The threshold smelled of smoke, and the footsteps of her followers grew hesitant behind her back. Chants, monotonous and grave, filled the airs in an ominous choir, but she bit her lips and did not stop.
"Wait for me here." she said. She heard some breaths of relief.
The temple was huge, though the perspective was less impressive and more accurate from the heights of that balcony. If she extended a hand, she felt that she could almost touch the silver engravings of the domes above her head, or reach to the crowd assembled downstairs around the structure of the dark altar.
She felt dizzy.
"The Queen!" someone whispered. Zimraphel passed by the courtiers, all of them men, who stood next to Ar-Pharazôn´s throne, and sat on a corner in silence. For a moment, their glances crossed in mid-air, and she could see his frown.
Ignoring the whispers, she forced herself to focus her attention on what was happening below. She saw the iron statue of Melkor, great and terrible, and the fire at its feet. She even forced herself to stare impassively as a small and ugly creature from Middle-Earth struggled before he was thrown to the flames, aware that the horrible rictus of his face would give her nightmares for many nights.
Not long afterwards, she felt a presence behind her back. Knowing who it was, she sat up with dignity, and arranged her embroidered mantle over her shoulders.
"I will not go." she said. The Maia turned away and left without a comment.
Nauseated by the smell of smoke and charred flesh, and by the endless repetition of the chants, Zimraphel wondered if he would come to her. For days, they had avoided each other, and the only place where she had thought that they could put an end to it was this.
Another creature was dragged accross the steps of the altar. This one was female, and she stared fiercely at the people around, as if wishing to bite their throats. Zimraphel tried to keep her eyes open as she was given to the fire.
"What are you doing here?" an angry voice addressed her. Her heart jumped inside her chest.
"Assisting to the ceremony." she replied, almost without skipping a beat. Her voice came out even, if a bit too loud.
King Ar-Pharazôn sat next to her, his movements betraying his irritation. He was attired in all his golden finery, as always since the anguish of age had fallen over him like a curse. Strands of white hair were hidden under a crown of rubies, and the first wrinkles on his skin were overshadowed by robes of a surpassing magnificence. And under all this, Zimraphel thought bitterly, there was also something that he could not hide so easily; the fear of death that consumed his heart and tainted his thoughts with a shadow of folly.
"You know that you shouldn´t be looking at this. It harms your frail disposition, and the child..."
The child! Zimraphel felt tempted to laugh like a madwoman. She had two children already, one a puddle of blood between her trembling legs, the other a corpse that felt frozen in her arms. How could he still hold any hopes?
This thought made her shiver, and she sobered up with a mournful look at the gilded railing. He did not really hold any hopes. She knew now.
"If you think that this will harm my disposition, what do you think that will happen when your fleet attacks the Undying Lands?" she replied, touching her already swollen belly with her hand. "When grief and fear for your fate take my heart in their cold grip, won´t I be barren like winter?"
He stared at her with an unusual intensity, and a creased forehead. She held his glance.
"You are not being rational."
"You go to your death."
"I go to my victory! And I will claim eternal life for us and our child!"
Though the sound of the chants smothered their voices, some of the people who were closest to them turned dissimulated looks in their direction. Zimraphel immediately turned away, horrified at the prospect of letting them see her tears.
"Please, stay with me. I promise I will bear this child! He will not die.... not this time."
Pharazôn shook his head.
"Oh, yes, he will. If not in his birth, then in his old age, but he will die. As will you. As will I, and everyone in Númenor, losing our minds, contracting in spasms and bearing pain and anguish. And after our deaths, we will wander, lost in the darkness from where there´s no return."
It had been like this for years already, she thought in anguish, biting her lip. The great and fearless king had not known how to fight against the shadow that fell over his people, and he had despaired. The accursed Maia had only needed to show him how to wave his sword against terrors unseen, and how to drive it into their hearts. War was something that he could understand, and therefore it could not frighten him.
For her, however, it was as much of a ghost as the invisible, untouchable spirit of disease. And the Queen of Númenor could fight neither.
"Stay with me." she repeated, but her voice died in a whisper. Useless.
Still, at least some of her despair managed to leak through, because his features softened. He held her cold hand in a comforting grip.
"I will conquer, Zimraphel." he said, and for a moment she tried hard to surrender to the fiery enthusiasm that he had been able to rouse in her soul since she had been a child. The spirit of pride, of strength and rebellion that had captured her heart had been the spark she had once clung to in order to kindle a fire that she had not posessed. It still shone in his eyes as he set them on her, but Zimraphel knew true loss now.
The child would never be born.
Trembling in spite of the fire and the suffocation, the Queen of Númenor stood up from her seat, and sought the door with quick and frenzied steps.