Fairer Than Ivory, Silver, or Pearls
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Cursed Queen of Angmar, The: 21. The Long Night
At supper Ferion did not ask about the children's whereabouts, which struck Ariashal as a little odd. Very few members of his court were in attendance, and those that were remained silent. The evening's entertainment was sparse, a handful of slightly out-of-tune musicians playing some old songs that had probably best been forgotten. Even the food was lacking. Ariashal remembered the feasts her father gave, where great roasts and joints covered the tables, while bowls of steaming vegetables and soups were always kept full. Now there was only a dispirited slab of meat on their plates, with some bland soup and dry bread. The King ate little, and she knew that this time it was not because of his mask.
Ferion announced his desire to retire at the end of the meal, and Ariashal was only too glad to see him go. She returned with the King to their quarters, which he again inspected closely. He ordered the bedding stripped and the hangings taken down. Their own servants brought in blankets and bedding from the camp. The old bedding was taken out to the camp and burned, where any poisons spread on the fabric would be destroyed. He had some of his guards stand in the room with them, a precaution she had never seen him take before. She was glad of their little interlude that afternoon; there was no way she could possibly be seduced with an audience in the room. They left only while her women undressed her for the night. As soon as she lay down, the guards returned.
The King would not sleep. He felt it best if one of them stayed awake, in case there were any disturbances. She conceded the point, and gave up trying to persuade him to join her on the bed. He wished to remain alert: so be it. She knew well enough how little rest he needed. She drew the hangings closed and waited for sleep.
But deep sleep eluded her. Periodically she would hear the King moving about the room, restlessly checking for some sign of intruders. The guards, too, were uneasy. Several times during the night they came by, giving the King a report on activity in the camp. She tried to sleep through it, but the King's suspicions had invaded her dreams. Several times she awoke from disturbing nightmares.
After one particularly ghastly dream, where she saw her husband tortured and disemboweled while her children were sold into slavery, she gave up. She would have some brandy to steady her nerves, and if it helped ease her to sleep, all the better.
Her traveling box was on one of the tables. Not wanting to disturb either the King or the guards, she slipped from the bed to fetch the brandy herself. She could hear the wolves howling outside, their wailing cries coming from every direction. Ariashal remembered how much they had frightened her when she first entered Angmar. The thought that their howls might frighten Ferion and disturb his sleep cheered her.
She poured some of the brandy into a silver goblet and slowly began sipping. It warmed her, more than either the low fire or the furred robes. She carefully sat on one of the rickety chairs and continued nursing her brandy, relaxing in the warmth.
The King was near the door, speaking quietly with one of the guards. While she had slept he had changed from the ceremonial robes of the entrance parade to more serviceable plain robes. He had on both his great sword and his shorter one, and she could make out the bulge of a mace head beneath his cloak. She wondered if he had even donned armor while she slept.
She caught a few bits of the guard's conversation; she strained to hear more. "No sign of any activity anywhere, Sire. The orcs have settled next to the Rhudaurians."
"Good. And the children?" asked the King.
"They are asleep. Herumor watches them."
"Keep the watch close to them," warned the King, "for I expect that they will be his targets." The guard saluted and left.
He knew she was awake. Without turning from the door, he said, "Why do you not rest?"
Ariashal put down the brandy. "I could not."
"It would be best for you if you could." He came to her side. "There is nothing you can do tonight."
"Why, then, do you not rest, my lord?"
He sighed. She recognized weariness in him; she reached for him, to gather him close. "No, my queen. I dare not."
"But Herumor and the others are awake. Let them guard for a while."
"Because," he began, "your brother is a coward. He will try to strike at me through my family."
"Ferion may be a coward, but I am sure that he is sleeping now."
"But his agents are not, madame."
"You cannot go without rest for days on end. Here. Have some of this brandy."
He slowly shook his head. "You do not understand. It has been a very long time since I have had children of my own. I will not see them destroyed by a worthless Dunedain princeling."
Something he said struck her, hard. "You--you have had other children? When?"
"Oh, it was long ago, and far away. Long before I decided to make a kingdom in Angmar."
Earlier attempts to elicit anything about his past had always been abruptly terminated; he had completely refused to speak of it. But tonight, she sensed, was different. "Where did you live before?"
"I have lived in many places, my queen. Most were south and east of here. One was west. I have seen my sons grow to be kings and generals, my daughters queens. And I have seen them slain by my enemies, who could find no better way to strike at me."
"They--they were all killed?"
"Nay, not all. My first son grew to be a king, strong enough to hold his throne and live. One or two others survived, and prospered. But most of the others fell to the hatred of my enemies."
She felt a sudden chill, which even the brandy could not dispel. "I--I am sorry, my lord. I did not know."
"I did not want you to know."
"I do not want such a thing to happen to our children."
"That is why they wait in the camp. Your brother is clumsy, and has already shown his hand. Tomorrow I will learn from him which of the Cardolani are with him, and then I will eliminate the threat."
"So Ferion will die."
"Perhaps. If so, twas his choice to make. He chose this path. I did not choose it for him."
She put aside the brandy. "And the Cardolani?"
"They will follow him. I had hoped that the fools in the tower were the only ones treating with Ferion, but I fear that is not the case. I will discover the names of everyone he has embroiled in this cabal. I can only hope that he has not yet involved the Elves at Imladris."
"Imladris?" she asked, puzzled. "Why would the Elves become part of his scheme?"
For several moments he was quiet. Finally he spoke, and when he did his voice was soft, almost inaudible. "Long ago, I fought against the Elves. Not once, but many times. They have no love for me. If they knew I had established a kingdom in Angmar, they would unleash all the fury they could muster to drive me out."
"But if, as you say, it was long ago, perhaps they will have forgotten about revenge."
"No, my queen." His sighed. "The firstborn are arrogant, immortal creatures. They have no love for men and they harbor nothing but ill-will and hatred for me. Elves have no reason to forget any wrong, and every reason to cling to a desire for vengeance. Long ago they quarreled with the dwarves, and now the two races are forever estranged. They fought me, and what they would inflict upon my children is too terrible to contemplate.
"And so, tomorrow, I will do all I can to learn his plans, and use whatever means I must to stop him."
She went to him, managed to slip into his arms. "My lord," she whispered, "I pray that you are not too late."
He quietly gathered her close. "So do I."
As he held her tight against him, his great cloak swallowing both of them, she knew.
Ferion had not lied about him.
Whether it was the sheer strength of his arms, or the fact that he had seen so many of his children slain, or the ring digging into her back, she could not tell. All the horror stories she had heard as a child, all the threats and terrors, everything she had ever learned about the men known as Nazgul, tumbled together in her mind. She understood, now, about the Black Robes, about the magic that kept her safe at Carn Dum. She knew why he commanded the orcs, and why he rode the beast Nardu.
And yet--and yet--
Never once had he raised a hand to her, or to their children. Never had he threatened to send her away, or to destroy their children. He had not married her off in hopes of her slaying her husband for his land. He had not traded her around to whomever would have her to get a brief advantage in these miserable hills. He would not send their daughter into the life she herself had left. Always he had protected her, sheltered her, succored her.
She knew, now, why he had kept his past hidden from her, why he never removed the ring, why she would never know his name or even his face.
And she knew that it did not matter. She would keep his secret.
She loved him.
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