Fairer Than Ivory, Silver, or Pearls
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Cursed Queen of Angmar, The: 11. Day of Reckoning
For the Day of Reckoning she was robed in a magnificent black velvet gown, lined with a vivid red satin. Its grand train was carried by three of her women. She wore the sun necklace, along with a spectacular gold pectoral that hung to her waist. Her hair was braided back, with strands of jewels plaited into it, and she wore the elegant gold crown from her coronation.
The King wore the same ensemble from the wedding. He waited for her outside his rooms, surrounded by his advisors and the members of his household guard. When she approached, one of the guards gave a signal. In the distance a trumpet sounded, followed by drums.
For what seemed like miles they walked, through long, sloping corridors and down flights of stairs. They were no longer within the castle; they were well into the mountain itself. Everything-- the halls, the stairs, all had been carved from the living rock, smoothed and polished to perfection. As they made their way deeper into the mountain, she began to hear echoing cheers, shouts, drums. Hopefully they were getting close; she was tired, and longed to rest.
At a pair of wooden doors they stopped. The King adjusted his regalia, and Ariashal followed suit. He nodded and the guards threw open the doors.
Together they walked out onto a balcony, draped with red and black cloth, a black canopy overhead. Before them was a vast arena, carved from a natural cavern within the mountain. Silvery blue stones, set in the walls, filled the space with a soft, cold light. Seats were filled to overflowing; she could see row upon row of orcs, men, and other creatures. Beneath them a pair of gray trolls swept the red sand of the arena floor. The King escorted her to a high-backed chair, set close to the balcony rail. Once she was settled he walked to the front of the balcony and held up a hand.
The crowd fell silent.
"The Day of Reckoning has come."
Cheering and stomping, the crowd roared its approval. The King took the throne. "Now," he said to Ariashal, "you will see justice done."
At first there was nothing to see. Guards marched across the arena floor, disappearing through some doors. The trolls still swept, even though the floor seemed smooth enough. Ariashal turned her attention to the audience. What had at first seemed a random crowd was actually carefully divided. In front of each orcish section was a banner: black star on red, yellow hand on white, white arrows on green, and many more; probably tribal or clannish insignia. The orcish areas were further divided from each other by substantial stone walls, and guards were posted by the walls, presumably to keep the peace.
Men and other non-orcs occupied a different seating level. The mix of ethnicities was even more pronounced here than when she had first entered the city. She could see the plain dress of Hillmen, the colorful headdress of the Southern and Eastern folk, the full robes of Dunedain. In another area were smaller seats, filled with bearded dwarves and hobbits. Trolls and their kin had their own area, where they would not block the view of other spectators.
Something was happening on the floor. A massive man with a long red beard, wearing the Angmar colors, strode to the center of the arena. The trolls lumbered out the door.
"Bring out the condemned," ordered the big man.
A row of guards led out a score of prisoners, chained together at wrist and ankle. A few of the prisoners stumbled, others stared at the crowd, some spat and cursed. Behind them walked a pair of tall men, robed and hooded in red, carrying long, slightly curved swords. The group shuffled to the center of the arena and waited.
These were the simple executions. The bearded man read a name, a prisoner would be brought forward, a list of crimes announced, and then one of the tall men would step up and neatly behead the guilty.
The list of crimes was typical, almost banal: murder, rape, theft. Sometimes the convict's name was recognized by people in the crowd, sparking threats and shouts. Or the list of crimes would be heinous enough to cause an explosion of anger. Most of the condemned ignored the insults, but one man began to scream curses at the guards. The big man kicked his legs from beneath him, and he was quickly beheaded.
When the last of these was decapitated, a troll pushed a wagon into the arena. Some orcs tossed the remains onto it, then followed as the troll trundled the bodies away.
Next were the more serious crimes, demanding more elaborate executions. The guards brought out each convict individually, while the bearded man read the list of crimes, and the method of execution proscribed for each prisoner. Most were decapitated, but a few required special treatment. After each execution the crowd stamped its feet, cheering and shouting.
A man who had been caught spying for Cardolan was condemned to roasting over a fire. However, because of the number of executions still to be performed, it was decided that he would be impaled instead. Accordingly a pair of guards brought out large spears. They stuck the man in the abdomen, then raised the spears so that he would slide down them. But he was fighting and writhing so intensely that he jammed partway down; he hung there, screaming, as his life bled away. The crowd cheered as his blood spattered down.
There were a few more beheadings, another impalement--this one more successful--and a woman who was sentenced to boil. In the interest of expediency, this was commuted to beheading. Once again the trolls brought out the wagon. They picked up the remains, except for the one impaled man, who stubbornly refused to die. The orcs kicked him a few times, but still he clung to life. Finally one of the trolls tore the man's head off, delighting the crowd. Problem solved, the bearded man announced the next round of events--trials by combat.
First into the arena were three snow-trolls, mired in an argument over possession of a female snow-troll. Ariashal had never seen anything quite like them. Their white skin, white hair and blue lips contrasted vividly with the red sand of the arena floor. They wore heavy pelts, crudely fastened at the shoulders and belted. Each carried a wooden shield and a club. They lumbered towards the balcony, stopping a few feet from the royal box.
The King stood and addressed them. "You shall proceed. Justice shall prevail."
The trolls bowed and began to fight.
It was obvious that the crowd loved the trials by combat. Oh, they might cheer and shout during the regular executions, but that was nothing compared to the howls and shrieks that accompanied the battles. One of the snow-trolls fell early, leaving the other two free to smash and pound away. They were sloppy, ill-disciplined fighters, swinging their clubs almost randomly. When one finally fell, the crowd cheered the victor as he staggered, bleeding, out of the arena.
Next into the arena were four sets of two men, here to settle various disputes. The King gave the same blessing, combatants bowed, and blood flowed. Once they were finished, a new group of warring parties entered the arena, and the process began anew.
Most trials ended quickly, and quite a number ended without a death. To Ariashal's surprise the King seemed to prefer those that did not end with a carcass in the sand; everywhere else she had lived expected a death from such trials. Certainly the Hillfolk wanted to see death, and she could not recall her father disapproving of it, either.
"Tis a waste to lose men in this manner," he explained. "Our population is small enough as it is. Every man who dies is a loss to Angmar and my army. But I fear such displays are necessary to keep the peace."
A few more duels ended quickly, one with a violent blow that disemboweled one contestant, the other when one man flung down his sword and quit. One last pair continued to fight, albeit in a desultory, half-hearted manner. The crowd booed and hissed, screaming insults at the two.
Suddenly the men stopped. "For Arnor!" they cried. Whirling around, swords held high, they charged towards the royal box.
The King's voice split the air.
For a moment the two seemed to hang, suspended, in mid-stride. With a horrific shriek, their skulls ripped free from their heads; their bodies split open; their guts spilled to the ground. The bodies collapsed, twitching, as the last of the blood spurted onto the sand.
There was a long moment of silence.
"Hail to the king!" cried someone in the crowd, and soon the whole arena vibrated with the chant and the stomping of feet. As the trolls removed the bodies, spectators threw bits of garbage at the would-be assassins. Guards did not even try to stop them.
Ariashal stayed in her seat, heart pounding, desperately trying to fight down the fear. The curse, the curse had followed her here; and she was very lucky that it had not worked tonight. What had she done? Had she not wanted it to be real, when first she heard of this marriage? Had she not hoped that it would take this husband, too? She had, she knew she had, and she knew she had damned him. The first man she had grown attached to, the first man she had begun to love, and she would be his downfall. She could not believe what she had done, she could not do this to him, she could not--
"The Queen is ill," said the King. "Bring a litter and take her to my chambers."
Back in their rooms, comfortable in her dressing gown, Ariashal curled up on the bed and cried. There had to be a way out of this, there must be a way to spare him. Perhaps if she left, now, he would be saved. She would go into exile, and when the child was born she would send it to its father, where it would live in comfort. She, meanwhile, would live on roots and berries, and eke out the miserable existence she deserved.
"Twas not the blood that upset you."
She had not even heard him enter the room.
He sat on the edge of the bed, gently drawing her to him. She buried her face in his robes. "Was it the magic? Tis not a pretty spell, I know."
"No, my Lord." Desperately she clung to him, like a drowning man to his savior.
"The child, then. You should not tire yourself."
She shook her head and clung tighter. "No, my Lord. It is me--it is my curse. I have damned you by coming here. You will be killed because of me!"
"Ariashal," he said softly, "there is no curse. You will not be the cause of my death, I assure you."
"But those men--if they had succeeded--"
"They could not. I promise you that."
"No," she sobbed. "I have damned you."
"Ariashal, listen to me. There is no curse upon you. And as far as damning me, I did that to myself long ago."
"How could you have done that? I will be your downfall!"
"No, you will not." He began to stroke her head.
"You do not understand," she sobbed. "I love you."
He froze, clutching her so tightly she could barely breathe.
"Never say that," he hissed, voice hard. "Never. The repercussions of that for us both will be far more horrific than anything you can possibly imagine."
"What? Why? Why can I not--"
"Because you must not." His grip tightened. "Unless you wish to damn us both, you will never utter that phrase again."
"But I cannot help what I feel," she whispered.
"Neither can I." He crushed her against his body. "Nor can I forget what I have endured. If you truly believe what you say, you will never speak those words again."
"I swear--" she choked, "I swear I will never say it again." It was as if she plunged a dagger into her heart.
"Good." He drew his cloak over her. She could feel his tense muscles gradually relax. "I think you must rest. This is not good for you, or the child." He began to stroke her head, whispering in a language she did not understand.
She began to feel pleasantly drowsy, enveloped in a warm, safe cocoon; and before she knew it, she was fast asleep.
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