20. Wraith Hunting
She managed to find the rooms assigned to them, despite the new construction. They were where she expected them to be; they were, in fact, her mother's old quarters, below the ones now occupied by Ferion. Obviously no one had stayed here for years; the rooms were dark, musty, and run-down. Stained, moth-eaten tapestries lined the walls; threadbare carpets covered the old stone floor. The fire burning on the hearth did little to warm the air or dispel the gloom. Even with the windows open, the rooms felt close, confining.
The children were unhappy about the beds provided for them; they complained of the musty smell, the old blankets, the rickety wooden frames. They could not have their wolves in here for company, as Ferion expressly forbade it. Imrahil and Adrahil longed to camp with the soldiers. Zimraphel sat, alone, by the window, staring out at the sky. Somewhere in the distance, a wolf howled.
"The wolves say this place is bad," said Zimraphel.
"The wolves are very wise." Ariashal sat next to her. "Where is your father?"
"He went to speak with the troops," explained Imrahil. "He said we had to wait for you in here before we could go anywhere."
"Orcs and trolls live in better places than this!" Adrahil kicked at one of the old wooden beds.
"Stop that!" snapped Ariashal. "My mother lived here, and so did I, when I was little. You will not insult this place again."
"I want to stay in a tent," continued Adrahil. "Please? I hate it here. It smells."
"If you get to go, I do too!" Imrahil shoved his rother. "Zimraphel is right. This place is bad."
"I doubt that your father will permit you to stay out with the rmy," reasoned Ariashal. "And it will be much warmer in here."
"The wolves say bad things are going to happen here." Zimraphel clung to her mother. "I want to go home!"
"Now, listen, all of you." Ariashal tried to sound firm. "You will be staying in these rooms. Your father and I will be here. Your nurse will be here. There are guards outside the doors. We will all be safe. Now, if you want, you may go with the guards to the gardens while I wait for your father."
Relieved to be free of the oppressive room, they raced out the door.
The King arrived earlier than she expected. He came with almost a dozen of his finest guards, all armed with swords and spears. They set to work searching the rooms as soon as they arrived. When they had lifted every bed, moved every tapestry and checked every chest, they withdrew to watch the outer doors.
She was glad to be alone with him again. "I sent the children out to play in the gardens," she began. "They were restless."
"I do not think that is a good idea. Even with my guards I do not think they will be safe."
"What do you mean?"
He stalked around the room, checking the tapestries again. "Your brother has some sort of trap planned. I have not lived this long without learning how to smell one. It might be best if the children stayed with the army, where Adzuphel and Herumor can protect them."
"Do you really think it is that dangerous? Perhaps we too should go."
"No. If he is laying a trap, I want him to spring it on me. We will stay here. The children, though, will leave." He prodded one of the beds. "Ferion has not wasted any of my money on furnishings, I see. No, I have decided. I will take the children out to review the troops, and they will stay there."
"And if my brother asks why?"
"He will not dare."
Ariashal knew Ferion better than that. "I think he will want to know why we are spurning his hospitality."
He drew a long breath. "If he brings himself to ask, then I will tell him that these rooms are unsuitable for my children. That will suffice."
"It should. And the children will be well pleased to stay in the field." She opened one of her traveling boxes. "Would you care for some brandy?"
"No, I think not." He settled into one of the old chairs. It creaked beneath his weight, but held firm. "I want to be alert for any trouble."
"Do you really think he will do something?"
"He is in league with Cardolan. That alone makes him suspect."
Ariashal closed the box. "Is there anything I can bring my lord?"
He stretched out his legs, careful not to stress the chair. "Only yourself."
She crossed to him, gently laid a hand on his arm. "Ferion said the most ridiculous thing today. He said that you are a Nazgul, and that I should kill you."
"That was what I said, but he insisted. He said my father told him, just before he died."
"Your father? What would make him say that?"
"Ferion said that a man from Dol Guldur came, and spoke to my father about an alliance with Angmar. And Ferion says that the Nazgul reside in Dol Guldur."
"Does he, now. Well, I would not put too much store in the words of anyone from Dol Guldur."
"He told me that the only reason they wanted me to marry you was to work my curse upon you. Now he says I must slay you to free Middle-Earth."
The King laughed. "So, now I hold all Middle-Earth in thrall? Am I to fear my wife? Are you the trap he has set?"
"Do not think that!" She tried not to sound panicked. "I would never harm you! I--"
"Ariashal," he cut her off with a laugh. "You need say no more. I have proof enough of your feelings. I trust you would not harm me."
She laid her head on his shoulder. "He did ask me many things about you. I told him that I have never seen you, and he said that was proof enough."
"I see." The King took her hand. "Well. You have felt every part of me. Am I a ghost?"
For the first time all day she managed a smile. "No, my lord."
"If I take off these clothes, do I dissolve into shapelessness?"
She laughed. "No."
He slipped his hands around her waist, drawing her close. "Do I poison you with my breath?"
"Freeze you with my touch?"
She kissed him. "No."
"Do you find me a mindless slave and puppet?"
"No." She let this kiss linger.
He pulled her hands down to his lap. "Does this feel wraithlike?"
"No, my lord." Ariashal opened the front of his robes and knelt before him.
"Perhaps," he murmured, stroking her hair, "you should make certain."
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