Her first sight of Númenor was obscured by birds rising in a great screaming flock, rising higher until they obscured the sun. Drawing her furs closer around her shoulders made her feel no more at ease to see land after so long at sea. It was the home of the Men who had made slaves of her people, gouging deeply into the very mountains in their lust for riches. But her lord had called for her, and she would bear the dreadful waters for him. She held her hand over her face at the foul smell of the harbour.
Armed guards waited for her at the dock. If she swayed on her feet from weeks on the ship, her robes would conceal it. As she entered the waiting carriage, the guards were too frightened to meet her eyes. Good—her lord’s will still reigned, despite his imprisonment. It was many miles of road before she reached the sea power’s inland capital. Armenelos, now Ar-Minalêth, appeared at last, a city crouching at the foot of the Meneltarma. The towers of the king’s palace tried to rise as high as the birds, looking like nothing more than a trio of weak old men hunching over gaudily painted trinkets.
“We are to escort you directly to Ar-Zigûr, my lady,” said the tallest of them. “We arranged for a litter.”
“I have been carried long enough. I will walk. Dismiss your slaves.” She had practiced her Adûnaic on the ship, and spoke with no more accent than she chose.
She regretted turning away the litter as they climbed the hill to the palace, for the wind blew colder and fiercer, and it was no small distance. The streets were clean because they were empty. A few eyes peered from behind shuttered windows. Instead of entering through the marble gates, she was led to a hidden door along the high stone walls.
“This is as far as we go.”
“Thank you.” She pressed a gold coin to his hand as he turned to leave.
Once inside, her lord’s presence descended over her mind like a warm cowl. He guided her through the palace, tugging her past every wrong turn, leading her at last to a tower room. The scent of incense overlaid the pungent odour of his experiments. She found him wearing the pallid shape of a Dúnedan but he was undiminished, even so.
“It is good to see you after nearly three score years,” he said.
“My lord,” she replied, dropping to her knees and clasping her hands in front of her, displaying her ring. “I am ever faithful to you.”
Her lord bid her to her feet and embraced her. “I know you are, as no one else is on this cursed island. Traitors spring at my feet.” Pulling her closer, her lord bent to whisper in her ear. “My favoured priestess has been slain, otherwise I would not have taken you from your work in the lands of the Sun.”
“Why?” she asked, the ring throbbing as her lord released her.
“To defy me. I suspect the queen, for she has always spoken against me in court. The rest of the Faithful merely cringe in silence. We cannot kill her, so I would have you draw close to her.”
Her lord sent her a vision of a woman lying dead before the temple doors, murdered like an offering. When she stiffened at the blasphemy, her lord stroked her cheek.
“Míriel has been without allies longer than you have been alive,” he continued, laying his hands on her shoulders. “Let her think that she has found a like soul in you. Now, I must present you to Pharazôn, and for that you will need a new name. Khunzildân shall slip from Númenórean lips easily enough.”
Heart-eater. Performing the sacrifices would now fall to her.
Pharazôn’s queen was not to be seen when he greeted their guest from over the sea. Nor was she ever at his side, Khunzildân learned from the courtiers, unless he summoned her directly. It seemed to be a common fancy of the Númenórean queens to disdain their husbands, and Míriel was traditional in all things. With Míriel keeping to her wing of the palace and accepting no visitors, Khunzildân was forced to bide her time. Míriel’s household did not gossip, not even to fellow servants. For all Khunzildân knew, Míriel could have been a ghost. A letter was slipped under her door after a week spent in indolence.
To Khunzildân of Far Harad, Priestess of the Giver of Freedom, greetings! In celebration of the glorious defiance of Ar-Zigûr to the Lords of the West, in three days’ time will the moon shine bright over Ar-Minalêth in hours of mirth and masking. Not since the debauches of Ar-Vanimeldë has our isle known such forbidden pleasures!
Your presence is much desired.
The letter was signed by a noblewoman who was numbered secretly among the Faithful. Khunzildân would attend.
The costume took her servants nearly the entire three days to prepare. Hundreds of crows’ feathers had to be sewn onto Rhûnish silk for her dress, and more feathers went into the mantle and her mask. Númenor had been strangely free of crows until her lord arrived. Her maid busily perfumed and primped her until Khunzildân waved her away. She lined her eyes with kohl herself, free of the ghastly eyeshadow favoured by Western ladies. Khunzildân was grateful that her lord’s ring had kept the years from stealing her looks, or she would have died an old woman before seeing him again. She even took care to rouge her lips, though her crow’s mask showed little.
After far too long, Khunzildân was ready to depart. While it was Númenórean fashion to go everywhere on horseback, her costume was too delicate, so she was driven to her hostess’s estate in a carriage. The hilly landscape made up in sheep what it lacked in beauty; a rolling, changeless green made for good pasture. As night fell, Khunzildân watched the shepherds build their watch fires. She knew they had arrived when she saw a great house illuminated by hundreds of lamps, enough to keep the grounds in twilight while all else darkened. It was a conceit of the Númenóreans to hold their party outside, as if Manwë could be pleased.
Only a few marked her arrival. Most were too distracted, ensnared by some entertainment or other. Minstrels and troupes of dancers competed with the amassed finery and excess of the costumed guests while painted servants milled about with trays of food and wine. She was drawn into circle after circle of smiling men and women, all pretending that a mask was enough to disguise who they were. Politely, they pretended not to know who Khunzildân was, though her skin was darker than any Númenórean’s. Her eyes lingered on those who stayed on the outskirts, wandering the gardens or moving in twos. Those were the lovers, spies, and schemers she should watch.
Khunzildân laughed to herself when she found the fountain of red wine. As she bent to refill her glass, she noticed the woman sitting on the fountain’s edge. She was dressed in light chainmail, most of her face hidden by her winged helmet.
“It is certainly a decadent way to let wine breathe,” said the woman dryly. Her eyes were the same grey as Pharazôn’s. That alone said little, for most of Elros’s line had inherited his colouring. There was more resemblance to Pharazôn in the sharp set of her nose, but the sensual bow of her upper lip was hers alone. “But decadence is in fashion. How have you found Westernesse, traveller?”
“Cold, dark, and unlovely.”
Míriel inclined her head in a nod. “You have come in the wrong season, and perhaps in the wrong time. When I was a girl, I thought I could see all the way to Avallónë. Now the clouds only part between lightning storms.”
“Is the island really so changed in your lifespan? A child’s eyes see much that isn’t there.”
“I am over two hundred years old,” Míriel replied. The Númenóreans did little with their gifted years but fret that they did not have more. “But you may well be right, and I only imagined that I saw Tol Eressëa. No matter how I longed for the white ships to land at Andunië, they never came.”
“Your husband plans to walk on the shores of the utter West.”
“Aye, he plans. Do you think the Valar will allow it?”
Khunzildân shook her head. “They are impotent. What they allow does not matter.”
“I almost wish for Pharazôn to succeed in spiting them. My faith in the Valar has been no friend to me, yet I hate him more.”
“So it’s true that the Elendili renounced you after you agreed to wed Pharazôn.”
“Did I? I remember it being more complicated than that. History is unkind to us women.” Rising to her feet, Míriel stood well over a head taller than Khunzildân.
“Our hostess has a hedge maze—I will show you, if you would like. No one will follow us,” Míriel said, and held out her hand.
Khunzildân took her hand, her fingers cold from the chilly night. Míriel led her away from the noise and light of the party, far enough that Khunzildân could hardly see in front of her. When they reached the darkness of the hedge, Míriel held up a lantern that had been set on the side of the path. As she took off her helmet, her dark hair uncoiled and fell down her back like a mantle. Míriel’s beauty seemed not entirely of Middle-earth, as if she had been carved by a sculptor in the far West and cast towards Númenor. Khunzildân had lived just long enough not to be rendered a fool by it.
“May I?” she asked, touching one corner of Khunzildân’s mask. Her answer was to reach up and loosen its strings. Míriel slowly lifted the mask, saying a soft “oh” as she pulled it away and dropped it on the ground. “You are fair.”
“Did you expect another crone?” Khunzildân let herself smile at Míriel’s appraisal, whose expression had lost some of its severity in her surprise.
“Why were you chosen, then? To entice me?” Her voice was low. “Pharazôn has long spread lies of my depravity, accusing me of preying on serving girls. I am not so vile as him, to take advantage of my position.”
No rumours had reached Khunzildân. Her lord had not spoken of it, doubtless thinking it yet another Mannish need beneath his notice, and she found herself disarmed. With her lips suddenly dry, she replied, “You did draw me away from the crowd.”
“I wanted to know what manner of woman the Deceiver has brought into my home.”
“Now that you have seen me, what will you do?”
Míriel tightened her mouth. “Nothing different.”
She did not say anything more of her intentions before leading Khunzildân into the maze. The maze’s age became clear when the lantern’s light was reflected off the pale statues placed at every fork. They were even older than Míriel, with their names in Elvish lettering on their plinths. All of the female statues had been defaced, leaving only their bodies standing proudly. The men were left as they were.
“These are your ancestors,” Khunzildân said.
“Yes. The Elves were mutilated on the orders of my grandfather.”
As they travelled closer to the centre, even the men lost their faces. Elros Tar-Minyatur had been so forcefully vandalized, there was nothing left above his shoulders. The Númenóreans now called him heretic, and not founder.
“The only rumour I heard was that you killed my predecessor.”
Slowing her pace, Míriel looked over her shoulder. “I am always blamed, whether I did or no.”
“Did you?” Khunzildân asked.
Night air swept past Khunzildân’s ears as Míriel pushed her against one of the statues, one hand on her chest as she blocked Khunzildân in with her other arm. As if the Valar had not already been overgenerous with the Dúnedain, a greater share of strength was also theirs. Khunzildân would not be able to easily overpower Míriel, though she did not think the queen wished to do worse than intimidate her—and that she respected.
“The old priestess would have trembled,” Míriel said, seeming amused, “though she would have never even come this far with me. She was always afraid of a knife in her back. Is it trust in Sauron’s protection that keeps you fearless, or do you think me toothless?”
“Not toothless, but cleverer than to move against me now, before I have done anything you find wrong.”
Míriel’s relaxed her hand; she had finished with her testing. But Khunzildân would not leave her with the advantage. Before Míriel could back away, Khunzildân pressed forward to take her lips in a kiss. Khunzildân almost thought Míriel would retreat, until she felt the flare of arousal that came when Míriel drew her arm around Khunzildân’s waist and kissed her back. Khunzildân had the presence of mind to run her hands down Míriel’s sides, feeling carefully for a weapon yet finding nothing but the soft flesh of her hips.
“Wrong side,” Míriel said. She tucked Khunzildân’s hand underneath the mail skirt, where a knife was strapped to her inner thigh. “Leave it there, unless you’d like to feel it between your ribs.”
“Perhaps you mean to kill me yet, Tar-Míriel.”
Míriel smiled. “If you think so. Now I have the problem of your height on my mind. I would roll you in the grass, but you’d lose too many feathers.”
If she had not been so distracted by the teasing way Míriel was pressing her teeth to Khunzildân’s neck, she would have said that she had been thought quite tall in Harad. Míriel hiked up Khunzildân’s skirt, sending feathers scattering to the ground.
“Now you know I wasn’t planning to seduce you, or I would have worn something better suited to it,” Khunzildân said.
“The gossip will end with, ‘but did you see what she was wearing?’” replied Míriel, moving her warm thigh between Khunzildân’s legs. “I wonder what would be left of you, if Sauron’s control were stripped away.”
Loud laughter pulled them apart. Another couple were stumbling heavily through the maze, out of sight for the moment but sure to soon cross paths with them. Khunzildân’s expression surely mirrored Míriel’s frustrated grimace.
“I do not favour being interrupted,” Khunzildân conceded.
“Nor I,” Míriel said before a last, lingering kiss. “They have spared us from what we may have regret. Follow again, unless you would like to see two people fumble at each other, at least a little less skilfully than we might have.”
Though Khunzildân’s eyes had adjusted to the dark, she took Míriel’s hand again. Even without her helmet, her armour gave her the same look as the sculpted heroes. They crossed into a clearing, a statue of two lovers at its centre. No one had dared to disfigure the Elven woman accepting a gem from her kneeling suitor.
“The Nightingale and Beren One-hand,” Khunzildân said.
“You know of them?” Míriel was pleased.
“Yes, though I have never seen them looking like Dúnedain before.”
“I do not understand why the greatest enemies of Morgoth would be spoken well of by Sauron’s people.”
‘Greatest enemies’ was a stretch. Her lord had described them as an annoyance, though he forbid all portrayals of the Nightingale in his sight.
“The Silmarils were Elvish things, and affected the Haradrim not at all. Theirs is still a good story.”
“And yet I know nothing of your land.” Míriel touched Khunzildân’s shoulder. “Why do you not call me Zimraphel?”
“Because it pleases you, and it pleases me not to speak your Adûnaic.”
“I could teach you Sindarin, but I don’t think it would be much friendlier to your ears. How different the world must be in Harad.”
“We have the right of things,” Khunzildân replied wryly.
“I wish I could see your Lúthien, priestess.”
“Come back with me then, when I am finished here.”
Míriel grimly looked back to the lovers. “Do not jest about such things.”
“I did not.”
Pharazôn would not come back from the uttermost West, successful or no. Surely Míriel would no longer be tied to rotting Númenor, and her lord would be glad to return to his own lands. She had offered so hastily, yet she strangely did not think it an unwise promise to make to a woman she had only just begun to know. Perhaps the Nightingale had inspired her.
“It is not my doom to cross the sea while I still live. Pray do not offer again.”
No more words passed between them that night.
The Giver’s temple stood alone on its hill; Númenor’s grey stone did not grant it the same beauty as the red rock of Harad, and as she stepped inside the temple’s thick walls, her sense of the divine faltered with the failing light drifting through the louver. She felt only the grasping emptiness of Pharazôn. It seemed that all of the nobility of Ar-Minalêth had assembled to watch the latest offering. Even the family of the sacrifice had come, dressed in white and already wailing.
So many gilt men and women turned at once to watch Khunzildân ascend the steps to the altar that she heard their jewellery hiss like a field of snakes. The sanctified flame lit the faces of the king and queen sitting on their dais. Míriel’s expression was as stiff as a painting’s, her hands folded neatly over her lap. Khunzildân found her hard to look at, knowing that for all Míriel’s boldness, she could still be made to sit by her husband and watch. It was easier for Khunzildân to keep her eyes on her lord, who smiled warmly at her as his presence in her mind soothed what Míriel had disturbed.
She wanted Míriel to be free. She wished for it as she invoked the Giver, praying with no heart for Pharazôn to triumph over death. There had been hundreds of sacrifices here, but the Giver would not ever harken to them in his prison beyond the world. The pride of the Númenóreans was so great that they had become credulous as children.
The youth to be sacrificed was not even willing. He was angry, held between two guards and did not stop spitting curses in Sindarin until he was gagged. It went beyond a poor offering; he was a victim. Her lord’s whispers helped her force back the bile in her throat and wield the knife. She worked quickly, and he did not feel much pain, for she had once been a butcher’s daughter. Khunzildân’s control slipped only a moment, when she raised her eyes to Míriel’s, and saw her horror.
The body was consigned to the flames.
As she walked through the palace’s halls, Khunzildân could not push how Míriel had looked out of her head. Not all of the Númenóreans were guilty of forcing their wills over the sea. But one good woman would not redeem a whole race, no matter how Khunzildân pined for her. Her newly foolish heart would not be her master.
She was so wrapped up in herself that she took a wrong turn, into an unfamiliar wing. The hallway was narrow, the dust on the floor settling in an undisturbed sheet. Khunzildân had done what she should not: isolated herself. She was starting to turn back when hands closed around her throat and she was yanked off her feet.
Eternity will be yours, her lord had told her as he slipped the ring over her finger. Now, with fingers at her throat, death was close upon her. Drawing on the power of the ring, she pried the man’s hands away. Before she could face him, she felt something pinch her side and send her reeling forwards. The assassin ran, no more memorable than any other man in servant’s clothes with his face covered. She held her hand to her aching side while blood flowed freely.
“Eternity is mine,” Khunzildân repeated to herself, feeling faint. “My lord, do not abandon your faithful servant.”
The walls darkened around her as she staggered onwards. Her lord’s spirit harkened, darting across Pharazôn’s palace to pursue the fleeing assassin. If Khunzildân cried for help, would anyone come to her aid? Looking down, her arms seemed to be fading into the air.
The voice of her lord roused her. She was back in his chambers, stretched out on a low couch while he leaned over her, needle and thread in hand.
“Do you think it was Míriel who ordered this done to you? Your failed killer took his own life before I reached him.”
He finished his last stitch on Khunzildân’s stomach. Strangely, her skin looked already half-healed. There was hardly even any pain, except on her ring finger.
“I cannot say,” Khunzildân answered. She felt obscurely hurt by the idea of Míriel sending someone to kill her, after what they had shared in the maze.
“But you have spoken with her.”
“She is not easy to know, my lord.”
“If only brains could be pulled apart as quickly as bodies. I’ve arranged for you to sit next to Míriel at the banquet tomorrow—Pharazôn is celebrating the provisioning of the Aglarrâma.”
“So soon? The ship has barely been finished.”
Her lord smiled. “The king is not getting any younger. I will leave you here to recover, for now I must attend to him once again.”
After he left, Khunzildân painfully rose to her feet. Khunzildân had not been alone among her lord’s things in years. He accumulated curiosities from the far corners of the world which no one was allowed to touch, yet there was never any clutter. Everything was ordered, and nothing was lost, though he seemed to discard as much as he acquired. The would-be assassin’s body, Khunzildân saw, was slumped in the far corner of the room. She permitted herself to pry only with her eyes. On the desk, nestled among metal scraps and uncut gems, was a silver ring set with a single white stone. Her lord was planning to take another servant from the Númenóreans. It galled her that he would choose anyone so undeserving when the folk of Harad and Umbar had always been loyal to him. But she would trust in his wisdom, Khunzildân decided, and not to be bitter.
A state banquet was the most wasteful thing Khunzildân had ever seen. At the head of the table was a roasted whale calf with seasoned fish spilling out of its mouth. The Númenóreans glutted themselves on the leavings of the sea, eating even inedible urchins and lobsters, the latter plucked from a boiling pot before the eyes of the guests. Disgusted, she ate only salad and turned down several offers of fish sauce for dressing. With Míriel yet to appear an hour into the meal, Pharazôn had grown increasingly distracted from his bragging. Finally, a stern-faced noblewoman was sent to fetch her.
Míriel arrived with perfect composure. Clad all in white with a silver fillet in her hair, she had clearly been ready long before the personal summons. With a cold bow to her husband, she took her seat. She held up her hand when she was offered food, but accepted unwatered wine.
“Are you not hungry?” Pharazôn asked.
Holding the glass to her lips, she said, “I have already eaten.”
Refusing an offer of food was as insulting in Númenor as in Harad. But Pharazôn seemed resigned to her behaviour, and turned back to his talk of the private journals of Elros. Unlike the mail costume, Míriel’s dress was draped to draw the eye to every swell and curve hidden at their first meeting. Had Míriel sent someone to throttle her like a common thief?
“I did not know what to think when I first heard of your attack,” Míriel said under her breath. Her eyes swept over Khunzildân’s waist, as if she could see where the knife had struck.
“Do you know now?”
“Yes.” But she did not answer. Instead, she plucked a tomato from Khunzildân’s plate and popped it into her mouth. Pharazôn saw nothing, though the woman sitting on Khunzildân’s other side made a tutting noise.
“Was that a metaphor?” she asked, one eyebrow raised.
“In Harad, perhaps. We of Westernesse do have a poet who was preoccupied with a pair of olive nipples on his mistress,” Míriel replied, helping herself to an olive. The tutter made a noise like a deflating bladder, and Khunzildân hid her smile behind her hand.
“In your boldness, Pharazôn will think himself humoured.”
“That would require he look away from your shining lord, who is nodding his head as he makes a tower out of fish bones.”
There was still Khunzildân’s neighbour, but she had turned to discussing horse breeding with her daughter. Because she had the good fortune to be wearing heavy sleeves, Khunzildân placed her hand on Míriel’s thigh. Míriel knocked her fork to the ground and bent to retrieve it, hiking her dress on the way up. With the queen’s bare skin under her fingers, the rush of desire muted out all else.
“You seem to have done this before,” Khunzildân said.
“State dinners are very long.”
Khunzildân heard a few murmurs of the Aglarrâma setting out as she brought her hand to Míriel’s sex. Keeping her expression impassive, Míriel opened her legs. Khunzildân briefly wondered what had brought Míriel’s change in mood, when they had parted so darkly. She lightly circled her fingers over the sensitive bud, making Míriel exhale. Stroking downwards, she felt Míriel slicken as the faintest flush spread over her cheekbones and her grip tightened on her fork. Khunzildân badly wanted to cause a scene by dragging her off to her bedroom. Since she could not, she moved faster. Míriel squirmed in her seat, passing it off as swatting at a fly. But for the slight part of her lips and the quick rise and fall of her chest, Míriel would have seemed completely innocent. How would she look spread out over her bed, every inch of her exposed to being touched and tasted?
Míriel abruptly seized Khunzildân’s wrist. Her lord had stood, a sign that Khunzildân must smooth Míriel’s dress back over her thighs.
“Great and powerful Men of Westernesse,” her lord pronounced, gesturing to all the room with his outspread arms, “tomorrow is the most auspicious day to seize back what Elros the Accursed stole from you. I have humbly suggested to your wise king, Ar-Pharazôn, to leave for the Undying Lands as the sun rises, and he has accepted.”
Míriel rose to her feet. Her temper had turned on a pin with the news, and she had paled.
“Do the portents mean nothing to you? The shadows in the sky? The pestilence?” Míriel demanded.
“Why, faithful Zimraphel, are you so afraid?” Pharazôn said, his calm tone barbed.
“Because I am not a fool!”
“Your majesty, I believe your wife is ill, and should retire,” her lord said, one hand on Pharazôn’s shoulder, doubtlessly keeping him from responding with equal anger. “My priestess will keep her under watch.”
“My queen,” said Khunzildân, putting all the feeling that she dared into her voice. She gently took Míriel’s arm, and to her surprise, Míriel allowed herself to be guided out.
“By Uinen’s tears, I hope he drowns,” Míriel snarled when they were out of earshot. She walked quickly, her grip on Khunzildân just shy of painful as she took the lead. They were entering her wing of the palace now, which was bare of Pharazôn’s ostentations. “Númenor hates its queens: Ancalimë, Telperiën, Vanimeldë. When I was young, I was not yet ready to be hated. Pharazôn once feigned love for me, and by that I thought I could control him. Were I to choose again, I would rather my name be a curse on the lips of Men than to be remembered as Pharazôn’s powerless wife.”
In her wrath, Míriel’s eyes seemed to shine like in stories of the fell Eldar. She turned her fierceness on Khunzildân, and softened. “Why do I not think you evil?” she asked.
Doubt was an unexpected gift, to come from the same woman who had seen the sacrifice. “Because I am not.”
“So you think your lord good?”
“Such terms are not fit for him.” Good and evil were for the small. Had not the Nightingale achieved the Silmaril with enchantment, clad in a vampire’s skin?
“He wishes to destroy Númenor.”
The destruction had begun long before her lord arrived. As with the First Age, he would end the Second. In all of Míriel’s wing, there had only been one servant in sight, an old woman who made a warding sign as they passed.
“Does enough of what you deem good remain,” Khunzildân said, “that you think Númenor should be spared?”
Míriel set her hand on the carved wooden door leading to her private room, her head downturned. “I would think it even if only one person here still deserved to live. But my heart wants to see Númenor buried.” As she opened the door, she asked, “Will you keep your watch?”
“Orders are not what compel me to follow you.” It was not yet love, but surely the promise of it. She need not say so to Míriel.
Her room looked unused. Míriel lived sparely, perhaps as much in protest as by preference. No tapestries lined the walls, and Khunzildân walked upon bare floor. There was an empty birdcage by the balcony, its polished gold reflecting the weak moonlight.
“That was made in Valinor, and was given as a gift to Erendis, my ancestor. They say among the Elendili that were it not for her refusal of the husband she had grown to hate, Númenor would never have grown so perverse. Her other possessions have been destroyed. Even this,” she said, taking the silver fillet from her brow, “was vandalized. My father offered the gem to Ossë.”
“He wasted it,” Khunzildân said, unable to disguise her distaste for the ocean.
“His act of piety will not help me. I have dreamt for three nights now of drowning. I do not want to spend the fourth alone.”
Míriel bent to kiss her. At first she made only the barest contact, savouring the first moments. Her mouth tasted of bitter wine as she deepened the kiss, slowly and with tenderness. Khunzildân drew closer, arching her back when Míriel started the intricate work of unfastening her dress. It was a relief to at last be alone with each other, and yield.
Khunzildân’s dress slipped to the floor. Míriel placed her hand just beneath Khunzildân’s wound, already faded to nothing but reddened flesh. She said nothing of the unnatural healing, but asked, “Does it still hurt you?”
“Not since it was made.”
“It was not my doing,” Míriel whispered, sliding her hands over Khunzildân’s hips to remove her undergarments. “Nor was the other priestess.”
She believed it. “Why did you let me think it was?”
“I thought it would be good to be feared. I did not think I would come to like you so well.”
Slipping her dress off her shoulders, Míriel wore nothing beneath. Her paleness was strange, like something formed from night and bone. They tumbled into bed together, and Míriel’s hair was a curtain of shadow falling over them as she kissed a path downwards, pausing to draw her tongue over Khunzildân’s breasts until she shivered. She had a passing thought of Míriel’s two centuries of experience—how absurd, to live that long—until Míriel nudged her legs apart. Khunzildân gasped at the first tentative flick of Míriel’s tongue on her sex, tasting her. Again she took her time, always shifting to something new when Khunzildân began to tense with arousal. Míriel let her teeth press lightly against her most sensitive spot when she learned how Khunzildân would moan. Khunzildân could not stay still, and steadied herself by reaching down to bury her fingers in Míriel’s hair. Míriel kept her on edge, always near the crest of pleasure but never far enough, until Khunzildân was begging in her own language. Finally, Míriel added her fingers, making Khunzildân climax crying a Haradrim curse.
“You must teach me the meaning of your words,” Míriel said, rising with a grin.
“I called you a horse-thief and a sexual boggart,” Khunzildân replied. She kissed Míriel’s soaked lips before pushing her onto her back. Great beauty, it was said in Harad, was a conqueror. Míriel might have asked anything of Khunzildân at the moment and she would have tried to give it.
Much as she wanted to take her time, Khunzildân would rather hear Míriel undone first. They still had all night left for more.
If Míriel dreamed of drowning that night, she did not wake Khunzildân. She awoke with her head still tucked under Míriel’s chin, their legs tangled together. There was a feyness in Míriel’s manner over breakfast, delivered by the superstitious old woman from last night.
“The king sends a mocking request for me to bring the Green Bough of Return to the Aglarrâma. I am tempted to accede out of spite; he would be horrified by the return to custom.” Míriel ripped the message into strips and sprinkled it over her leftover egg. “Almalda, I have decided to go hawking today.”
“Yes, your majesty,” Almalda replied curtly.
After Almalda left, Míriel said, “She is normally very kind, but she wisely does not trust you. Will you come with me?”
Her presence would be wanted at the embarkation of the fleet. But Khunzildân had received no direct request. “I will.”
The palace and town were abandoned. Everyone had gone to watch the ships depart: there was a great mass of people at the harbour, so great she could hear the noise of them on the wind. As expected, the mews were unattended. While Khunzildân fussed with her riding skirt, the birds set up a chorus as Míriel retrieved her favourite animal. She took so long that Khunzildân was readying herself to look for her.
“The falconer did not even feed the birds this morning,” Míriel said as she came out, holding a white gyrfalcon with a bit of meat still hanging from its beak. “I hope the master of horse was not so careless.”
It turned out that he was, but a skinny stable boy had stayed. “I didn’t favour my chances with that crowd, your majesty, with this ague,” he said, leading out two horses. He held a handkerchief up to his face for a coughing fit as soon as Míriel took the reins from him. Númenórean horses were as overgrown as their masters, nearly as tall as Míriel at the withers. Khunzildân guiltily accepted the stable boy’s lift into the saddle.
The roar of the crowd faded as they rode into the treeless hills surrounding the city. Away from Ar-Minalêth, Míriel’s shoulders relaxed. She briefly closed her eyes as the breeze picked up, whipping her braid to the side. There was a good view of the harbour, and the ships slowly leaving their moorings.
“Perhaps I should have lived as a shepherd,” Míriel said, not looking at the ships. “Open spaces are so beautiful. I thought to escape to Middle-earth once, but I knew no ship would take me.”
“Is that why you dream of drowning?”
“No.” Míriel started untying her falcon’s jesses. “Last night I dreamed of dying by the sword, and strangely, it was wielded by a maid. It was a better death than by the hateful sea.”
The falcon danced nervously from foot to foot. Khunzildân felt the hair on the back of her neck rise on end as the wind pushed the ships out to sea, and the crowd’s cheer carried all the way to the hillside. Míriel cast her falcon into the air, and it took off like a bolt.
“Thank you for coming with me,” Míriel said. “I did not expect it.”
At last turning to the sea, Míriel watched the ships grow smaller on the horizon, disappearing with the setting sun. The wind strengthened, and Khunzildân grew chilled. “I did not want to be parted.”
Smiling, Míriel replied, “We have not had enough time, have we?” She took off her hawking glove and threw it on the ground. “Let’s return, before you freeze.”
“What about your falcon?”
“She is free.”
As soon as they reached Ar-Minalêth, she felt her lord calling her. Míriel seemed to sense the tear in Khunzildân’s mind.
“If you would see me tomorrow, look for me on the Meneltarma.”
Khunzildân nodded, as the call deepened to a piercing headache. She rushed towards the source, feeling her limbs lighten the closer she came. Her lord was on Pharazôn’s throne, with one leg thrown over the armrest and a pleased expression on his face. Otherwise, the room was empty. He spoke her old name.
“Come here,” he said. He took out the ring Khunzildân had seen earlier, the white gem gleaming like a star as he tossed it in the air and caught it. “Who in Númenor should receive this ring?”
“I thought you would give it to the king.”
“My servants create fear; they do not yield to it. I ask you a second time: who in Númenor?” He tossed the ring again.
She did not answer.
“Tar-Míriel is said to be as fair as Morwen Eledhwen,” Sauron said. “Tar-Míriel thinks it good to be feared. And Tar-Míriel would rather be a curse than a wife.” He dropped the ring in Khunzildân’s hand. “Think on it, an she is not unwilling.”
“My lord.” Closing her fingers around the ring, she felt it cry out to her own. “She is allowed to refuse?”
“Just as you are allowed to lie.”
Khunzildân would not. No matter how she wanted Míriel free of her miserable life on Númenor, she would not yoke her to another lord. Not blindly, at least. But a wild hope rose in her that Míriel could see the ring as the gift it was. What more could a woman of Westernesse want than eternity, even in service to an enemy? And she might come to see her lord in his true light, rather than as the creeping tyrant of lore. He had given Khunzildân, and Míriel, their choice. That she had doubted it would be given could be dismissed as a moment’s panic, infected by Míriel’s disbelief.
There was a week left to convince Míriel, at the most. Her lord’s enjoyment of his power over the Númenóreans would not last for long.
She did not sleep. Nor could she eat, with Míriel’s fate on her mind. If she spoke of the ring too soon, Míriel would reject both of them. Khunzildân would not lie. She paced the floor of her room until dawn, when the sun rose in sickly colours over the ocean.
With the sun came her lord’s rage. DEATH, it thundered. Khunzildân needed to go to him, let his rage wash over her until it no longer seized her breath. The ocean which had been calm moments ago had risen up in a great wave, tall as the spires of the palace. She watched it swallow a gull out of the air.
Míriel would be at the Meneltarma. There was nothing she could do for her lord. Even if his body perished, the ring would keep him. Her own ring gave her courage and speed as she raced out of the palace and into the street.
People tripped over the fleeing rats as they rushed towards high ground. Two children clubbed at a man riding a horse, pulling him out of the saddle so they could steal the animal. The horse merely ran from all of them when its rider was taken. When the horse galloped past Khunzildân, she grabbed the reins and trusted the ring to do the rest. The world around her greyed, but she was mounted on the horse and it was speeding towards the mountain. Colour slowly returned, though her body looked half-faded.
The stairs to the sacred summit were empty. Even with their wrath clear, the Númenóreans would not ask their old gods for mercy. Khunzildân spared a second to look to the water, already devouring the harbour.
“Míriel!” she called with all the breath she could spare as she climbed. “Míriel!” She reached the summit in time. But could Míriel even see her now? Míriel’s eyes were calmly turned to the wave bearing down on the Meneltarma. “Míriel!” she cried one last time.
Míriel turned towards the sound of Khunzildân’s voice. “Are you a spirit, come to tempt me in my last moments?” she asked fearlessly.
“To tempt you, yes, but not yet a spirit.” She reached out to take Míriel’s hands, her body turning solid again where they touched. “What would you bargain, to have your vengeance on the Men of the West? To have more time, to see Harad and the havens of Umbar? For I can give all of that to you, but you will be as much Sauron’s vassal as I am, and your soul his.”
Khunzildân pressed the ring into Míriel’s palm. She had not lied. The wave blocked out the sun, and Míriel would decide her fate in shadow.