Fairer Than Ivory, Silver, or Pearls
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Cursed Queen of Angmar, The: 29. Khamul
The search for Ferion continued unabated. Agents of the King went from house to house, searching every place where the missing prince might hide. They found some caches of food, a few mad relatives, and some escaped slaves; but of the runaway prince there was no sign. The searchers fanned out into the countryside, looking in barns and wells, mines and mills. A few of his supporters were discovered, lurking in an abandoned barn. They were brought to swift justice. But Ferion himself eluded them.
Ariashal tried to concentrate on her father's handwriting and not on the continuing menace of her brother. Most of his accounts were in reasonable condition, which meant that it was possible to trace the payments listed. But Ferion's accounts were an entirely different matter. There was a disturbingly large amount set aside for "exigencies", which she took to mean bribes. The King concurred. "Your father was a shrewder judge of the situations in of Cardolan than Ferion ever hoped to be. He knew he could only deal with them by force."
"Why, then, did Ferion try to buy them?"
"Because he is a coward, my queen. He knew he could not best them in battle, and so he sought to bring them to his side in a war against me. But as you have seen yourself, the Cardolani are only too willing to let him bear the brunt of any such action."
"Perhaps he is hiding within Cardolan now."
"That would seem likeliest. Cardolan does not want me as a neighbor, certainly not as a neighbor in residence. They will be much happier when we return to Carn Dum."
A thought came to her. "Perhaps you should make such an offer to them. Tell them you will retreat to Carn Dum, in exchange for Ferion."
He tapped the table. "There is merit in your idea. I fear, though, that the King of Cardolan is not the one sheltering Ferion, and so would be of limited use. And I do not want to encourage any beliefs amongst the Cardolani that we can be so easily persuaded. Still, it might be a good trinket to dangle before them. Let us think on it tonight."
That evening there was some real entertainment: some of the soldiers, skilled at juggling, put together a clever, diverting act for the Royal family. Imrahil was well enough to attend, and he was thrilled to be free of his room. He was also thrilled that his mother had kept her word, and spoken to the women of the court: no young ladies even looked at him.
Once they were alone in their rooms, Ariashal settled down to embroider. The King had a late meeting with Adzuphel concerning reports from the scouts, and she did not wish to intrude. From what she heard she gathered that there was still no sign of Ferion, even though their scouts had covered a considerable amount of ground in the hunt.
There was a knock at the door. "Enter," said the King, not looking up from his reports.
Herumor slipped into the room. "My lord," he said, in a voice so low Ariashal could barely hear him, "Khamul has arrived."
"Khamul?" The King did not sound pleased.
"Yes. He flew his beast to the very top of the keep. I told him that you did not wish for the beasts to be here, and he laughed. He said he will see you now, before you retire."
"That is not what I said."
Ariashal looked up.
Next to Herumor stood what she guessed was Khamul. He was robed in black, as were the others. But while he was not nearly as tall as Herumor, he was considerably more heavily built. She could not help noticing the long, curved sword he wore, nor the armored gauntlets that glinted dully in the light.
"I think I had best retire," said Adzuphel.
"You do that, little mortal," said Khamul.
"You will not order my men about." The King's voice was firm. "Adzuphel, you may be dismissed, if you wish. Otherwise I have no objection to your presence."
"I--no, my King, I think it best that I go."
"Very well. You may leave then, and we will speak again on the morrow."
Ariashal watched as Adzuphel disappeared out the door.
"So." Khamul strolled into the room. "You have come down in the world, my friend. There was a time when you would not have chosen so--rustic--a place."
"Do you have anything of import to say, or did you come this far to insult my house?"
"I came to see how you fare. Where is the woman?"
"My wife is here. Come, Ariashal, and meet Khamul, the Easterling."
Ariashal quickly went to her husband's side. "My lord Khamul," she said as graciously as possible, "I bid you welcome to Rhudaur."
"I did not ask her to speak. Have you never taught your women respect, Morgul-Lord? Or do you always let her speak?"
"Ariashal is my wife and queen. She is her own woman. We never were able to prevent you savages from treating women like chattel."
Khamul's eyes blazed into light. For a moment his fingers strayed to the hilt of his sword.
"Consider the King's reputation," warned Herumor. "You would not be the first of us to fall to him in combat."
Khamul glanced at Herumor, then released the sword.
"Why are you here, Khamul?" asked the King.
"I bring you a message. You are much missed by the Master. He would very much like to have you at his side."
The King was silent for a moment. "You have journeyed far, Khamul. There are rooms here where you may stay for a few days while I consider the answer I will give."
"Very well." Khamul's eyes had dulled to a red glow. "I accept your hospitality. We will speak again."
That night the King would not come to bed. Ariashal tried to coax him, but he refused. Obviously the arrival of Khamul bothered him, and he would not tell her why. She knew that he wanted nothing to do with Dol Guldur and its dark master. He must be trying to come up with a way of telling that to Khamul without provoking attack.
Finally she went to him, padding softly across the floor.
"You should be abed, my queen."
"As should you." She stood behind him. "You will need strength to deal with Khamul."
"Khamul is not at his best during the day. The sunlight blinds him."
"Perhaps that would be a good time to speak with him."
"Possibly, though his other senses are heightened."
"Why do you think he is here?"
"I do not know. But I want you to stay either with me, Herumor or the children at all times while he is here. And under no circumstance is Khamul to see the children."
She felt a sudden chill. "Do you think he would harm them?"
"I do not wish him to be given that chance." He gently kissed her hand. "You must rest, my queen. Khamul will be a difficult guest, and you will need your strength."
Khamul spent the next few days prowling about the castle. Ariashal stayed away from him, letting Herumor and her husband shepherd him about. She spent most of time in with the children, embroidering or reading to them. The King told Khamul that they were abed with the grippe, a common childhood illness. They were, he said, too ill for visitors. Their mother was supervising their convalescence. If Khamul suspected the ruse, he gave no sign.
She stayed until it was time for dinner, when Herumor took up the task. He seemed relieved to be in with the children instead of guiding Khamul.
"I hope they will not be difficult," she said, more as a warning to them than anything else.
"They are never tiresome," said Herumor. "I find their company a great relief after the cares of the day. Their questions are innocent."
She nodded and left, surrounded by guards. They did not make her feel secure.
Khamul had been there for several days when the first sure sighting of Ferion was reported.
Adzuphel sent word that he had some men who wished to see the King on urgent business. He questioned the men, and when he was satisfied that they were speaking the truth, he ushered them into the presence of the King.
Ariashal looked up from her transliteration. Five men, suntanned and strong, stood before the table; from their rough clothes and heavy builds she guessed they must be laborers. Adzuphel spoke first.
"Your Majesty," he began, "this is Ban, a master stonemason. He did much of the new work on this keep. He has some important news for Your Majesties."
"I see. Welcome, Master Ban. Tell me--what is this important news?"
Ban, the oldest of the men, shifted uneasily, "Well, Your Majesty, it was like this. See, I rebuilt all these walls here in the keep, and I saw the old King Ferion most every day. He was always wanting me to make things stronger, see.
"Anyways, this morning me and my boys was working on the little bridge what connects us to the road to Bree. And then I seen old King Ferion, big as day. Dressed like a huntsman, he was, him and five or six others. They was all headed for Bree, they was."
"You are sure of this?"
"Oh, yes sir, I am. I seen him near every day working on this here keep, and he didn't have the kind of face a man could forget easy."
"And they were on the road to Bree."
"Well, like I said, that was the way they was heading. Course they might have cut across country, or left the road. But that was what we all saw."
The King was silent for a moment. "You men have done well. It was good of you to come here. Take this." He pulled a small purse from his robe, and poured the contents onto the table. Coins, most of them gold, flowed out. "This should reward you well for your diligence."
"Thank you, Your Majesty." Ban the Stonemason carefully took the purse. He swept the coins back inside, and rejoined his fellows.
"Again, all of you have done well. Should you learn anything more, do not hesitate to come to me."
Adzuphel herded the men from the room.
"He is closer than I thought," said the King. "With some luck we will have him by morning."
The men had no sooner left than Khamul and Herumor entered the room.
"I could not help but overhear your conversation with your subjects," said Khamul smoothly. "While I am here, permit me to offer our help in locating your missing prince. Dol Guldur offers all of its powers, should you need them."
"I want nothing from Dol Guldur."
"Indeed. Your absence has been marked, my lord. And yours, too, Herumor Shadow-lord. There are some of us who know who our true master is, and where our loyalties best lie."
"Dol Guldur holds no charm for me," said Herumor.
"Nor am I overly enamored of it." The King's voice was hard. "As for true believers, it is my understanding that there are but two of you."
Khamul's eyes flared into bright flame. "We are the loyal, and the rewarded."
"Or the weak and unfortunate." Herumor drifted over, flanking the King.
"You grow bold here, Shadow-lord. Perhaps if you had shown some of that boldness in the past, you would not be so pathetic now."
"Silence, Khamul," warned the King. "Long have I enjoyed the absence of your voice and jealousy. You are here unbidden. If your only interest is to see how we fare, you have seen for yourself that all is well."
"Indeed. The former king runs freely across the lands, and yet you say all is well. I suppose that you would consider that an improvement over his unwanted company." Khamul sounded almost mischievous. "But let us not speak of such things now. The hour is late, and I must needs retire. Until tomorrow!" He left the room, Herumor following close at his heels.
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