Nilûphel swiped a wet cloth over Isildur's hot forehead, and half-listened to the other healers in the front room. They were whispering about the strange lord in Armenelos, fair of face, with unnerving eyes. The very lord whose deeds, and whose counsels to the King, had brought Isildur to do what he'd done last night.
In they'd brought him - barely walking, barely held together, torn up and broken from a fight he had hardly survived.
"He's badly hurt," they'd said, laying him on the cot in her house of healing. "He can go no further. Please, Nilûphel - you're the best healer among us, the most learned...please help him...we'll guard the door..."
None had come knocking, in the end - no King's Men, no disciples of the terrible lord. No boots pounding by on the street outside. Still - she kept the prince away from the main hall, in quarters at the back, just in case. His father and brother came often to see him, but discreetly, should anyone notice. Eyes, friendly and unfriendly, were everywhere, after all. Even Rómenna could no longer be called wholly safe.
She laid the cloth she held over Isildur's head and pulled the light blanket over the parts of his body that could be covered. When the worst had passed, Elendil had hoped to bring him back to his own halls, to heal there safe among his family - but he was not healing. His wounds were treated as best she could, and she'd given him what she had to urge the fever to pass, and she had prayed over him, calling on Estë and her lords to send healing and light upon the prince. There was nothing more to do. Surrender was an ugly word, almost a vulgarity here among the Elendili - and yet, paradoxically, it was their best weapon against the whims of lords greater than them.
She shook her head bitterly, laying a gentle hand on Isildur's clammy cheek, and then stepped out for just a moment, closing the door quietly behind her. She needed air, fresh air, untainted by the tang of blood and the bittersweet odour of fever.
In the main room, the doors and windows were all shut. They'd taken to doing that, even before Isildur had come, lighting it instead with dim lamps and sun through stained-glass windows. There was a strange odour in the room - a lingering, rank trace of scent.
"Is there a block in the drain opposite?" she asked, wrinkling her nose and gesturing to the closed door and the street beyond.
"I've no idea, but It only started up a short while ago," said Ûrîzil, passing by with a bowl of hot water that smelled of athelas - to Nilûphel, the scent of a winter morning, fresh with frost and the musky embers of night-fires. It cleansed her nose of the unpleasant odour.
She nodded towards the bowl. "Are you bringing that to the prince?"
"Yes. Don't worry," she said, her eyes soft as she laid a gentle hand on Nilûphel's arm. "You've not stopped for a moment yet. Take a break now."
"I will. Will you check on my son? He's sleeping-"
"In the library, in your cot," she replied, eyes twinkling. "I'm sure he's happy to rest after the excitement of the night. I'll have one of the girls bring him to the docks later to see his father.
"Thank you," Nilûphel said, blinking in assent and gratitude.
She walked slowly through the outer hall, purposing to look over the host of ailing or injured folk, that came here to be treated swiftly and with skill. Every time a cot emptied, her heart swelled with joy. She watched now as a child was raised to sitting by one of her healers. She remembered him, as she remembered everyone who passed through her doors. He had only come in last night, brought down by sickness - and now, he was well enough to rise, and to eat his breakfast, and would likely be home for the evening meal.
This image of peace and healing quickly hid itself as her ears picked up the conversation between healers and patients, a few beds over.
"Like a snap of lightning," one of the younger girls was murmuring, binding the bloody hand of a sailmaker who'd injured himself down at the docks. "I still cannot believe it - how quickly he gained the ear of the king."
Nilûphel stiffened, her heart pumping loudly, her mind straying to the image of Isildur's prone form, and then to the street outside, and the boots of King's Men and the lord's disciples that could pass by at any given moment. There was only one he they could be talking about. The lord, the High Priest by Ar-Pharazôn's side. The one with fire-eyes that they had borne out of the east, whose purpose hovered over him like a dark cloud.
"I saw him," whispered a young man, sitting on the edge of a cot and sniffing around a bloodstained wad of bandages in his hand. Nilûphel glanced up, pulling out of her thoughts to stare at him.
This one - they'd broken his nose, the soldiers in the city, just a little while ago. Why he'd dared to go, on a day like this, she did not know. It was sheer luck that he'd gotten out alive. The King's Men were looking for anyone to blame for the fruit of Nimloth that had been stolen last night by a mysterious trespasser.
A trespasser named Isildur, son of Elendil. He had risked almost everything to save that little piece of the Tree for them.
"I saw that thrice-cursed priest," spat the man with the broken nose, and the others nodded at the mockery in his tone. "He was peering up at the Meneltarma, his fist clenched and shaking at his side. Hate, I tell you, was what was in his eyes, even as he looked upon the men in the streets. There is naught in him but hate, and that shall be the new king of Númenor, mark my words."
"They are marked, and now I ask that they be silenced," Nilûphel said sternly, and the group's gaze swivelled in unison to stare at her. "You are too obvious in your anger. It's no wonder he set his men upon you."
His eyes flashed, offended. "What's that supposed to mean? Would you have us cower 'til we kiss the floor? Not I, my lady. Our lord Isildur didn't."
"Do you think he did what he did to prove a point?" She snapped. "He did it to save Nimloth, and look where it's gotten him! Do you think he's fallen within an inch of his life so you can go and make a fool of yourself, rather than helping your own people when they need it?"
"The King's Men have always been cruel, and wont to hurt, but they have never acted beyond the law," the young man said bitterly. "This was nothing more than the King has ever let them do."
Her eyes narrowed. "Do you truly believe that with Zigûr whispering in the King's ear, these men of small power will be content to hold their swords in check? Knowing what this priest truly is, do you believe this barely-held truce will hold for long? Would you still be so keen to prod at this nest of snakes? Tell me which state of mind is better - surrender, or stupidity."
Silence followed her voice. The healers knew not to argue with her counsel, and the young man's mouth was shut and shaking, as though words wanted to come out, but he was forcing them back, knowing they were foolish.
She walked stiffly away from them, pulled open the side door, and nearly doubled over, gagging. A disgusting odour was wafting through the air, a foul reek that had the girls coughing, slapping their hands over their noses and mouths.
"In the name of the Valar, what is that...?" The young man said, his wad of bandages pressed flush against his face and his barely-mended nose wrinkling in disgust.
Nilûphel sprang out into the street, and raised her eyes to the sky. What she saw had her sinking to her knees, sending a prayer to the Valar - a prayer to thank them for Isildur's courage, and a prayer to protect them from the woe that this terrible sight heralded.
A dark cloud of smoke was hovering in the distance, swarming over the height near Armenelos, like the breath of a dark spirit reeling up into the steely clouds. It could only be one thing - she knew that with the certainty that years of healing and wisdom had given her.
"What is it?" called Ûrîzil, coming to the threshold with a kerchief over her mouth.
"Nimloth is burning," she whispered, her voice falling away into the foul-smelling wind.
Tar-Mairon, the lord named himself - but when the Faithful were alone in their homes, and were sure no-one was listening, they called him by other, fouler names. Nilûphel wished that they did not need saying - but day by day, the lord's terrible will was becoming a painful fixture, even in their supposed haven.
The king had not told his people who this new counsellor of his was, at first. None among the Faithful, save their lords, had seen the man at the beginning, when things had started to get worse - and their lords saw him the last, before they were forced from Armenelos. Amandil and his sons had called a meeting of the noble families, the day after they had been summoned by the King and dismissed from his council. They were her kin, through her husband, Aglarân, and she had sat and listened as they related the tale with fire in their eyes. It was utterly clear to them, what had transpired. A coup, a con, a trap that had been willingly surrendered to.
"We must away, to Rómmena," Amandil had decreed that night. "For we are all well knowledgeable of the tales of the Eldar, our friends, and I assure you - he is no priest or advisor. His agents will spread words, to make you believe his lies, but have no illusion. The Deceiver walks among us, and now he has revealed his hand."
"He means to begin a cult," Elendil declared. "To turn the hearts of every one of us, who must face the truth of our mortality, to darkness. His lord is Morgoth, and he would make him our lord, too."
"He will not find it difficult," she had spoken up, her voice faint with fear - but they listened to her, as they always did. "Most have already fallen under the sway of the Shadow; they are so afraid. They will willingly submit, I think, if he can offer them even the smallest hope of triumph. Such is the nature of man."
"This land is no longer safe for us, no matter that we maintain loyalty to the House of Elros or not," Amandil had acquiesced, with a respectful nod. "Loyalty to the darkness is all that the Deceiver will consider. Our King will heed his words closely. I propose you return to your houses and hosts and urge them to travel to the Havens, as soon as they are able. I fear the dark hand of Gorthaur grows stronger every day."
Nîluphel had swallowed, and her husband had taken her shaking hand in his, squeezing it as a comfort. She'd asked, though she knew the answer, "Can we do nothing at all against him?"
With sorrowful in his face, Elendil had shaken his head, eyes downcast. "Not unless we would risk the lives of every single man, woman, and child, that even contemplates calling themselves Faithful. There is no avenue, no matter how we think or hope - save that which leads East over the sea."
It was because of his words that night, that she had decided to remain in Númenor for so long. She had been ready to go for quite some time - but if the only avenue was escape, escape was not in the means of all. So she did the next best thing. She enlarged and improved her workplace, and made it into a sanctuary.
Nilûphel's house of healing was the most renowned in Rómenna, and lay only a few streets away from the sea. People came here now to pray; they sat with her, or on the free cots, and they spoke of their troubles in hushed voices, and held hands as they cast their eyes skyward and asked the Valar for guidance and deliverance.
Today, though, was quiet, and there were few patients or worshippers. The heat of the early afternoon, three days after Nimloth began burning, had stilled the entire city - even her boisterous little son, napping on a cot in the library, content after his daily visit to see his father at the docks. With the delicate hand of a mother and a healer, she adjusted the light veil he wore over his nose and mouth, and placed a fresh bundle of athelas by his head. She wore a sprig pinned to her dress as she worked. It was the only way to cope with the odour of burning Nimloth, which had not yet abated.
The blazing afternoon was so quiet that she could hear the hammers echoing from the harbour. Worry plagued her. Her husband was at the wharfs, helping to build sailing vessels. He had told her much, and sought her counsel for even more, for she perceived things keenly.
She peered out the window. The sun barely pierced through the dark cloud of smoke that emanated from the pyre in Armenelos, but the day remained warm, and a hot, foul breeze blew through the quiet streets. She opened the glass panes for a brief moment, seeking the sea between buildings. She knew that there, too, they were in grave trouble.
They were running out of resources to build ships. The King would not hurt their lord, Amandil, but he would not help him either - nor intervene when he could not obtain the things he needed to build his fleet to sail East. Many had begun turning their eyes to the great golden dome in Armenelos, and would not deign to speak with the lord of the Elendili.
Their once-freedoms had been cut away by the sword of arrogance, and lanced with the spear of intolerance. The King had never been kind, and repression had always been his province. Now, however, with Zigûr leeching off the King's pride, she feared the change to come. It could not be good. Already rumour had spread, of people being taken in the night by men wearing the mark of the false priest, the mark of their cult to the Darkness. Terrible tales had been heard by those who dared venture close to the capital for news - that Nimloth was not the only thing burning in that temple; that the reek was not just the reek of wood catching flame and smouldering. Nimloth was only the first sacrifice, they'd said, and her blood had run cold.
Nilûphel knew what she had to do. It sat heavy in her heart. She needed to send her son away.
She sighed to herself, shaking her head, and bent her thought only to her husband, her son, to her sick and wounded charges in the house of healing, to the recovery of the prince. She sent her prayers of hope unto the Valar, praying they would pierce through the veil of smoke and find their way out of the darkness.
Sails and rigging creaked in the hot, dry wind, and the waves rocked, as if anxious to bear their charges away from the great island.
Ships went often from the Havens of Rómenna, but these days, they did not return. By both decree of the King and by the will of their hosts, they stayed in the east, with the Elves. The finished vessels at the disposal of the Elendili were becoming spare, and hosts were waiting longer, to have as many passengers as possible before sailing east.
"I do not wish to go, mama," her son whimpered, pressing his little face into the crook of her neck. She held him on her hip, her arms closed tight around him, pressing gentle kisses to his forehead.
Her breath shuddered, but she did not weep. She did not dare. She needed to be hope and strength, and only hope and strength, for her little light, this boy who was yet untarnished by thoughts of death or everlasting life, of darkness or dark lords. So she kissed his brow one last time, and led him to the outstretched hand of one of the sailors. Balakân was his name - a friend of her husband's, and a friend to their family for many long years.
His eyes were deep with sorrow as he bowed his head low before her.
"I will care for him, unto the end of my days, or until you arrive," he amended, though she understood his words, and they both knew there was no certainty. "He shall be cared for among the Elves, and loved, and taught wisdom and skill and art. I assure you - he will want for nothing."
"Thank you," she whispered. "Thank you. Thank you."
He kissed her hand and began leading him away.
"Is Aglarân fitting the ship?" she asked suddenly.
Balakân froze midstride, and then nodded. "He will get a chance to say goodbye to his father before departing."
"Good." She dropped her voice. "I may not see my husband tonight. He is so busy these days, building the ships. Make sure to pass word on to him, that I've arranged passage once the prince is healed. Make sure he goes first."
He nodded, giving her a bittersweet smile. "A fair thing to say."
He knew, and she knew, though her son and Aglarân understood it not. No such passage had been arranged - or would be. No ship could bear her away now, no matter from the urging of her friends or her loved ones. The Faithful who could not flee needed a sanctuary. She would provide it, until its very walls were cast down by the High Priest and its trappings burned brighter than the husk of the White Tree.
Still - watching her son walk away from her, the pink and golden light of evening illuminating his hair, she learned then the feeling of heartbreak. It took all her effort to bring her feet back to the house of healing, and weep quietly beside Isildur's sleeping form.
On the seventh day, the black cloud of burning Nimloth dissipated completely, blown away at last into the West. On that same day, Isildur's eyes opened wide, clear and bright, and he sat up as though he had no wounds or bruises to trouble him.
Nilûphel fed him - he ate ravenously, as a man who had just returned to civilisation after weeks lost upon the sea. He was strong, and his mind was working, and he was anxious to leave, return to his family, and do a hundred things.
Nilûphel marvelled at his energy. It was only later, when Ûrîzil came in for her afternoon and evening work, beaming and joyous, did she learn what had transpired. The fruit of Nimloth had begun to grow - a carefully guarded seedling, hardly larger than a fingernail, had broken the soil where it had been planted. She couldn't help but wonder if that had given Isildur the push he needed to fight his injuries.
That same day, however - the same day the cloud departed, and the prince rose from his bed like a man reborn, and the air smelled of sweet flowers and the sun broke on the bright petals - the disciples and the King's Men came at last to Rómenna.
They were few, clothed in black and white, with the symbol of their dark cult emblazoned on their chests. Their small number was escorted by countless King's Men. While the disciples preached, the King's Men guarded them - and in the night and the twilight hours, they came to houses and put out the lights.
Rebels, they said. The Faithful knew better. They were rebels not in politics, but in faith - and the Deceiver would not abide that for long. He had already made his first move, burning Nimloth, a sacrilege designed to bring the Faithful to their knees. Now came the purges.
A heavy hand banged on her door. The wood and walls shuddered. Fear sprang up in her heart, but she forced her voice to remain calm and steady, as she said, "Please, give me a moment - I am at prayer."
A loud crack sounded behind her as the door burst open. Strong hands wrapped around her arms like vices, before she could even turn to see to whom they belonged.
"Unhand me!" she cried, but was not heeded. They dragged her through her halls, past the fearful, aghast faces of her patients and healers. Outside, dawn was just breaking. They threw her upon the cobbles, and she felt the skin on her forehead break.
Thick, rough rope wrapped tight around her wrists, and she was pulled up onto her knees. Blood trickled down the side of her face, and she stared in terror at the group surrounding her. King's men - six of them - and a disciple.
"You have displayed great disloyalty to the King," on of the soldiers declared. "You will be taken to Armenelos, to make penance and plead forgiveness."
"What disloyalty?" she hissed. "I demand you summon my lord Amandil!"
"The King's word supersedes all," the soldier growled, has hand twitching over the hilt of his sword. "We know of your wicked deeds, rebel-witch."
"I am no such thing! Your words are false!"
He struck her hard across the cheek, and she saw spots of black and burning stars.
"A liar as well! Traitor! Bring her to Armenelos!"
"Let me put shoes on my feet," she hissed, her jaw aching, but they did not heed her words.
As they pulled her to her feet, through the break in the crowd that had begun to gather, she saw Ûrîzel, her hands bound and the shoulder of her dress torn.
"We are betrayed," she hissed, and was rewarded with a blow to the back of her head. She slumped, unconscious, and was paraded ahead before Nilûphel, on the road to Armenelos.
Her heart was pounding with fear, but she dared not call out to Ûrîzil's small, prone shape, dragging between the arms of the King's Men. Doom hung heavy over her heart. There was nothing to be done now. There was only one outcome to this - she would fall to Zigûr, and would learn the truth of the dark rumours. She could only hold on to that one small hope - that the seedling of Nimloth was planted, and Isildur was safe and well in his father's house, and her son was safely across the sea, and her husband was preparing their ship without hesitation in the belief that she was coming.
So she walked silently, with her chin held high, and nodded to the horrified faces of the Elendili who were rising from their beds to see their most renowned healer being paraded on the road to the temple.
Only when they drew close to the golden gates, with her bare feet aching and bleeding, and her back damp with the sweat of the day and her own barely controlled fear, did she waver. All thought failed, as she laid eyes at last on the fabled, accursed priest.
He stood tall and slender, like a great tree struck by lightning, and his silver hair was adorned with many golden chains. In the grim set of his mouth was disdain and the certainty of power. When his eyes at last met hers, she quailed, unable to stand. There was a terrible blaze in their piercing hazel irises, as though a barely-contained fire was smouldering inside him.
He swept an arm forth, his pale blue robes billowing, and raised a hand towards the altar, the ring on his finger glinting in the light of the setting sun.
She knew then, and she was certain - of who he was, of what he was. No matter stories of the Eldar, the words of those who had seen him, the council of Amandil - she only had to see his eyes, and she was certain. Númenor had fallen upon the most cruel doom. She clung tight to her hope, but it was slipping away, fleeing from the darkness, and despair was taking root in her gut.
As they dragged her through the great gate, and past the thick golden walls, she cried out once more, her tears falling to the temple floor, utterly futile. "I am no traitor! I am loyal to the House of Elros! I pledge everlasting fealty!"
The priest was leading them through, holding his hands together, with his face raised to the domed ceiling in blasphemous piety. Now she saw that she was not the only one, and her stomach sank to her feet. Women and men were being led beside her, some clothed in white and wreathed with garlands, their faces blank; others that looked like her, as though they'd been dragged from their homes on a whim.
As the central hall yawned into view before her, her mouth fell open, and her scream of horror stoppered in her throat.
Upon a central square stage were raised three pyres - two being restacked, and one burning, almost down to its ashes now. What had been strapped to it was evident from the blackened, twisted shape slumped in the embers.
From this dais, three slabs jutted out from each side. The walls of stone falling beneath each of them were stained dark brown, the dark words carved into the rock clogged with it.
"To the pyre, my lord?" said the men.
Zigûr shook his head. "I am hard pressed for time today," he said, his voice like black velvet. "To the block."
They dragged her up the stairs on the corners of the dais, and roped her to one of the many slabs of stone jutting out from the altar. She watched as a disciple brought forth a large, deep, golden goblet, and placed it at the foot of the wall. The stench of blood, heady and metallic, filled her lungs, as her head fell back over the edge of the sacrificial rock, baring her pale throat. A disciple drew a long, curved knife from his belt, and held it to the sun streaming through the opening in the dome, mumbling in some strange, horrible tongue. The priest let his blue robes fall to the floor, revealing a long white tunic that bared his shoulders. He held his hands out before him, and fixed his eyes on hers.
The priest said no word - but she heard his voice. His image was inverted to her vision, swimming as the blood rushed to her head, but the terrifying glow of his eyes pierced through the veil of despair and terror clouding her thoughts.
"You have done grave deeds, healer," he whispered, his lips unmoving, but his voice clear in her mind. "No, you are no rebel - not against the King. But against the will of the darkness, you have stood too long. Your quiet resistance is far deadlier than the excitable young men who bring angry knives against my followers. Know this well - your sanctuary will crumble in the weeks to come. I will see to it that every man, woman, and child who ever rested their knees on your prayer-pillows will be bled like pigs in the same place that you now lie. You who have not embraced the freedom of Melkor will find no refuge in the darkness after death. You will remember to fear your mortality - and you will regret all you have not done to save yourself."
"Do you truly believe your words?" she breathed, struggling to keep her voice steady.
His mouth spread into a grin, and bile rose in her throat, utterly disgusted. He was the Deceiver, incorrigible and corrupted through and through. He sought only the fall of men, and would say any words to achieve it, would slit as many throats and curse as many people as it took to bring down an empire. Rage and indignation boiled inside her, the righteous flare banishing the shadows of fear that had settled in her heart.
"The Void take you, Sauron," she cried, "And may Eru Ilúvatar smite your temple, and bury you beneath it!"
The High Priest lifted one slender hand, his eyebrows raised in amusement, and drew his thumb across his throat.