Days passed, but finally the great mountain of Meneltarma was before them, and Vorea led the horse around the edges.
"We will be there by nightfall," she said. "Earlier, perhaps. It depends how far the city has spread."
"I think we're at the edge of it right now," Khamul said as they passed a house and a bakery.
"By the Valar! It very nearly encircles Meneltarma!"
"Astonishing, isn't it?" Khamul muttered. "Just goes to show what happens when you put people on an island and they really, really like it there. No one wants to leave, and they all have a bunch of kids. Then the island gets pretty full."
"Hence the settlers on Middle-Earth," Vorea said, nodding. "Yes, it appears they are overpopulating the land."
This island can't support them anymore, Khamul thought. They had to move to Umbar and New Haven and the Pelargir. They had no choice. No, she thought angrily. They did have a choice! They had a choice in how they treated the natives! They could have been kind to my people, given them gifts, bought the land fairly; Valar know they have enough money. But instead they took it by force, killing and pillaging as they pleased. The same goes for New Haven, but I don't think there were any natives in Pelargir except for Yanta's people, only they live in the mountain.
"Perhaps once we crush them, we could make a bargain with them," Khamul mused. "We give them the Pelargir in exchange for them agreeing to be our vassal."
Vorea frowned. "That is in an interesting idea," she said. "Sauron may agree to it, but it depends on the arrogance of these people. If they humiliate him, I doubt he will be agreeable to making peace."
"Just a thought," Khamul said. It was market day, she assumed by the number of people in the streets. Quite a few looked up and stared as they passed by. Staring mostly at Khamul, though a few glanced at Vorea, who had replaced her helmet. What a great disguise, Khamul thought. It hides her missing eye, and that she's a woman. Why, if we could all wear helmets we might have more respect than any man in Arda.
"I suspect that is the palace," Vorea said, nodding towards a massive white marble and gold construct in the shadow of the mountain. A high wall, also of white marble, encircled it, and Khamul could see green trees beyond.
"And likely that's where Sauron is," Khamul said. "But how are we going to get in?"
"I do not know," Vorea said. She slowed the horse as they approached. "The gates are tall and strong, the guards are competent no doubt. They will not let us, obvious foreigners, in."
Khamul considered this. There were two heavily armored guards in black and silver standing before a closed gate of wood reinforced with strips of metal, which just may have been mithril. No chance of breaking that, she thought. We'll have to use guile.
"They will also be on their guard seeing as our lord is within," Vorea said.
"Yes, indeed they will," Khamul said. "Vorea, you always wanted to come here, right? Anything about it that really was a draw for you?"
Vorea considered this. "The fighters, obviously," she said. "And since they allow a woman to become queen here, I thought I might be able to win some respect when I took my helmet off."
"Anything else really special about Numenor?"
Vorea frowned. "Meneltarma, the palantri…"
"Seeing stones, forged by Feanor in the years of the Trees."
"Didn't Sauron say something about those?" Khamul asked.
"I do not recall it," Vorea said. "They are very valuable though. The heirs of Silmarien keep them. Though I believe they are currently being held somewhere in Armenelos," she added.
"The Lords of Andunie," Vorea said.
"They just keep popping back up," Khamul muttered. "I expect we'll run into them again, even though their lands are many, many leagues from here."
"We must be on our guard," Vorea said. "That lord may recognize you."
"I doubt it. I had my cloak on. I think he thought I was a ghost or wraith."
Vorea chuckled. "The Numenoreans I fought thought the same thing," she said.
"All the better for us," Khamul said. "Ghosts aren't physical beings, after all. So, Meneltarma, palantri, anything else?"
"Well, Nimloth, of course, but that's about it."
"Who's Nimloth? The queen?"
"Tar-Miriel is the queen," Vorea said. "Though I believe Ar-Pharazon changed her name to something more Adunaic."
Khamul snorted. "Then what is this Nimloth?"
"A tree?" Khamul asked. "What's so great about this tree?"
"It is a descendent of Telperion," Vorea said in reverence. "The tree with silver leaves, a flower of which is our moon?"
"I've heard of it," Khamul said. "Where is it?"
"Inside the palace gardens," Vorea said, nodding at the gate.
"I've got an idea," Khamul said with a grin. "Let's drop this horse somewhere and go to the gate."
"I hope this is a good idea," Vorea said. "I do not want to be arrested."
"We won't be."
A few minutes later the two women approached the gate. When they got too close, the guards barred their way with their long spears.
"You cannot come further," one intoned sternly.
"We have come many leagues from across the sea to see Nimloth the Fair," Khamul said. "We wish to look upon the splendor of Numenor's greatest treasure."
The guards exchanged glances. "We don't allow your kind in here," one said.
"Oh come on," the other said. "It'd be good for public relations. They say we're all uptight and forbidding, and then we'll point out that we let two foreigners in to see the tree just a little while ago."
The first guard seemed dubious, but at last he relented. "If this goes rotten," he said, "it's all on your head."
Quickly and quietly the guards opened the great gate and ushered Khamul and Vorea in.
"Brilliant scheme!" Vorea complemented in a whisper once they were in. "Where do we go from here?"
"Where's the tree?" Khamul asked. "We'll go over there in case anyone's looking, and then we'll make a break for the palace."
"We blend in. Grab some servant uniforms, that sort of thing."
Vorea nodded. "We'll need somewhere to stash our weapons," she said.
"Your spear at least, and likely our swords as well. We can keep our daggers."
The two hid their weapons behind a large hedge near a circle of flowers, in the center of which was a blossoming white tree.
"That would be Nimloth, I assume," Khamul said, looking at the tree. She was impressed; she'd never seen an albino tree before. It sorted of glowed as well, which was unusual in most plants she'd come across.
"Valar forgive my sins," Vorea whispered, bowing to the tree and then looking to the heavens.
"It's just a tree," Khamul said. "Come on, let's go find Sauron and see what his plans are."
"Yes," Vorea said. "Let us do that." She followed Khamul out of the garden, but cast a longing look back at the tree.
The entrances to the palace were many once one was inside the wall. And neither were any of them locked. Khamul and Vorea simply walked in, found a closet almost immediately, and pulled on some plain white robes.
"Are you sure these are servant uniforms?" Khamul asked. "They look like something a priest would wear."
"I am sure," Vorea said. "Look over there? Do you see that maid walking with the tray of food? Yes? She is wearing robes similar to these."
"So we're in disguise," Khamul said. "But we need a job as well. We can't just go wandering through the palace."
"Here," Vorea said, tossing Khamul a mop and bucket and taking one for herself as well. "We are sent by the head maid to clean up everything we see."
"Excellent," Khamul said with a dark grin. "Now…dungeons. They would be down below these floors, yes?"
The stairs were easy enough to find. The door had been left ajar by some foolish guard, and since a flight of stairs leading to any respectable place in the palace would be grand and elaborate, these plain, hidden stairs could lead to nowhere else than the dungeon.
"Hurry, hurry," Khamul hissed as they rushed down the stairs. "It'll be hard to explain why we're down here, and I'm not sure if cleaning's going to cut it!"
The stairs went down for nearly a thousand steps until they finally emptied into a single room, of which a cell made up half. In it, with his back leaned up against the wall, sat a man who looked to be part elf, with dark hair and darker eyes.
"My lord," Vorea said softly. "We have come."
"So soon?" Sauron whispered, standing up. "I am pleased. I thought you would still be stumbling through the land, if not floating around on the ocean."
"We had a horse," Khamul said.
"Ah, some poor unfortunate just 'gave it up' did he?"
"Fine, fine, but listen to me, no killing, do you understand? All must be quiet," Sauron said. "The king is weak, so weak that it is a wonder he has not fallen already. Nothing must disturb that, understand?"
"Yes, my lord," Vorea said. "But what of the other three ringbearers?"
"A young man has come to see me," Sauron said. "The lords of these lands send their sons to spend some time in the royal guard, and the lords of the Andunie are no exception."
Is this the same one who was at Umbar? Khamul wondered.
"You think he may join us, lord?" Vorea asked.
"I wonder. Isildur is a man with weakness in him as well," Sauron said. "His brother is weaker in body, but I think he is stronger in spirit. And their father is the leader of those who wish to return to the days of worshipping the elves and holding the Valar as gods, untouchable by all. No, it is Isildur who will break. I'm sure of it."
And will you make him lord over us all? Khamul thought bitterly. Perhaps you will. He is, after all, nobility. He has the blood of elves in him, and you like the elves very well, don't you, Sauron? You even fashion yourself after one.
"What shall we do then?" Vorea asked.
"Vorea, I want you to stay here in Armenelos," Sauron said. "You blend in better. Khamul, travel the surrounding lands, look for those who are still faithful to the old ways."
"How will I be able to report to you, if you are locked up in this dungeon?" Khamul asked. "Not to mention that I will be many miles away."
*Like this* Sauron's voice appeared inside Khamul's head, and she stumbled back.
"I didn't know you could do that," she muttered.
*This is how I shall communicate with both of you* Sauron thought. *Khamul, tell me what news of these faithful you find. Vorea, tell me all you find about the king and his queen, their lords and their servants. Everything. It could be a matter of victory or defeat.*
"Very well," Khamul said. "I shall depart at once. Lucky you," she muttered as they left the dungeon.
"What was that?" Vorea asked.
"Nothing," Khamul said. "I've just got one question though."
"Where did we put the horse?"