The Circles - Book One - Chapter Nine - The Conquering Army

The Circles - Book One - The Triumph of the Shadow
Chapter Nine
The Conquering Army
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

The orcs pushed the captives ever eastward on the Great West Road through the Firien Wood. The revered forest was on all sides of them, and the trees seemed to press in upon the raiders with a solemn, disapproving stare. The dark, brooding woods stood quiet as the voice of the orc sergeant now in command of the prisoners seemed to scream. "All right, you maggots, you can slow your pace now," he commanded. "I don't believe we'll have any company. Don't get slothful, though; we need to keep these snagalobs and their imps moving."

"Garn!" one of the lads whispered. "You'd think these wenches were some great treasure. The Higher Ups have used us sore enough just so they can get their tumble in the bed with them."

"Silence!" the sergeant ordered. "You mangy dogs didn't have permission to speak! What d'you think this is? Some brothel behind the lines?" He guffawed. "None of us has ever slept in a bed in our lives! Now that's a pleasure that we're denied. They leave the dirty work for us while those fancy commanders get all the credit."

The women and children, most too tired or numb even to attempt speaking, plodded along at the reduced pace like worn out nags. Only the babes carried in their mothers' arms still managed to wail. None dared ask the sergeant for time to rest. Up ahead on the road between the trees, they heard the sound of marching feet. "Off the road!" the sergeant bellowed. "Clear the way for the army!"

The orcs brandished sword and spear to push the women and children to the left and off the road. "Keep moving!" he shouted. "I never said you could stop!" Soon a company of cavalry rode by them, and then came the color bearers, tawny-faced men in sable livery who carried tall black standards, some bearing the image of the Great Eye and others a pale crescent moon. Behind the cavalry rode a small party of horsemen, the regimental commander and his staff trotting in front. The men had swarthy faces and wore the same black armor as the color bearers. Behind them marched a long column of five hundred orcs, hideous, distorted creatures matching their step to the monotonous, maddening rhythm of the drummers among their lot.

Endlessly the hordes moved past them on their way to conquer the rest of Rohan, the drums a steady pounding like well-oiled gears in the machine of war. From time to time, a great shout and cheer would be raised, and then the orcs chanted their battle cry, "Matum, matum, grish, ghaash, ghaash!" After the first creeping feelers of the army had passed, the women and children were forced to walk another mile before the sergeant finally called, "Halt! Secure the captives and make camp for the rest of the day. We will march again ere dawn. Men, fall out for labor and guard duty."

The prisoners were ordered to sit on the ground while the orcs made camp. The noon sun shone overhead, but the light was dim and filtered by cloud and branch. Soon a number of fires were blazing away, the smoke savory and inviting. "All right, lads, untie their hands and let a few of them walk around a while under guard." The sergeant put his pack down by a tree, and after opening it, he took a flask of orc draught, some dry bread and stringy dried meat and began eating while his men carried out his orders.

An orc lumbered over to Elfhild and she instinctively cringed away, her feet pushing her backwards over the rough ground. Laughing with evil glee at her fear, the orc lunged down and pushed her forward with a heavy clawed hand upon her back. Her weariness momentarily forgotten, Elfhild whimpered and trembled, but soon she felt the ropes which bound her hands being loosened and then removed altogether.

Wincing as she moved arms which felt like they had turned to stone, Elfhild gingerly touched her aching wrists with stiff fingers. The orc moved over to her sister and then her aunt, freeing them in like fashion, and then went around to all the other captives, untying their bonds. Elfhild watched him with fearful, furtive eyes, her mind plunged into a strange state of bewilderment. She had thought that the orcs would never allow their captives to rest and would force them to run until their hearts stopped and they fell to the ground in the swoon of death.

Soon the prisoners were given water, and parched throats were brought much-needed relief. Bread was also passed out, and then the captives were left to their own woes. Few desired to rise from the scant grass which grew beneath the trees, for they were weary and their legs and feet ached from the harsh journey. As she sat upon the sandy floor of the clearing, Elfhild greedily devoured her bread like a starving wolf, and Leofgifu and Hunig ate with the same famished vigor.

For a long time Elffled looked down at the chunk of bread which sat upon her own lap, stray crumbs dotting her dirt-covered dress. She remembered the bread her mother used to make. First she would grind the grain by rotating the stones of the quern until the grain became flour. Then she would mix the dough and knead it, and after letting it sit for a while, she would bake it atop a stone slab placed over the brazier. Elffled's eyes welled up with tears. Never again would she taste her mother's cooking, and the memory of what she last had eaten was a foul one. The taste of bitter vomit and pottage mingled with the hot draught of the orcs had lingered in her throat for hours. She knocked the bread out of her lap and hunched over, sobbing.

Elfhild whispered her sister's name and she embraced her tightly from the side. She tenderly kissed the dirty, sweaty hair which hung over Elffled’s temple. Elfhild, too, was crying; she could not look at her sister's tears without being moved to weep herself, for she felt the same pain, the same anguish in her heart. Her features soft with sympathy and sorrow, Leofgifu moved closer to the two girls and gently squeezed Elffled's hand.

Three orcs came lumbering into the group of captives to the spot where Elfhild and Elffled were sitting, and Elfhild protectively tightened her embrace upon her sister's quivering form. A leering, foul-smelling rascal bent down, his hands resting on his thighs as he surveyed Elffled while his fellows tended to the injuries of the other prisoners. He walked behind the two cringing girls and placed a huge, hairy taloned hand upon Elffled’s head. "It's time for your medicine," he said after removing the bandage and examining her scalp. Taking a box from out of his pack, he opened it, and after bending down again, ran a clawed finger into the pungent-smelling ointment and rubbed a dab on it on the back of her head. Elffled winced and whimpered. "I think you'll live," he snarled and applied a fresh dressing to her wound. "Here," he rumbled, thrusting a flask into her hands, "drink this with no fuss or I'll pour it down your gullet!"

Trembling at her sister's side, Elffled tore her frightened gaze from the orc's hideous face, and Elfhild was forced to relinquish her desperate grasp. With shaking fingers, Elffled lifted the flask to her lips, and poured the foul liquid into her mouth. She swallowed quickly, the orc draught burning her tongue and the insides of her cheeks, clearing the stuffiness in her nose and making her eyes water.

"Garn! Too hot for your tongue!" the orc jeered as he took the flask from her hand. Elfhild renewed her grasp upon her sister, her fingers digging tightly into her arm. The minds of both girls were filled with fear, and they were terrified by the thoughts of being torn from each other to be raped, tormented and killed. But after muttering something hateful, the orc left them in peace and lumbered away.

Once again, Elffled began to weep and she struggled against her sister's embrace. Elfhild slowly recoiled and took the sobbing girl's clammy hand in her own, stroking the top of it gently. "I am so weary and frightened," Elffled whimpered, sniffling. "But at least the orc-salve and that foul-tasting draught helped to lessen the pain in my head somewhat."

"Those are the best tidings I have heard all day," Leofgifu said softly and Elfhild smiled. Hunig smiled too and wiped her eyes with a dirty hand, for she had been crying with her cousins. "Lie down and take your rest. If you do not feel like eating, hide the bread in your cloak. It shall keep you in good stead if the murdering fiends do not feel so generous next time in doling out food." The last thing on Elffled's mind was eating, but she understood the sad wisdom in her aunt's words. After picking up the chunk of bread, she carefully concealed it within one of the pockets stitched inside her brown cloak.

Soon Elffled lay upon her side, her arm beneath her head as a pillow. Hunig, too, sought sleep, for the arduous journey had greatly tired the little maid. In better days, the women of the Eastfold would have been working in the fields or tending to their gardens in these early hours of the afternoon, but now they were too weary to do aught but rest. The woods became still once more as sorrowful women and frightened children drifted off into restless, troubled slumbers. Elfhild and her aunt sat in silence, taking what solace they could in the quiet moment.

At last Leofgifu sighed, a few loose strands of her wavy sandy hair driven upward by the puff of breath. Her dirt-smudged face careworn and lined with worry, she looked older than a woman of thirty-four years of age. "I do not know what will become of us," she said softly, closing her eyes. "I do not even know where these invaders are taking us."

"I fear we shall find out all too soon," Elfhild shivered, and the two lapsed into silence again. She felt helpless and alone, troubled by the same anxiety that filled the hearts of all the captives. Her aunt was just as frightened as she was, and there were no words of wisdom or encouragement that would bring lasting solace. Though her mother was dead, Elfhild clung to the hope that her father and brother were still alive, somewhere in the South.

More stabs of pain pierced her heart; she wondered how fared the Riders who had tried to rescue the captives. Worsted again, she thought sadly, and prayed that some had escaped the onslaught of the orcs. She shuddered as she remembered the dark shapes of the wolf riders which sped past the captives, and trembled steadily when she recalled the shrieking wail from the sky, the terrible cry of Death heralding the end of the world.

Drums, the tramping feet of the endless columns of orcs, and the chants of malice and hate mixed into a discordant sound as the army moved forward upon the Road, a vast, dark, hungering horde, a battering ram of destruction and fury that was about to be unleashed upon Rohan. All that afternoon, the terrifying cadence penetrated the air of the forest, and as the captives tried to go to sleep, their last memories were of a deafening roar of marching feet and cries of, "Matum, matum!"

Night fell and the fires blazed, abd flickering amber eyes peering out into the darkness. The prisoners had eaten their evening meal and many had lain down upon the ground, seeking to drown their sorrows in the sweet oblivion of sleep. Save for those who had guard duty, the orcs sat around the campfires, the sounds of bawdy songs and laughter defiling the silence of the hallowed forest. One of the tall orcs sat upon a log near the fire. His dark hair was greasy and matted. Teeth and chunks of bones were woven into his messy braids. An ugly, jagged scar was on one side of his face, and one of his long ears had been partially bitten off. As he laughed at the obscene wit of his fellows, the firelight glittered off his sharp, yellowed snags of teeth, glossy with a glaze of fetid spittle.

"Ha ho, my friends! That was a bloody good one, 'ay, it was, about old Kulshapatu and the Tarkûrz whore who gave him a nasty pestilence in his loins," the scarred and snag-toothed orc laughed. A smaller orc, apparently Kulshapatu, glared at him and gave a low growl, silently fuming. Another round of laughter was heard. "Good days, good days, these are," the tall orc smiled, the teeth attached to his braids tinkling when he nodded his head. "A right proper year, if I do say so myself; filled with robbing and raping and killing, blood and war, famine and drought for our enemies, and food and drink for us! Such merry times haven't been seen since the Days of Yore!" All the orcs cheered and raised up their flasks in a toast, then drank in greedy gulps.

When his fellows had quieted down, the orc continued. "A most illustrious occasion such as this needs to be remembered, so I've made up a song to commemorate the recent expedition into the land of the horse-folk." He sat back proudly, fancying himself rather smart and the bard of all bards among the Black Uruk-hai. His words were met by more cheers and several shouts of disapproval, which the orcs did on purpose to vex their comrade.

"Ai! Koz, koz!" he cried, catching the attention of his audience. "Now then. I shall continue. 'Tis a little ditty about riding the wenches of Rohan, and it's all the truth, 'ay, 'tis. Seems the horses aren't the only things in this land that make good mounts!" The host roared with laughter and eyed the frightened captives with hungry, glittering eyes. Then the bard began to sing his song.

"I do not like to brag or boast
While gathered with this lusty host,
But once I rode a strawhead maid
Skilled both with shield and blade.
She struggled and she fought,
But her protests were for naught,
For I grabbed her golden hair
And with me claws I stripped her bare.
Then I pushed her down in the hay,
Atop that buxom wench I lay,
Listening to her tearful cries
As I stabbed betwixt her thighs.
I rode that wench like a steed,
And then filled her with my seed.
Though the maiden was stout,
I quickly wore her out,
And she didn't make a peep
When I drifted off to sleep.
Then I grabbed her by the hair
And dragged her off to my lair.
In the darkness of my den,
She gave birth to half-breed men,
And after the end of this bloody war
I'll breed on her some more!
So let us each begin a line
Upon the maids proud and fine.
Bed them, bed them one and all,
Beget a race fair and tall!
Then may we live to see the whelps
All full-grown and full of health.
Our Dark Master will praise us in His halls
And tell us, 'The future lies within your balls.'"

The orcs howled with laughter, cheering and hooting and slapping their thighs. Some fell over and were rolling on the ground, grunting and growling and pounding the dirt in their uproarious mirth. The rest of the evening passed in the singing of such songs, much to the dismay and discomfiture of the captives. Though Elfhild had heard many a bawdy riddle (oft when her kinsmen did not know she was listening), the words of the orcs were harsh and frightening to her. She worried that they would decide to set their words to life and rape the captives, and the thoughts of being cruelly ravished and later giving birth to goblin-men filled her with cold dread.

The night wore on. Already the orcs were giddy from their first raid into the Eastfold, and the skirmish with the Riders only had heightened their excitement. The songs continued, but they became less bawdy and more cruel, speaking of battle and bloodshed, maiming and mauling, tormenting and torturing, devouring and consuming. Malicious, leering glances were cast towards the captives, and chills of excitement coursed through the veins of the orcs. The only thing that spared the women from being raped and killed were the orders of Mordor.

But Mordor said naught about sport. Some of the orcs seized a woman from the crowd of cringing captives. After stripping her naked, they tied her to a tree and then amused themselves by throwing daggers at her trembling form and listening to her panicked screams. Elfhild recognized the poor victim; her name was Ascwyn, a gentle woman with hair of icy flaxen. The twins watched in horror, looking away and then looking back again, always fearing that one of the daggers would find the woman's heart. Of course, Ascwyn was spared from death, for the orcs knew their orders well, but the woman did receive many cuts and nicks from the sharp blades. At last she fell into a swoon from fright and weariness and slumped against the ropes, her bonds the only thing keeping her limp form from sliding to the ground.

Laughing, the orcs released her, tending to her cuts and giving her draught. Then they stripped and tied another woman to the tree and began their game again. Other orcs taunted the prisoners, threatening them with cruel jests and lunging at them with wicked knives just to hear them scream in terror. The band of savages soon worked themselves up into a fervor of lust and zeal, until their all senses became consumed with the sight and smell of blood, and all they could think about was fighting and killing. Heaping more wood upon the fire until it became a towering blaze, they began to dance around it in a circle, chanting and singing their dreadful songs and shrieking cries of battle and war.

"Fire, fire, bruzûm, ghaash
Smoke, embers, soot and ash
Steel on steel, swords that clash
Cowing prisoners under lash
Hai! Hai! Harri hai!
Blood on blade and fire on hill
We go to do our Master's will
Smoke in sky and tears on earth
Death to joy, death to mirth
Hai! Hai! Harri hai!
Down with sun and wicked light
Cursing us like an evil blight
May always Darkness reign supreme
And tainted be what once was green
Hai! Hai! Harri hai!
Glory to the Dark Lord's Hand
Stretching out over all the land
May His power and His Might
Usher in this Age of Night
Hai! Hai! Harri hai!
Hoy hoy - hoy hey!"

The singing, dancing and dagger-sport went on into the weary hours of the night, until all the orcs were either too exhausted or too drunk to continue. Then the camp fell silent and once more the Firien Wood was quiet, as both captor and captive alike slept beneath the creeping boughs of the revered forest.


The prisoners were awakened before dawn for another morning without light, and after a meager breakfast of paltry bread and stream water, they were herded by the press of spear and sword to hasten on their way east, ever east. Travel weariness tarried their steps until many felt that simply putting one foot in front of the other was a struggle that they could endure but little longer. Weight seemed to disappear from their bodies, especially the children, whose frightened eyes now looked shadowed and tired with dark circles.

It was impossible for them to use the roadbed to travel, for the army kept marching by in endless waves like some strange dark sea. Away from the road, the ground was much rougher, uneven, broken in places, here and there clustered with brambles and thorny vines that often seemed to reach out and ensnare a careless foot. Those who did not have the protection of thick leather shoes and hose had ankles streaked with the harsh bite of thorns. They were given no time to remove the thorny spines, for many had hands that were bound, and small children and mothers who had babes in arms received only snarls when they asked in quivering voices to be allowed to rest just a little while.

After more grueling miles crossed on feet now aching, the captain of the company called a halt. He turned the captives over to the charge of his sergeant and went to look for a comfortable spot under a tree where he could drink his draught in peace. The sergeant quickly had the lads busy at building a fire or going to a small stream nearby and filling water flasks while he ordered others to untie the hands of the captives and allow them to rest.

"Don't none of you get any ideas about running away," the sergeant snapped, "because you aren't going anywhere unless we take you. I'm in a good mood this evening, and I've gotten used to your foolish chatter, so I'm allowing you to sit about together while you eat. Of course," he threw back his head and laughed, his yellow, broken fangs showing through his parted lips, "I might want some recompense later tonight." His fellows laughed great mocking laughs and eyed the women and children greedily.

"No!" he shouted. "I don't mean that, you fools! You won't be allowed to eat them! Remember, no spoiling; can't you fools accept that?" His corporal, a younger uruk, turned his face away and his mouth twisted in a smug, contorted smile of knowing.

"You try any of that, and I'll have your balls cut off." The corporal lost his smirk, and pulling some trail bread from his pack, he tore it into pieces and began distributing it to women and children. The sergeant went on. "No, we were ordered no spoiling, but they didn't say we couldn't have a bit of sport like we had last night, just so long as the wenches stay intact and none have been deflowered."

The captives only wished for the sergeant to cease his cruel words and for all of the orcs to leave them in peace.

As the afternoon began to wear on, the air suddenly seemed more chill, and the dry leaves moved when there was no wind blowing. Things off in the woods seemed to grow dimmer as the dry leaves moaned in an unseen breeze. An uneasiness could be felt in the very air. Growing darker now, a thin mist damp and chill crept out of the woods and closed in about the captives. Colder now, the air did not move, but still the tree leaves swayed and rustled. The sounds of the beating drums and marching feet of the army seemed more distant, as though the sound were coming from a cavern somewhere beneath the earth. The captives began to feel as though they were walking in an uneasy dream, but their orc guards did not seem to notice. Shadows took shape and moved back in the trees beyond the small clearing where the camp had been set up.

Moving through the cold, dark mist, a horseman upon a great black steed came into sight. The captain of the army he was, and at his left side was his lieutenant, a figure clad in sable and scarlet and mounted upon a beautiful black mare. Upon the lieutenant's head was a black wrapped headdress, and his unseen face was veiled in dark cloth. A scarlet cloak partly hid his shadowy armor, and a scimitar was strapped to his back. Behind the two riders at a short distance followed another group of horsemen, advisors and lesser officers.

Raucous laughter, quarreling, jeering and taunting silenced suddenly as the orcs stopped the tasks they were attending and turned to face the column, standing rigidly at attention. The captives were ordered upon their feet, but many needed little prompting, for a sense of awe and dismay had come over them at the first sight of the captain and his lieutenant. Then the orcs commanded the women and children to fall to their knees and bow their heads in homage to their conquerors.

Forward rode the captain, tall and broad shouldered, a shadow of darkness in the dim light of evening. His horse's headstall and tall saddle were black and adorned with runes, strange signs and symbols in flashing silver, and silver tassels hung from the black reins. A black and silver caparison was draped over the horse's haunches, the dangling tassels upon the material bouncing as the great charger pranced. The horse was not armored for battle but was the mount of a conquering warrior upon a triumphal parade into a ravished city.

The rider's halberk was of black rings, and his surcoat was also black. Silver-plated vambraces he wore upon his arms and thick leather boots upon his feet. His face was concealed by a black hooded cloak which was fastened at the shoulder by a brooch of mithril silver shaped like a crescent moon, and upon his hooded head was a crown of cold, glimmering steel. The very air seemed chill about him, filled with dread and fear.

Overcome by curiosity, Elfhild raised her head and stared at the kingly rider. Tall he was, taller than any man she had ever seen, even the dark-haired folk of Gondor. Richly arrayed in sable and silver like the splendor of the moon in a darkened sky, she knew he was a high lord of the Nameless Land, ever the foe and now the conqueror of her people. She found she could not wrench her gaze from the kingly figure, and she became terrified that he would notice her. Yet still she stared as though held spellbound by a dragon's charms.

The rider halted his great black stallion, the horse's curb chain tinkling, the saddle leather creaking. His lieutenant by his side also reined in his horse, and the whole army ground to a halt behind them. Slowly the dark rider turned his head from side to side and sniffed, and then his unseen eyes seemed to rivet themselves upon Elfhild.

"What is your name?" a voice, marked with an accent which was unfamiliar and strangely chilling, hissed out of the dark hood. The words were commanding, as though a mighty and powerful king had deigned to speak with one of his new subjects.

Her heart froze. She looked up into the dim recesses of the black hood and her gaze became transfixed, as though the darkness which lay from the mighty shoulders to the rim of the kingly crown was slowly reaching out in billowy clouds to envelop her trembling form in an icy mist. "Elfhild daughter of Eadbald," she stammered timidly.

"And from what village do you hail?"

Icy shivers trailed down her spine like tiny fingers when she heard the rider's words. All was still save the dull thudding of her own heart and then the sound of her voice as she spoke. "Grenefeld of the Eastfold."

There was another sniff of the air, long and deep. "I will remember."

Then he touched the spurs to his horse's sides and rode away, his lieutenant at his side, the escort coming behind and then the troops to the rear.

"I will remember..."
"Schwarzer Reiter - Black Rider" art copyright its artist.


The first song was written by Angmar and Elfhild. The second song was written entirely by Elfhild. This song and some of the orc dialog were inspired by this quote from The Treason of Isengard, "'The Mighty One has great business afoot,' says one [of the orcs]. 'All that has gone before is but a skirmish compared with the war that is about to be kindled. Fine days, fine days! Blood on blade and fire on hill, smoke in sky and tears on earth. Merry weather, my friends, to bring a real New Year!'" ("The Story Foreseen from Lórien," The Treason of Isengard, p. 332.)

"Matum, matum, grish, ghaash, ghaash!" - "Death, death, blood, fire, fire!"
"Bruzûm, ghaash" - "Darkness, fire."
"Tarkûrz whore" - A Gondorian whore. (Black Speech "Tark" meaning "man of Gondor," from Quenya "Tarkil," one of Númenorean descent.)
Always good words to remember. By the way, neither Tolkien nor Land of Shadows Black Speech dictionaries give translations for exclamations like "Harri hai!" These guttural sounds are made by orcs in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and seem to be just that: noises of excitement or contempt.

The crescent moon imagery is pure Tolkien and taken from the 1954 dust-jacket design Tolkien created for The Two Towers. The book describes the liveries of Minas Morgul and standard Mordor: "Two liveries Sam noticed, one marked by the Red Eye, the other by a Moon disfigured with a ghastly face of death; but he did not stop to look more closely." ("The Tower of Cirith Ungol," Return of the King, p.179)

Just what is the ghastly face of death? In Tolkien's drawing, the tower of Minas Morgul, which appears as a standard medieval tower and not as some gruesome, nightmarish structure, is shown beneath a cresent moon (in fact, the tower of Minas Morgul is almost identical to the drawing of the White Tower of Ecthelion in The Atlas of Middle-earth by Karen Wynn Fonstad). Yet the moon looks pale and thin and could be considered "sickly" or "deathly."

Why is there an absence of heavy armor? Because in Tolkien, the primary pieces of armor seem to be mail halberks or shirts, helms and shields, simple devices of protection, perhaps dating from the 11th century or before. Tolkien describes the armor of the Rohirrim as: "The styles of the Bayeux Tapestry (made in England) fit them well enough, if one remembers that the kind of tennis-nets [the] soldiers seem to have on are only a clumsy conventional sign for chain-mail of small rings." (Letter #211, Tolkien Letters) Yet there seem to be no chain mail leggings, unless they are made by Dwarves. The Witch-king's legs were unprotected save for his boots, and that allowed Merry to stab him so easily in the back of the leg. This could not have been the case had he been wearing mail or plate. We try to keep our timeframe around the 11th century, though sometimes we go forward or back in time.

Here is a drawing of a caparison from Medieval Costume, Armour and Weapons by Eduard Wagner, Zoroslava Drobná and Jan Durdik. This is something like the caparison across the Witch-king's horse's haunches.