She would have but one chance.
Ar-Pharazôn rarely left her unattended now. Having served her first purpose (her scepter had yielded him a throne) and failed in her second (her maidenhead had yielded him nothing) he kept her cloistered in a suite far from the royal apartments. It was both better and worse to be kept at a distance, depending on the day, depending on his mood. The few women she had trusted had been dismissed from her service, and in their place had been set the feckless wives and dubious daughters of men whose allegiance Ar-Pharazôn did not question today. She would rise some other morning to find even these women gone, their husbands fallen out of favor or denounced by new ranks of grasping creatures.
Two men stood guard at her door now. To keep her safe, Ar-Pharazôn insisted, with all the sweetness and gall of nightshade on his tongue.
Meneltarma rose skyward out her window, but pilgrims no longer coursed the spiraling road, not even at Erukyermë, or Erulaitalë, or Eruhantalë. The hallowed place was forbidden now, not least of all to her. The eagles, too, had abandoned their circuitous flight; a fog shrouded the mountain’s broad summit that even the sea-winds could not dislodge, as if its peak had been draped in a pall. Those who still sent their prayers to Eru Ilúvatar did so not only in silence, but in utmost secrecy. She had tried, for a time, to speak in her mind the words her father had taught her, to remember the feast days and praise Him in her thoughts, but of late, even this she had stopped. She was no longer certain it mattered, no longer certain the Valar would hear, let alone acknowledge, any prayers sent by her people.
The walls of the new temple jutted upward below her, as impenetrable and unwelcoming as a fortress. On Meneltarma, acts of reverence had been performed in the open and for all who wished to see; in this place, acts of worship would take place where only Sauron’s chosen could enter, cloaked in darkness like a guilty secret. Yet better those impassable walls to draw her sight than the felled bones of Nimloth. She had watched Ar-Pharazôn take the axe Dramborleg in hand and cleave the tree like a man slaying his greatest foe, and with it died her last hope: she knew, with the fierce certainty that came now and again as the daughter of Tar-Palantir, that the fate of the king was as bound to the tree as its leaves to their boughs-- and her fate was bound to the king’s.
Today the king had gone back to that once-loved place to oversee some facet of the temple’s building, and, save for the men at arms and two fatuous attendants, she had been left alone. And now she would do what Ar-Pharazôn had forbidden her to do: to behold the man who had once been her husband’s captive, and who was now her husband’s keeper.
When he returned victorious from Middle-earth with Sauron as his trophy, Ar-Pharazôn kept this hostage naked, in chains, and under guard in the most remote of his cells. She had been enjoined from looking upon him then because Ar-Pharazôn mistrusted him, feared him as an asp not yet defanged. Later, still guarded but no longer in bonds, Ar-Pharazôn moved Sauron from the dungeon to a suite of unembellished rooms where he might interrogate him more conveniently, and he barred her from looking upon him then because he believed her weak and easily guiled by Sauron’s lies. Now the prisoner had been exalted, called Mairon rather than Sauron, given a seat of honor in the king’s house, and she was the one kept under guard, forbidden to look upon him because she might offend him as one of the Elendili. Ar-Pharazôn had been right the first count: whether in shackles or in silks, Mairon was not to be trusted. He had been very wrong on the second: it was not she who had been easily guiled. On the third...well, she would soon know for herself.
She sent the women away, ignoring both their discourteous complaints and feigned concerns. Her fingers, no longer practiced in complicated twists and plaits, troubled to confine her elaborate curls in the jeweled caul. Rubies gleamed along mithril strands, blood-drops in a dark tide shot through with a lesser metal of no jeweler’s making. The face in her looking-glass came as a surprise to her these days, a stranger appearing where once an ageless beauty returned her gaze. Age had come to her, though it touched her with more gentility than it had touched her husband. Her comeliness held, but time engraved its presence around her eyes and mouth, slackening her skin, giving a touch of winter to her locks the foremothers of her line would never have known. Men and women no longer relinquished themselves willingly to time’s tide when the sum of their years had been accounted; they clutched and raged until death dragged them mad and mewling to their tombs. She hoped she could meet her own end with a modicum of grace, but feared that when that hour came she, too, would succumb to fear and fury.
When she made to leave her apartments, the door-guards barred her way.
“I would take some air,” she told them, and made no question of it. Even so, they crossed their halberds before her. The elder of the pair, a man still straight of spine despite the threads of grey in his beard, was well known to her. “My father long counted you his friend, Zadnazîr,” she sighed. “Would you defy his daughter now?”
The man swallowed, his eyes darting toward his compatriot. Here, too, she observed suspicion and doubt, even between men who had served many years together. The slow rot of lies and mistrust caused even the sturdiest of foundations to founder.
“In the King’s absence, would you not heed the word of his—” the word stuck in her throat ”—consort?” She shook her head sadly. “I ask but for a simple thing.”
“Have you no escort, my lady?” Zadnazîr could not quite meet her eyes, and his jaw stiffened. “Why did you send your women away? It is not suitable for you to wander alone.”
“I have no need of an escort.” She folded her arms stiffly across her chest. “And suitable ? Is this not my home? Am I not a free woman?”
They dared not speak the truth to her and admit that, no, she was not free.
After a silent and awkward deliberation, they let her pass and fell in behind her. “The king ordered you to guard my chambers, not follow me about like lapdogs. "She did not turn when she addressed them now. "Unless you wish the king to know you spent the day watching me tallying stores in the kitchens…?”
She felt their eyes track her down the corridor, and so she chose the hallway leading toward the kitchens rather than the one which led toward her true destination. They did not follow. She took the servants’ stairs and tracked backward toward the left-hand corridor.
A man stood at his door, as well. Had Ar-Pharazôn insisted to the Maia that this was necessary to keep him safe? Unlikely; the man was not even armed. He announced her, though, as if he had the authority to deny her admittance to rooms in her own home. She silently seethed as admittance was granted.
The king had placed the Maia in apartments closer to his than her own, a fact she perhaps should have found distasteful. Then again, a whisper barely uttered in the one corner of the arched vault could be clearly heard across the room, and she valued what little privacy she still retained. Intricate rugs from Harad and and ornate tapestries glorifying Ar-Pharazôn’s conquests mediated the cold of the stones. Not a single window graced the walls, but she did not imagine this resident needed or wanted them. The only light came from a fire burning in the enormous hearth, and from ruddy martial torches angling off the walls like salutes. In the adjacent chamber, barely visible beyond a drawn curtain, a four-poster bed swathed in thick black hangings stood like a catafalque. Did the Maiar require sleep? Did they dream? A piney, sweet scent tinged the room—Bayberry, perhaps—along with a sharper note she could not place. Something dark and rich, but with a pungency beneath.
He stood facing the fireplace, cast in silhouette by the licking flames, robed in velvets and furs; the only chains adorning him now were gold. Taller than any man, his hair reached to his waist, and in spite of herself she envied its thickness and its lustre, the way It appeared in one instant the color of mithril, and in the next the color of iron. She waited in silence, unaccustomed to the discourtesy of a turned back but unwilling to demean herself further by speaking first.
Misgivings rose in her throat and she swallowed them back, one after another. She was unworthy of this game, too small to play it. The thought came upon her with the clarity and insult of a slap across the cheek. She twisted the ring on her finger until it pinched, then twisted it again. Words tingled on her tongue, an inchoate apology for this intrusion, an admittance of defeat dancing just behind her lips, when, as if accepting her unvoiced admission of insignificance, he relented and turned. A look of tepid complacency graced a bone-white and flawless visage. Each feature was crafted with preternatural symmetry: a simulacrum of a living being. But his eyes, his eyes were alive with terrible fire, glinting like forge-lit steel. She shivered.
“Welcome,” he intoned after allowing her to take in his form and figure. His bow was deep, yet faintly mocking, suggesting he was the gracious one and she the interloper. Would the King have tolerated the subtle insolence of his calculated informality? No, she determined, he would not have tolerated it.
At least, not at first.
Yet now the King humbles himself amidst masons and wrights and carpenters, building a temple to some great horror at this creature’s behest.
The slow, upward curl of his lips suggested her failure to speak pleased him. She forced her features into composure against the instinct to snarl.
“To what do I owe this honor, Ar-Zimraphel?”
The name sounded foreign to her ears, foreign, and diminutive. That is not my name, curse you! she wanted to shout.
“Or do you prefer Tar-Míriel?”
She blinked; her lips parted. Had he heard her thoughts? His benign expression gave nothing away. She drew herself up and lifted her chin. “I... wished to meet the one who came to Númenor in chains as the King’s hostage,” she forced her tongue to sweeten around the words, “but who now sits at his left hand offering… advice.”
“At the King’s left hand,” the Maia repeated slowly. “Where once his consort held pride of place.” His voice was treacle with poison beneath. His mouth gave the impression of smiling, all brilliant white teeth. Yet even as she recognized the imitation of emotion, something within her softened and a disorienting sense of wellbeing burgeoned, as if the grey chamber had become as bright and warm as her solar. The bayberry scent became brighter, more prominent. A homely smell, like the woods at dawn. “If I am such an honored guest, why have you not come to see me sooner? A lesser man might have taken offense.”
She felt her embarrassment with the sharpness of a splinter under a fingernail. Such a lapse of manners! She should have come, yes. Why hadn’t she? Oh : “Ar-Pharazôn would not allow it.”
“Allow it?” The words slipped over his tongue with careless ease. “Does the Royal Consort not do as she pleases?” A mocking tilt of his head. “Are you but a pretty bird with clipped wings, trammeled in gilt for men’s eyes to feast on, Míriel?”
The feeling of wellbeing subsided in a rush, a surge of impotent rage filling the void in its departure. His failure to use the honorific before the name didn’t go unnoticed, either. The sharp points of her nails bored furious crescents into her palms.
He stood closer now. She had not seen him move, could not even say that he had stepped toward her. Perhaps his heavy raiment had and given the perception of displacement, perhaps some trick of the torchlight, or the breathless dizziness brought on by her stifled fury. He extended his hand slowly and deliberately, like a man coaxing a flighty, feral thing. His fingers, extraordinarily long and fine, seemed too large for any man’s hand, the nails gleaming like nacre. They lingered in the air just beyond reach of her face. He shook his head slowly, his features arranged in a likeness of pity, and he clucked his tongue like one might gently chastise a child.
“The great lady of Armenelos has been brought low.” His voice was deep and sonorous, lulling her though she did not wish to be lulled. “Yet I would have you installed in your rightful place, my lady.”
The words were a whisper, a lover’s touch, and the room receded, sucked away like the back-flow of an ebbing tide.
Instead of the Maia before her, she saw herself as if in a mirror. She sat on the throne of the Kings, the scepter forged in the time of Elros Tar-Minuatur in her hand. Her brow was bound in mithril, and across her shoulders lay a robe of silk velvet trimmed in furs. She sat alone. She could hear her name— her true name— on the lips of the gathered crowds rising in a chant. Still as stone, she savored the weight of her presence on the seat of power, watched the throngs at her feet surging toward her with desperate arms outstretched. The sea-winds curried her favor, lifting and teasing the coils of her oiled and gleaming hair, and there was not a single strand of silver in it, nor the faintest of lines to mar the youthfulness of her face.
Pharazôn appeared on the flagstones beneath the dais suddenly, as if he had been thrust there by the force of unseen arms. Clothed in tatters and with hair and beard unkempt, he looked even more aged than he did now. And not merely aged, but decrepit and half-mad. He tumbled toward her with beseeching fingers entwined, prostrating himself at her feet, crying for mercy in his weak and ragged voice the name he had given her, the name which was not her own:
“Ar-Zimraphel! Mercy, Ar-Zimraphel, mercy!”
The reverberation of her own voice in her ears came like thunder as she answered: “Usurper! Get thee from my sight!”
Still he begged, but she had no mercy to grant. Her expression stiffened into a mask of indifference as her guards grasped him about the arms and marched him out of the great hall to the cheers of the assembly, his relentless shrieks assailing her ears until the massive doors shut with resounding finality.
When she rose from the throne, her rejuvenated face held pride, but also triumph: the fabric of her gown fell in graceful folds over a round, fulsome belly. The hand empty of the scepter idly caressed the swell.
Míriel gasped, the sharp intake of cold air returning her to the darkened chamber where Pharazôn’s woven face looked down pridefully from the prow of a ship, from Meneltarma’s peak, from the vanguard of an army. Her hand clutched at her belly, finding nothing more than a flat expanse of fabric. She had dreamed of children— even with Pharazôn, it might have given her some joy. Three times in their marriage had her womb quickened, and three times had her womb failed. Punishment, she knew, for breaking the laws of the Valar by marrying close kin; it mattered little that he had taken her by force before prying her father’s scepter from her hands while her father’s once-loyal men stood wringing their hands and doing nothing. After the last, twisted, stunted thing had been expelled too early from her body, Pharazôn had looked upon her with disgust, taking her like an animal when it suited him and caring nothing for her comfort. When then the indignities of age had fallen over him, and he could only act upon her drunk on vile possets made by men of questionable training and more questionable repute, his desires had become darker and harsher still. When even his potions failed, he abandoned her entirely, and sought his pleasures from other quarters.
This troubled Míriel not at all; any night he lay elsewhere was a night she slept in peace. If some covetous young fool thought a few gold coins, empty promises, and a sad dribble of his lifeless seed a fair exchange for his rough handling, she deserved what she got. But other rumors reached her betimes, rumors that his seed had not altogether failed to take root. She would have taken this child and raised it, no matter how base its origins, so she might be less alone, so she might have had something to love, and to love her in return. But she knew her husband: his overweening pride, his avarice, his belief that his true destiny had been denied him by dint of the order of his birth… No, Pharazôn was not a man who would suffer a bastard to live, perchance usurping his own power as he had usurped his cousin’s. For all the times she had heard whispers of another woman grown thick with the get of the King, never had she heard whispers of a living child.
She searched for her voice. “You have shown me holding the scepter of Númenor—”
“— Your scepter, Tar-Míriel, daughter of kings.” The voice prodded, seeking purchase in her mind.
She forced the intrusive sensation back with no small effort and continued. “Yet you show my husband punished for his transgressions and removed from my court.” Once more, her hand found her way to her abdomen, to the void there. “Tell me: whose child did I carry?”
The swish of his fabric seemed loud in her ears as he raised his arm again, and though he still stood out of reach, his presence surged toward her and she braced herself for the assault, crying aloud in expectation of pain as another vision engulfed her.
The darkness was utter and complete, a night beyond night, and yet she was not frightened. A warmth suffused her, spread upward from her loins, outward from her breasts, creeping like a flush up her throat, sending a current of sparks through her body, blossoming between her legs. Her breath came in bursts. The sweetness of her pleasure was all the greater for having never known it before. Then came his touch: gentle at first, but with growing insistence, coaxing her… opening her. Then his mouth...she had never imagined such a kiss, the warm dance of his tongue against her own, the sweetness of lips... Then lower, suckling her, awakening in her a glorious heat…. Lower... oh yes, lower...tormenting her with such decadence she thought she would die from it, and gratefully so. Slowly, her eyes acclimated to the darkness, recognized the black velvet curtains surrounding her. The close air smelled of vetiver and musk, something herbal and something animal. She beheld herself naked on his bed, naked and writhing with a hunger she had not in her life known. She reached for him, pleading, “please...Now, Mairon...now…”
His robes fell away, and he displayed the perfection of his form: the muscles twitching beneath flesh, the silk of his hair, and the exquisite pride rising between his legs and straining toward her. She spread herself for him like some wanton girl, called to him hot with need, felt him enter her, fill her, larger and harder than Pharazôn could have dreamed, and yet his shaft offered nothing but pleasure with each thrust. She had never known such desire, such desperation. Her body was no longer her own, had transformed into some bestial thing bent on sating its basest need. And, oh, did she need... The crest of pleasure rose within her, rose to heights so perilous she wanted to scream. It rose higher and higher within her until she did scream.
“Now, Tar-Mairon! Now, my king!”
Tar-Mairon. My king. The crest of pleasure fell precipitously away.
“NO!” She struggled against him, against his sudden unbearable weight. The shaft within her became a spike of ice, withdrew, and left her empty and cold to the core.
When she opened her eyes, she found herself still standing where she had been before. The bed remained at a distance, its hangings undisturbed. Her breathing still came in rough gasps, and wetness lingered between her legs as pleasure waned, leaving its faint memory. A swift survey of her person brought relief: not so much as an inch of lace out was of place...save a single dark curl that had slipped free from its netting to tickle her shoulder like a guilty touch. The Maia remained just beyond reach, regarding her with an inscrutable look.
“Zigûr, they call you,” she hissed, her voice roiling low in her belly as she recovered herself. “Sorcerer.” The insult had become, to the king and to all but a despised few, a laurel with which to crown him. “But I have not forgotten your true name, Abhorred one, any more than I have forgotten my own.”
He inclined his head, but the gesture spoke of dismissal rather than acceptance. “Very well.”
She said no more, and turned to depart. Three strides had she taken when a wall of flame rose up before her, trapping her. The hem of her gown smoldered in the irrepressible heat.
Beyond the flames, she could see the vast walls of the temple her husband even now was raising; above the walls, a silver dome she had seen in renderings rose with its louvers open to expel smoke from the fire. Worse than the flames was the sweetly acrid stench rising with them, the meaty reek that brought bile to her throat. No, the broken limbs of Nimloth did not fuel this fire alone. But she had always known more than wood would be burned there, hadn’t she? In her helplessness, she had remained silent. A magnificent black throne rose before her, far larger than that of the King’s House: it would need be, to hold the being who loomed there with his long, pale fingers curling like claws around the arms. The ball of each foot resembled a skull. Perhaps more than resembled. Orange and yellow flares danced across his face, but he did not blink at the heat or the light. He did not blink at all. Except for the slow rise and fall of his chest, and the way in which his hair was lifted and teased by the updrafts, she might have imagined him a statue, an idol. He looked through the fire at her with perfect calm. Ar-Pharazôn, dwarfed beside him, held the scepter in his hand— a trinket he alone valued now. Its power was bankrupt beside this seat, this fire, this presence, yet she knew he would not relinquish it, even at the last. If the Maia’s eyes were empty of emotion, her husband’s were full of violence and vengeance. His lips curled and his body shook with rage as he pointed the scepter at her like a sword, chanting in a language she did not understand:
“Thrak-kî! Krimp-kî! Thrak-kî! Krimp-kî!”
She tried to back away, but shackles now restrained her hand and foot; she could not move. Flames licked at her ankles, took light in her dress, and began to climb. She tried to scream, but he stopped her voice.
Sauron turned one palm upward. She did not understand the gesture, but she had no time to consider it: A dozen hands came upon her all at once, launching her toward the flames that had already begun to consume her. Her flesh charred and blackened on her bones, and still she could not scream. The scent of her burning hair filled her nostrils, and still she could not scream. The pain of burning was beyond all horrors the mind could conjure, and still she could not scream. Her lungs filled with smoke, with blood, with death… and yet she still could not scream. She pitched forward toward the heart of the fire...
...and caught herself on her hands, the fibers of the rugs stinging her palms.
“Have a care, my lady.” The feigned concern in his voice serpentined through her, a blade in her blood, a viper in her veins. “You have misstepped.”
She did not take his proffered hand to help her rise, nor did she look again upon him, nor speak as she departed. Once out of sight of the door warden, she broke into a run, fled as fast as she could back to her chambers. Zadnazîr called out after her in concern as she pushed past him and slammed the doors to her rooms and barred them behind her. But no lock could keep out what she had witnessed in that darkened chamber, neither its horrors not its delights.
I should not have gone.
Her legs buckled, her hands gripping the bedpost to hold her up. She grasped at the wood like the mast of a great ship, a vessel that might take her far, far away. She clutched it uselessly and wept.
Unhappy daughters of Númenor! Was this the destiny of the greatest of Eru’s mortal creations? To suffer and die as thralls? Her mind turned to bright Silmariën, robbed of her birthright by a man’s law; to unhappy Tar-Ancalimë, who despised her mother, father, and husband in equal portion; to lonely Tar-Telperiën who held her throne by force, rejecting any man’s affection; to her foremother Inzilbêth, forced to keep her faith in secret and alienated from her youngest son; and to foolish Tar-Vanimeldë, who abdicated her power in favor of pretty gowns and festive balls and in her willful blindness left her own child to be supplanted. Have we not brought this fate upon ourselves? she railed in silence, with our weakness and our ignorance and our vanity? We have been as children, singing in the ashes while our home burned before our very eye s! We have raised up the very creature who will bring us down!
And in that moment, the last of her pride faltered and the last of her hope was lost: her end would come, and soon. Nothing would forestall or deny it. All that was left to wonder was whether it would come by fire or by water, by her husband’s hand...or by Sauron’s… or by the All-Father’s… or by her own.
Ar-Pharazôn did not summon her to dinner that evening; one of the ladies appeared with an overly solicitous grin and a cold platter of orts hardly better than those she would have left for the scullery boys. She knew the reason.
Alone in the night, she whispered the words he had forbidden her to speak aloud— yes, she remained a coward at the end of it all— and sent her prayers to the One. It no longer mattered if He accepted them, or even if He heard them at all; what mattered was the speaking, was the words, was the movement of her lips in the dark, where no one else could hear.
When at last she dreamed, she dreamed of a great storm, of lightning on the distant horizon, of waves as tall as Meneltarma battering the island like the hands of a giant chastising a recalcitrant child. So this is how it will be , she thought. Not by fire. Tears wetted her pillow, though she did not wake, the brine of her sorrows stiffening the linen beneath her fair cheek. Not by fire .
She dreamed the waves were calling her name. Her true name. In the depths of night, the angry sea summoned her: