Fairer Than Ivory, Silver, or Pearls
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Cursed Queen of Angmar, The: 19. Into the Tombs
After several long days they finally crested the hill that overlooked her family home.
She recognized many of the old landmarks, the rocky outcrops that had reminded her of animals when she was a child, and the streams she had splashed across in summer. But her homecoming filled her with dread instead of joy. She could not imagine why her brother wished to destroy her husband; even Ferion must know he could not rule all of Angmar and Rhudaur combined. He had never been a particularly gifted young man; she had heard her father call him "stubborn" and "foolish" more than once. But he had endured, and now they must deal with him.
Ferion had reinforced the old walls, adding some new ones to enclose more fields. She found the additional fortifications disturbing. Even more disquieting was the large number of troops assembled near the old keep, their armor glittering in the sun.
The King sent a herald out to meet with the Rhudaurians. Ariashal knew that the King was unhappy with the display of strength presented by her brother; she knew he would counter with one of his own, both today and later tonight when the orcs arrived. If only she could talk to Ferion, and try to bring home to him that he was being foolish in the extreme! But she knew that he would not listen, and in any event the King would not let her ride alone into his camp.
After a few tense moments their herald returned, along with one from Rhudaur.
"My king Ferion welcomes you to his home," said the Rhudaurian herald. "He awaits anon."
The royal family made their way into the Rhudaurian castle with more pomp than had been seen here in many years. First in were the trumpets, followed by drummers. The banner carriers came next, swirling the red and black flags of Angmar and Carn Dum. There were rows of troops, though not the whole of the army; the King selected a few from each company to enter with him. There were more trumpets, the household guards, and then the King rode in. He rode alone, on the pale palomino stallion, the horse draped with the magnificent red, black and gold trappings used for state occasions. The horse was unused to such ceremony, snorting and prancing as the trumpets blared and drums thundered. Yet the King kept him under control, forcing the stallion, like so many other things, to bend to his will.
Behind him Ariashal rode in her little wagon, the children by her side. Adzuphel and the rest of the King's men did not accompany them; they were busily arranging the layout of the camp. Following her were more troops, and one last band of drummers. The people who lived in and around the castle were awestruck by the spectacle that paraded before them. And truth to tell, Ariashal could not ever recall witnessing an entry to the castle as grand as this.
Once inside the walls, they made their way to the old keep. It had recently been reinforced, erasing some of the familiar features which Ariashal recalled from her residence here. She was surprised to see that her brother was not outside to greet them. Such a serious breach of etiquette would not impress the King favorably.
They dismounted at a new door, heavily reinforced with iron. The local guards quickly cleared the way for them. The interior of the castle was in poorer condition than Ariashal remembered: tapestries, worn and dirty, hung against the walls; aging carpets covered the floors. Most of the furniture was heavy, and showed considerable use. She did not recall it looking quite so shabby when she lived here. The children were disturbed by the rundown condition of the place, and she found herself silently agreeing with them. Carn Dum this was not.
Her brother awaited them in the hall where she had signed her marriage contract on that long-ago spring day. He was sitting on their father's throne, surrounded by his guards and members of his court. Every man was dressed in depressingly gray tunics, with little ornamentation. Even Ferion wore a simple brown and gray tunic, although he at least wore the crown of Rhudaur. Ariashal searched in vain for a recognizable face, someone she knew from long ago. There was no one. Even Ferion was a stranger now: his face was weathered and hard, beard and hair streaked with gray. She felt a slight tinge of pride that her hair was still dark and her face unlined. She had not aged as badly as her brother.
The King had insisted on being accompanied by his household guards, and in their red and black tabards they made a sharp contrast to the scruffier Rhudaurians. She could not help but notice that no one here wore anything even as remotely elegant as her gowns; the women were in their best, which was little more than plain cloth trimmed with fur. Had it always been this way, she wondered, or had the constant wars with Cardolan finally brought them to this low?
Ferion stood to greet them. "Welcome to my home."
"The King of Rhudaur is most gracious."
"We will see to your comfort while you are with us." Ferion's smile was cold. "It pleases me to again have my fair sister at my court."
"It is good to see you, my brother." She hoped she sounded sincere.
"We have prepared chambers for you while you stay with us. I trust that you will find them adequate. Your men may camp on our fields. There are many things which we must discuss, but first you will no doubt wish to rest after your long journey."
"The King of Rhudaur is most kind."
"My men will lead you to your rooms." Ferion smiled again, his face crinkling. "And now, if I may, I would beg a boon of Angmar."
"Say your piece."
"I would very much like to take my sister to the tomb of our father."
"If she so desires, she may accompany you."
"Good. Will you come with me, my sister?"
Ariashal drew a deep breath. "I would like to see his tomb."
"Very well." Ferion stepped from his throne. "Come with me now, and see where our father was laid to rest."
Gingerly she took his hand and followed him from the hall. She longed to look back at her husband, but etiquette forbade it. Instead she fixed her eyes on the guards' backs as they headed for the tomb.
They made their way through the halls of the old castle. She saw that some of the walls had been recently rebuilt; the new stone did not match the old. Extra battlements had been added, as well as a new tower and reinforcing partition walls. Many guards and soldiers milled around the larger rooms, some idly playing at dice, others lounging about on the old furniture. Ferion explained their presence by saying only that he wanted to be well-prepared, for his enemies had grown strong.
He led her out into a sheltered garden, a place where they had played as children. Ariashal had loved the garden as a girl; there were many plants trimmed into the shape of animals here, and a meandering paved path wound among the trees. The garden was now overgrown, the topiari animals neglected; weeds outnumbered flowers in the beds. Overhead the trees grew so close together that they made a living canopy. Little sunlight reached the red-paved pathways.
They crossed the garden, coming to a gate set in the wall. On the other side was a long, narrow passageway, open on one side to a brackish pond. At the end of the passageway was a door, guarded by a pair of soldiers. They saluted as Ferion drew close. One produced a key and unlocked the door. Ferion opened this door and ushered Ariashal inside.
Shafts of light filtered through clerestory windows, landing here and there on the occupants of the tombs. She knew that the corpses were in here; she had been here herself many times, when her brothers and nephews were laid to rest. But it was unsettling to walk here again, to see her mother's body laid on its cold stone bed, to see the still, small children and the rotted old men. Ferion led her to one side, where the most recent burials had taken place. She recognized the woman Ferion had married, dead now for a dozen years, her dark hair still bundled into tight braids. And she recognized the stern face of her father, his beard full and gray.
"I have seen enough," she said after a few moments. "He is at rest now. I would like to return to my husband."
"Your husband." Ferion laughed, a little; an ugly sound among the dead.
"Yes, my husband."
"Your husband." Ferion stalked towards her. "Do you know what your husband is?"
"He is King of Angmar," she said, annoyed.
"Ohh, no, he is far more than that!" Ferion shot her a malicious grin. "Father told me all about him, just before he died."
"What are you talking about? I knew he was a sorcerer when I married him!"
"A sorcerer! Is that all you think he is? He is a Nazgul!"
"A Nazgul. A ringwraith."
"I know what the word means! They were in the stories Nanna told when we were little."
"Oh, yes, they were. And he--your husband-- is their leader!"
Now she was angry. "Do not be ridiculous. They were destroyed when Sauron fell. He is a powerful sorcerer, and a great warrior, and nothing more."
"How stupid you are!" He laughed again, and she felt a sudden chill. "Father learned who he was just before agreeing to marry you off to him. He hoped that your curse would actually work to his advantage this time. He hoped that you would manage to kill the Nazgul, and we could claim all his lands for ourselves."
"What?" Ariashal stared at him, furious. "Do you mean to tell me that I was married off so that my husband would die?"
"Everyone else you married died! We had no reason to believe this would be any different. But he is much more resilient than we expected. He should have been dead many times over by now. Somehow your curse has not worked on him."
"There is no curse!"
"You know you do not believe that."
She managed to hold his gaze. "He is no Nazgul."
"And how do you explain that army of the dead he sent through here?"
"They attacked him. They got what they deserved."
"Do you not see? What normal man would do that?"
"He is normal! He does not breathe fire when he speaks. I have never frozen at his touch. He has not slain me with his breath."
"Normal! Normal men do not speak with wolves and orcs."
"Normal men do not send their daughters off to slay their husbands!"
"Listen, fool," hissed Ferion, grabbing at her. "He cannot be killed by any man. You are no man. You can kill him!"
She pulled away from him. "You are mad! You cannot stand to see me happy, so you have concocted these lies. I will leave you now, and I will not come near you again!"
"Have you ever seen his face?"
Ariashal kept her back to him.
"You have not, have you? And his friends. There are eight, are there not? You have never seen their faces, either."
"What of it?"
"You cannot see the Nazgul."
"That means nothing. He has other friends whose faces I know well."
"He wears a ring that he never removes."
"So do many men." She headed for the door.
"But many men have names that can be spoken."
Once again she stopped. "What makes you believe this nonsense?"
"A gentleman in black came to see our father long ago," he began. "He told him that if we allied ourselves with Angmar, many good things would come our way. He came from Dol Guldur, where the Nazgul live."
She laughed now, louder than was necessary. "Dol Guldur? That there are Nazgul living there makes you believe that I have married their leader?"
"He told father that their leader lived at Carn Dum. Father came up with the plan of having you work your curse upon him."
"Who else has heard this nonsense?"
"No one. Just you, father, and I. It is too dangerous to speak of it openly!"
"Of course it is. They would take you for a madman, and you would spend the rest of your days locked away in chains!"
"Do not mock me, Ariashal! You have allied yourself with the most evil thing in all Middle- Earth. When you slay him, you will strike a blow for all the free people!"
"Free? How are they free? With you as their king, they will not be free. And who is more evil, the man I married or the man who would have me kill him?"
"You have fallen to his spells!" Ferion made a quick move, as though he wanted to seize her; but she managed to pull away. "You see? You are as evil as he!"
"I? I am evil? You would have me slay my husband, the father of my children, and I am evil?" Furious, she stalked out of the tomb, slamming the door behind her.
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