1. While We Live
“My lord,” I called softly, so as not to startle him.
His gaze retained the languor brought on by the poppy fumes as he lifted his head to look in my direction.
“Zimraphel,” he purred contentedly. “Come hither.”
I suppressed a flinch at the lust so evident in his dilated eyes and complied with his wish. Unquestioning obedience had always served me well with my husband, particularly when his senses were addled by the poison fumes he delighted in smoking.
He smiled and nodded his satisfaction when I seated myself on the edge of the mattress, tucking my legs underneath me. He liked the eastern traditions. He had once told me he preferred that I adopt the mannerisms of the people of the east. I disdained those practices, but I stood to gain more when I complied with his whims.
“Was it a long day at court, my lord?” I asked curiously. His brows were knit in deep thought and I knew him well enough to realize that it augured ill for the subject of his musings.
He removed the pipe from his lips and brought it to mine in invitation. I did not part my lips as I debated how to refuse him without rousing his rage.
“You hate it,” he remarked as he stretched his limbs with the grace of a feline.
“It does not agree well with my constitution,” I tried to suppress the nervousness in my voice. “But if my lord wishes, I will partake of it.”
He laughed in that languid, husky tone which resulted when he indulged in the opiate. A very handsome picture he made, I could not help noticing, with his sharply chiseled, dark features cutting a striking picture in the fire-lit chamber. He was clad in a flowing robe in the manner of those wild, eastern potentates. The silken attire clung to his muscled torso like morning dew on a blade of grass. He had earned the name ‘Golden’. If only he had a golden heart within that golden splendour of his form…
“You needn’t,” he declared lazily. “That you offered is ample. And you shouldn’t fear it so, Zimraphel. Zigûr assures me that it is distilled from the best produce of the poppy farms of the east.”
“I fear the effect it might have on your health, my lord,” I spoke sincerely.
I did not want him to die and leave Armenelos in the hands of Zigûr. No, I needed to keep my husband alive until a worthy prince of the line of Elros was old enough to claim the sceptre. I thought of Amandil’s son. Soon, he would muster the support necessary to proclaim himself my husband’s heir. The Faithful had already begun plotting, for the heady influence Zigûr had over the King worried everyone. Even those who prided themselves on being the King’s men secretly feared Zigûr.
“My health?” He seemed surprised as he searched my eyes carefully for pretense. Seeing none, he continued, “I am honoured. But I can assure you that this hookah,” he waved the pipe in the air, “is harmless. It merely serves the purpose of relaxation…” he smiled and lust darkened his gaze again. He pulled me to him and undid the long front laces of my wrapper with his teeth. “It also helps us to enjoy,” his breath ghosted over my lips, “transcendental sexual congress.”
That night, I slid into sleep ensconced in his embrace. Our union had been mutually gratifying as ever for he was not one to exercise cruelty in that manner. Except for the first time when he had forcibly taken me as his queen, there were not many occasions when he had treated me with less than the deepest respect. If I angered him, he would remain aloof and limit our interactions to the barest. I tried to ensure that I did not rouse his ire, for it merely served to hinder my plans.
When I woke in the early hours of dawn, he was still awake and puffing away at his hookah. Feeling me stir in his arms, he craned down and smiled at me.
“I have been wondering about Zigûr,” he opened the subject as he pushed his pipe away and settled back on the cushions. His fingers began to draw lazy circles on my shoulders.
I waited patiently for more. I did not trust Zigûr in the least. In fact, one of the reasons why I sought to be at my husband’s side as much as I could was because I feared Zigûr’s schemes. I loathed Zigûr more than I hated Pharazôn.
“He asked me to cut down Nimloth,” the words escaped him in a rush. His fingers had stopped playing on my skin. I knew he was anticipating a frightened outburst from me.
“What reply did my lord give?” I asked calmly.
I knew him well. If I betrayed my shock and dismay he might go along with Zigûr’s plan merely to prove that he could. My husband could be a very capricious man.
He laughed startled by my reaction or more precisely, my lack of reaction.
“I did not expect that,” he admitted as he pulled me up for a deep kiss. He released me and said frankly, “You never cease to surprise me, Zimraphel.”
I smiled at the unexpected, but sincere flattery and said, “I know my lord. I know that you would have acted wisely.”
“I am honoured by your trust,” he said in a low voice, taken aback entirely by my words. “I told him that the fate of our house is bound to the tree.”
He did not speak more on the subject though he remained unusually introspective after that.
A young lad was staring at me in awe as I walked alone in the beautiful gardens of the palace. At the first glance, he seemed to be one of those freshly recruited guardsmen who admired the loveliness of their queen. Only closer scrutiny would bring to notice that etched on his skin was the tower on the mount Oromët, built by Tar-Minastir, the same tower from where my father had gazed west wistfully many a time.
Taking a chance, I smiled and brought my hand to brush my circlet.
He responded by placing his right hand over his sword.
“My lady?” he asked as he came nearer.
I glanced around to ascertain our privacy before whispering in the banned tongue of the Eldar, “They propose to destroy the tree. See that word reaches Amandil as soon as possible.”
My message must have reached Amandil. I knew that instinctively when I saw the guardsmen in the courtyard. They were less alert than was their wont to be. As discerning as my husband was, there were many of the Faithful who held high positions in his counsels and the army. Unlike those who had retreated to Andúnië with Amandil, these courtiers were discreet and their loyalty had never been questioned. Ar-Pharazôn trusted them implicitly and some of them were even on excellent terms with Zigûr for so impressive was their dissimulation. One of the said courtiers was in charge of the palace guard. That he had slackened the guard in the palace portended something. I chafed, not knowing what they had masterminded.
I was walking in the gardens that evening, wondering what might be Amandil’s plan. Surely he would not send assassins to the palace?
“Ar-Zimraphel,” a calm, self-assured voice greeted me. I looked up to see Zigûr facing me, a twinkle in his usually cold eyes.
“My lord,” I said, “it is indeed a pleasant day to walk if it has enticed even you out of the confines of your chambers.”
He raised his eyebrows as he understood my allusion. Zigûr’s time was mostly spent in his chambers where, according to the palace rumours, he worshipped his strange deity. Amandil had once told me about his suspicions that the deity was none other than Morgoth. But I did not think that the Valar would have remained silent if that had been the case. They have always watched over us. Though my husband was admittedly one of the worst heretics Númenor had bred, I still believed that the Valar would forgive us because of Eärendil’s blood.
“I am merely gathering herbs,” he said pleasantly, offering me his hand. I did not ask him why he had no pouch to gather them in. He had some agenda with me, though I had no inkling of what it was. I accepted his hand and complied as he led me further down the gardens, away from the more frequented paths.
“I fear that you are yet an enigma to me, my queen,” he began, “for I cannot understand your devotion to the king.”
“He is my husband,” I said coldly. “If you had any knowledge of marriage, you would not ask such questions.”
“Ah! Forgive me the impertinence, but during my long years in the east I have heard strange things about men’s wives.”
“I consider that an insult, Lord Zigûr. You are questioning my integrity,” I said furiously. I noticed abstractedly that my fingers were shaking. Heat emanated from his skin where it was in contact with mine. I looked up into his eyes that glowed knowingly. He had found out my secret.
I thought of my poor father, who had in vain sought for a sign of forgiveness from the west. I thought of Amandil, who had laid aside his love for our cause. I thought of the countless number of faithful men and women who had been martyrs on the altar of this long civil war in our country.
“This is not the east,” I said calmly. “And our morals are stronger.”
“No doubt because of the relative proximity to Aman?” his voice had taken on tones of malicious teasing. He knew me, and he would not hesitate to manipulate my secret to gain his ends.
“What do you want?” I asked flatly.
He chuckled and patted my hand softly before saying, “Nothing. That is, I need many things. But you are not my means to any of them. Rest assured that I will not tell the King that you have plotted to save the white tree.” I gasped and he continued despite my mute pleading not to go on, “Since Amandil lacks the forces to take on the might of Armenelos, he will send someone to steal a fruit from the tree. I confess that I am curious about who the thief shall be. Probably someone addled in the head by all the preaching that Amandil does on the so-called goodness of the west.”
I had been growing fainter with each sentence that he spoke. His words grew distant and my eyes were finding it hard to focus on the path before us. I dimly recall his arms going about my collapsing form and his voice calling out for aid.
“Zimraphel?” the worried voice of my husband greeted me when I regained consciousness.
Fear flared through me when I saw Zigûr standing beside him, a well-feigned expression of polite concern on his handsome features.
“Are you feeling faint again?” my husband’s hands had cupped my face as he tried to catch my gaze.
Zigûr had not told him then. He was testing me to see if the threat of being exposed would make me confess all willingly to my husband. Could I? I met Pharazôn’s worried gaze.
“It was merely the evening heat and the strong scent of the flowers in the garden,” I said shakily. I feared as I had never feared before. I had walked the line between devotion and betrayal for a long time. But never once had I come so perilously close to being exposed.
“The days are growing warmer,” my husband nodded agreement. “But you alarmed me.”
“I am sorry.”
“I will take my leave now, my king,” Zigûr said as he made his way to the door.
Pharazôn muttered a distracted ‘yes’ before embracing me. As I sighed and rested my head on his warm chest, I wondered why the Valar had not intervened and stopped this civil war. I wondered why they had not answered my father’s pleas. I wondered why my husband had to be so obsessed by power and immortality. I wondered why it was all happening during my lifetime.
“Try to rest. I will let you be,” he murmured after a while. “My presence here would serve no good.”
I had lost my father. I had lost Amandil. Pharazôn was a ruthless man who had claimed the sceptre by rape and murder. But he was all that I had now.
“Stay,” I whispered as I clung to him, my tears helplessly falling onto his rich robes.
He inhaled sharply, taken aback by my loss of composure. There had been no tears when he had raped me. I had not cried at my father’s funeral.
For a moment, I thought that he might revert to the cruelty that marked his dealings with his subjects. I was steeling myself for the barbed words of malice that would be his reply when I felt him sigh deeply.
“I wish you had been born in better times,” he breathed as he eased us down onto the mattress.
I was awake even after he had slipped into deep slumber. I watched his relaxed, almost innocent, features in the flickering firelight. He did not treat me as he treated the rest. Did that mean he held me in higher esteem? Had there been more than ruthless ambition behind our farce of a marriage?
His chest was rising and falling gently, cruelty and wrinkles that marred his features in the day was taken away by languor and peace. He slept so soundly that he did not wake even when the guards yelled that a fruit had been stolen from the white tree.
My heart did not revel at this. Instead, all I felt was a curious flicker of doubt. Had I done the right thing all along in betraying my husband? My hand rose to touch his jaw. He smiled in his sleep and cuddled closer to my form.
This would end when Zigûr parted us by revealing my betrayal. The thought twisted my heart. I shook my head angrily. I cared nothing for this marriage. It was merely an act. It had been one all along. Or…had it changed somewhere along the path?
I feared that I was losing my mind.
“Amandil’s grandson!” Pharazôn exclaimed as he stormed into the chamber, his handsome features darkened by wrath.
“My lord?” I looked up from the tome I had been reading.
“He stole the fruit!” he spat. “How low have the lords of Andúnië fallen? The Amandil I knew would never have let his grandson commit such an act of disgrace!”
I flinched. There is a corner in all of us that cannot stand to hear former lovers reviled. He must have noticed my expression for he drew nearer and placed his hand on my brow.
“Are you well?”
He had been most solicitous about my health ever since the fainting incident in the gardens. I smiled wanly and drew back from his hand.
“Maybe he heard of Zigûr’s quest to destroy the tree,” I suggested tentatively. “The Lord of Andúnië has always believed that the fate of our line is tied to the Nimloth.”
“Indeed,” Pharazôn raised his eyebrows, “but I find that I am more concerned about how the tidings reached him. Whatever the means of communication, it was very fast.”
“Perhaps someone from the court-”, I began.
He waved an impatient hand and tsked saying, “I told none but you of Zigûr’s demand.”
The chamber seemed suffocating all of a sudden. The tome fell from my limp hands and I jerked in pain as it struck my feet. My fingers shook as I clasped them together. The only sound in the room was that of my harsh breathing.
“You are shivering like a leaf,” he remarked. I could not bring myself to meet his gaze. To see ruthless cruelty in those eyes when I had been privy to affection but bare moments ago…
“I have given Zigûr my consent to destroy the tree,” he spoke slowly, weighing each word with his clear enunciation. “It was a moment of capriciousness on my part. That you had betrayed me hurt, though I should have known better. You, of all people, have the strongest reasons to plot against me.”
“My lord,” I faltered and closed my eyes in helplessness. Then, more than ever before, I missed my father.
I remained in the chamber all day. Every knock on the door seemed a portent of the imminent arrest and execution that would befall me. I had tried to harden myself and to accept my fate gracefully. But my mind refused to embrace calm, torn as it was between righteousness and doubt.
Yet another knock on the door made me flinch. I knew without looking up that it was him.
Had he come to drag me to the execution stand? His rage would have known no bounds, I realized, for he had not anticipated such a long-standing, elaborate deception from me. Warm fingers drew my face up to meet his steely gaze. I did not fear the guillotine any more, I realized as I saw the depth of ruthlessness in his eyes. All I wanted now was a clean death, a fast one. I remembered the shrill screams of the young underage girl whose parents had been accused of conspiracy against the throne. Pharazôn had given the girl over to his guards. She had not survived the night.
“Zimraphel,” his tone made me flinch, devoid as it was of its usual affection.
“I beg you,” I whispered as I shuddered in fear, “grant me honourable death.”
No longer did I plead to the Valar. No longer did I believe in the cause of the Faithful. My devotion to their cause had cost me my father and now, it would claim my life.
“Traitors cannot lay claim to an honourable death,” he murmured as he pulled me into his arms and held me close. “You are condemned to a very long life by my side, as my queen.”
The sword of judgment that had been perilously suspended above my neck fell limp. I did not understand the crucible of paradoxes that was my husband. Nor did I try to do so, for all I felt was a numbing sense of disbelief that my life was not forfeit for my betrayal.
“My queen,” one of the new maids in the palace approached me tentatively.
I had been laboriously studying some of my father’s writings in the vain hope that they might contain some way to dispel the dark, black cloud that hung like the pall of death above our fair city. Ever since Zigûr had begun worship in his new temple, there had been unrest and rampant disease in the land. Was it the power of his prayers to Melkor or the wrath of the Valar that had resulted in this grievous state of affairs? I was still undecided.
Closer scrutiny of the young maid proved that she was one of the Faithful. I had seen her mother in Amandil’s household.
“Yes?” I asked.
“Lord Amandil enquires after your well-being,” she said softly in the tongue of the Eldar.
I stiffened and said quietly, without the least hesitation, “You may tell him that I will not encourage such enquiries again. I wish him well. But I cannot offer him my allegiance any more.”
“Was it a pleasing day?” he asked as he joined me on the balcony facing west.
I turned to smile at him. My heart softened when he returned my smile, his features truly golden as he stood basking in the splendour of hues cast on his handsome form by the setting sun.
“I take it that it was a very pleasing day?” he queried amusedly.
“Indeed,” I replied. “And yours, my lord?”
A fleck of wistfulness graced his eyes as he said quietly, “I live each day as if I shall not wake to see another dawn. Zigûr’s assurances not withstanding, I fear that our country might be destroyed if we continue what we do.”
There was such earnestness in his features that I felt compelled to say hesitantly, “Immortality is not willed to us, my lord.”
“I care naught about immortality!” he hissed and lifted a clenched fist towards the west. “I hate those unfeeling lords of the west for what they have wrought on us! They have set us limits, as if we are toys made for their amusement. They tell us what to do and what not to do. I hate that. I hate that we cannot live the way we wish.”
I refrained from speaking again. He was wrong about many things, I knew. But I could not help feeling that some portion of the blame lay to the west.
“Enough of that! Tomorrow's fears shall fools alone benumb!” he exclaimed as he brought himself off the ridge of moroseness. “Let me hear about your day. Did you machinate any new conspiracy?”
The hint of teasing in his tones not withstanding, I stammered nervously, “My lord!”
“You should have realized by now that I cannot help loving you whatever ensues. Even if you mix poison in my wine, I would forgive you.”
I gasped as I saw the truth shining in those sincere eyes. I could not bear the intensity of his gaze and looked away. This was not what I had wanted. This marriage would have broken my father’s heart had he been witness to it.
“Míriel,” he whispered as he brought his shaking fingers to caress my face.
“My lord,” I breathed.
That name was one closest to my heart, for it reminded me of my father. My husband had ordered me to stop using the name after our marriage. To hear the name spoken in his musical tones enflamed my memories.
He stepped forward that we were but inches apart. “Calion,” he entreated as he brought his forehead to rest against mine. “Call me Calion.”
I hesitated. His fingers brushed my arms reassuringly and he said hoarsely, “Please. Only from your lips shall I have it. It is the only attempt at reparation I can make.”
The broken words undid my fears and I enunciated his name slowly, “Tar-Calion.”
“I wish that we had-”, he began in a troubled tone.
“Hush,” I broke in. “While we live, let us live.”
His breathless laughter was a pure sound that warmed my entire being with its simple joy. It was as if years of ignorance had fallen away before my eyes. I knew nothing but the heat of his embrace and the rapidly thudding heart that made its allegiance known as it crushed against my bosom.
Zigûr watched as the King and Queen of Númenor stood silhouetted against the setting sun. Pharazôn’s handsome features seemed at peace, his face half-buried in the wealth of his wife’s luxuriant hair. Their fingers were entwined, their forms moulding into each other with impossible perfection.
Revelling in the magnificent sunset, blissfully unaware of the impending doom, Pharazôn embraced his queen and laughed joyfully when she tilted her head upwards. Their lips met in a chaste kiss.
“To a new beginning,” he whispered, tracing her forehead in pure wonder. She nodded and rested her head against his chest, sighing contentedly.
With a cold smile, Zigûr turned his back on the couple and made his way to the temple of Melkor, the silver dome of which shone reddish in the dusk.
*“Tomorrow's fears shall fools alone benumb!” – Ar-Pharazôn’s words are from the Copa of Virgil.
*‘I have heard strange things about men’s wives’: Sauron’s line is directly borrowed from ‘A Florentine Tragedy’ by Oscar Wilde.
*’While we live, let us live’ – The line spoken by Míriel is aspired by a very rough translation of ‘DVM, VIVIMVS, VIVAMUS’. The phrase is said to be coined by one of those who followed the Petronius school of thought. The title of the story is taken from the same phrase.
*Zigûr - The Adûnaic name of Sauron, by which those of Middle-Earth addressed him. 'Zigûr The Great'. Referenced from the HoME.
*Amandil – The last lord of Andúnië, father of Elendil.
*Armenelos – The capital city of Númenor.
*Míriel – Daughter of Tar-Palantir, forcibly taken to wife by Ar-Pharazôn. He names her Zimraphel.
*Calion – Pharazôn’s given name in the tongue of the Eldar, which he disavows after taking up the sceptre.
*I had been laboriously studying some of my father’s writings in the vain hope that they might contain some way to dispel the dark, black cloud that hung like the pall of death above our fair city.
This sentence is derived from the passage in the Akallabêth that states that ‘And the first fire upon the altar Sauron kindled with the hewn wood of Nimloth, and it crackled and was consumed; but men marvelled at the reek that went up from it, so that the land lay under a cloud for seven days, until slowly it passed into the west.’