Fairer Than Ivory, Silver, or Pearls
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Cursed Queen of Angmar, The: 17. A Message of Death
The sun was dropping low in the sky when the wolves began to howl.
"Mamma, wake up!" Zimraphel bounded onto the bed. "Papa is coming! "
Startled, Ariashal sat up. She had not even intended to sleep; she was just going to rest a little. She must have been out for hours. "What do you mean?"
"Listen! Wolf says he is coming!"
She staggered from the bed. Adzuphel and the others were no longer in the room; they too must have heard. "Where are your brothers?"
"Outside. I want you to come and see!"
Obediently she followed her daughter outside, into the deepening twilight. Adzuphel met her near the door.
"We have received word from the King. He is returning here."
"Is he all right?" She managed to keep her voice low.
"I do not know," Adzuphel admitted. "He says that he does not want the children to see him until tomorrow."
"I understand. They will have to be moved, perhaps into your rooms."
"That would probably be best," he agreed. "And he wants the entire town assembled in front of the gates."
"I do not know. I would imagine he wants to show that he is well and still in command."
"Very well." She knew how much he despised any weaknesses of his own. If he were at all able to move, he would do so.
She supervised the removal of the children to Adzuphel's rooms, much to their dismay. They wanted to see their father, and while she was tempted to give in to them, she knew full well that he must have something he wished hidden from them. So she insisted that they be put to bed early, and that their nurse stand close guard.
Guessing that he would want some sort of cleansing after what he had been through, she ordered the servants to prepare a bath for him. There was little they could do; the Hillfolk were not accustomed to such niceties. Still, they were able to procure a large tub, which she had them clean and then fill with hot water. She had no sooner finished managing the bathing arrangements when a trumpet blast echoed across the hills.
Ariashal joined Adzuphel by the gate. The palisade gates were wide open, fires blazing before them. All of the Angmarim troops were lined up on the right of the gate, orcs and men alike. She could not count how many there were. The townsfolk were gathered to the left, a nervous mob that shifted uneasily in the fading light. Wolves trotted around the field.
Another trumpet blast, and Ariashal could make out the approaching crowd. Troops marched along, banners and flags of Angmar held high as they led the way. Drummers pounded a steady beat as they drew near. She counted nine rows of men, three abreast.
Behind them, on a massive pale palomino horse, rode the King. She could see that he still had his black robes, still had his great sword at his side. Her heart leapt as she saw him. He was well, he had survived, he was back and safe and hers.
Then she saw the next wave of troops shuffle forward.
They moved like no men she had ever seen, nor like any orc: stiff heads lolling, staggering as they came. There was something wrong about them; they seemed to be walking in their sleep. Perhaps they were prisoners.
The King rode to the city gate. Reining in the horse, he held up one hand for silence.
"Know ye all," he began, "that from this day hence this land and all that surrounds it belongs to Angmar. You will answer now to Carn Dum."
A low murmur spread through the crowd.
He held up his hand, and again they quieted. He spoke a few words in a strange, guttural tongue, and the shambling troops came forward.
"Look ye here at what I have made of my enemies," he continued. "They will walk to Cardolan, and Rhudaur, and wherever else they called home. And they will spread the word that I will not tolerate any attack on my person. For who better to be my messenger, than those whom I have already slain?"
Horrified, Ariashal took a longer look at the men. She saw, now, that what she had taken for sleepiness was instead the slow march of the undead. The dead men clumsily turned, shuffling back out into the darkness.
"Go now," he said, "and mark well this night." He spurred the horse forward and rode through the gates.
Adzuphel propelled Ariashal after the King. They followed him as he rode to the long house, half running in their attempt to keep up. Ariashal could not imagine what must have happened to him. What had they done that drove him to raise an army of the dead?
They managed to reach him at the door of the long house. To her surprise he had not dismounted; he waited until they had arrived. Adzuphel caught the bridle while the King slowly eased his way down.
She saw how stiffly he moved, how carefully he put his weight on each foot. Obviously he was hurt, despite his valiant attempt to hide any injury. She let him enter the building first, alone, before following with Adzuphel.
He was standing in the middle of the room, swaying slightly with each breath. "Adzuphel, what news is there?"
"Your Majesty," began Adzuphel, "we are all grateful that you have returned safely. There is nothing so urgent that it cannot wait until tomorrow. Please, let your queen tend to you."
For a moment he was quiet. "Very well," he said at last.
Adzuphel bowed and slipped out.
"Let me undress you, my Lord." Ariashal began to undo his sword belt. "Look. I have had a hot bath made ready. Let me help you bathe."
He offered no resistance as she pulled off his clothes. To her shock she found his shirt slashed and bloodstained; his breeches, too, were heavy with dried blood. "What have they done to you?"
She managed to hold her tongue while tending to him. Watching the way the water flowed over what was apparently an empty space never failed to fascinate her. She could not make him out beneath the liquid, nor almost see the body she had known for so long; instead she saw a strange refraction where his flesh met the water. While caring for him she discovered all the places he hurt: areas that were exceptionally warm to the touch, stiff muscles, welts and ridges that seemed to be cuts. Every now and then he flinched when she found a particularly tender spot. Whether most of his injuries came from the fall with his horse, or from the treatments of the Cardolani, she could not tell.
She spent the rest of the night sitting up next to him while he slept. Every now and then she checked on the guards posted outside. They were alert, more alert than she had ever seen them. Bonfires blazed throughout the little city, at the gates, near many a house, by the sprawling army encampment. Satisfied that they were well guarded, she returned to his side.
Watching the steady rise and fall of the blankets, she wondered what had happened in the tower. Obviously they had mistreated him in some manner, else he would not have slain the entire company.
The appearance of the undead had unnerved her. She knew he could do such a thing; she had heard him speak about it. But never before had she actually seen anything like that shambling army of dead men. It was beyond strange, disturbing, frightening.
And yet she could not help but admire him for creating them, for taking his tormentors and turning them against their own kind. If anything, they deserved that, and worse. They had captured him, probably tortured him; the blood on his clothes was evidence of that. Had she been there, she would have torn them apart with her hands for daring to hurt him.
What if more of the Cardolani came here, seeking revenge? The King was too hurt to fight, though she knew he would battle on until the end. Would she be able to drive them off? She was suddenly grateful for the fires that blazed outside, and for the men standing guard at the door; for the orcs that patrolled the night, and the wolves that ran beside them.
How greatly her life had changed! When she was young, a wolf was a ravening horror, a murderous beast that would slay her if she ventured too far afield. Orcs were also nocturnal terrors, swarming over field and farm, destroying all in their path.
Now she saw the wolves as guardians; silent helpers that slipped through the forests, scouting for enemies. Their howls were signals, calls for help, warnings, even news. No longer did she tremble when she heard them. She envied Zimraphel, who could listen to them, and understand.
Her opinion of Orcs had not changed overmuch. They were still savage, wild creatures who left behind nothing but the wreckage of their passage. But they fought for her King, bravely and sometimes desperately. She had seen them in the arena, staging their mock battles for the amusement of the crowd. They never seemed to flinch, nor run, no matter how badly wounded. She knew the King was pleased with their progress, and that pleased her as well.
As gently as she could she adjusted the blankets over him. Not once did he stir. Good. He could not hear her now. "I love you," she whispered.
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