Fairer Than Ivory, Silver, or Pearls
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Cursed Queen of Angmar, The: 32. The Bell Wether
Ariashal watched while the King and Herumor ransacked Khamul's chambers.
There was the usual assortment of clothes--shirts, breeches, slippers--which the King finally decided should be given to some of the keep's poorer inhabitants. There were no weapons; Khamul always kept his sword and dagger close to hand. Herumor discovered some spectacular pendants. Massive settings, huge cabochon jewels, their heavy gold chains glinting in the light, they were typical of the adornment favored by the Easterlings. Ariashal was admiring them when her husband gave a little cry of victory.
She looked up. There, beneath the bedding, Khamul had hidden some papers.
The King brought them closer to the fire. Curious, Ariashal joined him and Herumor. What could Khamul have been writing?
To her surprise, the papers were covered in what seemed to be unintelligible squiggles. Herumor, too, seemed unhappy. "I do not know, my Lord," he began. "I always found their languages incomprehensible. And it seems to me that he has written much in a cipher."
"Yea," agreed the King. "Wisely, he tried to hide his trail. Yet he neglected to recall that such languages can be understood, once the necessary measures are applied."
He carefully carried the papers to the room's sole table. Ariashal watched as he smoothed the wrinkles from the pages, all the while half-humming, half-singing a rather tuneless song. She hoped that she would see some change in the text, but there was nothing that she could discern.
The King, though, had no such difficulty. "At last," he said, "we see what Khamul would report."
He ran a finger over the first block of writing. "Let us see. ‘The keep is old, and has been recently reinforced. Anything of value here is probably from Carn Dum.'"
"He was perceptive," said Herumor.
"Amazingly so, for a blind man."
"Khamul is blind?" Ariashal was startled.
"He can see virtually nothing in the light," began the King, "which is why he was shown about during the day. At night his vision is restored. But his other senses are quite strong. Here, he continues. ‘The deposed king is a problem and unless we find him first they will certainly kill him.'"
"So they do want Ferion." Ariashal clung to the King to steady herself.
"Aye, madame, but we already suspected that. Here is a list of the manufactures and shops in the keep--he has miscounted the smiths, I see--and a list of the Orcish companies that are camped here."
"We were constantly at his side," protested Herumor. "How could he glean so much?"
"He is observant, if not always entirely accurate." The King set the first page aside and began to read again. "Here is more. ‘The recent attack by Ferion's forces have all on alert, and infiltration will be highly difficult. Invasion is not advisable, as the land is poor and the people hostile.'"
"Invasion?" Herumor fingered his sword. "I should have slain him!"
"Nay, my Lord," said the King, "That was probably a signal much hoped for. Khamul's death would be an excuse for war, would it not? And we both know neither side is prepared for that."
"But what if they come anyway?" asked Ariashal. "What then?"
"Any army Dol Guldur could raise would be no match for what is already here," soothed the King. "And in any event, they would never be able to take this keep. Ferion at least spent wisely on that."
"Doubtless because he expected to have to defend against Your Majesty," said Herumor.
"All too true, I suspect," agreed the King. "Behold! Here he has mapped the keep, and yet I do not recall ever permitting him access to some of these rooms."
"Nor do I," said Herumor. "Perhaps he had an informant?"
"How?" asked Ariashal. "I thought you had him under constant watch!"
"We did, yet he found time and privacy enough to write this." The King turned the page. "Damnation!"
Ariashal looked up. The glow from his eyes was so vivid it reflected off the creamy surface of the parchment. "What is it, my Lord?"
He took a long breath. "‘Our assumption about the status of the queen is correct. She is never far from his side, nor can any evidence of discord between them be seen. I believe she loves him. I even suspect the feeling is mutual, which changes some of our plans. It now behooves us to keep her alive.'"
Ariashal clung ever tighter, burying her face on his sleeve.
"‘Of the children,'" continued the King, his voice growing even harder, "‘the eldest, Imrahil, is much like his father in build. Strong and serious, he was injured in the raid and was treated by his father. The second, Adrahil, is also strong, and stubborn; he will make a difficult adversary and must be approached carefully. The nephew and niece are young, and neither show much promise. The girl might make an acceptable vassal's bride.
"‘Princess Zimraphel, though, is much like her father. She will grow to be beautiful. She also has his talent, which the sons labor to learn. I have come to her nightly, for she thinks me a friendly shade, like her pathetic grandfather. She asks many questions, and I do not know how long I can keep the truth from her.
"‘Of all she will be best--suited--to our plans.'"
The King slammed his fist onto the table, shattering the wood.
"So that was how he learned so much," said Herumor.
"What do we do now?" Ariashal looked to the King. "If he knows the children--if he can reach them--"
"That, I will assure you, he cannot do again." The King sounded like raw steel.
"He could never assume shapes before," said Herumor. "Perhaps he had some device to help him? A gem, perhaps?"
The King turned to Ariashal. "Give me those jewels."
She gladly handed over the magnificent necklaces. For several minutes the King studied each of them, running his fingers over their polished surfaces. Finally he threw them to the floor.
"They are nought but jewels," he said, clearly disgusted with himself. "If he carried a device, he must have worn it at all times. Why did I not search him before sending him home?"
"You--you did not know," soothed Ariashal.
"Where would he obtain such a thing?" wondered Herumor. "Sauron has no form to wield the tools needed, and Fuinor has little skill at sorcery. Certainly the elves would not trade with him."
"I do not know," said the King. "Possibly--possibly some of the Istari would do so. Two went East, and they may well have dealt with Khamul."
"Istari?" protested Herumor. "They were sent to watch Sauron, not trade with him!"
"They are as corruptible as any," answered the King. "And we both well know what can happen in the East."
"True enough," sighed Herumor. "They worshiped us there."
"Yet the minds of the Easterlings are ever subtle." The King retrieved the papers. "I have no love for Khamul, yet this--this is exceedingly sloppy, and not what I would expect of him."
"What do you mean?" asked Ariashal.
He fingered the papers. "I think, my queen, that we were meant to find these."
"A warning?" said Herumor.
"I suspect so. He did not mean for us to find it quite so soon, but we were to discover it nonetheless."
Ariashal looked over at the mass of paper. "Is there nothing we can do?"
"About what? He has seen, and soon he will speak. And Sauron will take pleasure in knowing that he has sent the message he wished, that it has been received, and understood. Perhaps," he added, chuckling menacingly, "he will also understand that he will not be obeyed. Herumor!"
"Recall your beast. I think it wise for a Numenorean to make an appearance at Carn Dum."
"It may take some time for him to return," warned Herumor. "You know how far they can fly."
"He will not have strayed too far. Recall him, and prepare to exchange places with me. You will inspect Carn Dum, looking for any signs of penetration. Inform no one of your true identity. Let all believe that I have heard reports of espionage, and am so displeased with their work in my absence that I have had to return home."
"There will be some who are difficult to fool," said Herumor.
"Yes, and if you are discovered, you may take them into confidence. I suspect, however, that those who suspect the ruse will also be able to suspect why it is necessary. Stay only a day or two, long enough to be certain that all is well, and then return."
"Is there anything which I should retrieve while I am there?"
"I can think of nothing which is crucial. Remember, the shepherd has sent the bell wether. He has been chased off. Soon he will send the dogs to try and drive us back to the fold."
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