Fairer Than Ivory, Silver, or Pearls
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Cursed Queen of Angmar, The: 41. To the Victor
Ariashal stood on the white sand beach.
A short distance off the King walked away from her, sand still clinging to his black cloak. She called to him, but he ignored her, instead continuing on towards the palomino stallion. Angry now, she called again; but it was clear that he had no intention of responding. She watched, shocked, as he adjusted the horse's bridle and led the animal off. In one fluid motion, he gracefully swept up into the saddle and began to ride away.
Hurt, confused, she ran after him. The sand here was much deeper than she remembered; it seemed almost to be sucking her down, deliberately trying to keep her from reaching him. She struggled on. Soon the sand was at her knees, then her thighs. She could no longer even see the King; he had vanished into the haze-covered hills.
Desperate, she lurched forward.
The sand collapsed beneath her.
She was falling now, dropping into a huge cavern, sand cascading around her. She could not see a bottom; she could see nothing at all. Plunging to her doom, down, ever down, nothing but sand and gloom and empty air.
Panicked, Ariashal screamed.
The sand vanished. A dream, she realized; a dream, a horrible dream, but nothing more than that. She was safe at the King's side, safe in her bed--
She was in the tiny cell, lying on the cot.
The candle still gave its dim yellow light, the blankets were still worn and rough. How long had she slept? An hour? Three? All night? There was no way to tell. She pulled the blankets over her shoulders, huddling against the sickly dampness of the cell.
She had hoped, desperately, that the events of the last several hours had been nightmares; that she would awaken, warm and safe, at his side. They would share some small talk before readying for the day, and she would await his evening attentions. But no. It was not to be, and would never be again.
If only she had kept him away from the grotto! How could she have been stupid enough to think that they could be there in safety? Ten guards were slaughtered; it was only a miracle that Ferion's assassins had not struck sooner. Why, why, why had they not? Then it would be Herumor who lay at the bottom of the pool, and not the King. If they had only slain Herumor! Then she would be back with the King. Or even--the thought flashed to her--even losing the children would be better than losing the King.
No! She did not mean that. She knew she did not mean that, and for a moment hated herself for even thinking that. And she needed Herumor alive, needed to know that there was someone who could protect the children against their enemies. No, if someone was to die, better it be her-- she was the least important of all.
The movement hurt her head. She tried to sit up, hoping that her headache would ease. The back of her head still throbbed from the blow, and she was more than a touch nauseated. It had been hours since she had eaten, which was not helping her either. She glanced at the basket of food. Apart from the water, she had left it untouched, even though she knew Ferion had not bothered to poison it. No, he needed her alive, at least for a few days.
Eating the bread settled her stomach somewhat. As she ate her headache also abated, though the dull pounding would not cease. Certain now that she would be able to keep food down, she began to work on the apples.
Ariashal considered her situation. She was barefoot; on her left toes was some dried blood, probably from stumbling along the stone floor. Her chemise was almost completely useless. Made of fine, almost transparent linen, it was never meant to be worn in this manner; its purpose was seduction, not concealment. Yesterday's rough handling had torn it nearly in half. Now it was split open from the neck to the hemline; every time she moved her breasts spilled out. She would have to do something to cover herself before Ferion returned.
For a few moments she studied the blankets. They might be old and worn, but they had no holes. And there was nothing in here which she might use to tear one open. No, she would have to think of something else.
What about the old man? Perhaps--perhaps she could lure him into the cell with her. Then she could shove the bottle into his remaining eye, and before he could recover she could beat him with the bucket. Once he was disabled, she could take his clothes, lock him into the cell, and be free. Yes! This she could do.
She stood up. The sudden movement made her dizzy; she grabbed the wall to keep from falling. After a moment she managed to take a single, unsteady step. The floor was still moving, still sliding beneath her. Frightened, she sat back down.
What was wrong? Perhaps the food was poisoned, after all. Or perhaps it was some sort of residual effect--had the Elves cast a spell on her, to keep her unconscious while they transported her to Ferion? Or could it be something else?
One time Adrahil had been chasing his brother around the garden. Imrahil ducked behind a tree, and Adrahil slammed headlong into its trunk. He was knocked out instantly. The King had carried him inside, where he carefully examined the boy. It was, he explained, serious but not deadly; Adrahil would be dizzy for some time, and probably feel weak and sick as well. He would need to rest, and could not play or run about for several days.
Perhaps something similar had happened to her, too. It would explain the headache, the nausea, the vertigo. If that were true, if she had really been injured in the same manner as Adrahil, then she would be in no condition to fight her way out of here. She would not even really be able to disarm the old man. No, he would be able to overpower her, and then she would be completely at his mercy. And she already knew what he would try to do.
Someone was coming; footsteps echoed on the rock floor. Ariashal took the least worn of the blankets and swirled it around her shoulders, wrapping herself in it. It was not a perfect shawl, but it would have to do.
The lock clanked as the key was turned. Instinctively she drew the blanket tighter.
Ferion swung the door open.
"Well," he began, "I see you are awake. And you have eaten. I trust you had a restful evening? Good."
She did not deign to speak. If only she could form arrows with her gaze! She would fill him full of poisoned barbs, until his body was so riddled with them that he was crushed beneath their weight and his blood drained away. Never had she hated anything as deeply as she now hated her brother.
"I have my cloak for you to wear," he continued smoothly. "You will accompany me to my quarters, and there you will be dressed in something other than that blanket. We must meet with your old steward today."
Cloaked and hooded, she obediently followed him from the cell. To her surprise, the old man was gone, replaced with a much younger, sturdier man. She was suddenly grateful for the weakness of her limbs. In her current condition she would have been no match for him.
They followed the path she remembered from yesterday, crossing several large rooms that seemed to be used for storage before coming to a heavy wooden door. Guards flanking it saluted Ferion as they approached. He acknowledged them with a curt nod and ushered Ariashal into his quarters.
His rooms were large and reasonably well-furnished. One room had a substantial table, some chests, and a chair; further on, she could see a heavy wooden bed partially concealed behind some curtains. Overhead an oil lamp burned brightly. He had salvaged some of the worn carpets from the keep, using them to line his rooms against the creeping damp. On the table was a small heap of papers and scrolls; she could see a crude map of the general area lying on top.
Carefully laid out at the opposite end of the table were the King's mithril shirt, sword and ring.
She nearly collapsed at the sight of her husband's belongings displayed as trophies. Ariashal forced her self to stay standing. She must not show weakness, not here, not now; she must stay strong, until she was free of this place and back with Adzuphel, Herumor and her children. Swallowing, she managed to walk onwards.
Resting on the table, the black opal gleamed with a hungry, almost savage, fire. Was it looking for a new master? She shuddered at the thought of Ferion wielding the ring. What had the King said?A man must master the ring, else the ring will master the man.
Ferion closed the door. "I have some things for you to wear."
She looked over at the bed. An old gray tunic, a patched shirt and some stained slippers had been carelessly heaped at the end. Gingerly she picked up the shirt, inspecting it for lice, or worse. Patched it might be, but at least it was clean.
"Put them on."
"There is no place to wash."
He snickered. "The Queen desires her bath, does she? Not here. You will wear those, and be glad for them. Get dressed!"
Ariashal turned to him. "Not with you watching."
He laughed. The sound sickened her.
"I have no intentions of sampling you just yet. I have other plans for you."
Her heart froze. "What? What do you mean?"
He laughed again. "You will see, my fair sister. Now get dressed."
She let the blanket fall. For a moment she considered abandoning the chemise, but decided against it; it was the last thing she had worn near the King, and it was somehow comforting to know he had touched it. Instead she pulled the shirt on, hauled the tunic over her head, slid her feet into the shoes. The tunic was too broad in the shoulders for her; it kept slipping down. Ferion rummaged in one of the chests until he found an old leather belt. She cinched it as tightly as she could, hoping it would keep the tunic more or less in place.
Ferion draped the cloak over her. "Come along. We must meet with Adzuphel."
Obediently she moved towards the door. Ferion retrieved the King's personal effects. "I will need to show these to prove that I have slain the Witch-king, and then I intend to keep them as a legacy for Rhudaur."
"Those are not yours."
"Oh, but they are, my fair sister. I slew him. These are now mine."
"They belong to the King of Angmar." She blocked the door. "You must give them to Adzuphel for my son."
"Why? I have them. Is that not proof enough of my right to them?"
"No, it is not." She folded her arms across her chest. "You must return them to my son!"
"Very well." Ferion's wolfish grin sickened her. He put the sword and shirt back on the table. "Your son can have those. But not the ring. That I will keep."
"You do not know what you are saying!"
"Oh, yes I do. I know what this ring can do. I know it can unleash powers beyond the grasp of mortal men. And I know that you know how to use it."
"I know nothing about that!" She hoped she sounded sincere.
"I do not believe you. I think the Nazgul told you some of its secrets. And I think you can tell those secrets to me."
"Even if I knew how to use it, I would never tell you!"
Ferion closed on her. "There has to be more to it than merely putting it on my finger. He must have told you something. And you will tell me."
"And if I do not?"
He hit her, hard.
Ariashal's head snapped back. Blood trickled from her mouth.
Ferion pulled her close; close enough to kiss.
"You will tell me what you know," he whispered, "else I will forget my manners. And when I have finished with you, I doubt my men will remember their manners, either. Am I understood?"
"Yes," she whimpered through the blood.
"Now then." He released her. "What must I do?"
Desperate, she tried to think. She must not let him claim the ring. "He said--he said that there was--there was only one way to take it. He said--" she grasped at the only idea she had. "He said you--you put it on, and said--he said you had to promise your kingdom to Sauron."
"Sauron is dead." Ferion stroked the ring. Blue and green swirled in the stone. "So that will not be necessary. And even if it were--that is a small price to pay for such power. There must have been more."
"You must--you must say your name."
"And that was all?"
She nodded, one hand cupped over her still-bleeding mouth. "Yes. He only--he only told me once. But that--that was all he said."
Ferion, triumphant, strode to the center of the room. "Very well. Now you will see me fulfill my destiny. Now you will see a new King of the north!"
He held the ring aloft. The opal glittered savagely. "I, Ferion, King of Rhudaur, claim this ring!" He slipped it onto his finger.
"This is--strange." Ferion sounded awed. "Nothing is the same, and yet nothing is truly different. Except for you. I cannot see you."
"You can see my clothes."
"Yes, but not you. And I can see--I can see other things, too."
She felt the rush of air as he walked by her.
"There are--things--spirits--they must be spirits. I can see them as though they were flesh." He stood near the door, his breathing close enough for Ariashal to hear. "Yes, they can be seen. I always thought such things were children's tales."
She listened as he wandered off. The idea that he had the ring sickened her. She had seen what it had done to Herumor and the King--proud, strong men. Ferion would use it to destroy what was left of Rhudaur, and then take Cardolan and Arthedain as well. They would fall prey to his incompetence, until Sauron brought him to heel and crushed him into subservience. Ferion had neither the character nor the courage to fight Sauron. He might, she realized, actually relish serving the Dark Lord.
"What?" Ferion called from the table. "What are those? What is--No! No! Go away!"
She could hear a soft rustling, a whispering in the air. Cold breezes slipped past her face.
"No!" Ferion's panicked screams filled the room. "NO!"
Someone crashed into a chest. Papers scattered into the air.
The chair smashed to the floor. Ariashal heard cloth ripping apart.
"Damn you! You are dead! I saw you die!"
The whisperings had turned into a low howl. Ariashal could see strange, filmy clouds swirling across the room.
"Leave me!" The curtains ripped free from the bed. "I slew you! Stay away!"
A wild, hissing screech filled the room. Icy winds slammed into Ariashal. Instinctively she huddled near the door.
"NO!" The chair flew through the air, shattering against the wall. "Go away!"
Something gold flashed across the floor, rolling to a stop at her feet.
For a moment the whirling clouds twisted together into a malevolent vortex. Ariashal heard a loud CRACK, as though lightning had exploded above her. There was a strange stench, as if something had burnt; and the vortex disappeared.
Shaking, disheveled, Ferion stood before her. His clothes were torn; blood ran from a gash on his cheek. "That thing!" His scream echoed around the room. "That--that --that thing is damned! It is cursed!"
Ariashal said nothing.
"You knew! You knew it was cursed! And you did nothing!"
"I told you not to touch it!" she shouted. "You would not listen!"
He stared at her, his eyes still fear-widened. "I do not--I do not want that thing near me!"
She picked up the ring. It felt warm, unnaturally so; the colors of the opal seethed and writhed. Ferion could never master this ring.
"Your son--your son can have that. I will not have that--that thing in Rhudaur!"
"And his other gear?" Ariashal held her gaze steady. "That too will be returned to my son."
"Very well." Ferion held his bleeding cheek. "I will have none of his cursed arms. Angmar may have them, and may their damnation remain in Carn Dum!"
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