Fairer Than Ivory, Silver, or Pearls
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Cursed Queen of Angmar, The: 9. Storm Rider
One of the King's principle duties was to ensure that his people were fed. Accordingly he worked hard to keep the winter rains at bay until the grain was safely stored; to do so required that he employ powerful spells. For the magic to be most effective, he needed to be closer to the fields of western Angmar.
"I would be happier if I could go with you," Ariashal murmured.
They lay together on her bed; the room, still filled with the scent of recently slaked lust, was warm, serene.
"You are much safer here."
"I do not care." She stretched, settling her head on his chest. "I do not know how I will live without you for weeks."
"We all must make sacrifices," he said, gently stroking her hair. "I must leave tonight, else it will be too late."
"How can you ride your horse at night? It would be better if you left in the morning."
"I am not riding my horse."
She sat up. "What do you intend to do? Fly?"
He slid from the bed, gathered robes from the floor. "Get dressed," he said, flinging the clothes over his shoulders. "I will come for you. I think that it is time you learn one of my secrets."
An hour later she stood before a massive set of black doors, the King and Adzuphel at her side. The King was wearing armor, made, it seemed, of scales, all edged in gold; the black surfaces shone in the light. He wore his sword, and he carried a large leather bag, its straps decorated with delicate runes and letters.
He raised a hand and the door swung inwards, revealing an enormous round room, lined with stalls carved from red stone. Heavy steel doors closed off the stalls. And in each stall stood--
"Dragons!" shrieked Ariashal.
"No," said the King emphatically. "They are not dragons. Dragons speak. These do not."
But what else could they be? They were big, black, scaly, with huge leathery wings and piercing yellow eyes. Their heads were long, with a narrow beak balanced by a tall crest. She could see little claws on the tips on their wings, and much more impressive talons on their powerful hind legs. For such large animals, they had ridiculously stubby tails; their tails could not be more than a hand long.
One of the beasts waited in the center of the room, cross-tied to a pair of massive stone pillars. It had been bridled and saddled, and one of the big Olog-Hai trolls was carefully checking and re- checking its breast collar, crupper, cinch. The creature tossed its head, champing at its bit.
"You--you are going to ride that thing?" asked Ariashal.
"Of course. A horse is far too slow. I can go farther in a night on one of these than I could in a week with a horse. And from the air it is possible to see things which are invisible from the ground."
She walked as close to the thing as she dared. It stopped tossing its head long enough to look at her. Cold, unblinking yellow eyes met her gaze. She could read no intelligence there, only a lingering hatred, presumably for bridle and rider.
"He has not been out much, Sire," said the Olog-Hai. "He will be difficult."
"Nardu will not be overly troublesome." The King patted the creature's neck. It turned to look at him, rubbing its beak on his sleeve. "He knows what he must do."
The Olog-Hai strapped the leather bag behind the saddle, checked the buckles to be sure that they held. Satisfied that all was in order, he took his place at the beast's head.
Summoning every scrap of courage in her being, Ariashal went to her husband. For a moment the King took her hand. "You will be safer here. Adzuphel will watch over you." He kissed her hand and swung up onto the beast.
The Olog-Hai released Nardu from the ties. Jumping and plunging, the beast half ran, half hopped across the room. It fought the bridle, skidding on the floor, flapping its huge wings in its attempt to break free, screeching angrily until the King managed to bring it under control.
A sudden blast of cold air announced the opening of the outer doors. Icy wind swept into the room. In the moonlight Ariashal could just make out a balcony, jutting into the deep blue of the night sky.
Turning Nardu into the wind, the King spurred the beast forward. Wings outstretched, the animal ran through the open doors. A few feet from the opening it leapt into the air, plummeting off the edge of the balcony.
Horrified, Ariashal ran to the doors. She reached the opening in time to see the beast sweep past, wings digging into the air. The King wheeled Nardu around for a final pass, then they vanished around the side of the castle. Ariashal's last glimpse was of the King's cloak, billowing out behind him as he disappeared into the night.
With the King away the days passed slowly, with Ariashal spending little time away from her rooms. Truth to tell, she was only too glad to lounge in her bed all day, for she was with child.
Pregnancy was a new experience for her. Never before had she conceived, although, to be fair, she had never before devoted quite so much time and energy to achieving that end, either. All of her former husbands had been lacking, in ability, or desire, or technique. The King had no such difficulties.
She wondered if he already knew about her condition, and if indeed he had planned the whole thing, down to the moment of conception. The more she thought about it, the likelier it seemed. Doubtless it made it easier for him to schedule the rest of his tasks when he knew the precise time she would be brought to childbed. Besides, he enjoyed mastering things; he craved bending nature to his will. Why else would he carve a kingdom out of this land? And why else would he ride flying things like Nardu? Sheer force of will made such things possible.
Ariashal supervised the transformation of one of the smaller rooms into a nursery. It looked out over the mountains, cloaked with snow; a much more inspiring vista than over the smoke- shrouded city. While craftsmen busily created a magnificent suite of furniture for the room, and seamstresses sewed new linens and hangings, Ariashal interviewed servants and wet-nurses. The number of people vying for the jobs amazed her. No child from her previous marriages would have garnered this much attention, no matter how royal they were.
A week passed; then two, then three. With each day Ariashal grew more anxious. Angry black clouds boiled up over the mountains, thunder rumbling within, and she knew that the spells which kept them at bay could not hold much longer. Perhaps now the curse would raise its brutal head, and the King would be blasted from the sky by wind, hail or lightning. And even if he was able to keep the storms under control, what would happen when they were freed of their bonds? What vengeance would they wreak on Angmar and her Witch-King?
One night, as she lay in her bed, she caught the faint sound of wind against the glass. Something in the wind was different; there seemed almost a human cry, of relief, of anguish, of pain--what? She could not tell. Uneasy, she made her way to the big set of windows that overlooked the courtyard.
Straining against the wind, the very glass of the panes seemed to bend. She could feel an icy blast as the wind threaded its way into the room. Below trees bent to the ground, bowing before the force of the wind. In the distance she could see banners rippling. Instinctively she put her hands against the window, trying to force the storm back.
Suddenly there came a loud CRACK, as though a thousand panes of glass shattered. The very tower shuddered. Windows smashed open, scattering shards of glass across the floor, driving Ariashal back to her bed. There was another great crackling, another blast of thunder, and icy sleet drove into the room.
One of the servants came running, dragging blankets behind her. Valiantly she tried to seal the window, but the winds were too great; they forced her back. Slipping on the sleet, she fell into the sea of broken glass. Cut and bleeding, she staggered away, collapsing next to the Queen's bed.
Ariashal dragged the woman onto the bed. "We have to get out of here!" she shouted over the howling winds. "Can you walk?"
"Yes, my Queen," she whimpered.
"Then we must go."
Together, wrapped in one of Ariashal's fur blankets, they half-walked, half-crawled to the door. Ice blasted through the gaping hole where the window had been. Tiny particles of ice slashed their faces, leaving behind blood mixed with melting ice. More ice slammed into them; Ariashal could hear other windows giving way under the onslaught.
When they reached the door Ariashal pounded frantically, shouting for the guards. Could they even hear over the screaming wind? She had to reach them, had to get out of here, before the storm smashed through the wall and buried her in a mass of ice.
The door suddenly swung open. Ariashal tumbled face-forward on the floor, dragging the woman with her. She caught a glimpse of black boots, then heard the familiar voice overhead, issuing commands in a strange, harsh language that she did not understand.
Immediately the shrieking wind stopped.
Trembling, Ariashal looked up at her husband. Taking his hand, she managed to pull herself upright.
"What happened here?"
"The--the storm." She turned to show him the shattered window.
In place of the window was what looked like a solid wall of ice. Glass and melting ice still covered the floor, but the hole itself was now sealed.
"Guards," he ordered, "have this cleaned. What happened to your servant?"
"She was hurt trying to help me."
"Very well. One of you--take this woman to the healers." He slid one arm around Ariashal. "We must get you away from here. I will take you with me."
He half led, half-carried her to his rooms. The guards quickly opened the doors and let them inside. Ariashal tried not to let her fear of what might be lurking within show. Wide-eyed, she passed through the massive doors.
Like her own chambers, those of the King were octagonal. Here, too, the walls were lined with tapestries, and the furniture which occupied the corners was sumptuous beyond anything she had seen. The design was more fluid, the inlays more delicate; her own furniture, which she had thought so rich, was but a pale imitation of this.
He led her to an intricately inlaid chair, with cushions of delicate blue silk. She hesitated. "I am soaked. It will ruin the chair."
"The silk can be replaced." He left her for a moment. Shivering, she watched him pull a black shirt from one of the chests. "Here. This is dry."
She willingly dumped the wet mass of cloth and fur on the floor before putting on the too- large shirt. Safe now, she settled onto the delicate chair.
He crouched next to her. "You are certain that you are unhurt."
"Yes." She gripped his robes. "I--I was afraid that you were out in this storm. I was afraid that you would never come home."
"No, my queen. I waited until I was safely within the tower before releasing the storms."
Something in his voice caught her attention, something she had never heard before. "You are weary, my lord."
"Twas a long journey."
"Come to me, then."
Slowly, somewhat stiffly, he sat on the floor before her. Ariashal pushed aside his robes and began to massage his shoulders. She could feel the tense muscles relax, feel the stiffness melting away. Every now and then he sighed in pleasure, encouraging her to continue. She was going to suggest that he might be more comfortable elsewhere when she heard a different, rumbling sound from beneath the hood. She bent closer to be certain of what she heard.
Ariashal dared not disturb him. Gently, tenderly, she cradled his head in her lap. And for the first time in her marriage, she held her husband as he slept.
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