Míriel’s heart fell. It had come to this: Sauron was at the gate of her garden.
Her garden was one of the jewels of Armenelos, small but lovely. A girdle of trees and grass ringed a central round, divided into five. Each of the sections, marked by a pathway of jasper pebbles, sheltered herbs and blooms from Númenór’s five regions. Among them were the humble herbs that women grew. The kings’ herb, athelas, had a nobler place to grow, at the base of the White Tree, Nimloth. Ar-Pharazôn never plucked a leaf of athelas. But he found it charming to see Míriel pulling roses and plucking herbs, and let her claim this garden as her own. A basin at the centre held a bronze fountain, spiraling up like the pathway around the peak of the Meneltarma.
Míriel had not gone to that hallow since Sauron had changed everything. She had not been Númenór’s true queen since Ar-Pharazôn had overwhelmed her. But she had always returned here, where her father had loved to walk. Here, they had paced the paths, and he had spoken of his hopeful vision for Men.
What day had that hope vanished? The year her father died? The day Ar-Pharazôn took the scepter from her pale and shaking hand? The hour Ar-Pharazôn had brought Sauron as his prisoner from Middle-Earth? Or the Maia’s elevation to the King’s counselor? Whenever it had ebbed, it was gone. All she wanted was to be left here in peace.
Whatever would happen next would take this refuge from her.
Resigned, she rose from the bed of herbs where she knelt, drawing back her blue veil.
“Ar-Zimraphel! My queen!” Sauron overwhelmed her garden. His skin and hair both shone in the sun, tawny and golden. He was tall as a man or Númenór’s strong women, lithe yet strong with it. His trailing robes, vivid turquoise edged with gold brocade, enhanced his flashing, unearthly eyes. The greenish hue made the plants look subdued.
Such dyes were one of the wonders Sauron had brought to Númenór’s crafters and sages. Never had there been such colours – and never such stink from the dye-houses. It was only matched by the reek of the new altars where human flesh burned.
This agent of change gazed at Míriel’s companions, flashing a brilliant smile. “Are these fair ones your sisters?”
“My handmaidens.” At his attention, the girls dissolved instantly into simpers, mooning, and whispers.
“They are like you in youth.”
Míriel bowed her head. “I am not young. I am of the line of Elros.”
“Yes…your eyes…I remember one such, who had your eyes.” For an instant, Sauron’s expression darkened. “Perhaps you might even have the span of Elros, be you so maiden-fair now.”
Míriel had heard this so often in her hundred and sixty years that she did not reply. What enduring youth and much-praised beauty had brought her did not seem worth it.
Sauron let the silence deepen, then went on. “O Queen, I will be bold. May we speak alone?”
“Very well.” She wanted to leave it at that, but trembled at the last. “My lord.”
Her handmaidens were already fluttering away, no doubt to earn their bribes as spies and informants. That left the pair of them in the noonday summer sun.
“Tell me, lady…of your marriage to Ar-Pharazôn.”
This subject did not still her trembling. “It seemed to be my fate.”
Pharazôn had forced himself on her. Her daze of shock in the days after might have been taken for the absentmindedness of a woman in love, the dreaminess of a woman not fit to rule. Her salty old nurse had said that, cousin or no, she might as well wed him, in case she was pregnant: that she might work him to be under her thumb. But the canny old dear had not been of the line of Elros. She had died. So, too, had most of those Míriel might call ally. And left alone, she found her hands weak.
“He does not want much of me since your advent. Your beauty is peerless.” It had been a relief, to leave Pharazôn to toy with the Maia, with so little shame to her. For what mortal born could resist such fairness? But she had realized too late the influence that gave Sauron, and the dire use he made.
Sauron chuckled. “Think you so? We might complement each other to a nicety. I know he wishes an heir of you. He asked me, as his counselor, how we might warm your bed to ensure it.”
In the sun, Míriel went cold.
Sauron laughed. “Fear not, Lady. I told him it was not so simple. You are no simpering maid, but a prize to be won anew. A Queen. I have made study of your history. Might you be as one of the other great Queens of the past? Tar-Telperiën, they say, had no use for a man save to rub down her horses in the stables. Is it true that in her bedchamber, she quite preferred her handmaidens?“
“I know not.” What Míriel had wanted had mattered so little, all her life. She was not sure if she was jealous of Telperiën's desires, or simply of her ability to trust a handmaid as a friend.
Seeing her abstracted, Sauron said, “If that is your way, I see why Pharazôn is not your meat. His masculinity exceeds. It is said I am fair. Woman-fair, do you think?”
Míriel turned away from Sauron’s preening. “You outshine us all. My lord.”
Sauron went on. “If you are jealous, you hide it well. Yet why not feel the dark fire of it? Tar-Ancalime, who came soon after, did love to torment men. If that is your way, again, you and Pharazôn would never strike sparks. But you might strike something else together.” Sauron slid back into her line of vision, taking a knee at her feet. “I am very tormentable.”
“I am sorry for your pain.” Míriel said it by rote. Yet Sauron met it with such wide and nonplussed eyes. For an instant, his pupils were black as some unnamed void. Had he, too, felt the same agony that had stunned her for days upon end?
When Sauron spoke anew, low and slow, it was as if he shared her mind. “What would you have done to me…if you, as they say here, held the sceptre?”
Míriel blinked. “I would not have taken you prisoner…”
That gave Sauron back his laughter. He stood once more, overtowering her by a head and a half. “There are a thousand fates worse than to be the prisoner of Númenór!”
He went on. “I am no fool. I see you set aside like a child’s trinket of silver and pearl. Did I know you were my ally, you would not be its prisoner, but truly its queen. Yea, I would see to it: your hand below Pharazôn’s, on the sceptre once more.”
Miriel felt cold yet, as if chilled by a winter sea. “Why?”
“For the same reason I counsel Pharazôn now. Because I wish that mortal Men would be mortal no more – that you had the life of the Eldar. That you would not die.”
And Míriel was undone. Because she feared death.
It was sweet to be alive. And it was said that after death, your soul flew to Illuvatar, to Eru. Míriel knew what it was to feel one’s soul brushed by such numinance, its love and sadness. But she had not returned to the hallow she longed for since she had seen black smoke rise from the new altars. For, after all her failings, how would Eru judge her, now?
Sauron saw her stunned, and misread her, as did all men. “Might you bear a child, if you knew the babe would live for ages long?”
“If that came to pass…perhaps.” She offered it as a sop. Surely it was impossible.
Sauron’s face blazed with triumph.
A gong rang from the heart of the palace. “Ah! I am summoned. Anon, o Zimraphel. I will remember well your words.” He strode away.
Alone, Míriel sank down in the garden’s heart. With the eyes of the line of Elros, she had seen Sauron clear. Yet the gift of Elros did not come with the strength to bear what she had seen: his power, his hatred, his buried pain. His darkness.
Míriel trembled like Nessa, the dancer of the Valar: shed the tears of Uinen, stinging and flowing as sea-water. And gasped with relief at what Sauron had not perceived, though it had brought him here, and its undoing bloomed at their feet.
This garden, her place here, seemed a cage. Yet it held all the freedom left to her.
Here, she could bar Ar-Pharazôn in one way. Never would he have a noble heir of her, not even if he came to her every night. Míriel's allies were dead and gone, but they had told her how to take a common woman's choice: the bitter, golden cup she would soon brew.
And she resumed her little gardening task, plucking the herbs for it herself: the pennyroyal and the rue.