"Mother, I hear them coming," whispered Fródwine. Goldwyn and her three sons had taken shelter near a collapsed aqueduct which had once carried water from the river to the city. Tears rolled down Fritha's cheeks, and though he attempted to cry quietly, a muffled sob escaped his lips.
"I hear them, too, Fródwine," his mother's tense voice hissed from the darkness.
"What will we do? Run for it?" Frumgár asked anxiously.
"Son, let us wait and see," Goldwyn replied in a whisper. She licked her finger and held it up, feeling the slight breeze cool on her wet skin. "So far we are in luck; we are upwind from them."
"But, Mother! I see torches!" A shiver of fear raced up Frumgár's spine, and the hair at the base of his neck stood on end. He gulped down his terror and concentrated on watching the torches as they came ever nearer. Would these fearful beasts be so enraged that they would kill all four of them?
"Mother," Fródwine gripped his mother's arm, "I am going to run out where they can see me, jump up and down, wave my arms and dare them to catch me! The orcs will be distracted, and I can lead them away from the rest of you!"
"You will do no such thing, Fródwine, so get that foolish thought out of your mind!" Trying to keep her voice calm, Goldwyn gripped a piece of broken stone which jutted from the decaying aqueduct's base until her knuckles turned white. She must not let them see how worried she was.
"What are we going to do then, Mother? They are getting closer by the moment!" The eldest son looked into his mother's face, hoping she would guide him. He wanted to protect his mother and brothers, but he knew he was no match for the terrible brutes who tracked them.
His chin pressed against the ground, Fritha could see six torches coming ominously close, like pillars of fire striking against the darkness. The moving torchlight twisted the orcs' brutish features into even more monstrous forms. With a shudder, Fritha's scant courage left him at that moment. His face flushed red in embarrassment as he felt a warm stream of urine soak his breeches and pool beneath him. He shut his eyes tightly, but he could not keep the tears from running down his face and dripping on the ground.
Such great hulking brutes they were, grotesque, foul and bent upon mischief and malice. Though they labored in the employ of men, only a thin facade of civilization covered their animal essences. Amongst the guttural sounds of the orcs, the four could hear a man's voice.
"You told me that your folk have caught their scent." The deep, accented voice sounded irritated as he spoke in Black Speech. He had never liked the accursed tongue, but in his profession, he had to learn as many languages as he could. "Where are they?" he demanded, his face tense and drawn.
"Master," the uruk answered, "the escaped slaves must be around here somewhere! They could not have gone far!"
"Then find the runaways, but see that you do not harm them!" The man wondered if the uruks had any more idea where the escaped prisoners were than he did. Perhaps they were only leading him on some fool's errand, and planned to get him hopelessly lost.
"Physician, by the flames that burn eternally in the guts of the Mountain of Fire, we won't harm a hair on their pretty golden heads!" The orc's yellow eyes seemed to gleam in the darkness.
"Then proceed," Tushratta told him. The orc bowed, and he and his companions moved forward, their nostrils trying to catch the scent. The physician walked faster. Damn the brutes! If they broke into a run, he would be hard pressed to keep up with them!
"Fródwine," Goldwyn gazed into her eldest son's eyes with a look that drove a knife into his heart and twisted the blade in deep, "take care of Frumgár and Fritha. I am going to lead the beasts away."
"Mother, no!" Fródwine whispered, clutching her sleeve as she rose to a crouching position. "They will catch you!"
"I am a swift runner, son. They will be chasing me for some time." She touched his face. He was so like his father. "I want you to lead your brothers home! Stay close to the trees, and you must keep Fritha from following me! We will meet again someday, I know it! My heart remains with you all!"
"Mother, please do not!" Fródwine cried, but she was gone. "Oh, Béma, no!" he screamed to himself.
"Mother, you cannot!" Frumgár gasped as he saw their mother leap to her feet and hurry away. Fritha struggled to rise, but Frumgár grabbed him and pinned him to the ground.
"Frumgár, put your hand over his mouth and keep him quiet! If he struggles, hold him down!" Fródwine urged in a whisper. Frumgár's hand caught a wail before it escaped the youngest boy's mouth.
Goldwyn shrieked loudly as she ran across the path of the surprised orcs and the physician. She smiled grimly to herself as she heard their shouts behind her.
Turning to the orc near him, Tushratta demanded, "Your folk can see in this darkness while mine cannot. Do you recognize the woman?"
"Aye, Shakh," the orc replied. "'Tis the little tart whom the Master entertained in his tent earlier, but her pups are not with her."
Tushratta caught the eagerness in the orc's reply, the undisguised lust strong in the creature's voice. "Such base monsters," he thought, repulsed by their loathsome presence.
"There are not enough of us to search for both the boys and their mother! Find the woman, for she is most important! Forget the boys for now!" Tushratta barked out the order. "What a filthy, unpleasant business this is!" he cursed to himself. "Men such as I should never be in the position of chasing slaves! If the guards had not been indulging in their draught as they warmed their lazy rumps around the fire, this escape would never have occurred!"
"Aye, Shakh, they will be found!" the uruk promised as he called to his fellows. "But, physician, can you keep up with us?" The orc hoped that the puny man would lag far behind them, maybe even getting lost. With the physician out of the way, perhaps he and his fellows could have a little sport with the woman before they brought her back to the camp.
"Do not let my pace be of concern to you," he replied acidly. "When you locate the woman, send a man back to fetch me. I should not need to tell you again - make certain orders are followed. No harm to the woman or her sons!"
"Certainly, physician," the orc replied in a simpering tone which Tushratta detested, as he knew that it was only lightly concealed sarcasm.
Ahead of them, Goldwyn ran through the ruins. Her fear for her sons was a palpable agony, suffocating her. She must lead the enemies as far away from them as she could! Only then would they have any chance. Running, crouching, keeping low to the arches, columns and decaying ruins, she ran as swiftly as a frightened animal flees before the huntsmen who pursue it. Her mind and heart told her that she was racing towards an inexorable doom - the inevitability of capture, perhaps the nullification of existence - but if it would give her sons time to escape, she would face that situation when it came. Though there was much to regret, her greatest sorrow was that there had been no time to say goodbye.
Pausing, Goldwyn hid behind a pillar that once had supported a giant basilica dedicated to Isildur and Anárion. Pressing her hand to her pounding bosom, she took in great gulps of air, her heart thumping furiously in her chest. In spite of the cool night air, sweat dripped into her eyes and she began to feel clammy and chilled. She thought wryly to herself, "'Tis said that the orcs can smell their quarry; they will not have any trouble scenting me!" She was correct, for behind her, she could hear their exuberant cries and see the glowing torches coming ever nearer. "Like dogs on the scent of a hare!" Taking in a deep breath, she was off again, racing through the rubble and ruin of Osgiliath.
She ran until her legs and lungs were screaming in pain and for lack of air. Leaning against the tall foundations of a building, she feared her belabored breathing would give her away as quickly as her scent did. The torches drew closer. As she bent down and picked up a jagged piece of marble, the cool stone was somehow comforting in her hand as she waited for whatever came.
"'Hild, are we going to hide here all night?" Elffled asked, a whining tone to her voice, for her legs were cramped and aching. Long had the twins remained in the ruined marble building, neither girl daring to move.
"No, of course not," hissed Elfhild, becoming irritated. "Be quiet! I am listening."
Elffled looked furtively about them, her eyes striving to pierce the darkness. She wondered how Osgiliath had looked in its days of splendor, before the power of the realm of Gondor had waned. At one time, this place would have been beautiful, but now it was lonely and desolate.
"A city of the dead, a city of spirits and lost dreams," she thought with a shudder, and her only desire was to flee from the labyrinthian wilderness of briar, vine and cold stone. She felt the solemn, invisible presences of the dead ones all around them, watching them with cold indifference. In days long past, great men and women had walked these very streets, but now all that remained was crumbling, lichen-encrusted marble and memories, and the ghosts which kept them. Oh, how she wished that Leofgifu had been able to persuade Elfhild never to embark upon this foolish venture!
"Now," Elfhild whispered, and touched her sister on the shoulder. They rose from their hiding place, and Elfhild led them through the building. Across a courtyard they scampered, leaping over the low balustrade which marked its perimeter. Their feet pounded upon the hard stone, sending harsh vibrations up to their calves.
"There are many hours yet before dawn," Elfhild remarked as they skirted around buildings, through abandoned streets and alleys. "We need to travel as far as we can ere morning. After I deem that we are safe, we can rest for a while and then continue onward at a more leisurely pace. I think that we are close to the Great River."
"Well, if the sound of frogs croaking and the smell of dead fish are any indications, we must be very near. Eww!" Elffled gasped suddenly as her foot landed on something squishy. Looking down, she realized that she had stepped on a large toad. She was sure she had crushed it dead, but there was no time to fret about it. Scraping her foot off on a rock, she caught up with her sister.
Together the two girls raced, sometimes slowing to a trot when the ground became rougher, and then speeding to a run when it evened out, sometimes tripping and falling over rubble and then getting up and struggling on. Their knees were sore with scrapes, and they knew that their legs would be covered with bruises. Soon they came to a place where a stretch of low growing briar bushes had mingled among the jagged silhouettes. There was a fierce rip as Elffled's skirt caught in the thorns. She tugged on the garment, but the tough, spiny branch resisted her efforts.
"Hurry up, Elffled!" Elfhild whispered, pausing to wait for her sister.
"I am trying," Elffled hissed angrily. "My skirt is caught!"
"Well, try to untangle yourself, even if you have to use your teeth to gnaw the cloth to shreds!" Elfhild snapped sarcastically. "But do not leave any of the material behind - the orcs will use it to catch your scent!" She rolled her eyes at her incompetent sister. Could the girl do nothing right?
Elffled glared at her twin, even though she doubted that the other girl could see the flash of her eyes in the dim light. Then bending down, she gave her skirt a vicious jerk. The hem gave way and the worn material split up past her knee.
"Curses," she muttered under her breath. "Well, at least I am free now."
"Then let us go!" Elfhild hissed.
With Elffled following behind her sister, the twins once again began their desperate race to put distance between themselves and the camp. At last it seemed that the ruins were fewer and farther apart. "We must be on the outskirts of the city," Elfhild judged. "When we break free of the ruins, we will keep close to the trees. The rising of the sun will not be for some hours yet to come, but we must get as far as we can ere dawn."
"Where has Mother gone?" Fritha sniffled out after Frumgár had taken his hand from his mouth.
"I do not know! I do not even know where Fródwine is!" Frumgár hissed. "Just be quiet, please!"
After Goldwyn had left them, Fródwine disappeared into the ruins. When he could hear the uruks following behind him, he ducked behind a ruined column. Chills went down his spine when the group of uruks halted near his hiding place. He cursed when he recognized the voice of the physician. "The bloody bastard! He pretends to help the sick and the wounded, while he takes the gold of the filthy slaver!" he cursed to himself. The orcs grunted a few harsh words to each other and then sped away, the man following at a slower pace behind them. At least they were not going in the direction where his brothers lay hidden, but he knew all too well that the orcs were relentlessly on the trail of his mother. Bending down, he picked up two pieces of broken stone and made his way back to his brothers.
"An orc is coming to kill us, Frumgár!" Fritha whimpered as he saw a figure move out of the shadows and approach them.
"It is only me," Fródwine whispered. "Be quiet!"
"Where is Mother?"
He knelt down on his heels beside Fritha. "You have to be brave... we all have to be brave," his voice almost broke, though he tried to sound as grown up as he could. "I do not think Mother will come back."
"No!" gasped Frumgár. "Do not say that!"
Fritha started to wail again but Frumgár's hand went back over his mouth. The small lad struggled but his brother was heavier and held him pinned to the ground.
"Fritha, I do not want to do this, but if those orcs hear you, they will catch us. Please be quiet! Will you be still?"
Fritha lay there, quietly crying, and nodded his head up and down in affirmation.
"Fródwine, what are we going to do!" Frumgár wanted to sob out his fears, his grief at losing their mother, but he bit his lip. 'Twas time to grow up, even if he was only eight years old.
"We go on, Frumgár," Fródwine replied grimly.
Here ends the second book of THE CIRCLES.
The story continues in the third book, TO ESCAPE A DARK DESTINY.