Fairer Than Ivory, Silver, or Pearls
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Cursed Queen of Angmar, The: 28. The Elf Maid
For the next several days Imrahil was kept confined to the Royal apartments. The King ordered the rooms originally set aside for Ferion cleaned and repaired, making it suitable for the children. Furniture was removed from other rooms, until a reasonable collection was available.
The destruction of the tent meant that Herumor and Adzuphel were now also reassigned rooms in the main keep. Adzuphel was easily accommodated, but the Rhudaurians were unnerved by Herumor; they found his insistence on absolute silence and darkness in his quarters disquieting. There was the equally disturbing fact that he bore a strong resemblance to the King; they were never quite sure if they were dealing with Herumor or their master. Their confusion amused both Herumor and the King. The King, in particular, found their confusion even more useful with Herumor in the keep than when he was situated in the camp.
The only one not thrilled with the new arrangements was Imrahil. He was not permitted to go anywhere or do anything until his father was convinced that the wound had sufficiently healed. All he was allowed to do was read, do his lessons, or watch his brother practice swordplay.
There was another unfortunate side effect to the injury, at least as far as Imrahil was concerned. News of his valiant attempt to defend the camp while it was under attack spread throughout the castle. Soon various high ranking and notable persons from both Rhudaur and Angmar came to visit him, praising his bravery under fire. To Imrahil's horror, they also brought their daughters along to "visit".
To be sure, there was only so much the girls could do: they were confined to flirting and talk. Even that was too much for Imrahil. After one such encounter with a particularly obnoxious Rhudaurian woman and her stupid daughter, he complained to his mother.
"Why will they not leave me alone?"
Ariashal forced back a smile. "I think they all want to show you how brave they think you are."
"But--they are girls!"
Ariashal could not suppress a smile. "I think, my prince, that there may yet come a day when you will not mind that so much. But if they are really so bothersome, I will order the guards to admit no one."
Imrahil thought for a moment. "No, I guess they can still come. But do they have to act like girls?"
"I will speak to them," she assured her son. "I will tell them not to be so--girly."
Imrahil managed a smile. "I think I would like that."
She gave him a gentle kiss. "I will speak with them. There is no reason for you to be unhappy."
She met Herumor outside the children's room. He had a small collection of books in one hand. "Good day! Are those for the children?"
"They are for Prince Imrahil. He is chafing at his confinement, and I thought that some stories of adventure might be more palatable to him than his usual lessons."
She laughed. "I think so, so long as they do not involve girls!"
"He has been beset by them of late," agreed Herumor. "He is not of an age where their company is desirable. I think Adrahil may be showing an interest, but not Imrahil."
"You do care deeply for them."
Herumor hesitated. "I--I do not have any children of my own, madame. And to speak the sooth, I see a great deal of the King in all his children."
"You can see my children?"
"I seem them as pale ghosts, madame. They are visible to me, but only just. I know that they cannot see me. But they do recall their father at that age. Prince Imrahil is much as he was."
"You knew the King when he was a boy?"
"Well, madame, we are cousins. His mother was my father's sister."
Ariashal's mind reeled. How Sauron must have delighted in capturing two men from the Numenorean royal family!
"If I may take your leave, madame, the prince awaits me. And I do not like to speak of such things openly."
"Of course. If you should decide to tell me more of the King, I will be in my rooms."
Herumor silently slipped through the door.
Later, back in her own room, Ariashal settled down to embroider leaves on one of Zimraphel's chemises. Zimraphel had decided of late that she wished to be an entwife, and so Ariashal chose to humor her by dressing her in green. The leaves would please her.
Lately she had not had much time for such pursuits. The King had required her help to decipher her father's cryptic handwriting. The archives were being searched, in hopes of unearthing more information about Ferion's investments in war machines. It did not surprise her that her father had wanted to do what Ferion had done. She knew how greatly Turabar coveted land.
But it was disquieting to see the correspondence concerning herself. Reams of letters from every conceivable Dunedain and Mannish land were here, all discussing her future. She had never even heard of half of these places, and some that she did recognize were far away. The tone of the letters ran from polite refusals to outright insults. The King of Gondor would not waste his son on a cursed woman. Neither would the rulers of Dol Amroth, Ithilien, Umbar, Harad--the list seemed never-ending.
She tried not to let the old letters bother her, but the King had seen her discomfort and released her for the day. Ariashal was only too glad to be free of the musty archives, of the memory of her father.
Angry, she stabbed the needle through the cloth. Of all the places her father had contacted, Gondor would have been by far the worst. She knew what would have happened. She would have arrived, the Poor Relation, to the ostentatiously welcoming arms of her southern saviors. Everyone would have fussed over her, openly pitying her for hailing from so miserable a place. And then once the doors were closed, she would be discussed with ridicule and scorn. Her Gondorian husband would be like all the others: too busy for her, too important for her, even--the thought made her swallow hard--even believing himself too good for her.
Though they did not know it, and certainly did not wish it, they had all done her a great favor by spurning her father's offers. Life in Fornost or Minas Tirith with an indifferent Dunedain prince? Compared to life in Carn Dum with the King? The choice was all too easy, even if it was not one her reluctant suitors would understand.
Someone entered the room. She laid aside her embroidery and went to see who had arrived. It was too early for the King; he still had counselors to meet. Perhaps it was one of the children.
Herumor stood just inside the door.
"Oh! I was not expecting you."
"If I am intruding, I can leave."
"No! No, not at all. You are always welcome here."
He quietly shut the door behind him. "I--I do not like discussing our--matters--openly, madame. I find the idea of speaking with--outsiders--difficult."
"I understand." She settled into a chair. "Please, my lord. Sit and speak with me."
He hesitantly picked one of the chairs. "I--do not know how much you have been told, madame."
"Not much, my lord. I know only what you are called, and who has--enslaved you."
She caught a glimpse of the reddish glow beneath the hood.
"Slavery is too kind a term."
"I do not wish to upset you," she said, hurriedly. "You said that you knew the King when he was a boy. What was he like?"
The change of subject seemed to relax him; at least, the glow was gone. "Well, he was, as I said, much like his own children. He was tall and brave like Imrahil, a strong fighter like Adrahil, a scholar like Zimraphel. He was the bane of his parents; they could not keep him from the sorcery which they sometimes feared. It angered his father that he preferred sorcery to the sea. His sister wanted, very badly, to give him the scepter; but their father would not hear of it. And, to say the sooth, I do not know if things would have been better if he had relented."
"Why? Do you think he was not fit to rule Numenor?"
"No, not at all. He would have been a great king. At least his son inherited the scepter, though at the end they were bitter enemies.
"But if there was anyone who must hold his--position, it is best that he does so. For Khamul is the most--loyal--to the Master. And he is quite ruthless. I would not want to have to answer to him, not as my liege lord."
"Why do you not use the King's name?"
"Why? Because it is bound to the ring. Speaking it only increases the ring's hold. By not giving him a new name, the Master has found a check on his power. I promise you that he holds no love for the Master."
"Did you spend much time with him when you were young?"
"We lived at the palace, yes; but I am older than he is, and so I watched him grow. I could see him chafe at the restrictions his father placed on the sorcery. And I could watch while he bested those who chose to spar with him. At the dances and feasts he was always surrounded by people, all of whom expected that his father would relent and he would be king. They wanted to be his friends, you see, so that when he was crowned they would all reap the benefits. But he saw through them. He had a rather disconcerting habit of gazing at those who displeased him, and the power of that gaze was enough to drive even the most aggressive position-seeker away.
"You see, madam, none of his children have inherited his eyes."
"He says they are silver, like the moon."
"Yes, madame, but that does not do them justice. I have never seen anyone with such eyes. It could be quite unnerving to have to hold his gaze, even when there was nothing at stake."
"Is it still?"
"Unnerving? Yes, I suppose. He appears to me much as he did long ago. But he reserves those looks for others. Long has it been since I have been the recipient of one of those gazes!"
"I see." Ariashal stood up. "I must apologize for my hospitality! Would you like some brandy?"
"Aye, madame, that would be comforting."
Swiftly she filled the goblets and brought them back.
"I thank you, madame." Herumor gracefully took the silver vessel from her. "I am fond of brandy."
"So am I." She sipped a little before setting the goblet down. "Did you start a kingdom here, too?"
"Not at first." He took a long sip. "I was originally to help your husband build his own. But he thought that I should have a kingdom for myself. As he put it, there was so much open land, and all of it was waiting to be civilized. So I soon gathered a small force, and rode south into the wilderness."
"And found it full of savages."
"Yes, savages there were. But there were also Elves in the woods."
"Aye, madame, a small settlement of Elves. They live lightly upon the land, you see; it can be hard to find traces of their homes. They had come because of the Numenorean intrusions. Mostly they came for trade, but I suspect not a little curiosity was involved. They visited a great deal, in the early days. And they advised us as we built a fortress, homes, a kingdom."
He took another long sip of the brandy. "It was not as spectacular a kingdom as your husband's, but I was proud enough of it. We had managed to pacify the Mannish tribe that lived in the valley, and brought them into our kingdom. All was going well."
She sipped from her goblet, expectant.
"A kingdom has many needs, madame. You know many of them yourself. And the most important thing for a ruler to do is to secure the succession. And in this I was a failure, for I had not married."
"Because I had fallen in love."
"How was this an obstacle? Surely as king you would have ennobled any woman you chose to marry!"
"She was no ordinary woman, my queen. She was an elf." He twirled the empty goblet between his fingers.
"I--yes, I think so."
She carefully refilled the goblet. "Why could you not marry the elf? Numenoreans are half- eleven, are they not?"
"We are. But most elves frown on such unions, for the years of men are few, while elves are immortal. Her father, and her family, did not want her to endure the heartache of my death. I might be long-lived, but even the long years of a Numenorean are as nothing to an elf. And so I began a desperate search for something which would prolong my life.
"I sent to your husband, asking if he knew of a spell or a device by which I might be made immortal. He knew of nothing that would help me. And then the Master came."
He took another long draught from the goblet.
"Did he come to you as an elf?"
"As He did your husband? No. He came to me as a Maia. He told me that He had heard of my plight, and that He wished to aid me in any way He could. He told me that He held an Elven Ring of Power, and that if I chose to use it I, too, would be immortal.
"You must understand me, madame. I was suspicious of Him; why, I asked, would one of the Maia offer this gift to me? He said that He was my friend, and that I could trust Him. He knew the young lady in question, and knew she desperately wished to be my wife, despite the objections of her father. But I must not speak to her of Him; she must not know of His existence.
"I managed to steal away and meet my lady in private. She wished to marry, and indeed wished to consummate it at once, beneath the trees. But I feared that her father might use this as an excuse to attack me. And I did not want her to be estranged from her family, since we both knew she would greatly outlive me.
"So I told her that someone had offered me a magic ring.
"She grew quiet at this, then angry. Was it not enough, she said, that she loved me? Why did I need this ring? She remounted her horse and rode away, leaving me confused.
"That night He came to me again. He said He had seen the two of us together. And He knew why she grew angry about the ring. It had been made for Elves, you see, so the idea of a Man wearing it upset her. But once she found that it prolonged my life, all would be well. And her father would approve, too. For it would be by Elven work that this was made possible. I would be using their own work to obtain what they had as a birthright. What could they object to? He was only speaking as my friend. He only wished to help.
"I thought about it for days. The longer I thought on it, the angrier I grew. Why should the elves deny me? I was a king. With this ring, I would be immortal, and they could no longer say that I was inferior for suffering mortality. Their daughter would not have to endure loss or grief; I would not die."
He slowly twirled the goblet. "And He was now my advisor and friend. He came to me daily, helping with my counselors and advising me on the best course of action to take. At His urging I began to wear the ring to my meetings with the counselors, and I was able to perceive who spoke truthfully and who did not.
"And I saw that, regardless of what they said in my presence, many of them did not discount the notion of seizing the elf lady by force for me. They resented the Elves, resented their immortality, their abilities, even, I think, their beauty. And while I admit harboring some resentment against them, I did not think it entirely my place to attempt to redo what the Valar had done.
"But my Maia friend told me that I should really go and see the lady. I should take her in my arms, and speak with her, as she herself wanted me to do. For did she not beg me to consummate our union? Did she not wish us to be made one flesh? I was not only denying myself, I was denying her as well.
"The more I thought on it, the more I knew He was in the right. She did want me; she did long for me; I did need a queen. All I had to do was claim the ring as my own, and all would be well."
Ariashal poured herself some more brandy. "Would you care for more?"
"I--yes, I suspect that would be wise."
"You do not need to continue, if you do not wish." She carefully refilled his goblet.
"Nay, madame. It has been a long time since I have spoken of this, though I think of it daily." He studied the goblet. "This is my penance, to think on this daily."
She settled back into her chair.
"I finally decided I would, indeed, claim the ring as mine. I told some of my close advisors that I was going to try and retrieve my bride, while I could. I left my city and rode to the elves."
He stopped, staring down into the brandy. "I--I met Him there, in a clearing. He told me the elves were aware of us, and suspicious about my motives. But if, He said, I claimed the ring, I would be invisible to them, and I could freely walk among them until I found my lady.
"And so I put it on, and spoke my name."
He swallowed, hard; she could hear that his voice was close to breaking. "I--I felt as if my heart was ripped free of my body. I did not know what had happened. But He told me that all was well, that what I felt was the effect of the spell which would make me invisible. I knew only a little sorcery, not nearly as much as I know now, and so I believed Him.
"I--I went into their village of trees, and there I espied her, sitting alone by a stream. I came up behind her, and whispered that she must follow. She could not see me; I think she thought it was a trick. But she did follow my voice. I led her away from the others, to a quiet glade where we had often spoken. There I revealed myself to her.
"She was horrified. She hated that I had claimed the ring, saying I had damned myself for nothing. She said she knew what the ring was, and that it should be destroyed.
"That made me angry, in a way in which I had never felt anger before. Had she tricked me? I demanded that she tell me what she knew about the ring, but she would not. All she did was try to escape, crying, calling me evil.
"I told her I had claimed it for her, that I loved her, that this way we could stay together; but she would not hear of it. She said I had betrayed her. How? How could I do so, when all I did was for love of her?"
Herumor set the goblet down.
"I grew so angry with her." His voice was barely above a whisper. "I did something then that I would never have done before. I--I flung her to the ground, and there I forced myself upon her."
Ariashal kept her silence.
"Do you know--do you understand--what that will do to an elf?" He reclaimed the goblet. "I watched her eyes. She would not look at me. She stared into the distance, and then she--she died. They cannot stand grief, and certainly not the grief that comes when such a thing is inflicted upon them. She died with me still over her, with me still demanding that she love me."
He drained the goblet.
"My Maia advisor appeared, out of nowhere. He said that she would have betrayed me, that I could not trust her. And I had to leave, now, lest her family find her. And so I buried her beneath a few rocks, where she would not be found for some days.
"He told me that, if I followed him, He would help me find a way to revive her. And like a fool I believed. At that moment I would have done anything. And so He told me that, if I bound myself to Him, I would be helped. All I need do was bind myself to Him, my kingdom to the worship of Him.
"I do not need to tell you the rest."
For several moments they sat in silence while she groped for the right thing to say. No matter what she said or did, it would be hopelessly inadequate. But she knew she must try. "I do not know what to say."
"Say, madame? There is nothing you can say!"
"But, my lord," she soothed, "I know you. And I know you would not have deliberately harmed her. It was--the other who made you do this thing."
"That is what I have told myself every day since. And it does not help overmuch to know that my weakness and jealousy destroyed the fairest creature I have ever beheld. If I had been strong, she would have lived, and I would have died, all in the natural order of things. But she is dead, and I am unnaturally alive. And never can I forget that."
He stood to go. "I am sorry to have bothered you, madame. I know that your own troubles are here and now, while mine are long past."
"If you are still troubled, it is due to a wound that has never healed."
"Nay, madame. This will never heal, nor should it." He sighed. "The King is most fortunate to have you, for you are ever willing to listen without passing judgement. Long has it been since I have spoken freely with one who did not fear me."
"I do not fear any of you."
"That is only because you have not dealt with all of us. I promise you that Khamul is no friend to your husband. If he could, Khamul would kill him for the title of Lord. Fuinor is not a friendly man, either. Gothmog and the others--they depend on our lord for guidance and protection. Should anything befall him, I fear what we would become."
"But your master--"
"He lives, yes, and so long as He lives, He has some control over us. But the farther we are from Him, the weaker He is. He cannot easily reach over mountains." Herumor opened the door. "I will go and see how Imrahil is coming with his reading. I thank you again, madame, for having the patience to listen to me."
"I am always ready to lend an ear to those in need."
"Yes," he said quietly, "and to those whose needs are greatest. Good evening, madame."
Ariashal could not escape Herumor's story. For a long while after he left she sat by the window, embroidery in hand, staring out over the distant fields. She could see the empty area where the great tent had stood; all the debris had been cleared away. There was nothing to show that the tent had ever been: only charred earth and some ash remained.
And so, she thought, it was with Herumor.
All that was left of him was a charred soul, living vicariously through her and the King, forever repentant, forever unable to be more than a shadow. The King's desire to be a good ruler, and his pride in his strength, had brought him down; Herumor had fallen because of love. What, she wondered, were the stories of the others? Had they all had virtues perverted into damnation?
"You are lost in thought."
Startled, she turned to see the King standing behind her. "I--I did not hear you enter."
"I was quiet, for I thought you might be resting after this morning." He settled next to her. "I will need to beg a boon of you later, my queen. We have found more of your father's papers, and these seem even more indecipherable than the last."
"Of course." She set aside her embroidery. "Shall we go to work now?"
"Now?" He chuckled. "Nay, my queen, I wish to be with you first."
She let him hold her, let him kiss her, let him nuzzle at her neck. He suddenly stopped.
"Your mind is elsewhere."
"I--" there was no way to escape him; he knew her too well. "I was thinking of Herumor."
"Herumor! Have I now a rival for your affections?"
"What? No! Never!" She clung to him, burying her head against his chest. "No, my lord."
She caught the slightest sound of mirth, the barest whisper of a laugh.
"Herumor spoke with me, and told me much of his tale."
"I see." He took her hands in his. "I think that is only what a lady says when she wishes to hide the truth from her husband."
There was no mistaking the mocking tone now. "Perhaps you have been too involved with accounts, so that I must seek company elsewhere."
"Ha! I knew I would get the truth from you!"
This time she eagerly returned his kiss.
Afterwards, stretched across the great bed, her mind again turned to Herumor. She propped herself up on pillows, the better to speak. "My lord, what do you know of Herumor?"
"What do I know of him, or what do I know of what he did?"
"Well, madame, as I am certain he enlightened you, we are cousins. I am also certain he regaled you with tales of my misspent youth. But I do not think that those are the things which trouble you."
"No, my lord."
"You are curious about the elf."
"Yes." She laid one had on his chest.
"She was not a happy queen."
"What?" She sat up, startled. "I though she died!"
"Indeed she did, for that is the way of elves. They do not suffer torture or rape well. But the pact was kept."
"You mean--He revived her?"
"Oh, yes. And no elf likes being brought back from the Halls of Mandos. She spent many years longing for the sea. Herumor had his elf, but he had only her body; she was no better than a sad, walking corpse."
"He never mentioned that."
"I am not surprised. He has never forgiven himself."
"What happened to her?"
"One night she simply left. He believed she left for the sea. All I know is that she was no queen to him; I do not think they even consummated the marriage. I think the knowledge that she was the cause of Herumor dedicating his entire kingdom to evil did little to ease her pain. For I do believe that, when first they met, she did indeed love him.
"But by the time she left, Herumor was almost completely under His sway. She was nothing to him any longer, not even so much as a name. Everything he had, he gave to his Master."
"And all for her," whispered Ariashal.
"We all were the instruments of our damnation, madame. For he offered us all that which we wanted most, and we took it. And for that we have paid the price. As I have told you. I fought. I fight still. And, truthfully, I do not know many men who would have been able to resist what was offered Herumor."
He was silent a moment. "I would sooner slay you with my own hand than see you submit to Him. For I do not think I could bear having you taken by Him." He pulled her close, hugging her tight against his chest. "Nay, my lady queen," he whispered, "I know I could not."
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