The Circles - Book One - Chapter Nineteen - A Memory by the Wayside

The Circles - Book One - The Triumph of the Shadow
Chapter Nineteen
A Memory by the Wayside
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

Sixteen days had passed since Grenefeld was raided and now it was the night of June 9. The captives camped on one side of the Great West Road in a little field shaded by scattered trees. The orcs patrolled the outskirts of the camp, keeping an ever-vigilant watch. The Easterling cavalry troop under command of Sergeant Utana rested for the eve on the other side of the Road. Several miles south of them rose the dark boles of the pines of the Druadan Forest and the rocky summit of the Beacon-hill of Amon Dîn.

The Easterling cavalry had been traveling with this group of orcs and their captives for five days. The orc captains had resented the presence of the Easterlings, but said nothing openly to them and grumbled only to their fellows. The women had felt a growing tension between their mannish and orcish captors and were greatly relieved that no direct confrontations had yet erupted.

"They lord it over us as they always have," Captain Zgurpu snarled as he shared a vessel of draught with Sergeant Glokal.

"None of them appreciate us," agreed the sergeant. "I'd sooner stick a blade between their ribs as speak to them!"

"'Cooperate with our allies,'" Captain Zgurpu spat out the words contemptuously, "that's what they tell us, but what's allies today can just as well be enemies tomorrow."

"And it's always them what gets the glory while we poor uruks get the guts."

"And there ain't nothing we can do about it!” The captain cursed and spat. He took a long swill from the mouth of the wineskin and then passed it to the sergeant.

The sergeant's voice went lower. "We'd be best off if we were free of them all and acted as our own agents!"

"Don't say talk like that," the captain warned. "Even if we did, we'd be found soon enough, and you know how that goes. But still I cannot complain too much. We eat, don't we? The booty is good, most times."

"When as we can get it and don't have to divvy up so much with the Higher Ups!"

"But I don't like them this close. You can smell the fear on them. They reek of it. Inside, they are afraid of us, but they'd never admit it. These Easterlings and Southrons think they are so damned important and regard us as brainless idiots fit only to go out and get killed for them," growled Captain Zgurpu.

"I know, Captain, and more's the pity," the sergeant agreed after drinking greedily of the draught. "This new one, this Sergeant Utana, I don't care what they say. He's here to usurp our authority! Detached to help us?" he said mockingly. "Help us do what? There ain't an enemy soldier within a hundred miles of here. Are they afraid the strawhead women and their squalling brats will attack us?" he laughed. "They're too afraid to do anything."

"Garn!" the captain exclaimed. "When you come right down to it, I see through it all too well. They don't trust each other any more than we trust them!" he said, as though discovering a great truth previously unnoticed. "Whilst we escort the prisoners, the cavalry sergeant and his troop are to guard the women from any stragglers and skulkers that meander along the road. And for that matter," he added, "guard them from their own cavalry patrols!"

"You think that what's it, captain?" asked the sergeant.

"May be. You notice none of the women and girls are over at their camp tonight. I think mayhap our 'friend' Sergeant Utana has put the quietus on those nightly dallyings to give out their wine and sweetmeats. Anyway, only five more days and we're rid of them all!"

Indeed it was so. Alarmed at what he perceived to be a growing warmness between the captives and his men, Sergeant Utana had given his troop a stern lecture and quoted the Directives in detail. "Lest you weaken, though, and give in to temptation, my orders will take you out of harm's way. No more socializing with the captives! No interfering with the orcs in command! We will aid either the captives or their guards and that, gentlemen, will be all!"

But no reminders of stern Directives could prevent the smiles that appeared on tawny faces as brown eyes met blue in furtive glances and knowing looks were exchanged. Many a woman or maid of the Mark flushed deep crimson when brown eyes flashed and lips silently mouthed, "You are most fair." No directives could ever still the longings of the heart.

Night deepened over the camp and the fountains of orc draught seemed inexhaustible. Strong drink had inspired the orcs to sing and dance around their campfires, chanting their strange tribal songs. Sleep was never easy for the captives, for the regular patrolling of the orcs always made for uneasy rest. This night, though, was worse, for the orcish bard had found fresh inspiration and had composed what he considered his finest work. As he began to recite it, he beat upon a drum while the others passed around skins of draught.

If I were a chieftain,
I'd have me a throne
How would I build it?
I'd build it of bone!
The frame would be thigh bones
And rest on stout pegs,
The seat would be elf skin,
And skulls would be legs!
I'd fight for my title
And carve up a few,
My dagger would be sharp,
My bow made of yew.
There'd be a circlet of teeth
That sat on my head,
Strung together with hair
From enemies long dead.
There would be furs
Over the floor of my den,
And filled with fine wenches,
The daughters of Men!
Someday we'll all drink
In Edoras' fine hall
Men will all serve us
And orc's way be law!
No more the outcast
For we orcs are strong
They'll pay us in blood
For every last wrong!
The bad times are over
And our time is here!
A few fights before us
And it's victory this year!

"Elfhild," Elffled hissed in a whisper, "does he never tire of his hideous racket?"

The two sisters lay upon their cloaks, facing each other. Though it was not discernible in the night, beneath the eyes of both were dark circles of weariness. About their heads were bird's nests of tangled, filthy hair which had not seen a comb in many days. Each was a shameful sight to the other, for to look in the face of her sister was just the same as peering into a looking glass. Yet, being peasants, they never were the cleanliest of folk, concerned more with crops and herds than their own vanity, and now they cared even less about the grime that stained their bodies.

Elffled was in a foul mood and felt quite surly, though neither her sister nor any of the others in her troop were to blame. Each time she had almost drifted off to sleep, the riotous orcs would sing again, and she would be dragged unwillingly back to wakefulness.

"Oh, Elffled, I do not know," Elfhild whimpered. "They stop for a while to catch their breaths and then they start up again with renewed strength."

"I hate them all," Elffled muttered. "Worthless creatures, good for naught but murder and malice."

"They cannot sing either," noted Elfhild, trying to be witty. "If pleasant voices as well as fighting skills were prized traits of a warrior, then methinks the forces of the Dark Lands would be greatly lessened."

"Then the whole world would be better off," commented her sister with a wry laugh.

"Silence!" a corporal barked out. "Silence in the camp! Not a peep out of you!"

"They seem to hear everything," Elffled moaned. "I hate them all."

"Me too," nodded Elfhild.

The orcish balladry continued until the bard's fellows began to complain. Then with a great outcry of grunts, growls, and hisses, they bombarded him with scraps of rancid meat, bone and clods of dung, and his melodies were stilled for the night.

At last sleep came to the captives, though it was a restless one. Oft would a woman awaken and look around in bewilderment, thinking she still heard the songs of the orcs. Then, when all seemed peaceful and at last their minds slipped into fitful dreams, the sounds of loud wailing roused the captives from their slumber. It was the darkest part of the night ere the dreary dawn, and sleep would not come again.

"What is it? What is it?" Elfhild asked frantically, frightened by the plaintive cries which seemed all too dreadfully close.

With a grunt, Elffled rose up slightly upon her elbows and looked about, but she could see little in the darkness. Yet her ears did not fail her, nor did the ears of the other captives. Several ells away from her, she sensed her aunt and the others in her troop stirring about and murmuring, each one asking the same questions that her sister had asked her. There was a commotion slowly beginning to brew in the camp and they could hear the rising complaints of the orc guards.

"What is that damn moaning? Who dares break the command not to make noise in the camp until the horn has sounded? What is the meaning of this disturbance?" the orcs on duty cried in their coarse, snarling voices.

"Shut up or I'll call the sergeant!" ordered an irritated guard.

They heard another wail, a woman's cry, but savage in its sorrow. In the superstitious minds of the two sisters, they imagined that the sound must be like unto the cries of some unholy creature of the night or demon who lurked in shadowy places, in dreary forests or in haunted mountain caves. A shudder traveled down the spines of both Elfhild and Elffled like fingers of ice, and they drew closer to each other.

There was another sobbing keen and then the harsh command of a guard.

"We'll hear no more of this! Close your trap! He is gone!"

A pitiful shriek rose up in answer, and then the captives heard the voice of Breguswith crying wildly.

"He is not! He is not! He cannot be!"

"Garn! He is!"

"He is asleep! Go away! Let me hold and comfort him!"

"All the comfort between now and the Return will do him no good! He's gone, you stupid wench, and there's no comfort where he is!"

"He will awaken soon, and he will be hungry when he does. Go away, go away! Give us peace!"

"Get up!"

"See what a fine lad he is! He is a good baby and cries little. He will cause no trouble. I pray you grant me privacy to feed him. He is so small now and he eats so little. Let my sweet boy nurse in peace and then slumber!"

"That's what he's doing now - sleeping forever. Get up, you mad wench!"

"No!" the woman screamed. "He is in a deep slumber, but he still lives!"

"Mad fool," the captives heard the orc exclaim. Then came the sounds of blows and screams, a low moan and all was quiet.

The twins and the other captives in their troop could see torches moving from the direction of the cavalry camp across the road. Soon came the sound of hoof beats as riders approached.

"Officers," they heard orcish voices exclaim. "Officers approach!"

There were the sounds of muttering in low tones amidst the orc pickets on duty.

"Hold aloft the torch! Give me light by which to see!" the captives heard one of the Easterlings order.

"The whore is mad, sir!"

"No doubt that is true but will striking her bring her back to lucidity?"

"Sir, as you say. She will be hit no more!"

"Let me tend to her, lads, and my men will tend to the... other."

Disappointment was upon the faces of some of the orcs as they realized the meaning of the Easterling's words.

"By all common sense," Sergeant Utana thought, "they are ghouls, just like it is said! They have no hesitancy to eat the flesh of a dead child and, doubtless, they would relish ours just as well! Were it not for their fear of our Master, they would turn upon us! If that fear should ever lessen... May the Dark Gods protect us!"

Sergeant Utana looked down at the woman sitting on the ground, clutching her dead child to her bosom, and then across to the orc sergeant and his lads who clustered about him and the woman. By the torchlight, he could see the hatred and fear on their faces. Behind them were any number of orcs, their eyes gleaming in the darkness. He could not count their number.

"Never let them see your fear," he told himself as began to sweat. "Brutish creatures," he thought. "They would fight each other for the chance of fresh man's-flesh, though it be scant. Gods, how I hate them!"

He felt the temptation to draw his sword, but he knew that was a mistake. He must show them that he was not afraid. Most of all, he must show them that he was in command, though by token formality their own captain was in charge. "No mistakes," he thought, "no mistakes."

"Sergeant," he said to the orc, "forget this piece of filth. My men will bury it and put a cairn of rocks on the grave. Then you and your corporals can come over to our camp. No doubt you would enjoy a change from orc draught, and we have much wine. I shall extend my invitation to your captain personally."

"My sword," Sergeant Utana thought as he felt his hand edge slightly downward to the left but caught himself. "Surely they would not be so bold or foolish as to risk their all for the taste of a little flesh."

"Wine?" the orc sergeant asked in haughty tones. "You invite us to drink wine with you? Are you sure, Sergeant, that it is not a breach of some military protocol?" he snarled as his lips curled back.

Sergeant Utana thought, "Will it be mutiny next? Are we to die here because of a question about a dead baby?" He knew that the two troopers he had brought with him could only take down a few of the orcs if it came to that, but he would not let it come to that.

"Yes, Sergeant, we would all be quite honored to have such brave lads as yourselves share a cup or two with us before we set forth again on the eastward journey. And I might add," he went on, hoping he appeared to have the nonchalance that he did not feel, "the report that I send to the main army will commend all of you for your excellent care of this valued merchandise. Because you are all loyal lads and do your duty, I shall also recommend that your bounties be increased."

The orc sergeant's lips curled into an awkward smile, certain he had won some victory over the Easterling. "So much you will give for so little?"

"What is a cup of wine?" Sergeant Utana replied with a shrug and a causal smile. "I offer it not as payment but as a toast by one soldier to another, as comrades in arms."

"Sergeant, it seems we have an understanding," the orc sergeant laughed. "I will accept it as such and drink with you." The orc thought, "It is good to see a proud man of the East forced to give a little for a change. Of course, he flatters me, but he and I both realize it! He is cunning enough to know that it wouldn't be well to make us feel as though we had lost face. I will grudgingly give him his due for that. It is not that I am afraid of him, nar, no, for I have no doubt I could best him in any fight. But why go to the effort when he's willing to give wine and promises more bounty! This duty will be over in less than a week and soon enough we will be back to battle."

"To Order, Rule and Respect!" Sergeant Utana said.

"Order, Rule and Respect!" the orcs echoed.

"Now let me talk to the woman. I have no wish to hear her whimpering and wailing all the way to Minas Tirith," Sergeant Utana said. "I have a phial of draught in my camp that will keep her quiet all the way and cause you lads no trouble. I will have my men bring the woman with us, and then after she has been calmed down, I will turn her back over to you."

"If you can get her to cease her constant ranting, you will satisfy us well enough," the orc sergeant replied.

Sergeant Utana turned back to Breguswith. "Woman, take my word. Your child is dead. It is no trick to deceive you. The babe has been gone for hours and is long cold. You hold a dead infant in your arms, and though your breasts were full to overflowing with milk, you could not bring him life!"

"No! He is not!"

"I have seen to the burial of your child. You have no fear there. By my order, his grave will be undisturbed. You have my word of honor as an officer for that."

"But he is not dead, I tell you!"

"Come, woman. No harm shall befall you."

With a look to the orcs, he helped her to her feet. "Tell me about your child," he said to her. "What was his name?"

She looked up at him, her tears glistening in the light of the torch. "His name was..."

Those were the last words that were clear to Elfhild and Elffled as Sergeant Utana led Breguswith aside.

The captives watched from a distance as two Easterling troopers prepared a cairn for the baby. Later they saw an officer reach down his hand and help Breguswith behind him on his horse. Then they saw the torches of the Easterlings and the orc officers as the lights meandered away and across the road to the cavalry camp.

Little time had passed ere the horn was sounded for breakfast. After eating, the captives were tied in their places in the column, the same ritual that they had been forced to follow every morning for over a fortnight. Near the roadside they saw the freshly turned dirt and a cairn of stone over the small barrow of the dead child. As they passed that lonely place, they wept in grief and sadness, mourning for their friend and the loss of her baby.

Breguswith did not march with the rest of the captives that day. Instead the prisoners saw her with the Easterlings, atop one of their horses. She was cloaked and hunched over, gently swaying in the saddle as one of the men led her horse. She knew little nor cared now who she was or where she was bound. Her mind was lost in a misty haze of flowery oblivion, the calming draught greatly dulling the keen edge of her sorrow. Yet still the other captives mourned in her stead.

And so another uneventful day's march was recorded in the officers' books.


Ell - An English linear measure equal to 45 inches (114 centimeters).