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56
The Game Lost

Written for the A_L_E_C "Last Words" challenge. Beta by RiverOtter.


~~~

The Game Lost


Ar-Pharazôn looked with triumph at the white shores ahead of his armada. His smile grew broader, more self-satisfied. Within an hour his ships would enter the shallows and would begin dropping their anchors; how long it would take to get the inhabitants of Alqualondë to capitulate he could not say, but he suspected they would do so swiftly enough.

“It serves to prove,” he said aloud, “that if one can command enough in the way of men and ships one can cow all others into compliance with one’s will.”

“You truly believe that?” asked the sailor who knelt nearby, scrubbing the deck of the King’s flagship.

The King indicated the sea that was empty of all ships save his, and the deserted shores before them. “Does it appear that any contests my will? We have detected and evaded all the spells set to keep us from advancing past the outer islands, and none came out from Tol Eressëa to contest our right to sail in these waters. We have challenged the so-called Powers to deny us the right to land upon those shores, and none has been sent to deter us. The city can be seen there, and yet none walk abroad within it, or along the sands or cliffs on either side. No ships lie on the quays; no banners wave from the flagstaffs. Nothing stands in the way of our conquest of these lands, for they have seen how mighty my fleet is and have hidden themselves away in terror, even as did Sauron when we came to fetch him from Middle-earth!”

“I had thought he came on his own to surrender himself,” the sailor muttered, turning his attention again to the brush he used against the wood underfoot.

Ar-Pharazôn gave a negligent wave of his hand, dismissing this triviality. “The greatest power within Middle-earth yet surrendered himself to me, man. He saw the might that I commanded and did not seek even to fight, any more than do these!”

What the sailor muttered to himself under his breath the King could not hear, so he turned from his place at the rail to stand over the fellow. “What was it you said?” he asked in a low, dangerous voice.

The sailor set aside his brush in the bucket of soapy water he’d been using and rose to his feet, drying his hands on the fabric of his leggings. Ar-Pharazôn was surprised to see both how old and tall--and familiar--the man was, as the sailor towered over the King by nearly a head. He looked down from his height, his fading grey eyes searching the face of the monarch of Númenor and obviously finding him lacking. “I said, my lord, that they have no reason to fight, for your own choices condemn you and all with you. Do you think that those who have told you that mere mortals were not created to dwell here in the Undying Lands were only seeking to deter you from coming here for their own selfish purposes? Nay, I tell you plainly that it was done for love of you, that you might have time to turn from such folly as this and survive to learn to live more wisely!

“I ask you, my lord, if Númenor is a greater, more joyful place to live now, or as it was before you brought that failed Maia to our shores? Do the people of our land prosper more now? Are they more satisfied with their accomplishments? Do they live fearlessly and with nothing to regret?”

Something in the aging sailor’s gaze spoke to the fading conscience of the King, and he trembled under the judgment he saw there. “I will have you fed to the sharks!” he threatened.

The man gave a grim laugh and a shake of the head. “I am already a dead man, and you will follow soon enough, once you leave your ship and seek to claim what your body was never intended to endure. That is why you see none out of doors, there in the city. They have been warned to remain inside that they not see what you come to by seeking to claim by force that which is inferior to what the Creator already gave to you. There is but one chance left you--turn back and live--for now!”

Suddenly his foot shot out, kicking over the bucket of water, which was cold and greasy as it sloshed about the King’s ankles. Ar-Pharazôn looked in shock at his now wet feet, then raised his gaze to glare at the sailor--only to realize the man was no longer there. He hurried to the rail, but saw no signs anyone had dived into the waves.

“Lord Amandil?”

Ar-Pharazôn turned to see his ship’s captain standing where he’d just stepped onto the deck from the forecastle. “What?” he asked the seaman.

“Lord Amandil--where did he disappear to? He was there, speaking with you--and then he kicked over the pail and was gone! Where did he go--but even more, how came he to be aboard this ship garbed as a simple sailor?”

The ruler of Númenor shivered, feeling a chill of dismay run through him. Amandil had been here, in disguise, here on this ship? Why? How? The rumor was that his kinsman Amandil, once his friend and advisor but long now distrusted as one who was suspected of being among the leaders of the Faithful, had disappeared from his home in Andunië some months earlier. Where had he gone? Had he been hiding in the open, serving as a sailor upon the King’s own ship?

The captain set his mate to combing the vessel, but no trace of the lord of Andunië could be found aboard. By now they were within minutes of the quays of Alqualondë, and the other ships were even closer to its shores, and many of them were already dropping their anchors and preparing to launch their ship’s boats.

Dismissing the visitation--or whatever it was--the King gave the order to take the premier berth at the wharf. Once all lines were secure the plank was run out, and he moved to take the first step ashore, followed by all others aboard the ship, including all the seamen. Ar-Pharazôn had no intentions of having the sailors strand the fighting men and seek to flee away to safety--nay, all would share in the dangers and benefits of the experiment.

He led the way up the quay to the solid ground of the island, there below the ways of the great, silent city. He took a deep breath, and laughed at how it warmed his chest to take in the air of the place. He and most with him were drawing themselves up and standing ever taller, doing all they could to breathe in as much of the richly scented air as possible.

He looked at the paved street leading up to the houses above him, and laughed again. Nay--not that way, not yet, at least. He turned to walk northward along the shore, and all followed after, laughing and singing. There were splashes from the ships in the harbor as they disgorged their crews and passengers. They heard the shingle of the rockier beaches groan, the sands sing as more and more men came ashore. Further and further the King led the way along the sparkling shoreline, and greater and greater the throng that followed after----

Then he heard the coughing begin, first among the older men behind him before it spread to the rest. He felt his own lungs become increasingly irritated as well, and found he could control it no better than the others. The coughs grew worse, more hacking. He breathed in more of the air and found the coughing was growing even more persistent! Soon he could not straighten, so bad had it become!

“The ships!” cried someone closer to the shore, and he turned a tear-filled eye just in time to see the sails of the nearest ship begin to tear as if they’d become ancient and worn by time. Lines were snapping; planking began to shrink visibly.

“What is happening?” demanded one of his guards of the captain.

“I know not--it is as if they were each ancient relics rather than ships most of which are less than five years from the laying of their keels!” The captain ran a wasting hand through his now-sparse hair, then paused to look in horror at the age spots now visible in the backs of his wrists.

Ar-Pharazôn shifted his gaze to the guard, who had been but fifty years of age when they went aboard their ships. His broad shoulders were now stooping, the flesh over his ribs wasting away even as the King watched. But the expression on his face as he returned his King’s gaze was one of horrified fascination.

The King reached to touch his own face, and felt the now-fragile skin that seemed to barely clothe the skull underneath. “No!” he breathed, and the coughing returned----

And they began to fall, aging decades in the space of what must be minutes.

Brought to his knees by weakness and the terrible coughs, Ar-Pharazôn yet sought to regain his feet. “I claim this land--” he began.

He never finished the declaration.

*******


The citizens of Alqualondë looked down in revulsion at the thousands of corpses. “What do we do with the bodies?” asked an Elf originally born in the woodlands of Beleriand.

The elders of the city listened to the advice given by the unseen Maiar who surrounded them. “Let us put them aboard their ships again. The Valar and Maiar indicate they will do what is necessary.”

Barrows and litters were produced, and the sailors of the region brought their own skiffs and dories, loaded them with the bodies, and ferried them out to the waiting ships that had not been able to find a place on the city’s wharves. Anchors were weighed, or their lines cut. Soon the servants of Lord Ulmo, directed by Ossë, drew the ships away, out of the harbor, out to beyond the enchanted isles that screened the Lonely Isle and Aman from the rest of Arda. None who dwelt in the city knew for certain what became of the rotting ships, but it was rumored that they were consigned to the Void once the Breaking of the World was complete.



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