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An Orchid on the Salt White Beach

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"I have become an orchid
washed in on the salt white beach.
what can I make of it now
that might please you—
this life, already wasted
and still strewn with
Anonymous (marginalia from Elendil the Faithful's Akallabêth)





Tar-Palantir's daughter he named Míriel in the Elven-tongue.


Meleth was in the Royal Wing. She knew she shouldn't be; she was the daughter of the Keeper of the Gardens, and one day she would be Keeper in her turn. This wasn't where she belonged.


But she was curious. When the King or the Princess visited the garden, she was never allowed to play there; she'd never seen anyone from the royal family, not even on feast-days. And now the Princess was here, here in front of Meleth.


“Who are you?” the Princess demanded.


Meleth found she couldn't speak. The Princess was so pretty—only two years younger than Meleth, and much more eye-catching than Meleth could hope to be.


“I await an answer.”


She was exactly how Meleth had imagined royalty to be like, commanding and graceful. “I—my name is Meleth.” Don't tell anyone your real name , Mama had said long ago, but this was the Princess. It couldn't do any harm, could it?


“Meleth.” The Princess rolled the name on her tongue. “That is a Sindarin name.”


“They call me Zirân, too,” Meleth said, and now she was suddenly nervous under the Princess' stare.


The Princess dismissed this with a flick of her hand. “How did you come to be named in Sindarin?”


Meleth swallowed. Maybe she shouldn't have ignored Mama's advice. “My—my great-grandmother was from Andúnië.” And she was spilling secrets again.


“Curious. My great-grandmother was from Andúnië as well,” the Princess offered. Then, “Do you speak Sindarin?”


“No, your highness,” Meleth said. And stopped, as she realized, with growing horror, that the question and answer were both spoken in Sindarin. Not only had she broken the Rules, she had lied to the Princess. Now she'd really catch it.


The Princess laughed.


“I—” Meleth blinked.


The Princess was still laughing, and Meleth didn't understand. “I—I'm sorry, your highness, I apologize—”


“Do not.” And now the Princess was speaking in Sindarin again. “You did nothing wrong, Meleth.”




“Would you like to be my friend?”


The question was sudden, and Meleth, looking at the Princess, realized, with a touch of surprise that she was only seven—an age which Meleth, at nine, knew to be practically a baby—and that she looked...lonely. Lonely. In the Palace. The Princess.


“If you do not wish to, I will not be angered.” The Princess had turned away, but Meleth saw the flash of hurt in her eyes.


“No, no, your highness, I do,” Meleth said hastily. The Princess was, after all, lonely. And so was Meleth. There was nothing wrong with being friends, was there?


She could see sudden joy in the Princess' eyes, and she grabbed Meleth's hand. “Then you must call me Míriel.”




And it came to pass that Tar-Palantir grew weary of grief and died.


The funeral of Tar-Palantir, the twenty-fourth ruler of Númenor, took place on yestarë of the 3255th year of the Second Age. His daughter Míriel led the way from the Palace in Armenelos to the Noirinan, the Valley of the Tombs. The journey was four hours, and Míriel went on foot, as was the tradition. Her white mourning-gown was covered with dust when she knelt before her father, and took the Sceptre from his hand.


She was Queen now, yet not Queen. Tar-Palantir had passed, but Tar-Míriel yet was not the ruler. She stood between Heir and Queen, wavering between two worlds. The coronation would be two weeks hence; a week of vigil on Meneltarma, and a week in Armenelos hearing the Council's summing up of the state of affairs. Until the King's Heir, Princess Míriel, was anointed Tar-Míriel, five stood guard over the throne. Five who were of the line of Elros; Amandil of Andúnië, Halmacil of Rómenna, Mírlótë of Sorontil, Orlond of Nindamas, and Calion of Armenelos.


So Míriel had whispered to Meleth the night her father had died. She had also whispered her fears; of the five, only Amandil and Mírlótë were loyal, and though Amandil had some measure of influence, Mírlótë was less powerful and held in disdain by the others, a woman come to lordship by virtue of being an only daughter and by refusal to marry.


They hate her, Míriel had said, and they will hate me too. And they will try to overthrow me before the anointment. They have already won a victory, this appointing of the Five. Before, the Council ruled during the vigil, or the Heir of the King's Heir. And before that, in the beginning, the ruler gave up the sceptre willingly, before death. This is a tradition from the Heretic Kings, and they managed to bring it back—even before my rule has started! Meleth, I am terrified of them.


Meleth had replied with such comfort as she could. But now, watching the Five, watching Calion whispering with Halmacil and Orlond, she was as terrified as the Queen.




But Pharazôn took her to wife against her will.


The Keeper of the Gardens walked between bushes of flowers, surveying her domain. She loved the bit of peace she carved out, an oasis in the bustle of Armenelos, but her thoughts, today, were elsewhere: on her friend, on her queen.


“Meleth?” The soft utterance startled Meleth out of her thoughts; she turned to where Míriel was sitting on a bench, twirling a single yellow rose between her fingers.


“Míriel!” Meleth made to run towards her friend, but—Míriel was the Queen, now, Meleth realized, and she knelt, bowed her head.


“Oh!” Míriel's startled expression made Meleth's eyes fly up. “Please—Meleth, do not do that!”


“You're the Queen, your majesty, you best get used to people kneeling to you.” But Meleth got up, settled herself on the bench next to Míriel.


“I am not Queen yet, Meleth,” Míriel murmured. Her face was turned away, but the lines of her body were tense. Her hand clenched on the flower.


“You will be,” Meleth said, because she knew her friend's fears, but she didn't know enough to offer anything beyond empty platitudes. “You'll be Queen after the week is up—and speaking of which, why aren't you at the Council?”


“The first session starts ceremonially at noon today,” Míriel said quietly, “And I wanted some peace before—before everything goes wrong.” Her voice was strained.


“Míriel? What's wrong?”


Míriel opened her mouth, half-forming the word 'nothing' before her jaw snapped shut, and she turned to look Meleth in the eye. “It is not—nothing, and you will know soon enough. I should tell you before the rumours start.”


“There is—” Míriel stopped, and Meleth could see her take a breath. “Do you know the legend of Tar-Minyatur and Tar-Meldatári? Of their marriage?”


Meleth nodded slowly. “The stories say they were wed on Meneltarma.” What has that got to do with anything? But she held her tongue.


“And the...stranger tales?”


“Well,” Meleth frowned. “There were ridiculous stories of them bonding like Elves, but I don't know...” She trailed off at the look on Míriel's face, and oh . “It's all true, isn't it?”


Míriel nodded once, imperceptibly. “Tar-Minyatur bonded with his wife. This—this ability to bond he passed on to his ancestors. We of the royal house bond with—with the first person we copulate with. A gift of Elros' Line, my father called it, but,” and here Míriel's voice faltered for a moment, before she appeared to gather herself, and goes on, “It is, in reality, a curse. The Curse of Elros.”


A bitter laugh, and Meleth was worried; Míriel looked far too thin, paper-like light brown skin stretched taut over her cheekbones. “What happened, Míriel? What's wrong?”


“Calion.” Míriel spat out the name like a curse. “It is ritual that the King's Heir descend Meneltarma, alone, at midnight, on the last day of the vigil, but he came upon me on the path and—” Míriel shuddered, and Meleth longed to reach out and put her arm around her, but she was unsure if the touch would be welcome. “He—he was gentle at first, Meleth, and...I did not want to. Not because it is him (although that would have been enough), but also because I simply—you know how I feel about marriage and...lovemaking,” and Meleth nodded; she knew, “and I know I will have to, but so soon...and he should not have, it was wrong either way, whether gentle or harsh, I know that, but—it would have been easier if it were gentle. But something changed and he was—he took me, Meleth. I am his wife now.”


There were tears streaking down Míriel's face, and she turned away. A week ago, she had sobbed into Meleth's shoulder, but now she could not. Meleth let fury against Calion rise, let it simmer, as she waited for Míriel.


At length, Míriel turned back to Meleth. “I apologize for that.” Her voice was even, her face set. Meleth could see the mask of a ruler slipping over her.


“No!” Míriel's eyes widened at the harshness, and Meleth softened her tone hastily. “No, Míriel, we're friends, and like you said, you're not Queen yet. You don't have to do that with me.”


Míriel regarded her with those familiar eyes for a moment, and Meleth suppressed a shiver. This was her best friend. They’d known each other since their first decade. Everything would be all right.


At last, Míriel nodded. “I know, Mel'. But—everything is changing. I do not know what to do.”


“I know,” Meleth said softly. “I know, Mírë. But we'll hold on as best as we can, you know that. If there's anything I can do for you...”


“You would,” Míriel finished. That strange sadness was coating her voice again, and she wouldn’t  meet Meleth's eyes. “But I cannot ask what I want—nay, what I need —of you. It is too much. It is not who you are.”


“Never too much,” Meleth promised. “Never too much, Míriel. I would give anything for you.” Words they had both spoken before, too many times to count, but now a sudden flash of dread crossed her mind. She pushed it away; this was no time for silly feelings.


“And I would not ask it.”


Meleth felt exasperation rise up. Míriel could never do things the easy way. “Míriel. I'm trying to help you. Don't make it difficult.”


“Very well. But do not hate me when I ask what you cannot give.” Sharp blue eyes—the eyes of Elros, eyes which haven't been seen for generations, were the whispers in the city—met Meleth's, and the indecision in them quieted into silent despair. “I would have you wash his taste away from my mouth, make me forget the imprint of his hands, chase away the memory of his body against mine. I cannot stand his memory, but I cannot let it go. I would have you help me to do that. Not—through what he did, but I want you to kiss me and hold me.”


Meleth blinked in surprise. What


“I am sorry,” Míriel whispered, and got up.


“No.” Meleth felt her hand fly up and grip Míriel's wrist of its own volition. “No, Mírë, stay.”




“Do you—” Meleth stopped, working through the tumult of emotion. “Do you—do you love me?”


“You are my best friend,” Míriel said quietly. “And I have no right to ask this of you.”


It wasn't an answer, and both of them knew it. But it was enough. Meleth rose, and her arms wrapped around Míriel. They kissed; one kiss, and then they were in each other’s arms, and Míriel cried.




And when they were wedded, he seized the sceptre into his own hand.


The talk in Armenelos wasn't of the crowning of the new queen, but of her marriage. Of the announcement her cousin made to the Council, the day after the coronation. The queen had been unable to deny it, they said. Then, even quieter, only in whispers: they say she was unwilling.


But no-one was willing to pursue that line of thought.


And slowly, slowly, Prince Calion became Prince Pharazôn, and the whispers spoke of a prince who loved his people, who was bold and free as in the old days and did not grovel blindly to the Avalôi and the Nimîr, a prince who would lead his people into brighter times. A prince worthier of the throne than the Queen and the King who came before her. A prince who would restore the glory of the reign of Ar-Adûnakhôr.


The whispers grew louder; there were none to stop them. In the Council, Lord Amandil and Lady Mírlótë, and the lesser nobles who supported them, were increasingly outnumbered, their voices drowning beneath the cries of the multitude.


Tar-Míriel the Queen's decisions, popular opinion said, were not for these times. Why cultivate forests in Anadûnê for wood when there were plenty of trees on Middle-earth? What use were policies to increase growth in the fields when the products of the policies would only come to fruition five, ten, fifteen years later?


Now, the masses demanded. Now, the nobles demanded. We do not want change. We want to go back to the way it was.


And so, on the last day of the year 3255 of the Second Age that Prince Pharazôn took the sceptre of Anadûnê and was crowned Ar-Pharazôn, King of the Land of the Star.




The name of his queen he changed to Ar-Zimraphel.


The gardens had become a regular meeting-spot for them; Ar-Pharazôn knew their function, and would not do away with the Keeper, but he kept his distance, and so did most of his followers. The gardens were, for them, a safe and private space.


The initial, gentle kiss melted into an embrace, Míriel's head lying on Meleth's shoulder. “Meleth.”


The word was gasped out fiercely and desperately, and Meleth responded in kind: “Míriel.” And Sindarin felt strange on her tongue, after so long speaking Adûnaic.


“Míriel,” the other woman said. “Míriel. That is my name, but he calls me Zimraphel . They all call me Zimraphel.”


Meleth's grip tightened on her lover. “You're always Míriel to me, love, my fairest, my Mírë, órenya ar fëanya .” The last endearment was whispered; Quenya was worse treason even than Sindarin, under laws restored by Ar-Pharazôn. Meleth would be beheaded if anyone heard.


The smile which curved against Meleth's shoulder was worth it; he took Míriel's name and her tongue (and Meleth's too, but she had always gone by Zirân in public, and whatever the end may be, the choice had been hers. Meleth loved the Elven languages, the stories, the flowers, and the Tree in the courtyard. Once upon a time, she had loved more, and she had been an idealist, righteous and secure in her faith in the gods. Not anymore: along the years, something changed. She could not rue her name. The stealth done to Míriel's was the greater crime). All Meleth could do, for this space, was give it back.




And he determined that he would compel Sauron to become his vassal and servant.


“He is gone to do battle with Sauron.” The joy in Míriel's face was greater than Meleth could remember seeing for—a long time. “I hope he will not return.”


“Mírë!” Meleth couldn't restrain the gasp; she hated Pharazôn, but to wish him dead ...


“I do,” Míriel said fiercely. “I hate him. The Council is under his grasp, but if he dies, there is no other with any claim. I can take the throne back. I can make everything right.”


Meleth tried to let her anger at Pharazôn rise enough to wish him dead, but she couldn't. “Míriel,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “Love, death before the time is right is a horrible thing to wish on anyone, and I hate to see that he's pushed you so far as—”


“To want him dead?” Míriel regarded Meleth with a cool stare, and Meleth's mind flashed back to the first meeting in the Royal Wing. “He has, Meleth. I have seen my land fall apart under his hands; too late, now, to challenge him. And to think I thought that, by stepping back without war, lives would be saved!” Meleth remembered that conversation remembered Míriel's quiet resignation, her own anger then. And now the tables had turned. “People are prosperous now, but for how long? They march under his banners to die. Too many, too many will die. And I—I hate him for what he has done to me; I have had to sit and watch this—this farce. And he lies with me, Meleth, I feel his body all over me, I smell his foulness,” and Míriel's shudder was reflected in Meleth's own, “and I hate the herbs I take to stop his children,” I want many, many, children, Míriel had whispered to Meleth in happier days, and the memory brought another pang, “from coming into this world—I hate him, and I wish he were dead .”


Meleth had no reply to that, except a deep-seated conviction of the value of life (and a traitorous part of her which thinks: we are prospering under the King, more than we ever did under Tar-Palantir, and Sauron does need to be checked ). But that seemed an old mantra here, and against Míriel's terrible, terrible grief as she spoke, grief hidden behind a voice and face devoid of emotion, it had no coinage. She could only turn away.




And Sauron passed over the sea and looked upon the land of Númenor, and on the city of Armenelos in the days of its glory.


“Míriel!” Meleth exclaimed, and spun her lover around in a kiss. “You should not be here. The feast—“


“I excused myself on pretence of a headache,” Míriel murmured against Meleth's mouth. But when Meleth's hand moved to her waist, she flinched.


Meleth took a step back. They had done this before. Most days, Pharazôn didn't enter the gardens with Míriel; only on the rare occasion did his shadow step between the caresses so different from his, caresses which asked nothing but were yet a reminder. “I'm sorry.”


“It was not you,” Míriel said absently. Then, lower, “His—his eyes were on me. I was terrified.”


“Him?” Before this, it could only refer to one. Now there were two. Sauron and Pharazôn.


“Sauron,” Míriel breathed. At the very word, the air seemed to thicken, darken. “He—it is wrong. It is wrong.”


“He's a prisoner,” Meleth said. “He can do nothing here.”


“That much I hope.” It was clear that Míriel was elsewhere; the words were spoken as if by rote, and Meleth could see her mind racing behind her eyes.




Then Ar-Pharazôn the King turned back to the worship of the Dark, and of Melkor the Lord thereof.


The King worshipped the Giver of Freedom openly, and slowly, the people of his city and his land began to follow him. First his advisors, those closest to him, then the farmers. The merchants and the craftspeople, then, and the nobles. A few in Council had turned, too, and it was at this time that Lady Elewendë, wife of Lord Amandil, visited the Queen.


They were acquainted well enough that a private stroll in the gardens did not arouse suspicion, and it was here that Lady Elewendë whispered her true intent.


She and Amandil and their son (and their son's sons) had gathered the Faithful, those who turned their backs on this new worship, and remained true to the old ways which had been called new, long ago, and now they asked that faith be professed more quietly. “For,” she said, “the Elven-tongues have long been banned, and belief of the Valar will soon go the same way, I fear; and if not banning, then persecution or harassment. Sauron is behind this, and the tales speak no good of him. But most refuse to believe this, and I admit it is hard to believe.”


“Not at all, if you live in Armenelos,” Tar-Míriel replied.


And Lady Elewendë continued: they needed information, needed to know if anything went wrong, if something happened. Amandil was on the Council, for now, but disfavour was heaped increasingly on him. Would the Queen help them?


And Tar-Míriel replied: “I will.”




Evil now grew apace, and all the Elf-friends were in peril.


“It's dangerous,” Meleth snapped. “It's dangerous and I don't like you doing it.” Even in anger, though, her voice was quiet; there were spies, now, and Meleth knew that her gardens, knew to listen for the warnings of a spy or stranger, but they were still both afraid.


“And yet I continue to,” Míriel murmured into Meleth's shoulder.


“You're going to get caught.”


“I have not,” Míriel pointed out, “yet been—caught. I will not be.”


“Míriel, he could brand you a traitor and execute you.” At the thought, Meleth shuddered and tightened her arms around her lover.


“He needs me, as long as he has no heir, or he loses his legitimacy.”


Míriel .”


“I would have thought,” Míriel said slowly, raising her head and staring at Meleth, “that you would understand. They stole your belief as much as mine.”


It wasn't the same, though. The way of life didn't count much to her anymore; she didn't allow herself to think of the Elves or the Valar. It wasn’t everything, not like it was to some of the Faithful, like it used to be, for her. If the price she paid for peace was the loss of her belief, then she counted it well spent.


She couldn’t explain this to Míriel, though; instead, she said, “I worry for you.”


“I am helpless in the face of this terror,” Míriel murmured, running her hands through Meleth's hair, “and it is a relief that I can do this much. Do not doubt it, please.”


Meleth did. For now, though, she kept her peace.




For Isildur passed alone in disguise to Armenelos and to the courts of the King.


The Faithful could not enter Armenelos, but an old woman buying medicine could. The disguise served well, but beyond the outer reaches of the courts it lost its magic. None could enter without the permission of the King.


Or the knowledge of the Queen. A woman in a grey, hooded cloak took him through secret passageways in the watches of the night, to a room, a room behind the apartments of the Queen. The next night, the same woman guided him again, coming at last to the door which would open into the Court of the Tree.


“But,” the woman whispered, “you must not return this way if any are alerted to your presence. I am sorry, but the knowledge of the passageways cannot be revealed, not to Sauron.”


Isildur nodded his understanding.


“Then go with the blessings of Eru.” Touching his forehead, she melted back into the depths of the corridors.




And the first fire upon the altar of the temple Sauron kindled with the hewn wood of Nimloth.


“What can I do to help?”


It was a question Meleth didn't think she'd find herself asking; she valued safety and peace above idealism, now. She valued her lover's safety above all others.


Or so she had thought. But then she had seen the great white Tree, kindled like firewood, the Tree, the White Tree of Númenor, burned, destroyed. And something in her had snapped. Now, she understood Míriel, understood why she needed to do something .


“What can I do to help?”


And Míriel smiled.




Thus Ar-Pharazôn, King of the Land of the Star, grew to the mightiest tyrant that had yet been in the world since the reign of Morgoth.


The gardens, midnight. Meleth clutched the note which had been slipped to her; Míriel, she knew, by the hand and by certain symbols hidden in the lettering. But now, standing here, she was afraid, as always.




“Míriel.” Meleth turned to greet her lover, who had come to stand next to her. “Why did you—”


“He knows,” Míriel whispered, and Meleth realized that a strange note of fear trembled in her voice. “He does not know I know, but he knows. Of us.”


“Us?” Meleth was bewildered, for a moment. “He?”


“Pharazôn,” Míriel clarified, and her voice trembled as she reached for Meleth's hand. “He knows, Meleth, and I do not know...”


Panic clawed against Meleth's chest, and it was only the knowledge of Míriel, beside her, with her terrified midnight blue eyes turned on Meleth, which stopped the scream that was rising, the pure horror which threatened to overwhelm her. “”


“I wish I knew,” Míriel said, and her hand was shaking. “I wish I knew, Meleth, I would destroy them—”


“Hush.” Meleth automatically reached for Míriel. “Don't think—” She broke off with a choked laugh, because for once, she would like to destroy, too.


“This is my fault, I should not have been so involved with Elewendë and Amandil, I should have listened to you...” Míriel was murmuring against Meleth's chest, and Meleth thought, no .


“No,” she said aloud, softly. Then, firmer, “No.”




“I regret nothing,” Meleth said and maybe before, that would have been a lie, but now—“Come what may, I did my part to try to set things right. And I'm glad.”


“Come what may,” Míriel repeated, and Meleth couldn't understand why those three words broke her, but they did, and the tears streamed down her face, and she was sobbing, in fear and anger and despair, even as she lay safe in Míriel's embrace.


“Everything will be well,” Míriel murmured, but it was her hand on her back and the familiar presence which comforted Meleth, such comfort as she could let herself feel, not the pretty lie. Not when they both knew what would most likely happen.


“I love you,” she said, suddenly, her voice still choked with tears.


Something she should have said years ago, really, but what held her back was the knowledge that Míriel would tense in her arms ( love , a word which most would have taken differently, as a different kind of love), as she was doing now. “I'm sorry, Mírë, but I love you, I do.”


“Do not apologize.” Those beloved blue eyes looked right at Meleth, naked and tired, an age of pain and sadness written in their depths. “Do not apologize, my Meleth. And know, know that I love you, too.”




And most often from among the Faithful they chose their victims.


A woman. A woman approaching old age, her face drawn into tight, defiant lines even as she was forced to kneel, naked, before the congregation.


“This,” the Priest of Mulkhêr declared, “is a sacrifice for the Glorious One. A traitor in the King's household. His Keeper of Gardens, a beloved servant, betrayed him!” The congregation roared as the woman's head was jerked upwards, her hair gathered in a twist of the Priest's wrist.


“Zirân she was called, but she had a name in the Elven Tongue. Meleth.” The words were spat out. The roaring and jeers grew louder.


“And it was she who was behind an attempt to enter the Palace, an attempt on the life of her King, betraying her King's trust.” A quick slice of the Priest's sword, and the thick black hair was gone.


“But the King is merciful. He loves her, and allows her to redeem herself. Today she will die a sacrifice to the Giver of Freedom, and, through the King's benevolence, she will be saved!” Ar-Pharazôn acknowledged the cheers with a tilt of his head and a smile. Beside him, his wife's face was impassive.


“Oh Great Giver of Freedom, hear our plea! Save the soul of one who was loved, who did not love!”


The congregation began to chant as the woman was dragged to the altar. The chanting grew, and swelled, as the woman was chained and the great knife descended.


Ar-Pharazôn smiled. Ar-Zimraphel did not. Her eyes glittered hard in her face, and many would have said there was anger in them if they were not afraid to risk the King's wrath. She watched the bloody ritual, and did not look away. Not until the woman, Zirân, screamed her last scream. And when that died down, and there was silence, those who listened hard might have heard one small catch of breath.


And Ar-Pharazôn smiled, again.







And last of all, the mounting wave, green and cold and plumed with foam, climbing over the land, took to its bosom Tar-Míriel the Queen, fairer than silver or ivory or pearls.


The last messages had been sent to Elendil in Rómenna. The last preparations had been made. The ships would set sail when disaster came, but Míriel would stay here, to the last. She had not been able to live for her people, not the way a Queen should; she could hope, at least, to stay in the hour of their ruin.


It was to her father's tomb she went, in those last hours, and she knelt and wept as she had not done since the night in the gardens with Meleth. “I love you,” she whispered, to her father or her lover she did not know.


In that moment, the earth rumbled, and without thought, Míriel knew Pharazôn was dead. Pharazôn was dead, and as she stood on the foot of the path, at the place where he had taken her, there was no joy, only a numb relief.


And then she saw green, and blue, and she turned, and waited for the wave to come to her.