Fairer Than Ivory, Silver, or Pearls
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Cursed Queen of Angmar, The: 47. Wedding Night
"I thought you would be done by now." Ferion, clean for once, stalked about the room.
Ariashal leisurely tied back her hair. "I told you that I have been unwell. And I will look my best tonight, despite everything that I have endured."
"Endured?" Ferion laughed. "What have you had to endure? You have been freed from that evil thing you called husband. You no longer need live in the frozen north. You will stay here, and be wed to a living man."
"He was my husband." She caught herself before saying too much. "And I miss my children."
"You will have more children soon enough." He crossed to the window. "Damn, woman! Why must you tarry so? It is after nightfall."
"I will not have it said that I did not look a Queen." She adjusted the glittering sun necklace. The deep blue of the jewel contrasted nicely with the rich burgundy of her dress. The only fancy chemise she had was also a dark blue; it picked up the color of the jeweled sun. She looked to see that her earrings were properly hung. "And it is much more difficult to prepare for this alone."
"I could not find a woman to your liking!"
"No, you could not," she agreed. There was no way that she would have taken any of the miserable, filthy creatures that called themselves women as her helper. She found that she much preferred doing it herself. It gave her a sense of confidence, and even superiority. "I am Queen. I deserve fine ladies as my servants, not common whores and tavern wenches."
"My men like them well enough."
"I am not one of your men."
"How much longer will you be?"
She thought for a moment. What she wished to say would only anger him further, and in any event she would not be believed. After a moment's deliberations, she smiled. "I think I am almost prepared. There are some things which I need to do in private, so if you would be so kind as to leave, I will be able to finish."
"Perhaps I should stay."
Her eyes met his.
"Ferion," she began, her voice level, "I am unwell. I will not do anything so intimate with you in the room."
"Very well. But do not take all night!" He left, slamming the door shut behind him.
She waited, listening while he spoke with the guards before leaving. Once his footfalls died away, she raced to the secret panel. It took a moment for her to spring the latch. Seizing a candle, she slipped silently down the spiral stair.
"My lord?" she called out.
Uneasy, she checked the room. His bed was there, along with the almost-empty basket of food and the spent candle. The door to the tombs was open, and a slight breeze, scented with death, blew into the room. She sheltered her candle before it too died.
He was not here. He must have gone on to prepare the next part of the spell. She was not certain if this was a good thing or not. What if she went with Ferion, and the King was not yet ready? What if he had fallen ill while rousing the dead? What if they had tried to overpower him, and drag him into their world?
Stop this, she warned herself. It will help nothing to panic. After a moment, she turned and retraced her steps, careful to close the door behind her. She quickly dusted the bits of cobwebs from her sleeves, checked her hair for dust, and straightened her gown. She was as ready as she was ever going to be. All she could do now was go forth, and trust that the Witch-king would not fail.
"Open the door," she commanded.
The guards escorted her to Ferion's quarters, where he was impatiently drumming his fingers on his table. He jumped to his feet as soon as she approached. "It took you long enough," he growled. "Armendil is anxious to marry you."
"He can wait a little longer." She gave him her hand.
"What is this?" demanded Ferion. "How did you get dust and cobwebs on your back?"
Ariashal froze, mind racing. What could she say?
"I--dropped something, and had to fetch it."
"Stand still." Roughly he swept the last of the dust from her shoulders. "There. Now you are presentable. Come on. The men are waiting."
Hand in hand, they made their way down the Keep's corridors. There were only a few men about; all the others must already be down, waiting for the marriage to take place. She and Ferion descended the wide stairs that she had only recently climbed with the King. How different they were now! Stripped of the fine carpets brought from Angmar, with only a few crude torches to illuminate them, they seemed to be the stairs of a dungeon instead of a royal Keep. The constant pressure of Ferion's hand on her own only served to reinforce the impression of impending imprisonment.
At the base of the stairs they paused, while Ferion adjusted his tunic. One of the guards handed him his crown, a rather florid, ostentatious gold band inlaid with garnets that glinted in the light. It did not quite seem to fit Ferion. Or, rather, he was so unaccustomed to it that it did not sit him well. Ariashal wondered how much of Angmar's gold had been squandered on the ugly crown.
"Come on," he snarled, pulling her hand. "The men are impatient."
At a nod from him, the guards pushed open the heavy doors.
Inside, the great hall had been prepared for a feast. Tables lined the walls, and men had already taken their seats. Other tables were arranged towards the middle of the room, set aside to accommodate the lesser guests. Several musicians clustered near one wall, tuning their instruments. A fire blazed in the center of the room, although the evening was not even particularly cool. Someone had tried to make the room seem festive by hanging boughs and flowers along the walls; but the drooping branches and wilting blooms did nothing to lighten the overall mood.
The appearance of Ferion and Ariashal set off a wild, raucous chorus of cheers from the men. From the sounds and smells that filled the air, Ariashal knew that most of the men had been drinking, and had probably been doing so for the better part of the day. That would make the King's task easier. Cheered at the thought, she smiled.
Armendil sat at the head table, his prince's coronet gleaming in the light. Unlike Ferion, he wore a colorful tunic--green and yellow, trimmed with gold. There were two men at his right, similarly attired; they must be his brothers, arrived just recently from Cardolan. At the sight of Ariashal they nudged him, whispering something which brought them to gales of laughter. She suspected that she was the cause of their merriment. Laugh away, she thought as she approached them. Enjoy this farce while you may.
Armendil half-rose, half-staggered to his feet. He smiled at her. The reek of alcohol billowed from him.
"Armendil, Prince of Cardolan," began Ferion, "may I present your wife, Ariashal, Princess of Rhudaur."
"Princess," Armendil slurred, "Come over here and you can sit with me." He gave her a long, appraising look. "We can just forget this feast if you want, and go right to bed. We can even do it here!"
Shocked, Ariashal hesitated. She had no desired to be pawed by this drunkard, certainly not in front of these people.
"Stop it!" For once, Ferion came to her aid. "This is a feast, Armendil, and you will treat my sister with respect!"
Armendil looked at him; to Ariashal it seemed as if he was having trouble focusing his gaze. "Very well, Ferion, we will--we can sit here until dinner is over. Then--" he winked at Ariashal--
"we can go have some fun."
Ferion seated himself next to her, staring savagely at Armendil all the while. It heartened her to know that the allies were barely civil with each other. In a perverse way, it pleased her not a little to know that she was the cause of the friction. If she were actually going to live with Armendil, it would make for a miserable life; but since she was not going anywhere, it would make no difference to her. All she had to do was get through dinner without being fondled by Armendil, and go home with her King.
The little group of musicians struck up a ballad. Soon the room was a cacophony of clanging goblets, forks striking pewter plates, shouted jokes, drunken attempts to follow the lyrics of the songs. Armendil tried to tell her some story, his voice thick and sloppy from drink; it was made all the more disgusting by his mouthful of half-chewed meat.
Ariashal picked at the food before her. Knowing her brother, it was probably drugged somehow; and the last thing she wanted was to be sleepy when the King arrived. She resorted to the tried and true method of simply pushing the meats and vegetables around the plate with her fork, hoping that her companions were too drunk to notice her lack of appetite.
The evening brought back some unpleasant memories. It was like almost every other one of her wedding feasts--bawdy, raucous songs; a groom who was merrily drinking himself into oblivion; and her family, hoping that this time she would go away, and manage to not end up killing her husband. Of course, Ferion was counting on her to do just that. How could he so cynically pour wine for Armendil, when in reality he knew that he might as well be pouring poison?
It was not like Carn Dum, where both the wedding and the feast had been conducted with a modicum of dignity. The biggest difference was the King; he would not tolerate the sort of behavior that Ferion and Armendil were openly encouraging. It would indeed seem strange to an outsider that the Witch-king would be the most respectful of the men she had known--most women would have expected just the opposite, preferring, instead, the alcohol-fueled chaos of the Keep. If only she had known how kind he would be! Never would she have objected to the marriage.
"I hear your other husbands all died!" shouted Armendil over the din. "Well, you--you know I am not going to die. You are not--no woman is going to kill me!" He swallowed more wine. "No one is ever going to kill me. And I will keep you so busy--" he belched loudly-- "I will keep you so pregnant you will never have a chance to kill me!"
His brothers broke into gales of laughter. Ariashal smiled, stabbing at the meat on her plate.
Someone at another table shouted the name of a popular, raunchy song; and the musicians dutifully took up the tune. Armendil joined in, roaring the saga of the man, woman, pigsty and carrots with wine-fueled gusto. Soon Ferion added his voice to the chorus.
Ariashal wondered if her brother had sung this at his own weddings--but of course he had. At his first, to the shy Dunedain girl from Fornost; and at the last, to the tall blonde sent from the Hillmen in exchange for cattle. She had always supposed that they had simply succumbed to illness, but now, watching Ferion's machinations, she wondered. No one had ever accused Ferion of being cursed, despite the fact that all his wives died. Perhaps, unlike her, he had taken a more active part in hastening their demises. Was there nothing he would not do?
More singing and shouting filled the room. Someone knocked a platter of meat to the floor, sending the pewter clattering away. Others, far too drunk to care, laughed and cheered as the meat rolled to the fire.
There was another loud, urgent clang of metal on metal. Someone was fighting--not in here, but outside the hall. Two of the men closest to the door drew their swords before leaving to break up the altercation outside.
They never got their chance.
With a resounding crash, the great doors slammed open, sweeping the two guards aside, crushing them against the stone walls.
Ariashal's heart leapt.
There stood the King, robed, hooded, masked, his black cloak swirling about him, surrounded by an army of armored men. With one hand he drew his great sword. For a moment he held it aloft. Flames licked along the blade.
"Ferion," he called, his voice cold as the grave, "prepare to meet your doom."
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