There were no windows in the room they shared.
The darkness within was oppressive, like the belly of a great beast. There was a persistent rumble in Isildur’s ears, as if the walls were made of trembling muscle, or people murmuring, or stones about to topple at any moment. The air was hot and dense.
Without, the night was cooler, but no less bleak: he had counted on the moonless sky to make safer the journey to Armenelos. And as expected, upon arriving he had found the city below as dark as the sky above - only lanterns and the distant temple-fire floated amidst the black sea that was the city after sunset. Unwelcoming and foreboding, like the ugly twin of the night overhead. The son of Elendil and heir of Andunië ought to have arrived in other circumstances, with many servants and a banner glittering under the sunlight... But not Isildur. He had come to the capital under the cover of darkness, like a thief, to avoid being killed like an animal. Their enemies were everywhere, sniffing for secrets with the eagerness of dogs in the hunt. Not for the first time that night did he second-guess his coming: reckless, impulsive, selfish, his family sick with worry in the morning, when the valet came into his room to find the immaculate bedding. And yet...
Míriel shifted slightly in his arms, and he did not know whether to pull her closer or to ease his hold a bit. He had not been a boy for many years, but he could not be much else in her eyes, and that awareness caused him to second-guess every one of his impulses and actions. And yet those were minor anxieties. To lie with his queen: nothing could be more urgent or more blasphemous. There was no precedent that Isildur knew of in the histories of Númenor, and, not knowing which ideal to measure himself against, his own judgement found him wholly wanting.
Abruptly, she rose. He strained his ears to listen to the very quiet sound of her walking, her feet touching the ground. Then the low, unhurried gulps of her drinking from his wineskin. Then, her offering it to him.
“Yes”, he replied, and beckoned for her to come closer, but regretted the familiar gesture as soon as he made it. Thankfully she could not have seen it in the darkness. Isildur was more thirsty for her words than for wine, anyway. How does one talk to her ? She is here, and yet she is far away. He had revisited the memory of their first encounter so often that he could feel it fray at the edges, like an abused piece of parchment or cloth. It was necessary to come back to it often, to assure himself that she had sought him and that she had wanted him. But that assurance was short-lived and only ever brought him more questions. She did not love him as he loved her: that he knew, and that alone. But what was happening, then? A familiar dance, a game out of boredom? Comfort she must take from someone, and, conveniently, from him? A gift she condescended to give an awestruck fool, in exchange for his family’s loyalty? Isildur was careful and attentive in their lovemaking, assuring himself of her pleasure. Yet what if not ? But why fake it, or carry on with their affair, if not? Perhaps she had wanted a friend, and had only found him adequate for a lover instead. What did he have to offer, besides, to someone like her? Yet...
Useless to wonder: If Míriel wanted to use him, he had no desire to stop her. Maybe that was her reason. Maybe she did it because she knew Isildur was hers. Maybe she did it because she could.
She handed him the wineskin and he took it, a pretext to brush her hand. The desire to pull her close was overwhelming, and only abated when she laid down next to him again on her own accord. An anchor in the growing anxiety, her head against his shoulder, unspoken permission for him to brush reverent fingers along her arm and her side, to hide his face in her hair, to bring his body closer to hers. She shivered, flaring in him the desire to touch her again, to stirr her and to serve her. Would she approve? Would she want him to? The boundaries of properness were so blurred that in his hesitation he stayed his caresses, shifting so that she would not feel the evidence of his arousal: an attempt to buy some time until he had a clue of what was expected of him now.
He finally received it when she sighed two times in a row. He knew it was the cue for him to ask, but he was not as stupid as to go for something as obtuse as is something wrong? , and not wise enough to find anything more appropriate. Voicing the obvious was the least embarrassing option, so he told her, “I am listening,” and hoped it sufficed.
It did. There were two more deep breaths before she spoke, her lips brushing against his skin as she moved them.
“They plan to burn the Nimloth tree.”
He heard her perfectly well, but the words sank in slowly. The white tree…
She sat up and Isildur was flooded with a sense of loss. It only ever increased when Míriel’s hands landed on both sides of his face, gently. Her gaze burned him, though he could not see her eyes, and he was weak against a wave of sentimentality he did not wish to fight. His heart was open to her, as it had been since her hand had first reached for his behind closed doors. Maybe even before that.
She kissed his forehead, and he sighed.
“Pharazôn will allow it. The tree cannot be saved,”
Her hand tender in his hair, pulling him up and closer, and he thought he might cry.
“But if its fruit can at least be rescued…”
Treason. He had nothing but contempt for Pharazôn and his laws, but this was high treason. High treason , he assured himself with fierce, joyless satisfaction.
“You have already misappropriated the king's wife, why not the king's tree as well?”
And just like that, Isildur had his answer. Her game was laid bare to him, and the part she had for him to play.
He shifted clumsily, slipped down. He kneeled at the end of their bedding. He put his hands on her feet and bowed, touching his forehead to her toes,
You do not belong to another, to be misappropriated; your bed and your body belong to yourself, and so does the king, and the tree, and all of the the trees in the realm, and so do I, and so do I. “Do you command me?”
Silent seconds, one by one, like fat drops of lead, and then,
“Then I shall do it.”
Sudden, like lighting, the feeling of darkness was driven back as he saw her image clearer than ever, whole and unguarded, striking his mind like a whip of fire for the brightness and the suddenness of it, and for the briefest moment he reached for her heart and was not rebuffed. He gasped and she closed herself again, but less opaque now, more like a veil. He knew, there and then, that he would never touch her again. Perhaps never should have, but he would not dwell on that: he was burying the intimacy of this moment like a treasure inside his heart, or like a locket on a chain around his neck. No rational thought could compete with the strong emotions that bubbled up then, as he blindly groped for his clothes. Emboldened, his heart whispered to hers, I wish I had looked into thine eyes one last time, at least . She heard him but did not answer, and he loved her for it anyway.
Upon slipping through the door and into the open outer corridor, his eyes were surprised by the light of the stars, glimmering overhead, and Isildur could not believe he had forgotten them even for a moment. He glanced back despite himself, and had a vision of that same starlight reflected in a gaze that held his own for a moment, endless while it lasted, before the door swung back, closing on it like jaws.