Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"
The calm had settled upon them days ago. Númenor was long out of sight to the east; Amandil had watched it vanish over the horizon with a heavy feeling in the pit of his stomach. He had known from the start that his was likely a fool's mission—but then, surely Eärendil's had seemed so also?
He would have felt better if he could have seen Eärendil's star. But after Númenor had disappeared, so did the stars and moon, clouds rolling over them like a heavy, steely blanket. The wind had stayed for a little while, but now even that was gone. All was silent but for the lapping of water against the hull, and their own voices, when they chose to speak—which was not often.
When Amandil looked to the west, or what he guessed to be the west, sometimes he thought that he could see a dark smudge on the horizon, but it never solidified into a coastline.
Water was not a concern; Númenóreans sailors had long ago devised ways to purify seawater into something drinkable. But they could not conjure food from the air, and when Gimlân cast his nets, they caught no fish. Their songs and cries to Uinen and Ulmo and even to Ossë went unanswered. They were caught in the enchanted seas outside of Valinor. Amandil stared out over the water and knew, bitterly, that Pharazôn would not encounter such an obstacle. Not with Sauron's power behind him, leading him like a puppet on strings.
Gimlân was the first to succumb—to the heat and maybe to lack of food but mostly, Amandil thought, to despair. He kissed Amandil's hand and laid himself down in the night; at least his passing was peaceful, in the manner of old Númenor. Amandil, Balkazîr, and Abrazimir wrapped him in a sail and let him slip gently into Uinen's embrace in a proper sailor's sea-burial.
"That will be our fate as well, soon enough," Abrazimir said as the water swallowed Gimlân's body. Farther down a larger shadow moved, some mighty creature of the deeps passing by unaware and uncaring of the troubles of Men. Amandil did not answer. He looked up instead, to the clouds. They were not uniform, and they and the sea had taken on a mottled grey look, constantly shifting, and the light that pierced the clouds was flat and made it difficult to tell where the horizon was. Even the phantom of land was nowhere to be seen.
A day later, or two days, or a week—it was impossible to keep counting the days as they drifted aimlessly on this colorless and windless mirror—Abrazimir followed Gimlân, and Balkazîr after him. Amandil struggled to perform the rites alone for Balkazîr, but he gritted his teeth and managed. And once the sea closed over his head and the ripples faded away, all was silent, and Amandil was alone.
There was no more food. He could not summon the will to replenish the water; the mission had failed, and even returning home was no longer possible. Amandil sat against the mast and stared at the horizon. When he slept he dreamed of his children and grandchildren in their youths and childhoods, and the dreams were tinged with golden longing, as his waking hours darkened into quiet despair.
Then something caught his eye, in the morning just after dawn. It was a speck in the distant sky, and he would have ignored it if it had not persisted, and then began to grow larger. It was no trick of the strange light or waking dream. It was a bird. Soon it was close enough that he could see it was no common seabird, but a great wide-winged one, its plumage white and silver-grey. It circled over his ship for a minute or so before swooping down to alight upon the deck. As its feet touched the wood Amandil blinked, and when he opened his eyes again the bird was gone, and in its place stood a woman, young and fair to look upon, with dark hair curling about her face. She was clad in white, and seemed to shine like starlight on clear water, in the midst of the gloom.
"Elbereth," Amandil breathed, not sure himself if it were only an exclamation or if this was indeed the Queen of Heaven.
"No," said the woman as she came to kneel beside him in a quiet rustle of silk. "Elbereth sits upon Taniquetil with Manwë. It is by Ulmo's grace that I have come to you." She took his dried and bony hand in both of her own, her fingers small and smooth and cool. "It is a brave thing you have tried to do," she said.
"A foolish thing," Amandil said. He roused himself and drank the last few mouthfuls of water he had left. Just enough to let him speak in more than a raspy whisper. "There can only be on Eärendil."
"Eärendil has tried to intercede for Númenor," said the woman. "So have I. But the Valar will not be moved in this way a second time, and you would fall under their wrath if you came to the shores of Valinor."
"Lady, who are you?"
She smiled, soft and sad. "We are kin, you and I. Do not fear for your son. Whatever befalls Númenor, the line of Elros will live on, and the White Tree will bloom again."
Overhead the clouds parted, and a soft breeze sprang up out of the west, a cool caress on Amandil's face. He looked up, and as the clouds scattered like tattered banners the stars shone down—the Valacirca blazed in the north, and Menelmacar was striding through the skies. In the west glimmered Eärendil's star, Amandil's forefather a mariner still through the shoreless skies, passing now just beneath the outstretched wings of Soronúmë.
He was so very tired.
"Be at peace, Amandil son of Númendil," said the lady. "You will not be forgotten."
He closed his eyes as she kissed his forehead the way his mother had done when he was young, and in the far distance he heard bells ringing, and the sound of trumpets, like those that had once welcomed him home to Andúnië. His impulse was to rise to answer them—and then he was no longer on the deck of his ship beneath the stars, but in a great hall with vaulted ceilings higher than could be seen—if there were ceilings at all—and all around him other figures only half-seen. Most of them were going in one direction, to a doorway at the end of the hall, which stood open to let in a soft silver light, like and unlike starlight. Amandil moved toward the door. Was that music, on the other side? It was beautiful. He stepped through.