And here we come to the end. While I certainly appreciate the requests for this story to continue up to the War of the Ring, that was never my intention when I sat down to write it. I just wanted to explore the idea of a very unexpected romance and see if I could make it believable. (You can decide for yourselves how successful I was.) Thank you to everyone who has read and reviewed or added this story to your favorites or alerts. While I don't have the time to respond to all of you individually, I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate your feedback for something that does tend to be a rather lonely hobby.


Ten

If the denizens of Barad Dûr whispered amongst themselves about this strange Elf who had gained the Dark Lord's favor, Lithiníel caught no hint of it. Neither did she hear much of the reaction to the Mouth's unexpected demise. Another was raised in his place and took on the name and title, and things seemed to go on very much as they had, with the exception that now she was allowed to move freely about the citadel if she so desired, as long as Sarna accompanied her.

The alterations to Sauron's chambers went on apace, and the day when Lithiníel would take up residence there rapidly approached. She thought of her coming union with the Dark Lord with a combination of anticipation and fear. True, he had treated her with far greater dignity than she could have ever expected, and she had come to love him despite the dark spaces in his soul. It was one thing, however, to spend time with someone, to sit down at a table together and share a meal or even steal a few kisses in the privacy of an unoccupied audience chamber, and quite another to think of living out the rest of your life with that person, waking beside him each morning -- if in fact Sauron even required sleep -- and becoming half of a new and unique whole.

But she had agreed to become his consort, and if occasionally a thrill of anxiety would move through her at the thought, more often she experienced the same impatience he did, wishing for their current ambiguous status to transformed into something more tangible. And indeed, although it felt as though the days stretched on and on, in truth little more than a month passed until the time the Dark Lord's masons and craftsmen went to him and informed him the alterations to his chambers were complete. He called her there, and she went willingly enough, Sarna her faithful shadow. The servant girl waited without as Lithiníel entered the altered suite.

At first she did not see much changed; the austerely beautiful antechamber with its black marble floors and walls and hangings of unfigured crimson silk remained the same. But then she moved on into the sitting room Sauron had had enlarged and modified, with windows that now stretched almost from floor to ceiling. Not much could be done about the bleak view they let in, but at least the quality of light was much improved. The furnishings, too, had been changed, to the lighter and more graceful pieces favored by the Eldar. A mural depicting a green valley with a river flowing through it had been painted on one wall, and the curtains that fell gracefully to either side of each window were green as well, the fresh hue of new leaves in the spring.

"It pleases you?" the Dark Lord asked, as he stood by one of the windows.

"Very much," Lithiníel replied. "Truly, I could have not asked for anything more than this. I feel as if I were home."

"This is your home, is it not?"

She went to him then, holding out her hands to his gloved ones. "Yes, my love. Anyplace I am with you, I am home."

Sauron made no reply, but he pulled her against him, his arms bringing her close so that once more she could feel the strong, slow beat of his heart within his breast. Strange that she should feel so safe held thus, when the lover who held her was her people's most bitter foe.

And yet I have had more consideration from him than from any of the Eldar, save my own family, she thought. Perhaps it is always so, when we find the true choice of our hearts.

At length he released her, although he did bring one of her hands up within the shadows of his hood so that he might press her fingers against his scarred lips. Then he let go, and said, "I have something for you."

"Indeed?" she asked, and felt a little tremor of nervous anticipation move through her.

If he caught the note of uncertainty in her voice, he paid it no mind. From within the folds of his robes he brought out a shining band of bright metal. In its center glowed a stone of deepest crimson.

At the sight of the ring Lithiníel's heart seemed to skip a beat, until she gave herself a mental shake and told herself not to be a fool -- the One Ring was said to be a plain band of pure gold, with no markings or ornamentation visible to the naked eye. The jewel Sauron held out to her now was cunningly worked in the shape of leafy branches twining around the single stone, rather like briar rose brambles holding a bloody bloom at the center of a tangle.

"It comes from but one place in the world," the Dark Lord told her. "The Haradrim name it Siralt Kîr, which in their tongue means 'heart's blood.'" He took her right hand in his and gently slid the ring onto her center finger.

"It's beautiful," she said, staring down into the jewel. It caught odd flashes of light from the open window; it did not sparkle, but seemed instead to gather illumination inside itself, so that the stone appeared to glow from within.

"I made this for you, and its mate as well." Sauron laid a ring almost identical to hers in her palm, save that this one was much larger and heavier, the stone a smooth cabochon instead of faceted. As she held the jewel, he removed the glove from his left hand. The half-hearted daylight filling the room was merciless in revealing the scars that criss-crossed the pale flesh. He went on, "I must keep the ring finger for myself, my love, but you may place that one on the middle, to match your own."

Lithiníel knew he kept the ring finger bare against the day when he might recover the One Ring, but she hoped inwardly such a day might never come. Was it not enough for them to have one another? She knew such a notion only revealed her naïveté regarding the Dark Lord's obsession with the artifact he had created -- love her Sauron did, but she feared he loved the Ring more. All she could hope was that it might remain lost forever, and that he would be content to spend his days with her and accept her company as some sort of compensation for the loss he had suffered.

It would do no good to voice her concerns or doubts. She had realized some time ago she could only accept him as he was, and take joy in the subtle kindnesses he had shown her, the small things he did to show how deep his affection ran. To expect him to give up the hunt for his Ring would be like expecting the sun to rise in the west. So Lithiníel took the proffered ring and slid it onto his middle finger, then clasped his scarred hand in both of hers.

"Truly now we are one," she said. Her people did not bother with the mindless pomp and ceremony mortal Men required on such occasions. It was enough for the two involved to declare their intention to come together as one and commit to spending the rest of their lives together. By placing the rings on one another's fingers, she and Sauron were as irrevocably joined as if they had declared their union in front of a thousand witnesses.

"Yes," he replied, and there was a rough edge to his voice she had come to recognize.

The time for waiting was done. He bent his head to hers, found her mouth, drew her against him…and then he lifted her up, and carried her to the sleeping chamber beyond the sitting room. In there the curtains had been drawn against the daylight, and even her keen Elven eyes could make out few details. But then, she supposed he wanted it that way. As much as she told him over and over that his scarred visage held no horror for her, still he sought to conceal himself as much as possible. Even when they were alone together he kept his face concealed by the low-hanging hood of his cloak, and he seemed instinctively to choose dark corners and dimly lit chambers.

His hand moved to unclasp the belt from her waist, and Lithiníel heard it fall to the cold floor with a metallic, discordant jangle. Her gown had been fashioned loose and flowing in the style of her people; it required no fussy laces or cumbersome buttons, and he pulled it swiftly over her head. The cool air of the chamber flowed over her bare skin, but she had no time to think of that, for he had gathered her up once again and laid her down on the bed. She felt his heavy robes settle around her even as his mouth touched her naked flesh, awakening a fire as hot as the flames of Mount Orodruin itself. Without thinking, she reached out to pull his garments from him. She wanted to feel his body against hers with no concealing cloth between them. For a second he froze, and then she could almost feel him shrug and fling the heavy cowled cloak away, followed by the long robe that had served to cover him from throat to foot.

Then there were no barriers, only the heat of his flesh on hers, the touch of his hands, the warmth of his mouth as he kissed her in places she had never dreamed of. She reached out to him in the darkness, and took his darkness within her…..


Hours might have passed, or perhaps only minutes. Lithiníel had no way of knowing as she lay there in the unrelieved blackness of the bedchamber, her eyes straining against the shadows that seemed to press against her lids. After the Dark Lord had loved her, she had fallen into a slumber so deep it seemed near to death. If she had left this world in that moment, at least she would have done so as fulfilled as any being created by Eru had any right to be.

For one dizzying second, she could not recall where she was, as the bed and its linens felt unfamiliar. She reached out, and then knew she was not alone; she could feel him in the bed next to her, low heat radiating out from his body like a fire banked for the night.

His voice came to her in the darkness, mocking, yet somehow gentle at the same time. "Returned to the land of the living?"

"I believe so," Lithiníel replied, feeling then the pleasant soreness of her body, recalling how it had felt as he had touched her. "Did I sleep long?"

A movement that might have been a shrug. "Long? I cannot say. I stayed here with you, to watch over you as you slept. What does it matter how much time passed as I did so?"

To one who had been alive since the beginning of time, perhaps it mattered not at all. However, Lithiníel could feel her stomach reassert itself, letting her know that it did care how long it had been since her last meal, even though the Dark Lord apparently considered such matters to be of no consequence.

"I would say none at all," she replied, "were it not that, unlike you, I cannot go overlong without sustenance…especially after our past exertions."

He chuckled, even as strong arms reached out to pull her close. His lips brushed against her hair, and he said, "That is easy enough to remedy. I would not have you…weak."

Lithiníel let out a small laugh of her own at his remark. "Truly, my lord, I would not wish for such a lack to prevent me from filling your every need."

"Careful, my dear, or I fear I might not be able to wait until you have strengthened yourself." With that Lithiníel felt him get up from the bed. A short time later she heard a low, harsh clang which she assumed must be some sort of signal to let the servants know the Dark Lord required their assistance. A low flame flickered into existence from the candle on the bedside table, and she looked up to see Sauron once again wrapped in his long hooded cloak. He held out to her the gown she had discarded earlier.

Without speaking she took it from him and drew the garment over her head. Now somewhat clad -- although she had no idea what had happened to her underthings -- she felt a bit more herself. When the knock came at the door to Sauron's suite, Lithiníel felt steady enough to answer the door, as the Dark Lord made no move to do so.

Sarna stood outside, looking rather weary. With a guilty start, Lithiníel realized she had left the poor servant girl out in the corridor as she herself went in to her assignation with Sauron. Had the child been waiting there this whole time?

Apparently she had. Lithiníel began to stammer an apology, but Sarna only shook her head and gazed down at the floor. "It is no trouble, my lady," the girl said. "I am here to serve, and even if it were not my duty, still I would do so in thanks for your part in ridding this place of the Mouth of Sauron."

What had he to do with Sarna? Lithiníel opened her mouth to ask further questions, and then thought better of it. The girl would not meet her eyes, and if something shameful had passed between her and the one who had once been the Dark Lord's steward, better not to bring it up now. At least he was gone and could do no more harm.

"Still, I thank you for your service," Lithiníel went on. "And if you should ever wish to be released from that service, then you have only to ask. I would ensure your safe return to your people." Even as she said the words, though, she wondered if Sauron would give her that much power. Then again, what would he care about the fate of one servant girl?

"My people?" asked Sarna, and then she gave a small shrug. "My lady is mistaken -- I was born here in the Dark Lord's service, and although my people come from Harad, I have never seen such a place, nor do I wish to. My only wish is to stay here in your service."

Where I am safe seemed to hang unspoken in the air between them. Lithiníel realized she had unwittingly protected Sarna from some evil, and the girl seemed to think that by continuing in the service of the Dark Lord's consort she might continue to enjoy such protection. Lithiníel did not pretend to understand the workings of Barad Dûr, but she knew at least she would have many long years in which to do so.

"If you wish it, then of course," Lithiníel said. "If you could bring me some supper, I would be most obliged."

Sarna curtseyed at once, and then hurried off down the corridor. For a moment Lithiníel stood in the doorway, watching until the girl's slender form had disappeared around a corner. When Lithiníel shut the door and turned around, it was to see Sauron standing a few feet away. He said nothing, but merely regarded her for a long moment.

Had she overstepped herself by making promises to Sarna she could not keep? "My apologies, my lord, if I presumed -- "

He held up a hand. The ruby glowed from his scarred finger. "It is no presumption, Lithiníel. You are my consort, and that one was given to you to be your servant. She is yours to dispose of as you will." Then he moved closer, and continued, "I rule here by force and by right. It has never been a matter of concern whether my subjects had any regard for me -- indeed, how could they? But it seems you have the gift of awaking loyalty in those who should otherwise have no cause to do so. It is a rare thing, here in Mordor."

It was the closest he had ever come to admitting a personal lack, and Lithiníel felt unexpectedly moved by his words. Truly, when one ruled by fear, one could not presume loyalty to be motivated by anything except a sense of self-preservation. He had allowed her to come closer to him than perhaps any other living being ever had, but she knew the intimacies they had shared did not mean he would allow any softening of the visage he presented to his subjects.

"Not so rare," she said at last, and went to him. Seeming to read her mood, he reached out and drew her close once more. "You have awakened such a loyalty in me, my love. Know that I am yours, and always shall be. Whatever doom this world has laid upon us, I know we shall face it together."

He said nothing for a moment, but merely continued to hold her. At length he said, "It is joy unlooked-for you have brought me, Lithiníel. May it always be thus."

"It will," she replied, her voice firm. "Always."


Ages passed, and there finally came a day where the ruins of the Dark Lord's realm held no terrors for the Men of Gondor. Their kingdom had grown great in learning and wisdom, and an expedition was sent forth to see if any artifacts might have survived the collapse of Barad Dûr and the destruction of Mordor.

Although uncounted years had gone by, still the ground where the dark tower had stood was barren and black. No living thing went there, although the plains of Gorgoroth had finally been cleansed of their poisons, and grass now grew green and tall where once had been only ash and rock.

Of Barad Dûr only fallen blocks of stone remained; it was tedious work to sort through it, and certain members of the expedition began to wonder if their task had been folly from the start. They found nothing save masonry and ash and dirt, and after several days it seemed they would find little more.

On the morning of the seventh day, however, a strange glimmer from within a cairn of rock brought the Men crowding around. Within some was stirred a strange dread, for although they counted themselves Men of science, and they knew the Dark Lord's Ring had been destroyed many years ago, the sight of that warm gleam unsettled their spirits. But the leader of the expedition was not one to be cowed easily, and he reached out to push aside the broken rock and reveal the source of the golden light.

At first the strange twisted shape made no sense, but as he held it up and the morning light caught in the gold and jewels, they saw it was composed of two rings of cunning design, each set with a ruby of purest crimson. Somehow in the collapse of the tower it seemed they had fused and melted together, so that one could not tell where one ended and the other began.

The Men crowded around, inspecting the jewels -- which, formed in the heat of the earth itself, seemed not have been affected by the destructive forces that destroyed their settings -- speculating, wondering. Certainly they seemed to have been some treasure of Sauron's, but for what purpose, no one could say. The conjoined rings did not appear to have any special properties, and no one handling them suffered any ill effects. At length it was decided that further study in Minas Tirith was required. Perhaps there an answer to their riddle could be found. After a few more days of fruitless digging revealed nothing, the expedition returned to Gondor carrying its single treasure.

But no explanation for that treasure could ever be found, and no one could ever say why the two rings had flowed into one, as if somehow, at the very end, those wearing them had clasped hands before they went down into the final darkness….