Fairer Than Ivory, Silver, or Pearls
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Cursed Queen of Angmar, The: 4. The Journey Begins
For the next several days Ariashal hid in her chambers, desperate to find some way out of her dilemma. She even considered suicide. It would have the virtue of ruining her father's plans, but its impact on her was too permanent. Perhaps she could murder her husband, and then come home.
But--why kill him? Why do anything to him? What if--what if the curse was real, after all? That would do it! She would marry him, and he would die, and she would be free. Please, she breathed, if ever there was a curse, let it work this one time. And with that thought to cheer her, she continued supervising the maids packing her clothes.
A few weeks after signing the contract, wagons loaded with regal gifts for her arrived. There were chests filled with gold jewelry, magnificent velvet gowns, and luxurious fur robes. Her father immediately claimed the best of the robes for himself. He also claimed the iron pigs, the armor, the steel swords. Her brother was thrilled with the weapons and armor, better quality than he was used to seeing. The only things that remotely compared were some heirlooms, and a few pieces of Elven origin. She was allowed to keep the dresses and spectacular gold jewelry: grand collars set with garnets and rubies, bracelets, small coronets of silver interwoven with gold.
For his part, her father arranged for herds of horses and cattle, wagons filled with bags of seed grain, and timber. Looking at the wealth sent from Angmar, she could not help but think that her future husband was being cheated.
Came the day when she was set to leave. She traveled in a large, open wagon, with her boxes of clothing and personal possessions stacked behind her. A small escort of troops rode alongside as she set out for the border with Angmar. Her brother did not even bother to wish her well; her father, she saw, did not wait until her entourage had left the courtyard before retreating inside.
Travel was slower than she would have liked. Now that she was finally leaving, she wanted to go quickly and get the whole thing done as soon as was possible. But they had to wait on the wagon train, on the outriders, on the herds of horses and cattle.
The hills here in Rhudaur were wild, with no real settlements or villages. Ariashal had to sleep in her wagon, under the great stars, while the men camped around her. She pulled one of the fur robes from a chest to use as a makeshift bed, cursing her father for taking the thickest ones.
After several days they finally reached the border. An impressive collection of troops awaited her; as soon as her wagon came into view they began to pound drums and sound trumpets. She studied them closely. Most were dressed in black and red, carrying banners decorated with towers and swords. Sitting a little apart from the troops was a rather heavyset, older gentleman; he was bald, and his beard was nearly gray. He wore a black tabard, emblazoned with a red tower. So this was her new husband. He did not look like much of a sorcerer, but she supposed that was what made him effective.
He rode out to meet her. "Good day, my queen!" he called. "May I be the first to welcome you to Angmar. I am Adzuphel, His Majesty's steward. I am here to see that you arrive in Carn Dum safely."
"Oh! I thought you were the king."
He laughed. "Oh, no, madame. His Majesty is very tall."
"Where is the king?"
"At the front. He travels with the army every year. It is good for morale, you see, to have the king in the field. But he will meet you in Carn Dum." He called to some of the troops. "He sent an enclosed wagon for your comfort. It can get quite cold here."
Adzuphel checked the contents of the other wagons, counted the livestock, inspected the grain and timber. When he was satisfied, he gave the command for his troops to take possession of the goods.
Ariashal supervised the transfer of her belongings to the little wagon. She was quite taken with it; it was painted vivid yellows and greens, both inside and out. Inside were padded benches to sit on; they lifted for storing clothes, and could be folded together to make a bed. It had large windows, made of real glass. To her delight they even opened. Sleeping in here while wrapped in her fur robes would be much more comfortable than the last few nights had been.
She settled into her new wagon and began the long journey north.
They did not stray too far from the mountains. At night icy winds swept down the crags, blasting along so violently that her little wagon rocked. By day the winds abated somewhat, to be replaced by heavy, oppressive clouds. Her escorts traveled more quickly than those from Rhudaur; she guessed that they had a good deal of practice at covering great distances swiftly. And they avoided anything that even remotely resembled a road. She knew that the area was wild and thinly settled, but their insistence on staying in the wilderness was unnerving. Many times she caught the lonely howl of a wolf drifting on the wind. One evening, when they stopped, she asked Adzuphel why they were going this way.
"It is simple, madame," he said, grave. "Angmar is at war. If we were seen, we might be attacked. This way is much safer."
"But what about wolves?"
"The wolves obey His Majesty, madame. They are our allies."
"How is that possible?"
"His Majesty is a very great sorcerer, Madame. He does many things that are beyond the scope of ordinary men."
"I see." She retreated into her wagon, slowly digesting this information. A sorcerer who allied himself with orcs, and trolls, and wolves. What other horrors was he aligned with? Dragons? Demons? Ariashal wrapped herself in the furs and tried to drive such thoughts from her mind. But it seemed to her that every gust of wind was the howl of a wolf, and every horses' neigh the bellow of a dragon.
The following morning she was startled to see several large wolves hanging around the camp. She was even more startled to see Adzuphel petting them as though they were dogs. Cautiously she opened her window and called him over.
"I am glad you are awake, Madame," he said. "This pack has arrived to escort us the rest of the way. We will be able to go much faster now, for they will act as our scouts."
Ariashal eyed the wolves warily. They were much bigger than the wolves she had occasionally seen when her brothers brought their carcasses back from a hunt. To her dismay she saw that they fearlessly returned her gaze, their golden eyes intently focused on her.
What had she gotten herself into? No; she had not gotten herself into anything. This was all her father's doing. And for what? A few wagons of iron and weapons, and the promise of aid in some future conquest. Meanwhile she was going to be married to a man who ruled Orcs and trolls, and who probably kept dragons in the house, ready to be unleashed at the slightest provocation.
She hoped her father would find the tradeoff worthwhile.
After a few days of cross-country travel they came to a road. It was not like the roads she was used to; it was neither muddy nor rutted. Instead it was paved with a dull gray gravel that seemed to repel the muck. Now they could pick up speed. Her little carriage moved swiftly, the hollow clop of horse hooves echoing from the road.
As they traveled further into Angmar, they began to encounter more people. Every now and then they stopped at little villages, clustered around forts. Here the people came out in force to see their new Queen. Adzuphel gave her a small bag of coins to distribute to them, which she tossed from the windows so that the people shouted and blessed her name. They always presented bags of seed grain to the local lord, along with some of the livestock. She could not help but notice that the animals they left behind were usually finer quality than the local ones.
And here, for the first time in her life, she saw orcs.
Adzuphel explained that the orcs were immigrants, moving from the southern mountains into Angmar, where they were welcomed. Ariashal smelled the orc camps long before they came into view: the combination of waste, filth, smoke and blood was unpleasant from a distance, and unbearable up close. Orcs camped in lean-tos, simple tents, or crude affairs built of skins and branches. Smoke drifted out through the roofs. The orcs were sensitive to sunlight, and stayed inside. Only a few braved the sun, wandering out to see the strangers.
At the orcish camps the distribution of gifts was much different. They would rouse the chieftain, who usually donned his most ferocious trappings to receive his visitors. Bags of rice and corn, foods brought expressly for this purpose, were left with him to distribute through the camp. And they usually left a cow, so that the orcs would have a feast tonight in honor of their new queen.
"You can only do so much with orcs," sighed Adzuphel after they left one of the camps. "His Majesty has tried for years to introduce some idea of civilization among them. He has managed to keep them from fighting each other. And he is starting to succeed with them at the mines."
"Yes, madame. We have many iron and coal mines. From them we get the ingredients needed to make steel. You will see one of our mines and smelters soon enough. There you will see what His Majesty has planned for his people."
She thought again about what she had read concerning Angmar. Mostly barren and inhospitable, a cold land where the savage winters killed as many as wars. Once she had heard that there were great fires that burned near the mountains, constantly spewing smoke and flame across the valleys. The smoke was so thick that the trees died, and the snow was stained black.
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