The Circles - Book Five - Chapter 1

The Circles - Book Five - Through the Valley of Death
Chapter One
The Workings of Fate
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

The eaves of the Druadan Forest, Anórien, June 21, 3019 Third Age

"Noble shakh, I swear to you that Farmak and I came upon Sharapul's camp last night on the high crest of that ridge over yonder!" Zaanûrz the uruk waved his hand towards the line of rugged, forested hills before them. "The old bugger said that he and his party would remain in this area for at least the next day or two. Sharapul, who has a knack for this sort of thing, is confident that the slaves have not yet made their way back to Rohan."

Zaanûrz' eyes shifted nervously between Shakh Esarhaddon uHuzziya's boot and the far western horizon. He knew that his master was displeased with him and his partner, Farmak, for they had failed miserably in their mission to track down the three young escaped slave boys. Zaanûrz was always apprehensive when in the presence of men of great power. Of course, he had no liking for them, but what were he and his kind to do? Men were their superiors in the army, and their orders had to be obeyed implicitly. Ever since the Great Eye had put so much control into the hands of His civilian puppets, life for the poor uruk had grown even worse. Now the imperious bastard Huzziya, one of the many agents for the Great Lord, stared down upon him from the height of his great horse as though Zaanûrz were a blue fly on the arse of a dead hound. Rage boiled within him but he suppressed his wrath. "The day will come," he licked his lips in anticipation as he relished the thought, "when the orcs will rise up and kill them all!"

"Well, it appears that they are nowhere about, does it?" Captain Ubri, leader of Esarhaddon's bodyguards, scornfully drawled out in Black Speech. The uruk noted that while the Haradian mispronounced every other word, the man was still extremely proud of his supposed command of the language.

"Vain fool," raged Zaanûrz within himself. "The dog of a Southerner slaughters the Master's speech yet again!"

The slaver and his party - his three bodyguards, Ubri, Ganbar and Inbir; his servant boy Ásal; and two half-breed orcs in his employ - had recently been joined by Zaanûrz and Farmak. These two had advised the slavers that they had met three other uruks who had information about the escaped slaves. Since that time, the slavers had been guided by Zaanûrz and Farmak until the master slaver, Esarhaddon uHuzziya, had finally lost patience with them and demanded to know where the two were leading them.

"Nay, Captain Ubri, though they have not made contact with us yet, I am confident that as soon as they are aware of our presence, they will seek us out," Zaanûrz answered with the usual resentful respect, keeping his eyes trained to the ground. "If you would not think me impertinent for advising it, I might suggest that instead of standing here, that we continue our progress towards the ridges."

Though Esarhaddon gave a nod to Ubri, affirming that he had accepted the uruk's advice, he seemed in no rush to leave. He and his men continued to scan the drab, leafless gray crest of the small ridge that ran in a north-south direction. Pawing and snorting, their spirited mounts were far more impatient to be away than were their riders. The horses tossed their heads, causing their bits to jingle and the colorful tassels on the reins to bob up and down. The two other uruks in the slaver's escort had taken the opportunity of the halt to rest, and, stoically viewing the vista before them, they leaned nonchalantly upon their spears.

"Listen! What was that?" Zaanûrz jerked his head suddenly to the left and listened. Immediately alert, the ears of the other uruks pricked up at some sound which the men could not detect.

"I hear nothing," Ubri answered skeptically.

"Wait!" Ganbar sat up straighter in the saddle and cupped his hand over his ear. "I heard something, though the sound was faint. It seems to be the cry of a hurt animal, perhaps a hart."

"That was no animal!" Zaanûrz cried out. "It was the scream of a human, and by its high pitch, I would daresay it was a female!"

"Wait, there it is again!" Farmak turned to look at the other orc.

"The escaped slaves!" Ubri exclaimed, leaning forward in the saddle as he tried to catch the sound.

Esarhaddon stroked his dark beard thoughtfully. "I heard nothing, but I will take your word for it, Zaanûrz and Farmuk. Among other qualities, your kind has a reputation for keenness of hearing. You and Farmak lead the way. My men and I will follow."

"Aye, Master, we live to serve," Zaanûrz replied, eager for some excitement after enduring the tedious presence of these arrogant sand lizards.

Led by the two uruks, the small cavalcade was soon trotting over the little-used rough track. Perhaps at one time, the trees and underbrush had been cleared away from the sides of the road, but now the forest pressed in upon them. The riders drew easier breaths when the roadway opened up before them, but their relief was short-lived. After they had rounded a bend, they found that the branches of the trees had grown together, forming a canopy of barren boughs over the path.

The three bodyguards, all men of the vast, barren sand wastes of the South, felt closed in and uncomfortable at the nearness of the forest. While his three underlings constantly cast nervous glances at the heavy growth above and to the sides, Esarhaddon rode as cocksure and confident as though he were entering a grove of date palms at his villa. Although he was often derogatory in his remarks about the uruks, he had grown to trust their keen senses, which were far superior to those of men. If these brutes sensed no danger, that was enough for him.

"The way will grow better soon," Zaanûrz called back to them, and sure enough, they were soon past the intruding vegetation. "Unless my ears have failed me, I would judge that the sound I heard came from only a short distance ahead." He glanced over his shoulder as he increased his pace to a lope. The men touched the sides of their horses with their spurs, and soon they were cantering down the trail.

Rounding another bend in the path, Esarhaddon's mount suddenly veered and pranced sideways. Nostrils flaring wide and pink, her eyes rolling back in her head, Ka'adara balked, refusing to go forward until Esarhaddon prodded her in the sides with his spurs. The other horses were affected in a similar manner, snorting and shying, their ears flicking back and forth as the riders attempted to settle the skittish steeds. Ásal, who usually had little trouble with the string of pack horses, had difficulty with one of the beasts, which stood trembling, refusing to budge. Finally the men coaxed, persuaded, or forced their horses to behave, and at last all of the animals were under the control of bit and spur.

"What has gotten into them?" Inbir grumbled as he guided his recalcitrant mare back onto the trail from a grove of spindly pines into which she had fled.

"They smell blood in the air," Farmak muttered dourly. "The scent of it is thick here. There has been mischief up ahead!"

"Ah, but Farmak, what else does my servant perceive? Do those remarkable nostrils of yours detect aught but the stench of blood? Is there evidence of the living among these odors?" Looking over the head of his horse and down the trail, Esarhaddon rubbed the mare's shoulder where the skin prickled in nervousness, twitching as though an insect had alighted upon it.

"Master," Farmak shook his head, "here, where we are, the scent of uruk rises strong from the ground. From the nature of it, I would be willing to wager that Sharapul and his boy have been this way not too long ago." The uruk lifted his head, his nostrils quivering as he winded the air.

"What else can you tell me?"

"From the wind coming from farther down the trail, I catch the scent of men and horses and some beast." Farmak tested the air again. "His scent is much like that of a wolf, a dog - I would suspect. These odors upon the breath of the wind are mixed, some scents pungent, others more diffused. I would suggest we journey on down the trail. I would warn you, though - keep alert, and a sharp eye out. Where there is the aroma of blood and death, we can expect danger."

Murmuring amongst themselves, the men pressed their knees to the sides of their horses, urging their steeds forward. Riding with the reins in their left hands, the men kept their sword arms free for quick work. Ahead the woods opened out into a small clearing, and once again the horses grew skittish as they sensed danger.

"There!" Ubri cried, standing up in his stirrups and pointing to a slumped figure leaning against the side of a tree. Nearby lay the bodies of a brown gelding and a huge mastiff. "You, Zaanûrz, determine if this man is still alive. You other three - fan out into the woods and search for any enemies who might be hiding."

A brief examination of Tarlanc's corpse brought the uruk running back. "He's dead, Captain! His throat has been slit from ear to ear!"

Captain Ubri shook his head. "What an unfortunate wretch to meet his fate in this woeful, deserted place! May his soul find peace among whatever gods that he worshiped! ...But wait!" Ubri suddenly exclaimed, looking intently towards the body. "I know that man! I met him once! 'Tis old Tarlanc, the miller from the village! Where he is, the slave maids must be close by!" He shook his fist. "If this is the bloody butchery of Sharapul, I swear when we catch up with him and his companions, I will slice off their pricks and ballocks, stuff them down their throats, and mount their heads upon poles! Then all who go by may take heed! Quickly, men! We must search for the slave girls! They are in grave danger! We will return later to bury the dead!"

Galloping their horses down the trail, the four Southrons came to the stream. By the water's edge, they saw the form of a blonde girl lying upon the sandy beach. "There is someone down there on the shingle at the bottom of the far bank!" Ganbar shouted excitedly.

"Men, ride forward and see if it is one of the escaped slaves!" Esarhaddon commanded as he urged his mare down the bank. He turned his head as the other uruks returned. "You lads stay up here and keep out of sight. We do not want to scare the flighty maiden."

Riding their horses down the slope, the men crossed the shallow stream and then dismounted. Ásal stayed behind, his hands full with the pack horses. Inbir was the first to reach the sobbing girl. "Little flower?" he asked as he placed a hand upon her shoulder. When she fearfully looked up at him, he smiled, immediately recognizing her as one of the missing slave girls.

"She gave us quite a chase." Ganbar grinned in admiration as he peered down at her.

"But every race must have its end," Ubri laughed unpleasantly, "and she has come to the end of the course." Striding over to her, he motioned for Inbir to move aside. "You are too gentle with her, Inbir. That confuses slaves and gives them ideas. Let me handle this," he told him in Haradric, and then turned to the girl. "Where is your sister? Have Sharapul and Âmbalfîm carried her off?" he demanded as he reached down and clamped his hand on her shoulder.

"They have her," Elffled sobbed, shrinking away from his touch. Of all the slavers, she thought Ubri to be the worst. "I -- I do not know where they took her. Âmbalfîm told me to run, and I did."

"Âmbalfîm told you to run!" Ubri scoffed. "What nonsense! Why would he try to help you?"

"Âmbalfîm is not like the other orcs," Elffled sniffled, staring at the ground.

"Ubri, are we here to learn what the damned uruk told her?" Ganbar snorted, impatient with Ubri's irrelevant questioning. "What difference does it make anyhow?" He looked down at Elffled. "Slave girl, where are the uruks now?"

"I do not know! I do not know!" she cried out. "They are back that way, I think!" Tearfully, she raised a trembling hand and motioned towards the west.

"Surely you know more than that!" Ubri's patience had run thin, and he shook her with such force that her head rocked back and forth.

"No! No!" she wailed, terrified at the way he was shaking her. "Mercy, please! Mercy!"

"Ubri, that is not necessary, is it?" Ganbar touched his hand to the other man's arm. "The girl will be too frightened to tell us anything of use."

"I suppose you are right," Ubri grudgingly admitted. "The girl is a half-wit. Whatever sense she had has been driven out of her by those accursed orcs!" He threw her back on the ground, where she lay in a crumpled heap, softly weeping.

"We are wasting time here," Inbir spoke up. His pride stung at Ubri's rebuke, he had watched the scene in silence. "The uruks have her scent, and they can backtrack her far better than we can."

"He is right, Ubri," Ganbar interjected. "The uruks can find them." As he looked down at the weeping girl, he felt pity for her. "Poor wretch," he thought. "Ubri has scared her half out of her wits! He always was too heavy-handed with slaves."

"We cannot get much more out of this idiot girl," Ubri growled. "Shakh Esarhaddon," he looked to the slaver, "do you want us to tie this little runner to a tree so that she will not get any ideas about escaping?"

"Too much risk leaving her here alone," Esarhaddon replied, looking around at the carnage at the top of the bank. "They have already murdered a harmless old man, and only a stroke of good luck can keep them from killing the other girl. No," he shook his head, "they might circle around and kill this one." He absently stroked his mare's neck as he looked towards the west. "If fate is still with us, the other maiden yet lives. Ubri and Ganbar, we must ride with all haste as though a djinn were breathing fire upon our heels!"

"But, shakh, do you not wish me to go with you?" Inbir asked, trying hard not to show his disappointment.

"Inbir, do not look so upset." The slaver's dark brown eyes were amused. "The task I have set for you is also a worthy one. You will stay and tend to the girl. When she is able, you will put her upon your horse and join us." He glanced down at the young eunuch, who had finally managed to calm the pack horses. "Ásal, you will only be in the way if you follow. Stay here with Inbir and help him. Tûrum, Shatog, Farmak and Zaanûrz, you will go with us." He paused and scanned the faces of his men. "Now let us find the bastards who have stolen my slaves!"

The uruks, eager to draw blood - even though it was of their own kind - cheered their master and raised their swords and spears into the air. Ubri and Ganbar were silent, but the steely look in their eyes and the grim set to their jaws showed their determination. Then they were away in a cloud of dust in search for the stolen girl.


Voices. Elffled heard voices coming from far away, distant murmurings which filtered down through the thick haze clouding her senses. There were men speaking in a strange tongue; horses nickered and moved about somewhere up above. Then the men were gone, searching for Elfhild. A bitter sob forcefully expelled itself from her throat. That horrible uruk had probably carried her sister off to some dark place in the forest, and no one would never see her again. Elffled sobbed louder. There was no use in even getting up. All was lost.

She sensed a light stirring of air, and then she felt a hand gently brush against her cheek. Her eyelashes fluttering open, she looked up into the almost black eyes of a handsome, tawny faced young Southron. At least the one who had shaken her until her teeth rattled had departed with the others. The youngest bodyguard and the servant boy remained, though, probably to guard her and prevent her from escaping.

What she had both hoped for and feared had come to pass; she had been recaptured! She remembered the feel of the iron as it was locked about her neck, the clanking of the chains as she was hooked to her place in the coffle line. What was the point in fighting slavery? But still, she knew the fear of all women who found themselves at the mercy of their enemies. She cringed away, whimpering in fear, but a strong hand held her shoulder down.

"Do not be afraid; no one will hurt you. Here, drink some wine, the sweet wine that will soothe your soul and warm your body," a kind, deeply masculine voice coaxed her. He lifted the wineskin up to her lips. "Drink, little flower," he murmured as he stroked her hair.

Elffled regarded him warily for a moment before drinking. The wine stung her parched, aching throat, but she was so thirsty... Reaching a hand up, she tilted the wineskin higher to allow more of the sweet, tart liquid to run out of the mouth of the skin.

"I am Inbir, third in rank of Shakh Esarhaddon's bodyguards. Perhaps you would like some food," he murmured softly, smiling at her.

"N-no, t-thank you, sir," she stammered. "I fear my appetite has completely fled from me." That was certainly an understatement; the contents of her stomach lay strewn upon the ground.

"I pray that I was not the cause of the disappearance of your appetite. Here, have another sip of wine." His piercing black eyes bored into her, making her feel uncomfortable and embarrassed. Blushing, she averted her gaze and took another sip. Wiping off her mouth with the side of her hand, she shook her head and pushed the flask away.

"No, sir. The cause of my affliction was the sight of such suffering and death. I have never seen a dead person before." Suddenly, her lips quivered, and she burst out into tears. "Oh, they killed Tarlanc and the animals, and then captured my sister and me! We were both so frightened! Then the two brutes started quarreling, and I managed to escape. I came back to this dreadful place to fetch a weapon, for I wanted to rescue my sister, but there was so much blood... and the flies... and the smell..."

A lump welled up in Elffled's throat and her words trailed off into incoherent moans. She felt her hand being lifted up, the brushing of a light kiss over her palm, the tickling of a mustache on her skin. Startled, she looked up into the Southron’s dark eyes, and saw that they held only kindness and sympathy.

"What is your name, gentle and most lovely of spring lilies?" Still clasping her hand, he turned it over and placed his palm atop hers.

She looked at him fearfully, remembering all of the leering faces and groping hands, all the foul kisses which had been forced upon her lips. Her stomach knotted as she remembered the shame of Sharapul and Âmbalfîm's vile explorations. She could still feel their meaty paws as they roughly probed her tender flesh. Into her mind flashed the image of the obscenely grinning Sergeant Daungha, the crude boor who had forced her to submit to his rapacious, demanding kisses. How she loathed him! And then there were the men at the blacksmith's shop in Minas Tirith who passed her around, each one roughly kissing and fondling her. Would this man be any different?

"Elffled, sir," she answered unwillingly, resenting the unwanted attention of the Southron.

"Elf-fled." Inbir rolled the name around in his mouth, stumbling over the syllables, which sounded harsh to his ears. "Is there a meaning to such a name?" He raised his eyebrows quizzically.

"Elf-beauty, sir," she mumbled and looked away, blushing. She knew that the innocent name that her parents had given her would no doubt delight this overly convivial Southron.

"Appropriate." His luminous eyes caressed her face, and, sighing, he touched her cheek gently with the back of his hand. His eyes never left hers as his hand lingered on her cheek for a few seconds before bringing his fingers to his lips. His expressive eyes glowed with an emotion that she could not read, but which made her feel strange. Discomfited, she looked away as he kissed his fingers and then pressed his hand over his heart. "No maiden of the elves could be more lovely." His voice was hoarse as he rose to his knees and then stood up. His face flushing beneath his tawny skin, he cleared his throat before speaking. "If you feel able now, we must be away, for my lord Esarhaddon has gone to seek your sister and has ordered me to bring you to him. Have no fear; you are safe with Ásal and me." With a slight jerk of his head, he indicated the grinning boy who stood nearby.

Elffled's mournful expression brightened considerably at the assurance that attempts were being made to return Elfhild. "Oh, I pray that the lord is able to rescue her. These orcs are mad!" The slaver and his men would surely be far kinder to them than the cruel uruks. Whatever punishments they might devise would be more merciful than anything those monsters would invent, or at least she hoped so. Poor Elfhild, though -- Elffled knew that her sister would be enraged at becoming a prisoner once again just as soon as she was rescued.

"If fate wills it, your sister will be safe. There is naught we can do that will either help or hinder the workings of destiny." Inbir reached down and offered his hand, which she took shyly. As he pulled her to her feet, their eyes met again, and she felt her heart skip a beat. He led her to his horse, squeezing her hand in his firm grip. Untying his horse, he took up the reins and mounted his steed. "You will ride behind me. Here, I will assist you," he told her as he slid his foot out of the stirrup. Looking up at him warily, she put her foot in the stirrup and hesitantly took his hand as he reached down for her. Swinging her up behind him, he looked back over his shoulder, his eyes glowing as brightly as the stars in the night sky. "Wrap your arms around my waist, little flower, and hold me tightly. I am going to take you flying!"

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