Fairer Than Ivory, Silver, or Pearls
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Cursed Queen of Angmar, The: 39. The Grotto
"So this is your private paradise."
Reining in the pale palomino horse, the King surveyed Ariashal's handiwork. They had ridden together to the grotto, stealing time so that they could spend one day here alone. Only the yellow stallion came with them, bearing them up the trail until they finally reached a breach in the rocks. Ariashal rode behind her husband, holding his waist to keep her balance.
"Yes, my lord. See? I had the men move these rocks to keep the entrance safe." The excitement of finally getting him to come to her pool overwhelmed her usual reticence. She could not stop describing the obstacles that had been overcome, nor showing him all that had been made good. "Do you see, my lord? That place, over there? That was where all the rotted stumps were cleared away to make the white sand beach. And I had the boulders surrounding the pool scrubbed clean of fungus and dirt. I even made them clean the rocks at the top of the falls, and sweep the floor of the pool." She buried her face on his shoulder, willing him to love the grotto as much as she did.
"You have down well, my queen," the King said at last. "All is orderly and good. You have indeed made a fine place here. Small wonder that the children love it so."
She flung her arms about him, seeking his face for a kiss. "Oh, my lord! I feared you would be displeased!"
"Displeased?" he laughed. "Nay, my lady queen. You have done much with this wasteland."
Thrilled, she dismounted. As carefully as she could she slid down the flank of the horse. Smoothing her skirt, she waited for the King to join her. She watched while he slipped the bit from the horse's mouth before turning him loose to graze. He opened the saddlebags and brought a black traveling bag with him.
Ariashal led the way to the little beach. The King took a blanket from the bag and spread it out over the sand. Removing his cloak, he settled down onto it. "Come, my queen, and sit with me."
She willingly nestled next to him, reveling in the feel of the sand molding itself to her body, the touch of sun on her skin, the strong body of the King. Sighing contentedly, she laid her head against his shoulder. "Oh, my Lord," she murmured, "I feared I would never get you to see this."
"You know I have much to do before we return home."
"You have decided upon a day?"
He shifted a little, stretching his long legs out on the blanket. "Yes, my lady queen. The harvest has begun. While it is some time off for the harvest here, we must return to Carn Dum before the early snows block the passes."
"The children will hate to leave here."
"I know, madame, but we must return home for the winter. We have stayed here far longer than I had planned. And the men wish to return to their families."
"Aye, that is true enough." She began toying with his belt. "I would very much like to show you the cave, but I--I do not wish to be watched."
"Watched? By whom? I had the guards clear this area, and pull back. There is no one here but the two of us, and my horse. And I am quite certain that he is far more interested in grazing than he is in what we are doing."
"And he will not talk, anyway!" she laughed, kicking off her shoes. Humming, she pulled off her overdress and carefully folded it. A slight breeze blew her light chemise between her legs.
"What are you doing?"
"As if you have to ask!" She merrily tossed her shoes onto the pile. "Come, my lord. I will take you to my grotto."
"You make a most inviting offer."
She waded into the pool, kneeling into the shallow water until her chemise was completely soaked. Now it should have the desired effect. She wrung out her hair before turning back to him.
"Are you not coming, my lord?"
"You are sorely tempting me, vixen!"
Laughing, she splashed her way ashore. "Let me help you," she breathed, "for you do not want to wear your sword out here."
"Do not tell me where I may put my sword." He seized her, pulling her into a long kiss. "You had best undress me swiftly, if you would have me in the water--before my lust overwhelms my curiosity."
As quickly as she could she untied his robe and swordbelt, pushing them off his body and onto the blanket. His boots were harder to remove, but she managed to help him slide them off without too much trouble. There was a slight shirring sound, a soft thud, and the shimmering mithril shirt landed atop the heap of black.
"Come," she said, dancing into the pool, "let me show you my secrets."
He carelessly deposited the last of his clothes, although he took the time to move his sword to the top of the mass of garments. Seconds later there was a distinct splash, and a small, rippling wave of water made its way towards her.
Ariashal watched, fascinated, as he drew near. She was used to his invisibility, but somehow she had expected that things would be different in the water. She had imagined that there would be some sort of indication of his presence, some sort of space or hole in the water where he stood. Instead there was nothing, only a strange refraction of light, much as one from a faceted jewel.
"I thought I would be able to see you." She could not hide her disappointment.
The surge of water halted, sending ripples across the surface of the pool. "Nay, my lady queen, tis not to be. In water or out, we cannot be seen by aught but our own. Your body, however," he added, lust in his voice, "I can now see quite well. You are indeed a glorious sight!"
Blushing, delighted, she turned and half-danced, half-waded towards the cave.
A hideous, high-pitched screech rent the air.
Ariashal froze. The very blood seemed to squeeze from her heart. She had heard that sound once before, and knew what it was. But this time it carried no threat or terror, no command to flee. No, it was a cry of pain, of agony, and, even, death.
Frantic, Ariashal spun around in time to see a flight of arrows strike where the King had been. The shafts shattered, scattering bits of wood and feather across the pool. He seemed to turn, as if to face his attackers; but before he could do anything another volley disintegrated against him. For a moment she thought she saw a faint outline of a man, ghostly and pale, standing waist deep in the water. He staggered forward. With a mighty splash he fell, face first, into the pool, vanishing beneath the surface.
"No!" she screamed, her voice echoing around the rocks.
Frantic, desperate, she slogged over to where he had been. She had to reach him before he drowned, before the water or its spirits took him from her forever. If she hurried she might be able to pull him to the safety of the shore.
Clouds of blood welled up to the surface. He must be close by. If only she could see him! She lunged into the water, her frenzied search stirring more blood into the pool.
A hand clapped over her mouth. Another seized her waist.
She bit, hard. The hand over her mouth loosened. "Let me go! I must save him!"
"He is already dead!"
As hard as she could she kicked her attacker. He seized her arm and pulled her around, dragging her through the bloody water. She caught a quick glimpse of brown leather, fine features, pale eyes. "Let me go!"
"No," said the elf. "You must come with us."
Ariashal lunged to one side, pulling the elf with her. Hauling her back, he wrenched her shoulder. Pain shot through her, driving her to fight harder. She had to reach the King, had to drag him to the shore before he drowned. "I must go!"
Another set of hands dug into her waist. Ariashal thrashed against them, nearly pulling the three of them into the depths of the pool. She managed to free one hand. Clawing, kicking, she raked her nails across the face of her nearest attacker. Blood spattered onto the water.
A sudden blow slammed into the back of her skull, and the world went black.
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