Written for prompts from Back to Middle-earth Month 2011 and 2013.

Warnings: Emotional mistreatment/attempted harm to children, mention of human sacrifice.


Chapter 1: Day

The Armada sets sail, and Míriel waits for the shape of their doom to reveal itself.

The city is oddly quiet. The King has taken all the men of fighting age with him on his expedition, leaving the palace to be guarded by bright-eyed young boys and old men already bending toward their graves. Míriel has passed beyond hope, beyond fear. She allows her waiting-women to attire her as becomes a queen and to bind the royal gem upon her brow, and each day she takes her place upon the throne. There she hears petitions and judges cases in the King's name, doing what is necessary to rule the diminished remnants of her people - as if it could make any difference to their fate.

Her spies have told her that the Elf-friends still lie in their ships off Rómenna, to the east. She wonders idly what they must be thinking or doing - do they still hope to escape the inevitable wrath? - but surely there is neither aid nor hindrance to be had from that quarter. The King's most trusted councilor, so far as she can tell, is doing nothing. After his failed attempt to arrest Elendil, he withdrew to the dark temple in the center of Armenelos. She does not know what words he used to persuade the King to set sail without him, but it seems Lord Sauron, too, is waiting.

More than a month after the fleet's departure, one of her ladies-in-waiting hurries into the throne room, her headdress askew with her haste. "My lady, my lady!"

"What is it, Zamîn?"

"The King's soldiers have taken Kharun, my lady. They say it is by command of Lord Sauron. They mean to sacrifice her in the temple!"

The Queen's brow darkens. Kharun is the youngest of her attendants, a girl twelve years old. Does Sauron mean to test her will? "Bring them here before me and send for Lord Sauron."

"I have already told them to come before you, my lady, for your judgement. But they will not come!"

Míriel rises to her feet. "Take me to where they are."

The Queen and her retinue meet up with them outside of the palace. Kharun is being conducted toward the temple by a trio of guards, one a mere boy and the others old men. The girl follows the guards obediently; Míriel is not certain Kharun even understands what is happening to her. "This girl is my servant," she says in a commanding tone. "By what right do you take her to be sacrificed?"

The eldest guard bows deferentially. "Your pardon, my Queen. It was at Lord Sauron's orders. The King always said we should obey Lord Sauron in matters concerning the temple."

Míriel looks away from his withered face, with its unpleasant reminder of mortality. "You are not to lay hands on my attendants without my orders. Nor any other of my subjects."

The old man shakes his head doubtfully. "There must be sacrifices, to keep away death. The people are used to it."

Míriel does not turn her head, but she is acutely conscious of the gathering crowd, drawn by curiosity, and for a moment she knows fear. Is her power so frail? I must not be seen to waver. "Send for the Lord Sauron."

But at her words Sauron himself steps forward, the crowd parting before him. He stands head and shoulders above the tallest men in Númenor, and even the Queen has to look up at him. She dislikes that intensely. "I am here, my Queen. What is your will of me?"

Míriel gestures to Kharun, standing wide-eyed between the guards. "Why did you order my attendant taken to the temple without my permission?" A better question, how Sauron dared to give orders to the King's guards, who should move at the King's will alone; but that is an ill long established.

"A vision came to me in the night, my Queen. Tomorrow the King's fleet will touch the lands of the enemy. I wished to assure our victory." His eyes flick over Kharun dismissively. "This child seemed the most easily spared from the King's service. But if you have need of her, I will bid the priests choose another."

Míriel glances upward involuntarily. Grey clouds in the shape of great eagles soar overhead, flickering with lightning. She shudders and averts her gaze. "You would sacrifice in the temple, now?" Míriel had not thought she could still be appalled by anything that Lord Sauron did.

"I would sacrifice and pray for the King's success in his ventures," Sauron returns piously.

"It is I and not you, Lord Sauron, who hold the King's sceptre as regent. And it is my command that there are to be no sacrifices." By force of long habit, Míriel avoids looking at the temple, with its omnipresent cloud of smoke.

Sauron lowers his eyes with false humility. "When the King returns, I must make an accounting to him of this."

"You know he will not." The words escape her despite herself, but she knows their truth, bitter on her tongue. There is an indrawn breath from the youngest of the guards. Míriel does not turn to look at him; her eyes are fixed on Sauron's face. Did she only imagine that smile of triumph? Sauron's eyes seem to burn with a dark flame, and Míriel suddenly feels herself in the presence of some dangerous beast, a great wolf with ravening jaws. Did we truly deem that he served us? she asks herself in despair.

"You mean that you hope he will not." Sauron puts on an expression of grieved loyalty. "Is the sceptre then so dear to you? I had not thought to hear such words from you, who should be closest to the King in love." He straightens and turns to gather in the onlookers with his eye. "But truly, what harm can befall the King, while his men keep their loyalty? He commands a fleet so mighty it can vanquish even death itself. Do not tell me that you, my Queen, still dread that empty phantom of the Valar? Be resolute! Have faith in the King and in the power of Númenor. For myself, I trust soon to hear good news."

Anger at his sheer effrontery holds the Queen silent. Recovering her voice, she says sharply, "I do not wish to hear another word from you. Return to your chambers, Lord Sauron, and stay there." Sauron waits just long enough for doubt to creep into her mind whether he will obey; then he bows low, with a humility that somehow contrives to be more arrogant than defiance would have been, and leaves in a swirl of robes.

She turns to the young guard, who is staring fixedly ahead as if he wishes he could make himself invisible. "Go after him," the Queen says wearily. "Lord Sauron is to remain under guard in his chambers until the King's return, but he is to have food and drink brought to him, and whatever else he wishes, within reason." The guard bows and flees.

Zamîn, who had not dared to venture under Sauron's eye, descends upon Kharun with many exclamations of dismay. The Queen leaves the young girl in her care and returns to her mockery of a throne.

That night, she dreams of the White Tree in flower.