Fairer Than Ivory, Silver, or Pearls
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Cursed Queen of Angmar, The: 14. Treachery
The journey back to Rhudaur followed the same road that Ariashal had taken so many years ago. As Queen she had a more elaborate version of the enclosed carriage. Painted red and trimmed with gold, it glittered against the stark gray of the peaks, and shone against the vivid greens of the forests. The King rode alongside her carriage, mounted on a spirited, prancing black stallion. The children traveled with her, although the boys wanted to have their own mounts so they could gallop off and explore the wilder areas. This neither she nor the King permitted, although they were allowed to ride about with their father when the court stopped for the night. Usually they circled the encampment, inspecting the men, speaking with the watchmen.
Many of the small towns that she had visited had grown considerably, and most sported new walls and earthworks. There was always a review of the troops, with everyone turned out in their most resplendent armor. The King usually rode his horse along the rows of men, occasionally addressing a few words to one or another of the soldiers. At other times the troops marched past a specially-constructed viewing stage for the royal family, shouting war slogans as they paraded by. The pageantry delighted the children, and Ariashal admitted to no small thrills watching the splendid forces pass.
Later the royal family was invariably given a tour of the fortifications, with the local notable proudly explaining the importance of the site, and describing the strength of the defenses. They were only too willing to account for all the money spent on building projects, to explain why the King's coin was well-spent here. Often the King asked about specific features, usually problems that had been brought to his attention. Most of these had been repaired to his satisfaction; the rest were still under construction.
If they stayed at the castle, a feast and entertainment was arranged for them. Most of the local productions ranged from pathetic to amateurish, although there were usually one or two performers whose skill made the evenings bearable. More than once Ariashal admonished the children for misbehaving during the little pageants. However awful they were, she explained, they were created out of affection for them and their father, and the least they could do was respect that. Two warnings and the children were banished for the remainder of the evening. Things were difficult enough without additional turmoil.
As they drew closer to Rhudaur the number of couriers traveling from the royal party to the Rhudaurian court increased. Adzuphel dealt with most of them, reporting back to the King.
The news was not good. At the first word of the traveling Angmarim court, the King of Rhudaur had suddenly remembered urgent business closer to Cardolan. Ariashal could not imagine what he was doing in Cardolan, and suspected the worst. The King kept his own counsel, but she knew that he was angry, and growing increasingly so. She sought to ease his mind, to soothe and relax him, but she shared his misgivings and worried with him over what sort of plot her brother was crafting.
Soon they reached the lands of the Hillfolk, not yet annexed to Angmar. She did not want to admit to herself how much she enjoyed her old subjects reacting with awe to her presence. Granted, they were in awe of the King, but she was enjoying the reflected glory. Seeing the young man who had murdered her husband as he now was, middle-aged and battle-scarred, was more satisfying than she expected. Here was the very man who had wanted her banished for barrenness, now bowing before her children.
A fleeting thought struck her. If not for him, she would never have become Queen of Angmar, never known the exquisite pleasure of the King, never borne children. Perhaps she should reward him.
When the time came for his audience, she silently gave him a golden bracelet, a plain ring incised with elaborate geometric patterns. He took it, backing away from her without ever daring to meet her gaze. He did not recognize the significance of the gift, and she had no intention of enlightening him.
It was here, in the long house she had once shared with the king of the Hillmen, that the nature of the Rhudaurian treachery became clear. A temporary throne room was set up, with the King's traveling throne and other furniture filling the rough building. At the back, near where Ariashal had once slept, there now stood the stately, portable bed of the King, its red draperies brilliant against the aged wood of the walls. Near it was a smaller bed, for the royal children. Carpets woven with various bold geometric patterns had been laid over the straw-strewn dirt floor. Some of the King's bodyguards stood about the room, pikes at the ready.
Messengers from Cardolan arrived, nervous, anxious to speak with the King. They had been supplying mercenaries to Rhudaur for the last year or so, building up the army for what they understood to be an attack on Angmar. Their prince had received regular payments from Rhudaur for the lest few years, all earmarked for creating this mercenary force.
However, the recent arrival of the Angmarim court had caused their prince to have a change of heart. He no longer felt that Rhudaur would protect him; in fact, he now began to feel abandoned. To show his good faith, he had sent with them detailed lists of the forces, including their current placements. If it was not too late, the emissaries pleaded, perhaps a new understanding could be reached.
Ariashal listened as they pled their case. She watched them sweat, watched them shift uneasily while the King silently read the parchments they brought. She knew that they would get no answer tonight; the King would want to study this, check and confer with his own men before giving the Cardolani any response. And she knew perfectly well that, even if he had already made up his mind, he would make them wait, and sweat, and worry.
He eventually dismissed them, promising to answer them tomorrow. It was not what they wanted to hear, for they immediately began to protest. Had they not come in good faith; had they not brought evidence of Rhudaurian treachery? They needed an answer, and they demanded one now.
For a moment the King was silent. "Tell your prince," he began, "that I am master of my own kingdom, and am master of many others besides. It is not the place of his emissaries to order me about on my own lands."
"You will respond, Witch-king," hissed the bolder of them. "My prince insists upon an answer!"
"If your prince wished an answer, then he should not have come before me disguised as a messenger. He should have come as himself, and not attempted a deception far beneath me!"
Stunned, the two stood still.
"Nor would he have tried to deceive me with information and intelligence gathered long ago." The King slapped the papers against the arm of the throne. "He would have come to me in honor, instead of stealth. He would have brought no assassin with him to attempt my murder."
"I did not come to kill you!" shouted the prince.
"Then why do you carry Elven blades? Do you think me blind and unable to see such magic?"
A sudden wind ripped through the hall, blowing their cloaks away from their sides, revealing the presence of the deadly weapons. One movement of the King's hand, and the Elven arms clattered to the floor.
Guards moved to surround the two. The bold one found his voice. "You will not withstand us, Witch-king. I will bring you down!"
"You? You will do nothing of the sort. You will leave here, and you will not return. And if by chance you should choose to return, I promise I will not be as hospitable next time." He motioned to the door, and the guards seized the two. "This charade is a dishonor to your house, and an insult to mine. Go back to that company of horsemen you have hidden in the hills. Go back to Amon Sul, and reflect upon what happens to those who dare trick me!"
Ariashal waited until they were long gone. "How--how did you know?"
"Clumsy fools. The deomer from the blades shone across the room."
She laid a hand on his. "I am sorry for the trouble I have caused."
"And what trouble is that? Your brother's foolish duplicity is not your doing. I know that you are loyal. The Cardolani will pay for their insolence."
For the remainder of the day she found herself watching for any signs of the Cardolani. She made the children play indoors, despite the clear blue skies that beckoned outside. Guards were on the alert as well, keeping a close eye on their royal charges. She was relieved when nothing happened, and was finally able to climb, exhausted from worry, into bed.
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