Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand,
Blood and revenge are hammering in my head.
– Titus Andronicus, Wm. Shakespeare
With the speed of a snake's strike, I grabbed the desiccated arm of the one who had awakened me so abruptly. The vise of my hand tightened on spare flesh and bone.
"My Lord Zigûr! It is only I. It is time." My manservant whimpered in pain.
Releasing the wretch, I groaned, perhaps too loudly. The slave scuttled away to join the others –- bipedal roaches with eyes shining flatly from the light of the single lamp in the dim room. I kicked off the coverlet, soaked with my sweat from the oppressive night's heat. I sat up, rubbed my face and scratched my scalp. My stomach grumbled, but I could take nothing but water during this counterfeit show of purification.
"Well," I said, rising to my feet. "Let's get on with it."
A slick film of condensate covered the cool marble floor of the lavatory; I set my bare feet onto it with caution. The slaves had lit the sconces along the wall, filling the room with golden light. I stepped into the basin and poured the first urn of tepid water over my head, chanting empty words of ritual. Seven times I doused myself, sluicing away sweat and the residues of doubt.
Stepping out of the basin, I moved to the middle of the room for the remainder of the cleansing. Furtive glances feathered over my body, the slaves' pupils widening as their flitting eyes caressed my nudity and my most intimate anatomy. Inwardly I sneered that I inspired such lust. Disgusting craven creatures. No one in this land of inbred nobility and mongrel slaves was worthy of me. Let their clefts moisten. Let their members stiffen. I'd just as soon fuck a dog.
My servants slathered my skin with fine olive oil scented with sandalwood and scraped my skin with strigils. They wiped my limbs and torso with fine linen towels. One of the men handed me a length of silk that I wrapped around my waist. I returned to my chambers and sat dutifully on a stool where the slaves continued to groom me.
A young woman anointed my hair, combing and twisting long strands into tight plaits and fixing the ends with gold beads. A brown, wizened crone painted the edges of my eyes with kohl, extending the design out toward my temples. The delicate touch of the brush on my face and the sensations on my scalp from the plaiting sent me into a meditative state of pleasure. I soaked up the soothing feelings, savoring such simple physical touch, especially given my task to come.
"Please, my lord," said my chief slave, a wiry man from Far Harad. "We have your raiment ready for you."
The white linen chiton slipped over my head and shoulders, its texture smooth against my skin. I pulled my hair from beneath the garment; the small metal balls on the ends of my braids beat a delicate tattoo against my back. I examined the results in the large looking glass hanging on the wall of my bedchamber.
The familiar face of a tall man looked back at me. Although the same eyes took in the same nose, the same mouth, and the same dark brows of the craftsman and scholar who had first embraced this human form over two thousand years ago, the image was far removed from him. Dark pigment accentuated the preternatural gleam of pale grey eyes. My hair hung in a shiny mass of sinuous black snakes with small golden heads. Muscles bunched as I moved my arms. The overall effect was dramatic. That was what these people wanted: drama.
How becoming. A painted catamite of Melkor, sneered the silver voice from its dark cell in my mind's dungeons.
From the perplexed expressions on the slaves' faces, I realized I had spoken the words aloud. I crushed the vestige of conscience that castigated me and warned of consequences -- terrible consequences.
After thrusting my arms through the sleeves of the white wool robe the slaves held for me and fastening the gold belt around my waist, I left my quarters to join my acolytes who waited in the courtyard of the palace.
Sweat streamed down my chest and back, the linen of my garment adhering to my skin as I marched under the uncompromising light of the summer sun. The procession wound through the streets of Armenelos: musicians played flutes and jangled bells; singers lifted their voices in praise to the Giver of Freedom; my acolytes waved fragrant branches of taniquelassë and censers with cloying smoke streaming from them. The citizens of Armenelos lined the streets and stood in archways and above on balconies, cheering and tossing flowers before my sandaled feet.
Up and up the procession wound, and closer and closer to one of the greatest of my works, save for the simple gold ring that graced my left forefinger. The king may have ordered the temple to be built, but it was I who designed it and guided the feats of engineering required for its construction. Only Lugbúrz rivaled it. The temple, a wonder of the world, was constructed of mica-flecked red granite blocks and rose five hundred feet from the ground. High above, the curves of its silver dome reflected the sun. Its foundations sank well below the wide paved courts that surrounded it, courts that were now crowded with citizens, immigrants and slaves. The King's guards held back the throng so that the procession could pass through.
I entered the temple through the wide entryway, the gold- and silver-plated doors flung wide open. Lamps burned cedar-scented oil, illuminating the passageway that led through thick walls, their depth required to support the structure of the building. The temperature within the temple dropped, and I shivered, chilled by the cool air and by anticipation. In the outer hall that circled the building, I gestured to my chief priest who waited there, and he joined me in the stately procession.
"Is he ready?" I asked out of the corner of my mouth.
"Yes, Lord Zigûr. He has been bathed and anointed. No struggle whatsoever. He is at peace that he will be so blessed to be the first who will offer his life to the Giver of Freedom."
"Indeed," I said. "He is blessed."
My contempt for the priest transformed into a benign smile of dismissal, and the unctuous man dropped away. More likely the victim –- the offering -- was resigned to his fate. The man was one of the Faithful, an insidious faction that I had taken pains to stifle. Sacrifice in the name of Melkor had the potential to be an expedient way of demoralizing the political opposition and suppressing them.
Worshipers filled the inner sanctum of the temple. High above me arched the silver dome, its panels marching in concentric circles to the central louver, but two other louvers, now shut, were also built into the dome. The openings were aligned such that the light of the sun on the three high holy days of Melkor would strike the high altar.
Against the wall opposite the wide arched doorway stood the obsidian statue of Melkor in his most beautiful aspect, nude with knees locked, his head bowed in benevolence and arms outstretched and palms open in acceptance. At the statue's base was my seat, carved from black granite and embellished with gold plate, but that was not my destination today. I walked across the mosaic floor, its glazed tiles depicting scenes of the victories of Númenor, to the heart of the temple.
The miasma of incense, flowers and human sweat assaulted my nostrils. I tried to focus on my own scent, reminiscent of the air after a lightning strike, a rarified scent that was my signature, no matter what form I took. But today, for the first time in my long life, I noticed a foul chord: the stink of putrescence lurked beneath my clean, charged odor.
I turned and walked up the steps of the king's dais where Ar-Pharazôn and his queen sat. Bowing to my knees before them –- and seething inside from such debasement -- I awaited the king's acknowledgment.
"Rise, Lord Zigûr," said the king. "We give you our blessings on this holy day. May the Giver of Freedom find the offering worthy."
"May Ar-Pharazôn the Golden live forever under the Giver of Freedom's love and protection."
The king's half-smile of benediction deepened the permanent furrows in his cheeks. Beneath his brows, set in a bristling perpetual frown, his dark eyes bored into me, seeking, questioning, but also filled with triumph. My anger and humiliation threatened to choke me.
His queen, on the other hand, would not meet my eyes. Although she exuded the dolorous mist of depression, she was still beautiful with fine features, smooth skin and silky dark hair with highlights of copper fire. When I looked at her, the pang of agonized memory tore through me, and once again, I gave thought to her disposition after I had rid myself of her king. Her delicate hands gripped the arms of her chair, but that did not prevent her from trembling.
"Ar-Zimraphel, my queen." As I spoke, I stroked the borders of her mind, calling to her with gentleness, patience and feigned love.
Tar-Míriel, beautiful Jewel-daughter, you who should be queen of all.
She raised her face. The hatred in her twilight-blue eyes set me back as if she had slapped me. I dropped my eyes and bowed my head, respectful and rejected. No, things would not go easy for her when Ar-Pharazôn was gone.
The hem of my robes glided over the steps of the dais as I returned to my path toward the centerpiece of the temple: the Altar of Fire, a low but massive stone platform positioned directly below the apex of the dome. There the flesh of animals sacrificed to Melkor was burned after their throats had been slit on the Altar of Everlasting Life and their blood drained and consumed. Today, smooth white wood was stacked artfully in the Altar of Fire's center. That the wood of Nimloth, the descendant of Galathilion, would consume the flesh of one of the Faithful, a kinsman of Lord Amandil, struck me as especially fitting.
The Altar of Everlasting Life rose high above the Altar of Fire. I ascended the black granite ramp to stand above the multitude that crowded within the temple. The rank and file stood, but closer to the altars, the nobility, the wealthy, and those who had curried appropriate favor were seated in cedar wood chairs placed in rows that curved around the center of the temple. I raised my arms, the seated rose to their feet, except for the king and queen, and all began to sing.
How they loved my hymns to him, my master. They even had favorites. They joined in, their panoply of voices climbing to the dome and beyond to the sky. Could Melkor hear them? Manwë? Eru?
Their faces shone with adoration. Such gullible fools. I had no more belief in Melkor-as-godhead than I did in Eru, the phantom sky-father who had abandoned the world, who had abandoned his Children, and who had abandoned me. It was all so much empty ritual, but ritual that the Men of this island slavishly devoured, just as Men everywhere gobbled up belief. They killed one another over their beliefs, something that they thought gave meaning to their lives and for which they were willing to claim the lives of others. It was belief, albeit false, I well knew, that I fostered for it suited my plan well.
The hymns to Melkor ceased, and I chanted the litany, following the predictable ceremony that these people so craved.
"Giver of Freedom," I intoned.
"Deliver us from death," responded the worshipers.
"He that arises in might. . ."
"We have no other god before thee."
My priests brought him forward. Balakzîr. I knew his real name though. He placed one foot before the other, the gait of a man in a trance. The acolytes who flanked him held his arms, and his hands were bound with leather straps. Naked save for a thin white loincloth, his body -- that of a young man approaching his prime -- gleamed with fragrant oils, his rippling muscles catching the light. His face bore no expression, and his blank eyes stared into a void. His lips worked with unheard words, but I knew it was a prayer to Varda. Fool. She would never listen, and even if she heard, she would do nothing.
The chant of the worshipers intensified when the acolytes brought the young man up to the high altar. An attendant removed my outer robes, leaving me in my chiton with my arms bare to the shoulders for the task at hand.
They laid him out before me, securing his wrists and ankles, his neck above the bowl-like depression in the red granite, already stained with beasts' blood that drained through a channel to a spout where an acolyte caught the outflow in a golden goblet. I raised my eyes to the dome and past the open louver to the rectangle of crystalline blue sky. The angle of the shaft of sunlight streaming through the opening was minimal. When the sun reached its zenith and struck the high altar, the stone would drink human blood.
Excitement coupled with trepidation coursed through me as I chanted words devoid of substance to hearts full of hope, to hearts full of fear. I ceased speaking, and silence fell over the crowd in the temple: a hush of anticipation. The shaft of sunlight inched closer to the altar.
There he lay, each limb fastened, just as I had requested, so much like others whom I had persuaded in Angband and Lugbúrz. There would be no persuasion now. Just death. Yet this was a first. Many times I had ordered others to kill. Less often, I had killed others myself in combat. I took pride in my craftsmanship when I set my tools of coercion to bare flesh. But I had never taken the life of one tied and helpless before me.
The acolytes holding the torches stepped forward at my signal and put flame to the wood of Nimloth on the lower altar. Ar-Pharazôn shifted in his grand seat and turned his head away. His queen's face was pallid and stone-still. A black reek billowed forth when the wood caught fire. The rising smoke swallowed the shaft of sunlight, and the entire chamber of the temple darkened. I jerked my sight upwards to see that dark clouds had replaced the clear blue sky. An icy bolt of fear shot up my spine. Superstitious nonsense, I said to myself. It is only a change in the weather. I set my jaw, determined to continue.
Balakzîr's ribs expanded and contracted. His sweat-slick skin vibrated from the percussion of his heart. Then his eyes focused and he looked directly at me.
"Ciryandil," I met his stare. "I know who else collaborates with you. They, too, will lie here soon."
His numb composure fled then, but he did not cry out. He grimaced and writhed against his bonds, his back arching and his hands opening and closing into fists.
My focus shifted, and I fixated on my own hands, palms cupped in supplication to Melkor: my hands that had created wonders with Aulë, hands that had tormented my master's thralls, hands that had morphed into a wolf's paws, hands that had clasped Eonwë's before we parted forever, hands that had forged ploughshares and swords, hands that had raised the cup to colleagues, hands that had crafted a ring, hands that had laid the instruments of betrayal to a friend, hands that were little different than those of the man I was about to slay.
I grasped the whale-ivory hilt of the knife that I had forged and sharpened myself. Black smoke roiled in the dome of the temple; hell's flames leapt from the white wood. The clarion peal of my conscience warned me:
Do this and there is no turning back.
I met Ar-Pharazôn's eyes, no longer bold and dark but rheumy from the smoke, his usually florid face now pale and bland. The flames of my hatred for him snapped and crackled. My desire to take the wealth of Númenor and its vassalage for my own consumed me like dry wood ignited by lightning. Disembodied voices spiraled around me, hissing and snarling, and the images of terrible gods, sacrifices and bloodied priests streamed from elsewhere and everywhen into my thought, silencing the silver voice within.
Kali and Moloch. Taranis and Jephthah. Eat of my flesh and drink of my blood.
I raised the knife.
Zigûr - the Adûnaic name for Sauron (see The History of Middle-earth, vol. IX, "The Notion Club Papers" and various notes therein).
Lugbúrz = Barad-dûr.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.