, no cats screeched and fought, no young men shouted coarse words in the streets for the sake of irritating those trying to sleep. No children chattered and baited each other to quarrels in the next room; no mother clattered in the kitchen to heat a cup of milk with nutmeg because she could not sleep. No Eäzinya lay as a comforting presence next to him with her warm body and soft breath. That, he missed most of all.
He rolled over and closed his eyes, but, as in the carriage, sleep felt like a far-off hope despite his oppressive exhaustion. He should not have thought of Eäzinya; now she dominated his thoughts to create a whole new string of worries. Amárië could keep the household running, of that he had no doubt, but Eäzinya would panic. She did not know where he was or when he would return, and he had no way to reassure her that he was safe and all would be well. All he could do was pray that Ingwion released Tarmanaz soon, and that Tarmanaz returned home with all haste.
And that thought only conjured further worries about Tarmanaz.
"There is no sense worrying over things you cannot change," he said aloud to the empty room, as if spoken words might do better to set his mind at ease. It was what Amárië had always told him when he was young and ignorant and constantly raging at the unfairness of the world. And although his heart knew she was right, that worries and anger did nothing at all to change the course of fate, his spinning head seemed bent on thinking otherwise.
"I am locked in a room in a palace on a mountain," he muttered, trying to be rational. "All I can do is wait and see what happens. And, in the meantime, go to sleep. Everything will solve itself tomorrow. I only need to stop worrying and go to sleep."
An echo of Eäzinya's voice rolled through his memory in reply: Close your eyes. And imagine you are somewhere else, far away.
"Imagine I am somewhere else..." He could imagine he was home again, in his own bed, safe and happy with his wife beside him. Behind closed eyes, he pictured his bedroom: clean white walls, the dressing table covered with Eäzinya's hair pins, the shelves for clothing, the bed on the floor that, while not large, was good enough for him and Eäzinya. The more he concentrated, the clearer it grew in his mind. He was in his own room in his own bed. The clean white walls, the dressing table... but now there was a mirror above the table and a fireplace in the corner, and the light coming through the window was not the dull orange glow of night-time lamps, but the fading pinkish-gold of the evening sun.
I have imagined I am somewhere else, far away, he thought. But where?
In the distance, far-off and muted, the wild sea crashed against a rocky shore. Gulls circled overhead, their cries rising and falling like waves. He had returned to that island, the same he had visited the first time he tried to imagine himself away. He could smell the same salt-tinged air and feel its sunny, southern warmth, far from the cold and snow of Taniquetil. And beside him in bed, he could hear Eäzinya's gentle breathing and feel the radiant heat of her skin close to his. He turned to face her, grateful for her presence in this strange dream-world. His arm reached out to wrap around her shoulders, only to see, with a sudden jolt of horror, that the woman at his side had black hair, not gold. It fell down her naked back in damp, unbound tangles, letting the lines of a swirling tattoo on her shoulder peek out from between haphazard locks.
His eyes flew open, and he sat up in bed, heart pounding; for a second, he saw double as the image of the island room faded slowly from his eyes. The black haired-woman lay there still on the bed. With a shout, he scrambled away, pulling the blankets up to cover his naked body. Her ghostly form remained intact a moment longer. When he blinked, she was gone.
The bedroom in the King's palace was the same as it had ever been. No hint of the island room remained. A candle burned on the table next to the large, pillowed bed; the dying fire hissed while the basin and ewer cast long shadows on the floor; pale moonlight streamed in from the bank of windows on the far wall. In the mountain silence, Sidaizon's heart rang like a drum in his ears, and he gasped for breath. He was where he should be. He was in the palace, alone, and nothing had changed.
"It was not real," he whispered. "It was a dream. It must have been a dream. It was not real." Only it had felt nothing like a dream. Every sight and sound and feeling still burned in his memory, as plainly as if it had truly happened.
Something rattled at the door. Sidaizon froze. A metallic sound clicked, the doorknob turned, and there stood one of the King's Hands, poking his head into the room to see what had happened.
"I heard a shout," said the Hand. "Is aught amiss?"
"No," Sidaizon answered, shaking his head. The mere sight of the Hand helped ground him, driving away much of the shock of the dream, though one stubborn thread of uncertainty remained. "I saw... ah... I saw... something. I don't know what I saw."
"No. No, nothing like that. I saw... a woman. With black hair. Here." He gestured to the bed, and immediately regretted having said anything. The words sounded foolish spoken aloud.
The Hand's eyebrows rose as his face took on a stony pallor. "A ghost?"
Had she been a ghost? No; certainly the black-haired woman had been something else. "I don't think so," he said slowly. "But... No, I don't know."
Sidaizon only shook his head. It was impossible to say what she had been: ghost or spirit or dream or omen, or nothing more than his overactive, overtired imagination.
Whatever the case, the Hand looked terrified. "I'll call the Oraistari," he said, and then disappeared back out the door.
"That's not-" Sidaizon began, but the man had already gone. Sighing, he pressed his fingertips hard against his forehead. The image of the woman still burned as clear as anything in his memory, her uncombed hair and the curve of her back sharply limned in his mind's eye. It had not been a dream; he had seen her, impossible as that was.
In the corridor, doors opened and sleepy voices muttered curt words. Within minutes three Oraistari appeared, ushered into Sidaizon's room by the Hand who had been standing guard. All three looked bleary and rumpled, having hurriedly pulled on their bright gold robes, and one seemed unable to stop yawning. None of them had bothered with a wig. They stood by the doorway, scratching their shaven heads in confusion, and looked to each other for answers.
"What mean you, a ghost?" asked one. "I see no ghost."
"One does not generally see ghosts," said another. "They appear only betimes a moment and remain otherwise invisible."
"If the Almatar saw a ghost..."
"Woke you the King's witch-finder?"
The last question was directed to the Hand, who nodded, still looking fearful at the prospect of a ghost in the room. "Yes, sir," he answered. "He shall be here directly."
"Ghosts!" snorted the yawning Oraistar. "Foolishness! Like as not it was a dream." He spared Sidaizon one distasteful frown, and yawned again.
"Yet one needs tend toward belief, elsewise what transpires in face of a true haunting?"
"I believe it was a ghost," said the Hand.
"Ghost or no, the witch-finder will advise."
"The witch-finder advises you all return to bed," said a voice from the corridor. "There is no damnable ghost."
A fourth Oraistar appeared at the Hand's side, looking no less sluggish for having been called out of bed, though this one wore his own hair in a long plait. Sidaizon blinked, and stared. It was the nobleman from Ingwion's presence room, though now that he wore a hastily pulled on gold Oraistar's robe, Sidaizon knew immediately where he had seen him before.
"Vedezir," he said.
Oraistar Vedezir nodded briefly in his direction before addressing the others. "Neither ghost nor spirit nor Maia hides in this room. Return to your beds."
"How know you?" asked one Oraistar. "You have not yet looked."
"And how might I look?" Vedezir replied. "One cannot, on average, see ghosts."
"Exactly what I just said!" exclaimed another.
"If it please Manwë, trust me," said Vedezir. "There are here no ghosts. Only that usual demon in the far corner."
All at once, the three Oraistari and the Hand turned to gasp at the far corner of the room.
Vedezir groaned, rubbing his eyes. "That was a jest. There is no demon. Go to bed!"
"But how know-"
"I know. It is my duty as witch-finder, is it not, to know such things? Go. And to satisfy your mistrust, I will stay here with Almatar Sidaizon and be sure that no ghosts appear in purpose to harm him until morning."
The Oraistari grumbled and scowled, but sleepiness compelled them to obey Vedezir's dismissal, filing back out into the corridor. The Hand locked the door after them with an audible slide of the metal latch. It was only after they were alone in absolute silence that Vedezir spoke. And when he did, it was with an amused smirk.
"So," he said. "Did you truly see a ghost, or was this all a clever ploy to speak to me?"
"No ploy," answered Sidaizon. "I had no idea you were the King's witch-finder, as they call you."
"Then you did see a ghost?"
Sidaizon shook his head. "No. I don't know. I saw... something. Nothing. Nothing important. It was probably a dream."
"Well, it was no ghost," Vedezir said as he crossed the room. "I can promise you that. There are no traces of spirits in here."
His words gave some reassurance, but his presence, coming to sit on the edge of the bed opposite Sidaizon, offered more. With another person in the room, a familiar face, the vision of the strange, black-haired woman seemed further away and less substantial. He nodded at Vedezir's proclamation and tried to think of anything to say in return. How exactly did one greet a long-lost friend who suddenly appeared in the middle of the night, wearing an Oraistar's robe and hunting for ghosts?
Vedezir found the words. "Manwë's grace, Sidaizon, but it's good to see you! How long has it been? Three long-counts? Approximately?"
"Four hundred thirty nine years since I left the Academy."
"Then it would be four hundred forty seven for me. By the heavens, it hardly seems that long. You look the same. No. Better. Having hair suits you."
Sidaizon grinned. "I would say the same for you. No Oraistar's wig?"
"No," laughed Vedezir. "No; those old goats are all safely married, but I have no such luck. I can ill afford to be ugly."
Shaking his head, Sidaizon laughed with him. Ugliness on Vedezir was as likely as feathers on a cat. Even at the Academy, even with his hair shorn off in a choppy mess like all the others, he had shone. He had been almost effeminately pretty back then, delicate as a lady in the softness of his youth, but age had strengthened his features into a harder, more masculine beauty. He looked as fine as ever.
"Once I'm married, however..." Vedezir continued, running a hand over his hair. "I have it on good authority that a shaven head makes bathing far easier."
"You have wedding plans?" asked Sidaizon. The idea surprised him; he had never taken Vedezir to be the marrying sort.
Vedezir's jaw tightened the slightest bit. "Not immediately. I've submitted three petitions to Ingwírion. Each has been rejected on the grounds of my proposed bride being an unsuitable match for an Oraistar. Apparently the criteria for marrying an Oraistar are so exacting that they exclude every single woman in the entire city. I wish someone would have told me that before I accepted the position. The process of an Almatar's marriage is nothing compared to this idiocy. How long did it take you to find your wife?"
"How do you know I'm-" Sidaizon began, but Vedezir cut him off with a bemused grin.
"You had your son with you in Ingwion's presence room. And a son, unless you would have me believe he spontaneously generated, requires a mother."
"Oh right," said Sidaizon. He truly was too tired to think.
"Tell me about your family. Your wife. Any more children? It's been four hundred forty seven years since I last saw you. Tell me everything."
Stifling a yawn, Sidaizon rubbed his eyes and pushed his hair back from his face. "Well..."
"On second thought, you look about to faint from exhaustion. Tell me in the morning."
"That would be..." Sidaizon did allow a yawn to escape; "...preferable."
"Were you able to sleep at all on the journey up here?"
"It shows. Go to sleep. I'll keep watch for ghosts."
"You don't-" Sidaizon began, but thought better of his protest. "Thank you," he said. "Though before I do, can you at least tell me why I'm here?"
"Sorry," said Vedezir, "but no. I would if I knew, but everything I've heard about your summons has been through Ingwion, and he knows no more than what he told you directly. So whatever you've done, it's naught in disagreement with the law, else Ingwion would know of it. This is purely a matter for the Oraistari, and the Six are keeping it very quiet."
Sidaizon had no recollection of the rest of the conversation. One moment he was listening to Vedezir's assessment of the situation, and the next, bright yellow light streamed through the windows and hand on his shoulder gently shook him awake. He blinked and rolled over to see Vedezir already dressed.
"I must go," Vedezir told him. "The council is convening, and I've been summoned. But I'll be back as soon as I'm able. With any luck, I'll have news for you."
"How long?" asked Sidaizon.
"No idea. I'm hoping no more than two hours, but one never knows."
"What should I do?"
"Nothing. Stay in bed. Rest. I dare say you'll need it, because I've just been told there's to be a council with Ingwë at midnight, and whatever they've brought you for is likely tied up therein."
Sidaizon yawned. "Midnight?"
"They revel in drama."
And with that, Vedezir was gone.
'Stay in bed,' Vedezir had instructed. Sidaizon could do that. He buried his head beneath the numerous pillows, too sleepy to much care about the midnight council looming ominously ahead, and went back to sleep. There was nothing to do but wait, and sleeping made the waiting pass more quickly.
Some time after Vedezir's departure a group of servants appeared to drain the wash basin and refill the ewer with fresh water. No sooner had Sidaizon crawled out of bed to wash his face than another servant appeared, this one bearing a tray of food. The tray held fruits both dried and fresh, bread sprinkled with cinnamon, pastries filled with almonds and honey, a pitcher of sweet milk, and a small pot of very strong coffee. Sidaizon finished it all, then fell back into bed and slept soundly until the servants reappeared to change the water again and bring him a tray of hot dishes for dinner. He washed again, ate again, and slept again, and suddenly there was Vedezir standing over him, shaking him awake once more. Long shadows filled the room. The sun had started to set.
"What kept you?" he asked as he sat up in bed. His head felt groggy after sleeping so long, which, he was irritated to learn, felt hardly different at all from being groggy after sleeping too little.
"You are about to learn a terrible truth concerning the Oraistari," Vedezir said grimly.
"We are like a pack of wild dogs fighting over a bone. Incredibly stupid, spiteful wild dogs who fight for the sake of fighting and are incapable of listening to reason. Did you know, I just spent nine hours listening to Ingwírion and Voroman scream at each other, until I thought their tiny heads would burst from sheer redness?"
"You're all the luckier for not knowing," said Vedezir. "Incidentally, in case you missed the point of my very clever, if obvious, metaphor, the bone in question is you."
Sidaizon's stomach sank. "So you know the reason I'm here."
"Yes. Two reasons, actually. The first group of wild dogs wants to tear you apart for permitting Yaranénor to enter the Lavazat courtyard and giving them leave to light their heathen fire on holy ground."
In enumerating the reasons for his arrest, that thought had not even crossed Sidaizon's mind. Less than two weeks had passed, but already the burial seemed like it had happened years ago. A cold shiver crawled up his back. "How did they learn that?" Of all the people who should have known what transpired on that day, the number was limited to Sidaizon and the dead woman's family. And they would not have spoken to an Oraistar.
"Some righteously offended Yaranénon musician lodged a complaint regarding your decision to his patron lord, who reported the incident to the King."
It took a moment for Sidaizon to realise what Vedezir had said; when he did, he groaned. "That idiot..."
"Which idiot?" asked Vedezir.
"The Yaranénon musician. He's my cousin. Culurossë. I forgot about him... He came to my house the night of the burial to rage at me, and I told him what had happened, thinking it would ease his anger. But..." He dropped his head into his hands, knowing that whatever Vedezir said next would only make the situation worse. "And what do the other wild dogs want with me?"
"The second group is more concerned with the fact that you lied to Oraistar Tayóron about said fire."
"Oh." He felt suddenly light-headed, and more than a little angry, both at himself and Culurossë: himself for being so brazen as to think he could get away with breaking the law and lying to an Oraistar, and Culurossë for piggishly outing the truth. The greater part of the anger was directed toward Culurossë, justly or not. "So which group do you claim?" he asked Vedezir.
"I'm part of the group that says, 'Please, for the love of Manwë, shut up already and let us return to what we normally do, which is discuss in tedium what fashions are immoral and which hairstyles are too provocative, and investigate such pressing matters as whether or not there is a ghost in one of the guest bedrooms.' Alas, there are only three of us in that group, and we are too apathetic to be loud, so nobody else is aware of our position."
"The Oraistar debate fashion?"
"Oh Sidaizon, you would not believe me if I told you of all the stupidity that prevails," Vedezir said with a frown. "Last time I attended one of these council meetings, Ingwírion went so far as to produce a tailor's ribbon-measure and demonstrate that a woman's tunic should fall no less than eight inches below her knee, otherwise the sight of her trouser-clad legs would be indecent."
Under less dire circumstances, Sidaizon would have laughed. Vedezir, too, would have joked and grinned; instead, he just looked harried.
"So what will they do with me?" Sidaizon asked.
"That's to be decided at tonight's council," Vedezir said as he sat down on the edge of the bed. "Tayóron, gravely insulted by your lie and perceived lack of respect, is in favour of public whipping, but luckily for you everyone else told him he was being ludicrous. Ingwírion also spoke harshly, as he agrees with Tayóron on the matter of disrespect. He thinks you should spend time in prison for shaming the name of Taniquetil with your actions."
"But?" Sidaizon asked hopefully.
"But," continued Vedezir, "there's no precedent for imprisonment, and that's how the argument with Voroman started. Voroman is the sort of pedantic bore who believes there to be nothing more important than following the law to the letter, which means he is adamant about meting out proper punishment. And since the usual punishment for insubordination is dismissal, he believes you should be stripped of your office and cast out in shame. Nothing more, nothing less."
"So the possibilities are whipping, prison, or dismissal." A cloud of dread began to form in his chest.
"Essentially. Other ideas arose as well, and a few of the more reasonable minds even dared suggest that perhaps you had done the right thing in order to avert an all-out riot, but more are in favour of making an example of you. It seems to me as if they want to blame someone for the tension in the city, and you have the ill fortune of being Almatar of Oichimyaiva and the one who buried the convert woman. I'm afraid they'll vote in favour of punishing you somehow, whether you deserve it or not, and will have no trouble convincing Ingwë to ratify their decision."
Whipping, prison, or dismissal. The words circled in Sidaizon's head, sounding worse with every pass. "Am I to assume that both whipping and prison would also be followed by dismissal?" he asked.
Vedezir nodded. "I would say so."
He swore under his breath, and sighed. Not for the first time in recent days, he felt utterly lost. "What should I do?"
Leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees, Vedezir threaded his fingers together as he considered. "Court Ingwion's favour," he said at last. "There are politics at play here that would take me far too long to explain, so suffice it to say that the Hands and the Oraistari are at constant odds. Ingwion will be inclined to take your side if only to spite his brother. If he can be convinced to attend the council."
"What are the chances of that happening?"
"Slim," said Vedezir, "but I have an idea." Abruptly, he stood, and gestured for Sidaizon to do the same. "It was a wise thing you did, bringing your son with you."
Sidaizon stood as instructed. "I wish I could take credit, but alas the Hands made the decision for me. They ordered him come along."
"Then perhaps fate smiles upon you after all. That was a lucky chance. You fair astounded Ingwion last night, standing there in your Almatar's robes and openly supporting your son's choice to join the King's Hands. If aught might convince him to attend the council and gainsay the Oraistari, it will be his interest in you and your boy. Come with me."
"Where?" Sidaizon asked as they crossed the room.
"To see our good Prince, of course."
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.