15. First Sacrifice
"How did this happen?" Sauron asked softly the next morning. "He was in a cell, guarded by two of the most experienced guards. How did he escape?"
"My lord, someone slew the guards and freed Elendil," Vorea said.
"Yes, but who?" Sauron asked, tapping the stone altar.
"Isildur," Khamul said.
"No," Sauron said, shaking his head. "He is under my sway."
"Yet he is gone," Khamul pointed out. He doesn't suspect anything, she thought gleefully. He doesn't know it was me.
Sauron frowned. "Yes, that is a troublesome point. I still think Elendil was freed by someone else and then took his son with him."
"But if he was so under your sway, he would have put up a fight. There was no sign of a struggle in his room. And his sword was gone."
"But much of his armor was not," Vorea said. "I think he stepped out for a stroll and never returned."
Khamul shrugged. "Well, it just seems a bit strange. Elendil gone, and so is his son. The simplest explanation is usually correct."
"This cannot be tolerated," Sauron snarled. "Elendil and his sons have been declared traitors by the king. That is not enough though. When he returns to Andunie, the lords there will protect him, and follow him as well, likely."
"Declare them all traitors then," Vorea said.
"All of them. Now there's a thought," Sauron mused. He slowly grinned. "Yes. The Andunie are faithful to the Valar. Declare them traitors, and their faith will fall, too, the Numenoreans fearful that they will be next. And we need something particularly awful for them to be fearful of."
Khamul watched Sauron think, tapping the stone altar unconsciously. Sauron glanced over at her and the grin widened.
"I have my answer," he said.
"Eh? What is it?" Khamul asked.
"There are two minor lords of the Andunie in Armenelos. I shall have them arrested at once."
"What of the one I saw on the way here?" Khamul asked.
"He will be arrested when he arrives," Sauron said. "A spy saw him delayed by a washed-out road. He will be here soon, too late to turn back after what has happened."
"And what will happen?"
"Arrest the lords. I will have Pharazon sign some warrants." Sauron walked out of the temple, a spring in his step.
"What do you think he's up to?" Khamul asked.
Vorea shrugged. "Not anything I wish to know about," she said. "Let us find these lords. On a different subject, I found my spear halfway across the temple from where I had left it."
"Did you?" Khamul asked. Damn. I knew I'd forgotten something.
"There was blood on it as well, which was odd," Vorea said. "Just a little. I would not have paid it much attention save that I cleaned it just that day. It is almost like someone took it that night and used it to attack someone. Why…that was the night Isildur and Elendil fled. Curious, is it not?"
"Very much so," Khamul said.
"I see no reason to pursue any leads however," Vorea said. "I am content with thinking it was the fault of my memory."
Khamul smiled. "The memory plays strange tricks," she agreed.
The two walked through the halls of Armenelos, looking for the two minor lords. I'm sure Vorea knows what they look like, Khamul thought, 'cause I sure don't.
"Khamul," Vorea said after several minutes. "Are you acquainted with these lords?"
"No. Are you?"
"No, and that is the problem. I do not know who they are."
Khamul sighed. "Right, let's go talk to Sauron."
"What are you two doing wandering about?" Ceure asked, walking up. She was a different woman than Khamul had seen in the house. Ceure stood tall, head held high, a sword – which she had become reasonably proficient in – buckled around her waist.
"We're looking for two lords of the Andunie," Khamul said.
"Ah," Ceure said, nodding. "I heard Elendil had escaped. And Isildur, too, if the rumors are not wrong."
"They aren't," Khamul said. "You wouldn't happen to know where those lords are, would you?"
Ceure grinned smugly. "I heard about Elendil's escape early this morning, and I made it my mission to find any other lords of his land in the palace."
Khamul grinned. She had not been wrong in selecting Ceure for a ring. "Where are they?" she asked.
"Right here. They're discussing things," Ceure said, gesturing towards a nearby room. "I haven't been able to hear what they're talking about, but I've made sure they haven't moved."
"Excellent," Khamul said. "Ready, Vorea?"
"I am always ready," Vorea replied, loosening her sword in its sheath.
"Are you going to arrest them?" Ceure asked.
Khamul nodded. "Anyone from Andunie is a traitor to the throne," she said. "They can thank Elendil for what's coming to them."
"And what is coming to them?"
"Eh, well, Sauron's got that all planned out."
Pushing open the door, the three ringbearers quickly surrounded the two lords. They were fairly young and strong, but not armed, and jumped to their feet as the armed women approached.
"Who are you?" one asked.
"We're the people who're going to arrest you," Khamul said.
"What? That's madness!" the other exclaimed. "We haven't done anything wrong!"
"Are you lords of the Andunie?" Khamul asked.
"Yes, but…" the first began.
"Then you are under arrest for high treason against his majesty, Ar-Pharazon the Golden," Khamul said, enjoying the thrill of power she received.
The two lords protested, but a sharp look from Vorea quickly silenced them.
"This knot'll hold," Ceure promised as she bound the lords' hands behind their back. "I used to tie my horse to a tree using this knot. There's no way in all Arda they'll be able to get out of it."
"No escaping for you two," Khamul said. "Now, let's take them to the dungeon. I do believe they've changed the guards since that unfortunate breakout. Oh," she said, a sudden, wicked idea coming upon her. "I don't suppose you two would have had anything to do with Elendil and Isildur?"
"Now that is an idea!" Vorea exclaimed. "It makes perfect sense."
"Four lords of the Andunie, all under the same roof," Khamul said. "Two escape, and two stay. I wonder what happened. And I wonder when you two were going to flee. Soon, maybe? This very day, perhaps?"
"You've got it all wrong!" the first lord exclaimed.
"We haven't done anything!" the second protested.
"Tell that to the king," Khamul said.
After depositing the prisoners in the well-guarded dungeon, the three ringbearers headed for the throne room.
"Ah, wait," Ceure said, holding out a hand to stop the other two.
"What is it?" Khamul asked. "Trouble?" she asked, starting to draw her sword.
"No. A procession."
"A procession. Like a religious procession. People in fancy clothes and whatnot."
Khamul nodded slowly and relaxed her grip. "What are they having a procession for?" she asked.
"We shall see," Vorea said, slipping into the shadows along with the others.
Around the corner came Ar-Pharazon, resplendent in robes woven of pure gold. The crown of Numenor, made of pure mithril, glittered on his head. Next to him walked Miriel, a rather small woman, who made Khamul hiss in stabbing envy. Next to her, Khamul's visions of elves were nothing. The queen's midnight hair sparkled with a net of diamonds that had been placed over it. Her skin was creamy, her lips as red as a rose. Her eyes were a deep gray common in the Numenoreans. She wore a beautiful green and blue dress that shimmered as she walked.
"That is the queen?" Vorea whispered. "Rather she appears to be a Vala descended to our lands."
"Why do the elfbloods have all the luck?" Khamul snarled in fury.
Behind the king and queen, Sauron walked, dressed in fine black and red robes. Agan scurried behind him, cloaked and with a cowl drawn over his head to hide his face. He wasn't about to trust the immunity granted to him by Sauron's protection.
Sauron caught his ringbearers' eyes and nodded subtly in the direction the procession was headed. Khamul nodded.
"We're to follow him," she whispered to the others.
"It's a very long procession," Ceure said. "Where do you suppose it's headed?"
"The temple, I believe," Vorea said, glancing down the corridor. "Ah, it is now coming to an end. I believe we can safely sneak into the back of the procession without being spotted."
"Not that that would matter," Khamul said. "We're Sauron's loyal servants. No one cares about us."
"He was subtle enough about it that I do not think he wants us to make some kind of fuss," Vorea said, stepping out of the shadows and into the back of the procession behind two chattering court ladies.
The procession was indeed headed to the temple. The chairs that Vorea and Ceure had painstakingly placed around the altar were filling up with lords and ladies, while two grand seats were taken up by the king and queen themselves.
"Still too few seats," Vorea muttered, glancing around. "I guess we will have to stand."
"Guard the doors," Khamul said. "I wonder what he's up to," she muttered, watching Sauron, who stood in the middle of the room. Agan was off to the side, hidden in the shadows of the room, watching his master with a rapturous expression.
"My king," Sauron said, his voice carrying to every part of the room, bouncing off the walls and reverberating. "My queen." He bowed deeply to the royal couple. Pharazon looked intrigued, Miriel looked bored, even a little sickened.
"The queen does not look well," Vorea commented.
"Hardly surprising," Ceure said. "The king's a pig."
"We have all heard of the treachery of the Lords of the Andunie," Sauron said, gazing from face to face. "Elendil, charged with treason against the crown, was to be executed this very day. Yet he is gone."
There were hisses from the court. Snarls of 'traitor' and 'treachery'. All were directed against Elendil.
"There were two other lords of Andunie in the palace that night," Sauron said. He was leaving Isildur entirely out of it. So he still wants him to be the chief ringbearer, Khamul thought angrily. We'll see about that.
"Traitors!" someone shouted from the audience. "They should be killed!"
"All in good time, lord, all in good time," Sauron said, holding up his hands for silence. "My king, the actions of these reckless lords have cost you a valuable prisoner. What is your judgment?"
"Death," Pharazon said without hesitation.
"What folly is this?" Vorea murmured. "No trial? Nothing? Not even to let the prisoners speak for themselves?"
"Quiet," Khamul hissed, nudging her in the ribs.
"I quite agree," Sauron said, bowing to the king. "But I beg a favor from you, oh sire. That is why I have called you and your court into the temple. By your gracious favor, this temple has been rebuilt. It is now complete. And what better way to seal the completion than with a sacrifice?"
Pharazon raised his eyebrow. Miriel gasped and raised her hand to her mouth.
"I ask you, great king, to allow me to sacrifice those two lords to Melkor," Sauron said, bowing deeply. "It will bring us the great lord's favor, and allow me to continue in my efforts to bring you and your chosen immortality."
There was much chatter amongst the court. 'Immortality' and 'never dying' were the most frequent words whispered back and forth, along with 'the king's chosen? Are we that? Are you sure?'
Excited, aren't they? Khamul thought bitterly, leaning back against the wall of the temple. Bastards.
"Do so," Pharazon said. "Sacrifice these treacherous men to please the Lord Melkor. And may he bless all those here today with his gift of eternal life."
Sauron's puppet the king may be, Khamul thought, but he does know what to say to a crowd. They're putty in his hands right now. I didn't know Numenoreans' weakness was immortality. Usually it's money.
Sauron bowed again and nodded to Agan, who hurried off, no doubt to fetch the prisoners. He returned in a few moments; Sauron must've had them waiting outside.
Prodded by Agan, the two lords walked forward, glaring balefully at the assembled audience. They had been stripped to their breeches and Ceure's knot still held their hands behind their back. Sauron had also added a gag, making sure they didn't say anything displeasing.
Sauron nodded again to Agan, who pushed one lord forward, while holding onto the other.
With surprising speed, Sauron snatched the lord and threw him face-up onto the table. At the same moment, he drew a curved ceremonial black dagger.
"Accept this offering, Melkor," he whispered, gazing towards the heavens before bringing the dagger down, and with one swift motion, cutting out the man's heart. He then held up for all to see. It beat one last time before stopping.
A few of the court ladies turned away at the grisly sight, but they soon joined in the chorus of "Death to traitors!" which was being shouted throughout the room.
Pushing the corpse off the altar, Sauron reached out for the second lord, and before the man could shake off his horror, he found himself on the wet and sticky altar, looking up at the ceiling where there had previously been a depiction of the Valar, but now was nothing but solid black.
The queen was holding her head in her hands when the second lord lost his heart. The king looked forward eagerly, expecting immortality to be handed to him on a silver platter. He might not have been far off. Sauron did indeed have a silver platter, onto which he placed the hearts of the lords.
"The hearts of traitors, my king," he offered, kneeling before Pharazon's throne.
"Weak and cowardly," Pharazon sneered. "You have done well, Sauron."
"Please, sire, call me the High Priest," Sauron said.
Pharazon nodded. "High Priest of Melkor," he said. "You have done well."
There was applause from the audience, although a few looked like they were about to lose their lunches, or had already lost them.
"I hope we don't have to clean that up," Ceure said. "That is a job for servants."
"I think Sauron will be getting more than enough servants to help with such things after a performance like that," Khamul said. She glanced at Vorea. "What did you think?"
"I found it vile," Vorea said. "No good can come of this."
"No good is intended to. Remember?"
"I remember," Vorea said. "But I still find it a bad omen to be worshipping a damned and cruel deity."
Khamul shook her head. "Come on, let's get out of here before we're either conscripted into helping clean up, or trampled by hordes of perfume-soaked lords and ladies."