Fairer Than Ivory, Silver, or Pearls
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Cursed Queen of Angmar, The: 25. Black Opal
Ariashal was distraught. No; she was beyond distraught, beyond frightened, beyond--what? She did not know. She simply clung to her husband, and waited for news of her brother's capture.
Comfort was what she sorely needed; and comfort was the one thing which she could not easily receive. Because of the gravity of the situation, the King was constantly in public; and as Queen she must maintain a certain air of strength, no matter how dreadful the day's events. In this she was helped immeasurably by the King, who held her hand and never strayed from her side. Every now and then he whispered some reassuring words to her. Simply having him near made the day survivable.
At nightfall guards and watches were doubled. The King suspected that Ferion had gotten wind about why he was being sought, and had chosen to flee. Probably rumors had spread from the interrupted meeting, and some had reached Ferion in time for him to escape. This meant that all Rhudaurians were immediately suspect, for who else would warn him? No one from Angmar, certainly.
Ariashal wondered if the children might not be better off in the keep, near her and the King; but the King felt they were safer with Herumor. Bringing them in now would only tell Ferion that they feared him, and that was something which they must not do. If anyone should be afraid, it would be Ferion: with orcs, soldiers and wolves hunting him, he would not be free for long.
Somewhere around midnight the King finally suggested that they retire. There was nothing more they could do; and Ariashal was clearly at the end of her tether. She desperately needed rest, and she would not be able to relax without him.
Once they were alone she collapsed, exhausted, on the bed. She wanted to cry, but the tears stubbornly refused to come. The King sat beside her, gently stroking her shoulders.
"My men will find him," he soothed. "Ferion will not return to harm the children."
She burrowed deeper into the pillows.
"Ariashal, did you not hear me? Ferion will be found. I assure you, he has not gone far."
"It is not Ferion," she mumbled into the pillow.
"No? If not Ferion, then what? Was it the seance? I did not wish to frighten you, but I had to learn what Zimraphel saw."
At the thought of the seance the floodgates opened. Sobbing, she managed to pull away from the pillow. "Why?" she whimpered between sobs, "why?"
"Ferion wanted the throne. Tis not the first time a father has fallen to the ambitions of an amoral son."
"No." She shook her head. "No. I mean, why can I not see him? I am his daughter! Why is he denied me?"
The King drew a long breath. "That, I do not know. Certainly twas you he wished to speak with, not me. Zimraphel can see him, for she is a child. Most children can see them quite easily. That ours inherited my gift means that they will never lose the ability to do so.
"Most Men soon learn to not see them. Why this should be is something which I do not fully understand. Perhaps it is best for men not to see all those who have passed, mingling with those who have not."
"But he saw me!"
"Yes, he did. If he had not, I doubt he would have willingly told of Ferion's treachery. He now wishes only for vengeance. The supreme irony that I will be the instrument of his vengeance is not wasted on him. This was certainly not what he expected when he sent you to me."
She leaned against him. "He is my father. Did he have nothing to say to me? No message? Has he--has he even seen my mother?"
He sighed. "I know tis a hard thing for you to hear, my queen. But he wants only vengeance. Once he saw that you were at my side, he was satisfied. Of your mother he said nothing."
More tears ran down her face. "But he has--he has not seen my mother? Did she mean nothing to him?"
"Ariashal, she may not be here. She may have gone on. She died long before you had children. There is nothing to hold her here."
"But--but I was here! Did she stop caring for my father? Did she stop--did she stop caring for me?"
He slipped one arm around her, drawing her close. "I do not know. I could summon her and ask her, but I believe that she has long since left the Halls of Mandos and found peace. Her death was hard, for she died having your sister, did she not?"
"She--she died, and the baby died soon after. I was no older than Imrahil."
"I know. She needed a long time to rest, and she had much to reflect upon, before she could find peace and continue. Your father, though, will have no peace, and he will accept no peace, while Ferion walks among the living. His hatred for your brother is tying him here."
"He would rather stay and wait for Ferion to die than join my mother?"
"Vengeance. Vengeance and hate, which oftentimes are stronger together than love alone. And this craving for vengeance is the very thing which drives spirits mad. As I said, your father's vengeance will be served. For many more it never will, and thus they roam the world forever, lost and unable to rest."
She laid her head against his chest. Her mother, alone; her father, hungry for revenge--she was surrounded by ghosts, ghosts that were the true essence of emptiness. And here she was, safe and warm in the embrace of one called wraith.
Slowly she took his hand in hers. "My lord, there is something I must know."
"Why do you try to hide yourself from me?"
"I do not understand."
She closed her hands over the ring. "Why do you try to keep your true nature from me? My father knows, our children know; even Ferion, fool that he is, knows the truth. Why do you insist on trying to hide it from me?"
He drew a long breath. "Ariashal, there are some things which you are best not knowing."
"This is not one of them." She sat up, still holding the ring. "I have borne your children. I have tended your wounds. Do not tell me that I cannot know the truth about this ring."
"What? Do you think I will flee?"
He tried to hold his voice in check. "There are things which you should not understand."
"What things? My father was murdered by my brother. I waited alone, all night, fearing you had been slain in that tower. I drank a potion to prevent having another child for you. I have shed endless tears for your safety. Do you think you can tell me that I do not need to understand?"
He said nothing.
"Sauron is dead!" she cried. "He is--"
"Never say that name!" he snapped, crushing her hands in his. "Never! Do you understand? Spies are everywhere!"
"But he is dead!"
"No, Ariashal!" he hissed. "He is not dead. Even now He lurks in Dol Guldur!"
"Dol Guldur?" The full horror of what he said struck her, hard as any fist. "But my father--my father met with men from Dol Guldur!"
"And your father was deceived. We were all deceived. I wondered why your father approached me about an alliance. It was only recently that I learned the truth. I did not suspect such trickery behind the alliance, else I would not have made it."
"What? What are you saying? Do you regret marrying me?"
"No! No, Ariashal." He clutched her close to him. "No. Never, for one moment, have I regretted taking you as my wife. No. You do not know-- you do not know how much you mean to me."
She could feel him trembling as he held her. "My lord, then, what is it that you fear?"
For some time he did not answer. When at last he spoke, he was hushed. "I fear that the evil tendrils He sends from Dol Guldur will reach you."
"You do not fear for yourself?"
"Not in the way you may think."
"If I am found, if my enemies learn of my presence here, they will be relentless. Ferion must be silenced before he rouses all of Arthedain, or, worse, reaches Imladris. I promise you that they will not show me the mercy which is so oft attributed to them.
"Angmar is still too weak to contend with them, and should they unite all will be destroyed. I have labored too long and hard to lose all to the ravings of a displaced Dunedain king."
"You would receive no help from Dol Guldur?"
"No! I would sooner see all Angmar laid waste than permit Him to come to my aid!"
"I do not understand. I thought you were allies."
"No. Not allies."
He drew a long breath. "Ariashal, you are still innocent. Once you learn, you cannot unlearn. You are much better off naive."
"I do not think so." She pulled herself as close to his face as she could. "I know what you are. Yet I do not fear you. I will never betray you. I will defend you, no matter the cost. And you know how deeply I feel for you."
"Should He find you, that would not be enough to protect you. I will not be able to hold Him in check. He will crush me, and utterly pervert and destroy you."
"He has not done that to you."
"No? You see me now, Ariashal, twisted and broken from the years of thralldom to Him. You do not see the man I was, and can never be again. Even my name was taken from me, and bound into this ring. Against His power you would be helpless."
"But you have survived!"
"Only because I have fought Him, and passed His trials, and refused to break. I assure you, Ariashal, He has tried every trick, every torture, every test He can think of to defeat me. But I will not be broken. Not completely. He can take my name, He can force his will upon me, but now He is weak, and as long as I am able I will not concede to Him."
"How did this happen?" she asked. "How did you fall prey to Him?"
He sighed. "Do you truly wish to know? Do you truly want to know what happened?"
"Yes, my lord," she said, her heart pounding.
He hung his head. "Very well," he whispered. "I will tell you all."
For several moments he held her close, whispering in a language she did not understand. His voice rose and fell, and with each shift in volume she could feel a slight warmth swirling past. It was almost as though a heavy curtain was being woven around them, with the words of the spell the warp and weft of the fabric. After a few minutes he stopped.
"It is done," he said. "This will keep unwelcome listeners at bay."
She turned from him. They were surrounded by a shimmering sheet of yellow light, curving to follow the bed. He gently released her, settling back on the pillows.
"No one can hear us?"
"Not unless they wish to use powerful magic. And anything which could pierce this spell would be easily detected."
"I see." She crawled up next to him, laying her head on his shoulder.
"Do you still wish to know?"
"Yes, my lord."
For a few moments he nervously toyed with the fringe on one of the pillows. "I suppose I should start at the beginning. My father, you see, was King of Numenor."
She looked up at him. "Numenor?"
"Aye, madame, Numenor. When I was born, my mother named me for the moon, because she said my eyes were as like to the full moon as she had ever seen. However, my sister was born first, and so inherited the scepter; but she never wished to wield it, and longed to give it to me. But my father forbade that, saying that the laws must be upheld. And so she was prepared for the day when she would take the scepter.
"But I was not idle. My gifts were discovered early. Most of the kings of Numenor had some of the gift; we are descended from Elros, and the blood of the elves sometimes proves strong. And so it was with me. They sent for sorcerers to train me, but I soon outgrew them. Others came, I learned their secrets, and then they were replaced by others whose magic I was quick to master.
"My parents were afraid, a little, of my gift. It is not common for a Man to master these arts. It is not even common for elves to do so. To keep me from becoming too enamored of sorcery, they insisted on training me to bear arms and fight. They were overjoyed that I excelled at these as well. And my sister was well-pleased. She knew that eventually she would be handing the scepter to one who could wield it fearlessly, the way it was meant to be wielded. She it was who first called me Witch-King, saying that I would be the first Witch-King to rule Numenor.
"My father noticed that there were many in the court who followed me. He feared that I would attempt a coup and eliminate my sister. Truth to tell, I had no interest in removing her; while she prepared to rule I was free to pursue my studies. But my father's will was law, and he soon sent me here, to see if I could use magic to create a bastion of culture amongst the savages.
"We spent many years building a colonial kingdom for Numenor, doing what we could to control the wild and lawless men who made their homes here. My first Queen hated these lands, and as soon as our son was born she returned to the court of Numenor.
"And if I must say so, I did not miss her overmuch. She lacked the strength needed to be a great Queen. She was unhappy, she longed for her family, she wanted a life in a palace, not in a fortress full of men. If it had been permitted I would have willingly divorced her. But I could not, and so let her go. I regretted that she took our son; but my father wanted him in Numenor, where he would be safe from the more brutal elements of life here.
"And so, for some years, we made our fortresses and our homes here, bringing the men into our circle who could be civilized, warring against those who could not. Many of them spoke odd tongues, some of which held spells they did not know how to use. Unlocking the secrets hidden in their languages fascinated me, and I spent many long hours unearthing spells that had not been uttered in centuries.
"It was while I was studying some of these languages that the ring first came to me." He fell silent, as though the memory of that day was too much to bear.
"And?" she prompted.
He drew a long breath. "An elf prince rode into my city, with desperate news. We knew of the war between the elves and Sauron, although we were not entirely certain what was behind it. I was not pleased that my sister sent my son to represent Numenor, instead of asking me. By then she had adopted the boy, without my permission, and my feelings towards her were less than cordial.
"Anyway, I did not know this elf, but as I did not know all the elves in Middle Earth it did not seem too strange. He told me he had come from Celebrimbor himself, and at that I grew attentive. Celebrimbor was their greatest maker of wondrous things, and more than once he and I had corresponded over the creation of difficult and unusual enchanted items. He told me that before Celebrimbor fell to Sauron, he had given his greatest creation to the prince so that it could be hidden from the Dark Lord."
"And that was the ring."
"Nay, madame, twas not one ring, but sixteen; all of the Rings of Power Sauron and Celebrimbor made together. They had originally been meant for the elves, but when Sauron came to retrieve them they feared that they would fall into his hands. And so they had asked three of their princes to take the rings, and carry them to safety.
"So the prince offered me the most powerful of the sixteen. He wanted me to have it, because I was Numenorean, and a sorcerer. He would have preferred taking the rings to Numenor proper, but Sauron was watching too closely. And so it was decided to offer it to the strongest of the Men of Middle Earth.
"He told me that, since it had been made for an elf, it might have some properties which the lower Men could not control. But as Numenoreans are half-Elven, we could use it with care. He warned me that its powers were great, but if I used it wisely I could harness its strength to defeat Sauron and keep my kingdom safe. He also told me that it would permit me to become invisible, if I wished; it would grant me longer life; it would enhance the power of my spells. To truly use all its powers, I would need to claim it; but he warned me against doing so, unless the need was dire. All I would have to do to claim it was perform the ritual which he gave me, and to make certain that I spoke my name as I did so.
"He stayed less than a day before riding off. His mission was to place as many rings with as many different kingdoms as possible, to keep them all from falling into Sauron's hands. He was riding further south, another prince was going east, and the third was riding to the dwarves. This way, he said, the rings would forever be safe."
Slowly, silently, he pulled the gauntlets from his hands. "Give me your hand," he said.
Ariashal nervously held out her palm. A sudden weight landed there.
"That is my ring."
Cautiously, she studied it. Its gold shimmered brilliantly in the reflected yellow light of the magic curtain. Elegant, swirling beasts interlaced to form the band of the ring, finally ending in tiny heads whose mouths were opened wide to hold a single stone in place. The stone itself was a massive black cabochon, with patches of blue, green and red floating within. "What is the jewel?"
"A black opal. It is not the original stone."
She looked up. "What happened? Did you replace it?"
"No. Sauron replaced them. When they did not work as He wanted, He reclaimed the rings and replaced the original gems with ones He had enchanted. This opal is the replacement. What the original was, I do not know."
"But I thought you said that the ring was given to you to keep it from Sauron!"
"Indeed I did, for that was what I was told. What I did not know was that the elf prince who so carefully brought me this ring for safekeeping was none other than Sauron Himself."
"What? How--how could he do that?"
"He could take any form He chose, fair or fell. He knew that I would not willingly parlay with Him, and so He took a form which would allay my concerns. His story was plausible enough. And so, I believed Him."
She carefully turned the ring over. "Is it safe for you to be without this? I do not wish to cause you any harm."
He broke into laughter, a hard, mirthless sound that chilled her to the bone. "Nay, Ariashal, I can be parted from it for quite some time. My power may be diminished, but I am still bound to that ring. If I die, if I fall in battle, it matters not--I will return, for the ring lives. I am chained to that ring for all eternity!"
"That cannot be! How is such a thing possible?"
Again he drew a long breath. "After the-- prince-- left, I kept the ring as both a matter of honor and a subject of not a little curiosity. My new queen was intrigued by it, and liked that I would appear suddenly in her chambers. For her, and I, it was a trifling amusement.
"Came the day when word reached me that Sauron was marching on my borders. I could not have that, for I did not want Him to claim either the ring or my kingdom. I wore it into battle, and we easily drove His forces away. Twas the ring which brought the victory at so little cost to me, of that I was certain. And so I came to need it for battle, when its powers kept me from harm.
"And I noticed that my spells worked more effectively if I wore it when conjuring. Soon I was wearing it to do the most trivial of enchantments, for now they never failed. I carried it to council meetings, for it seemed that it gave me wisdom. If I swung a sword, it granted me strength. If I spoke to men, it made me compelling. It was the greatest gift I could have ever hoped to receive.
"Time and again Sauron's forces appeared at my borders, and every time they easily crumbled before me. Years passed, yet I did not age. I knew that the elves wished to preserve things as they were, and the ring obviously was meant to enhance that. What else it might do was a mystery to me, for if I were to unlock its full powers I must needs claim it. And that I was loath to do.
"One day word came that Sauron was again massing His forces. One by one the neighboring kingdoms had fallen to Him. This time, however, He was personally coming, and His main target was me. I knew that, if I wished to defeat Him, I had no choice but to claim the ring. Yet I was still apprehensive about doing so. It had been made for an elf, not a man; and while I might be Numenorean, there was still the chance that it would either kill me, or render me helpless. But I believed I could not lead my kingdom in battle without it, and I did not wish to leave my people undefended. And so I said good day to my queen and my sons, and rode out to a ridge, where I could perform the spell in secret.
"I never saw them again."
Once again he stopped, as though the pain of what had happened that day was still fresh and raw. Ariashal waited, expectant, knowing full well that her speaking would only make the pain worse for him.
"When I reached the ridge, I followed the directions given me so long before. I stripped away my clothes, I sliced open a vein to bathe the ring in my blood, and then I spoke the spell. And when I said my name--when I said my name I felt something rip away from me, as though my very heart was being torn from my body. The pain drove me to my knees, and I cried out in anguish. And the ring--the ring glowed, with the life it had taken from me. I collapsed, senseless, into the grass.
"When I awoke next I was with--Him."
"Sauron?" she whispered.
He nodded. "I was in a chamber. I ached, and felt sick, sicker than I had ever felt in my life. I despised my weakness, for it meant I could not fight whatever had taken me prisoner. I managed to stand, and to stagger to a bench. I still had no clothes, nothing-- save the ring. I was struggling to regain my strength when I heard a voice, a voice unlike any I had ever heard. I looked up to see who was speaking, and I nearly collapsed again.
"For He was not what you would expect, Ariashal. He was beautiful; with a beauty that surpassed that of any man, or woman, I had ever seen. And His voice--His voice was elegant and musical; when He spoke, it was as though He sang. He had yellow hair and tawny skin; to me He seemed a being made of living gold. He told me that He had watched me for some time, and now wanted to teach me sorcery greater than any ever wielded by Men.
"But first I would have to do things for Him.
"There was a cost, you see, for the ring was no gift. I would command His armies, I would rule His kingdoms, I would do His bidding at any time and in any manner in which He saw fit to demand. I could not deny Him. If I tried, then He brought the full power of His ring to bear on me. Before long I did what He wished, no matter how it affected me personally."
There was a new hardness in his voice, a tension which she had not heard before. Discussing his past was clearly not something he enjoyed doing.
"I learned many things in His library that He probably did not want me to know," the King continued, the hardness slowly growing more pronounced. "I learned of ways to hide from Him, although they never lasted very long. I searched for ways to be rid of Him, and when He found me out I paid for my insolence in ways you cannot imagine."
She studied him. For a moment she thought she saw a dull glow near his face. Impossible-- there was nothing in here to reflect a red light onto the black of his mask and robes.
"But He dared not kill me, nor even to completely break me. For He had done that with many of His other minions, and now they were not as useful as He had hoped. As for the other Nazgul, they are all weaker than I am. Together they are not as strong as I am alone. You see, Fuinor cannot not easily cloak his power. Khamul is blind in daylight. I do not have such limitations.
"It had taken Him a long time to get me to claim the ring, and now He did not want to lose me. It angered Him to be in that position, but it gave me some relief. He would not humiliate me before the others, less it impair my usefulness."
She had not been mistaken. A steady glow was forming on his face. It seemed almost to fall where his eyes would be, if she could but see them.
"But He did get his vengeance, in a way that has mattered more to me as time goes on," the King continued, his voice hard and flat. "For He renamed us. Since our own names were bound to the rings and thus could not be used by us, He gave us new ones. Khamul, Herumor, Fuinor, Gothmog--we all were given new names.
"All except me.
"He felt this was a sufficient punishment for being difficult. Names confer power. He wanted me to have less, not more. Without a name, I am only a being whose existence is limited. I am naught but a collection of titles, all searching for a name."
"That is why you cannot tell me your name." She looked up at him. "I thought it might have something to do with magic. I never thought it had been stolen from you."
"He has stolen many things from me."
Ariashal studied the ring. It seemed almost inconceivable that something so small, something so delicate, could contain so much anguish and power. Even the flashes of color within the opal seemed more beautiful than sinister. How could Sauron manage to pervert so lovely a stone? More important, why had it been so crucial for Him to take the King, and make him His own?
He looked down at her.
Gone was the familiar black hood and mask she knew so well. In its place she saw two glowing, seething red coals, where eyes would normally be. Hate, anger, pain--all radiated from the strange glowing orbs.
And for the first time in her marriage, she feared her husband.
"Your eyes!" she screamed, horrified. "They glow!" She fell back to the bed for safety.
"No!" he cried, and to her it seemed a cry of pain.
He turned away from her. Ariashal cautiously heaved herself up, careful not to touch him, or even speak. She could see that his head was bowed, his face buried in his hands. She could make out no sounds save the pounding of her own heart.
After a few moments she could bear it no longer. "My Lord," she began, "are you well?"
Slowly, almost hesitantly, he lifted his head. "I believe so," he said, voice barely above a whisper.
"What happened to your eyes?"
He turned back to her. Ariashal was relieved to see that the glow was gone.
"What happened?" he repeated, dully. "I grew angry, Ariashal. That is what happens when I grow angry. And the last thing I wish to do is to grow angry with you."
"It is all right," she soothed. "I was frightened for a moment, but now all is well."
Slowly he shook his head. "No, Ariashal, it is not all right. For when I am angry I am terrible to cross. And I promise you, nothing would please Him more than to know that I had harmed you."
"I do not fear you," she insisted, sliding close to him. "I fear for you."
"When He had his ring, He could use it to possess us. I had no control of what my body did. All I could do was watch, helplessly, out the window of my eyes while my body obeyed His commands. And then He would withdraw, leaving me alone to face what my corpse had done for Him."
Ariashal shuddered, wondering what it would be like to lose control of even the simplest of movements. No wonder he disliked being at a disadvantage, even in the most innocuous of settings.
And now he was under the control of the opal ring.
A sudden thought came to her as she beheld the golden ring. "My lord, I must ask you something."
"Are you--are you ashamed that you claimed the ring?"
"What? What makes you say that?" he snapped.
His tone told her all she needed to know. She had opened a wound that had never healed, could never be healed, and now the pain of her discovery was too much for him. "My lord, you cannot be blamed. You were trying to do--"
"I did not ask you for your opinion!" He snatched the ring away from her. "I will not discuss this with you any longer."
"Why not? Do you fear that I will think less of you for being duped?"
He pulled away from her, and for a moment she feared that the red glow would reappear. She could see that he was struggling to maintain some control, struggling to keep the war that had raged inside for so long from escaping. Something told her that she must not let him get away, must not let him try to win this argument. Stopping now would only make things worse later on. "My lord, I am not trying to ridicule you. You were tricked into claiming it. You would not have done so if you had known its true nature!"
"Ariashal," he began, his voice low. "I am a sorcerer. I should have known its true nature. But I believed Him, and now I am damned."
"No, my lord," she said, taking his hands. "So long as you are loved, you are not damned."
"You do not understand. Twas my pride that let me believe I could master this ring. And it is to my everlasting shame that I did not do so, and did not know I could not. Do you not see this?"
"Sauron deceived the Valar," she soothed. "You acted as a good king. And all good kings are proud, else they are too weak to govern their kingdom."
"Nay, my Queen. I am naught but a fool, and I have paid the price for my weakness a thousand times over. And I will continue to pay, until all Arda ceases to be."
"Nay, my Lord." She stood to face him. "Not a fool. Proud, and arrogant, but no fool. Never a fool."
He slid his hands around her, pulling her close. She could feel him trembling still, as though the strain of the last hour had completely overwhelmed him. As gently as she could Ariashal gathered his head against her breasts.
"See, my lord," she whispered. "I do love you. I will never leave you. And so long as you live, you may yet find a way to break free of the ring. I will do all I can to help you."
He shifted his head slightly. "When I took you as my queen, I had no idea what a source of strength you would prove to be."
She managed a slight smile. "But not love?"
"I told you. That is something of which I must never speak. And neither must you, once this curtain falls. Believe me, Ariashal, I do not think I could bear it should He manage to seize you."
"He has not done so yet, and He never will." She kissed him, slowly pushing him back onto the bed. "But now I see I must prove to you that my feelings are more than mere words."
For a moment he resisted, then drew her to him in a long embrace.
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