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kâtha batîna lôkhî

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There was no wind and the sails hung empty in the night, and the silky thrum and shimmer of sound that the oars made, as they dipped into and slipped out of the silent sea, floated on the air. Azrubên thought, after midnight passed, the sound must continue up to the heavens, or over the curve of the horizon, and therefore it might sink down into the depths as well.

It would only lead to the other side of the bent world eventually, the cartographers said, though they still argued if the depths of the sea now reached all the way down until it became the surface of another sea on a far side, or if the great oceans were now tucked in so small that even their furthest edges would eventually end in a floor of rock, like a lake.

He leaned over the edge of the ship, over the water. If something falls, it must fall from something. If something falls, it must fall to something. The sea now had no infinite edge. It passed away by the gape of the earth, not the fury of the waves, so Anarion had said.

“Report, sounding negative, drags negative, crystals negative,” his sister’s voice, his captain’s, voice, muttered behind him. Monotony had calcified longing into boredom. “No mountain peaks, no rock formations, no debris.”

The mesmerizing pull of the sea rose a notch keener. Azrubên stuffed his papers and charcoal back in his pocket and stood up.

There were only six other people in the ship and they were not speaking now. The dip-splash of the oars was clear and edged as glass in the salt air.

“There is something in the water,” he said.

Lôminzil looked at him sideways. He did not return her gaze.

“There are currents and creatures beneath the surface even when it is this still,” she said. “Many of them. They are seldom distinguishable.”

“And if it is something else?”

“Have you some way to know?”

He closed his eyes, against the stars, against the moon.

“You will think me a fool.”

“We are on a fool’s errand.”

He almost laughed at that.

“Stay utterly still and quiet. At all other times the sea’s noises confound the deeper sounds which may come from places of mystery, but it seems a spell of silence has been laid this night.”

“Hm. And if there is a sound, then what?”

“An hour. Just an hour, sister, is all I ask.” He swallowed. “It would be enough simply to know if there is something not of this world. What we do after that is details. Is that not what mother used to say?”

She drew in her breath beside him, slowly, not sharply. “One hour.”

 


 

The oars all stopped, the movement stopped. The sailors dozed. Lôminzil sat like a statue in the bow. The night filled up the sea like a glass. It took time for the boat to fully submerge — sideways, between the ocean and the glittering vault — into the silence. Space softened into larger forms, in the silence the sea nearly felt vast again, as it had not since the world changed. But heavy now, rather than wide. And full, filled with a weight as of time. Azrubên dipped his fingers into the water, so clear the moonlight sprang back from it as if from a source of its own in the deep.

The faint waves of the ship faded, and the swathes of sea between minute ripples were so smooth the surface went glossy and reflected the stars, wispy pale. It closed around his arm as sleek as satin.

If one could walk on the floor at the bottom of the sea, he thought, the door to the place that was other, under-outside, might be found easier, though that was only a echoing thought, though it chased him. Or the currents might make paths better than they could on the ground. This night transparent and motionless, with the full moon enveloping the ocean with silver light, was as close as water could come to clear air. There was no difference in the naked curve of the world seen from any angle, but for the shadows, and the position of the stars encrusting the sky.

He closed his eyes and leaned forward as far as he dared, searching by ear for patterns in the whisper of the water, breathed in the salt drunk on moonlight. Was it different?

If the Straight Road rose off the confines of the world and led to the uttermost west, by paths angled at a tangent off the new geometry of the earth, then at right angles the uttermost deep may lie too, if one came to it by the tangent point and followed its line down, and missed the curve of the earth, and passed down into the chasm out of reach.

Númenor was whole when it fell down, Anarion had said. Had said until people ceased to listen and he stopped.

He peered into the depths, past the reflections, until he saw them.

“There is light coming from under the water.”

“Azrubên—!” Lôminzil whirled towards him sharply, but he had already tipped over the stern and into the sea.

For a moment, the closing over his head shocked him, then his head went down and his heels went up, and he slipped through the water as easily as the moonbeams. It did not seem cold to him, but cool, and uncannily smooth. The silence was more true here, the darkness too. With a pang unlooked for, he realized it felt like the time before, where all the world felt low beneath the sky, and sheltered, and the earth had cupped its lands and waters like a gull’s nest. The weight of the water settled like a dream, each layer muffling the world above more completely than the last, until he thought he could see and hear what was below.

These were not the reflections of stars, or the refracted beams of the moon, but shells of light like phosphorescence woven into down feathers, or like candles with flames made of snips of the sky, blue noon and dawn and blessed sunset in the west, shrouded with a water that seemed wetter than the water around it. He saw, or remembered, from a place he had walked while on the path of a dream or a tale, told by lost parents by firelight in secret, in the twilight between sleeping and waking, between unremembering infancy and childhood — the sight of the white foam flying upon the sea, in the paling light of Rothinzil at sunrise as the land of gift rose out of the waters. The time was different now, Azrubên came at right angles to the people who had come long ago, but he now encountered it again. He stretched out his hand for them, opening his mouth unheeding, tasting salt like blood.

Death-shadow heavy on us….longing is on us…

The lights swirled like the undulating bubbles in a whirlpool, their numbers obscuring the gate through which they had come. They spread out into ghostly fingers. And beyond the fingers, in the deep, the darkness opened at an impossible slant, and like glimpses of day through a crack in a dark door there were white rocks, and trees golden-flowered, the terraces of brick roofs carved in the hills beyond the jetties in the sun, and bells in the market, and voices calling from point to point, and the ships with sails white and fleet as clouds cast upon the wide bay, bluer than the thought of blue. They reflected and tucked themselves into tiny images like locket paintings in the pupils of the eyes that opened one by one in the center of each sunken light. The eyes and fingers lifted up towards his own.

Far away now is the land of gift…

I love you, he said, though he could hardly hear himself over the deep-pitched roar of his lungs and the blood in his ears. He strained forward and down with all his might, for the straight path into the uttermost deep. Other lights were flickering now before his eyes and darkness was curling in from the edges of his vision, but he reached for the ones that had fallen. They were before him, he had seen them for this moment, from whatever place and by whatever path they had come. I love you.

There was a sharp tug on his ankle, and he fell backwards and upwards, the water blinded and deafened him and the images that showed themselves by its stillness were all scrambled, slipping and rolling over one another into a shower of fragments. The pressure eased and the the light from above brightened, grew wondrous clear, then all at once sprung up livid and silver-white and cruelly loud in the sudden blow of the air.

There was nothing for a moment, and then his own choking gasps jolted him awake. He was flat on his back on the smooth wooden deck of the ship, the soft warm night all around, and the clamoring voices of the crew. His head was pounding, and the sky, with its tilted host of stars, a hundred thousand strong, rotated above him in a slow, stuttering arc, like an empty wheel coming towards a halt. Lôminzil was kneeling by his side, hair dripping into her face, lips gone white.

“Don’t you dare ever do something like that again! Have you gone mad? What on earth were you thinking?”

Azrubên stared past her, into the black spaces between the stars, air searing his lungs.

Haiya vahaiya sín atalantë

“Here,” he whispered, scrabbling at his chest through his drenched clothing. “Here! It was here!” Trying to explain it in the dimensions of the earth. “Once it was, and so it still is. Close by, and yet no path across to it! How do we reach it? How do we find it?”

But he could find no more words, and there was no answer.