The Circles - Book Five - Chapter 17

The Circles - Book Five - Through the Valley of Death
Chapter Seventeen
The Music of Love and the Wine of Sleep
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

When Ganbar and the twins walked back into the circle of light, Esarhaddon had just turned his tea glass upside down on a small saucer, a signal to Inbir that he wished no more. "Excellent tea, Inbir! Brewed with just the right quantity of mint, neither too much nor too little," the Shakh complimented the young man. A pleased smile upon his face, Inbir inclined his head and placed the empty tea glass and saucer on a small brass tray before turning to Ubri.

"No more for me, Inbir. I need to be going to bed." Ubri rose to his feet.

"So soon?" Esarhaddon asked, a look of disappointment turning down the corners of his mouth. "I see there is no dissuading you, Captain Ubri. Then may your sleep be peaceful."

"And yours, my lord." Inclining his head, Ubri touched his right hand to his chest, then to his lips and last to his forehead. Then after wishing the other men a pleasant evening, he bowed again to the Shakh and backed away.

Covering his large mouth with his hand, Ganbar yawned prodigiously. "My lord, sleep calls to me with a seductive, sweet whisper, and so I will bid you goodnight," he announced as he rose to his feet. After performing the expected obeisance to the Shakh and extending his farewells to the men, he was on his way to his bedroll.

The tea tray in his hands, Inbir quietly excused himself, but the Shakh halted him with a raised hand. "Inbir, a moment! After you have packed away the tea making supplies, I would fancy hearing you play the oud."

"Certainly, my lord." Inbir's expressive eyes glowed with pleasure. "By your leave, I will put these things away and then return with my oud. Is there anything else you wish?"

"Ah, yes, there is another thing," Esarhaddon added, as though in an afterthought. "After you put away your tea set, fetch four cups and the bottle of that excellent vintage which Shakh Awidan presented me this morning. I would have you share a draught of that delicious wine with the slave girls and me."

"No, none for me, my lord," Inbir shook his head, "but thank you for your consideration. I will return shortly with cups for you and the women."

"May you return speedily, Inbir, for I have a great thirst for the wine and a craving to hear your music," the slaver urged as the young man took his leave.

As Elffled overheard the conversation, she felt a thrill of excitement. Inbir was going to play his splendid oud - that was what that wondrous instrument was called, an oud, an exotic name for the exotic lute of the South. Oh, she hoped that he would sing! She remembered his singing on the banks of the Anduin, and longed to hear him again.

Esarhaddon looked over to the girls, who had remained kneeling during this exchange. "My pretty little flowers, I am desirous of your company this night, and so I bid you approach me. Sit down, Elfhild on my right, and Elffled on my left." He smiled kindly at them as he patted the carpet. After the twins were seated beside Esarhaddon, the slaver gave a signal to Inbir, and the musician began to play an epic song about a youth who had been killed in battle.

"Inbir, what can I say?" Esarhaddon remarked as Inbir finished his first selection. "As always, your playing is hauntingly beautiful." Closing his eyes, he inhaled deeply of his cup of wine. "Ah, wine and music! Who can extol their praises enough! As an illustrious poet once said, 'Without the love of wine and music, man is but half alive,' and, 'The man who shuns the beauties of music and who loathes the fruit of the grape will know little comfort when he grieves, nor will he have anything to increase his joy when he celebrates!'" He smiled softly. "But which of the two is the more beneficial, wine or music... Ah, the question is most perplexing."

"But my lord," Inbir remarked as he resumed his playing, his fingers once again lightly moving over the strings, "while the acclaimed poet is most correct in his estimations of the two, he neglected to mention a thing which is even more delightful than either while serving the purposes of both."

"Worthy Inbir, you pose me a riddle which I cannot solve. Tell me, what is the answer?" Esarhaddon's eyebrows furrowed in puzzlement.

"Woman, my lord," Inbir replied simply as he looked up from the oud and grinned, flashing his gleaming white teeth and setting Elffled's heart racing.

Esarhaddon chuckled in amusement at Inbir's answer. "While I concur with you that woman is more delightful than either wine or music, how is it that she can fulfill the purposes of both?" He leaned against Elfhild, his shoulder nudging against hers. Shifting her position, she pulled herself away from the slaver's unwelcome weight.

"Worthless Southron," Elfhild thought spitefully. "If he is too lazy to sit up, then he should lean against the tree, and not on me!"

"My lord Esarhaddon, here is the explanation of the riddle. When a man kisses a woman and sips of the ambrosia of her mouth, he can become giddy on that intoxicating taste."

"A veritable truth, Inbir." The slaver nodded, stroking his beard thoughtfully as he reflected on Inbir's words. "From my own experiences, I can agree with your observations, for truly a woman's sweet kisses can intoxicate a man, beguiling him until he loses his senses. I am both puzzled and intrigued, though, to understand how she is like an instrument."

"My lord, a woman is like an instrument in many ways," Inbir explained as he began playing a seductive melody. "Firstly, both are marvelous pieces of craftsmanship, created for the enjoyment of man. After the strings of the oud have been tuned to perfection, it will throb and vibrate in the hands of a skilled musician, and just as the oud, every inch of a woman's body will resonate to the touches of her lover." Faster and faster he strummed the strings of the oud until the frenzied sound was a wild cry of abandon. "As he strokes her to greater heights, together they will rise on a crescendo of exquisite, rapturous music, soaring into the very heavens upon a wave of ecstasy." His eyes flashed as his deft fingers gently stroked the neck of the oud. "Thus, my lord, is woman more pleasing to man than either wine or music... while still fulfilling the functions of both."

Few men of the Mark would speak in such a candid manner in mixed company, but instead of being horrified by Inbir's sensual words, Elffled found them beautiful and exciting. How strange it was that she who had been cruelly abused by her enemies could feel an infatuation for a Southron, but she loved his music, his voice, and his compassionate manner. She wished Inbir would pay more attention to her, but perhaps that was why she liked him so much, for he had never forced himself upon her as others had done. Alas! Aeffe had taken a fancy to the soulful musician, and Elffled felt guilty for sharing the same feelings towards the object of her friend's affection.

"Inbir, now that you have told the solution to your riddle, I judge that you have reckoned the matter of women, wine and music quite well. Now to bring this most pleasant discussion to a conclusion. There is only one small thing which I would add," Esarhaddon smiled devilishly. "Before a man can truly appreciate wine, he must sample many vintages until he finds the best, and so it is the same with women." He chuckled, the sound drenched with lust.

"My lord," Inbir grinned, "while I have considerable experience with the oud, learning to play the instrument when I was a boy, and drunk my share of wine, I do not have the experience that you have had with women. I intend to remedy that lack one day." Smiling pleasantly, Inbir resumed strumming his oud, softly humming a cheerful melody.

When Esarhaddon turned his attention to Elfhild, the look on his tawny face was filled with concern. Yet the sarcastic edge in his voice belied his worried expression. "Tender dove, you have not touched your wine. Do you find some fault with it?"

"I am not very thirsty tonight, Master," she replied quietly and stared down at the carpet.

"Ah," he nodded his head as he leaned forward slightly, setting the empty cup down on the carpet. As he brought his hand back, he gently laid it on Elfhild's thigh. She flinched but held her ground. She knew instinctively that if she moved or fought, he would swiftly punish her. "I thought perhaps you declined to drink because you suspected that the wine was drugged." His half-closed eyes were mocking as his broad, hairy hand slipped down towards her inner thigh.

"Hence the reason for my lack of thirst," Elfhild muttered dryly as she clamped her legs together, barring his further progress.

"You will drink it, my little beauty."

"Only because I must," she told him, her aquamarine eyes flashing in defiance.

Responding with a soft chuckle, he did not push her further, satisfied to lay his hand on the top of her thigh. He was pleased that the Rohirric beauty was reluctant to accept his touches, giving him more proof that she was an innocent and not a loose woman. "The girl will be worth the trouble which she has cost me. Once trained to be a pleasing servant, this modest beauty will make me even richer than I am," he thought to himself with satisfaction.

"Why are you drugging us, Master?" Elffled asked timidly. Though her sister had informed her of her suspicions regarding the wine, Elffled had been thirsty and had drunk over half of her goblet. A drugged draught was better than going thirsty, she supposed.

"Sweet one, I am loath to send you to the tranquil paradise of dreams when you are unwilling, but you and your sister leave me no choice. Regretfully, the two of you have a very bad habit of running away. This fault in you has proved costly to me, both in money and in trouble." Sighing heavily, he gave both girls a stern look. "The wine in both your cups has been blessed by the gentle giver of slumber, the poppy. Nurtured in my gardens, the delicate blossom produces the seed pods from which this benevolent potion is made. Drink deeply and forget the cares of life for a while," his deep, masculine voice whispered seductively as he took the cup from her hands and held it to her lips.

"Oh, please, good Master, I do not want to be drugged, but I fear this devilish draught has already begun to work its foul magic in my body!" Shivering with fright, Elffled rubbed her hands over her arms, which were tingling as though they had been asleep.

Grasping her shoulder, Esarhaddon drew her into the crook of his arm. "Do not fight this boon which I offer you. Calm your fears and give yourself over fully to the power of the wine, and your dreams can be voyages into bliss. Now drink!" He raised the cup once again to her lips, and, too frightened to resist, Elffled drank the rest of the wine.

"Sweet one, sleep in the gardens of enchantment," Esarhaddon murmured against Elffled's ear as he laid her gently down upon the carpet. Raising up her head, he slid a red and gold pillow beneath her neck. After kissing her closed eyelids, he turned to Elfhild and his mouth curled into a mocking smile. "Tender flower, I see you have scarcely touched your wine." He raised a questioning eyebrow. "Perhaps you wish to drink the wine from my hand, as did your sister?"

"That will not be necessary." Her eyes narrowing in a defiant glare, Elfhild raised the goblet in a toast. "To my illustrious master and slavery in the Dark Land!" She downed the somnolent contents of the cup in a few swallows and then hurled the vessel to the ground, where it shattered upon impact. She winced as the heady brew filled her throat with fire and caused her eyes to water.

"You vex me greatly, slave girl," Esarhaddon growled. He signed to Inbir that he wished him to conclude playing, and listened intently as the young musician deftly plucked an improvised finale to his selection. Ending his song with an elaborate flourish, Inbir closed his eyes and bowed his head. Tucking his oud under his left arm, Inbir rolled to his knees and rose to his feet in a single fluid movement.

"Excellent playing, Inbir!" Esarhaddon praised him. "Now while you fetch the blankets for my bed, I will amuse myself with this gentle maiden."

"Aye, Shakh." A knowing smile upon his face, Inbir bowed and made his speedy departure.

"You will rise to your feet, my tender maid." Esarhaddon's voice was filled with silken malice. Bending down and grasping her by the arms, he hauled a startled Elfhild to her feet. Shoving her back against the tree, he gripped her shoulders, pinioning her to the trunk. She winced in discomfort as she felt the rough bark digging into her back. A sardonic smile upon his face, he bent his head, his arrogant lips provocatively close to her mouth. She tried to face him bravely - after all, she had been bold enough to condemn the accursed wine - but she felt her courage ebbing. This situation was sickeningly familiar, and her mind took her back to that dreadful day when she was bound painfully to a tree, tortured by Sharapul, and then threatened with a slow death from starvation by the slaver.

"Now my little innocent, you believe that you and your sister have been maligned and abused, and that it was a great injustice for you to be required to drink a drugged draught." Esarhaddon's dark eyes glinted with sparks of anger as his fingers dug cruelly into her flesh. "Whatever you think of my men and me, we want to keep you alive. To do this, we cannot take chances on your escaping again, for you do not know this land and might become lost. It is perilous to wander in the woods alone, especially for two maidens as lovely as yourselves." His eyes bored into her frightened ones. "You have learned to fear the orcs, but I will tell you, pretty one, that there are things in this valley far more terrifying than any orc."

Elfhild gasped softly, alarmed at this new threat and dreading to learn what it might be. Her body trembled, her heart pounding so frantically that she was sure that the slaver could hear its wild thumping. As though taking mercy upon her plight, his expression grew gentler, and, relaxing his harsh grip upon her shoulders, he leaned his forehead against hers, his mint-laced breath caressing her face.

"What sort of things, Master?" she asked tremulously as she dared to look up into his fierce eyes.

"Foul things, dark and evil..." came his hushed reply. "Things which would make your heart stop in terror should you ever encounter them." Deep in his eyes, she saw a flicker of some unfathomable emotion. Uncertainty? Dread? A harbinger of the blackest terror? Elfhild gulped, swallowing down the fear which threatened to consume her senses. Could it be that the slaver, that mighty man who was strong both of body and of will, who commanded both man and orc, whose mere whim determined whether she lived or died, was... afraid? Elfhild had difficulty even imagining what fell entity had the power to trouble this indomitable man's mind with doubt, much less frighten him.

"Since both of you have proved unreasonable and sought ways to escape at every turn, there was nothing to be done but restrain you." Esarhaddon's voice had grown softer, almost conciliatory, and Elfhild found herself being lulled by the sound of his words. "I could either have you and your sister bound hand and foot and chained to a tree, or use a gentler method and drug you to oblivion. Which way would you have it?" He playfully rubbed his forehead against hers, and she could not help the errant giggle that escaped from her lips. After a gentle squeeze to her shoulders, he stroked the soft underside of her chin with the back of his hand.

Elfhild's eyes lowered in defeat. "Only a fool would choose to spend the night in chains," she muttered, her voice beginning to slur.

"I was certain that after you had considered everything calmly, you would see things my way." He lifted her chin and smiled warmly into her eyes. "Poor silly little fool," he thought contemptuously. "No doubt she believes these tales with which I have filled her simple mind. While I will admit that strange things have been known to happen here, I believe that the mysterious rulers of the Morgul Vale are mere men, and not ghosts, ghûls, djinns or any other supernatural being, as some believe. A more logical explanation for their advanced knowledge lies with the alchemist kings of the fabled Sunken Land. The ancient lore of the West tells us that these men were always searching for the secrets of life itself. Perhaps in their quest for knowledge, they discovered hidden truths of alchemy and natural philosophy. Maybe their successors, the rulers of this valley, put this knowledge to their own vile use. Wizardry?" he laughed silently. "I think not. Perverse philosophy more likely!"

Looking deeply into the girl's befuddled eyes, Esarhaddon knew that she would soon be asleep. Turning his head away from her, he gazed intently into the dark woods, where his keen ears had heard someone approaching. "Inbir, is that you?" he called out, and was answered by the young man's reply, "Yes, Shakh, it is I."

Elfhild whimpered softly, for she felt cold and abandoned after Esarhaddon had moved his head away from hers. Smiling dreamily, she followed his gaze and saw the approaching Inbir walking through a hazy fog. His blurry form disappeared into the mists as everything went dark before her eyes, and she crumpled into the slaver's arms, a blissful expression upon her face. Chuckling softly, Esarhaddon caught her limp body and lowered her to the ground beside her sister.


As the night wore on, the sisters slept peacefully, their minds filled with dreams both strange and marvelous. Time passed and the silvery orb of Ithil sank closer to the western horizon. Clad in a nightdress of silvery light and wrapped in a robe of river mist, the land of Ithilien reposed in blissful tranquility. The camp lay hushed in the silence of the night, with only the muted sounds of the horses to mar the calm serenity. The sisters slept on, wrapped in the gentle cloak of slumber.

Suddenly the peaceful stillness of the night was shattered by a mournful keening which rose up in a high-pitched crescendo of agony and rage before choking off in a gasping moan. Elfhild's eyes flew open. She was fully awake, or at least her mind was. Her body lay on the carpet, her limbs made leaden by the sleeping draught. The moaning cry slowly rose with such a fury that all those who listened were convinced that their skulls would surely burst asunder with the intensity of the dreadful howling. Elfhild felt the chords of the deadly call strike deep within her consciousness, threatening to draw her into some shadowy realm beyond the velvety recesses of the night. Barely able to lift her head, her eyes searched the sky to find the presence which she knew was there, but she saw nothing.

As a second shriek cut through the night, its fell, shuddering sound brought the camp to alarmed wakefulness. The panic-stricken horses reared and bucked in a frenzy to fight against their tethers, their shrill, terrified whinnies adding to the pandemonium that reigned over the camp. Men cursed as they hurriedly tugged on their pantaloons and raced to calm the horses. A third mournful, sobbing wail cut through the somber night as a sharp sword cuts through flesh, and then the sound died, vanishing just as suddenly as it had come.

Thrice had the demon of the skies called, and thrice had Elfhild's soul trembled within her. She had heard the flying shriekers before as they called out their songs of death, but never before did one of the hell-spawned creatures have such a profound effect upon her. She wondered if the demon's dreadful howling had any purpose. Maybe the phantom was screaming out a warning, or perhaps even a cruel welcome. Perhaps it cried out in the anguish of its damnation, and wished to share its misery with others. Or perhaps there was no meaning at all.

Even though the creature had departed, the horses were still in a state of frenzied terror, plunging and struggling to escape. As she lay there helplessly, Elfhild could hear the men as they tried to calm and steady the beasts. Undisturbed by either the strange malefic cries or the chaos in the camp, Elffled slumbered peacefully, her eyelashes a dark smudge against her fair skin. At last, except for a few nervous whufflings and stamping of feet, the horses quieted, and peace returned once again to the camp.

On the periphery of her vision, Elfhild saw a shadowy figure approaching her from out of the darkness. Terrified that one of the phantoms of the air had come for her, she reached a trembling hand up to ward the monster away. She could see him standing above her, his face and form shrouded by the darkness. A wave of abject terror flooded her mind as she felt a hand touch her shoulder, and she screamed with all her might.

Floods of tears streaming down her face, she kept screaming until a strong, broad hand clamped over her mouth. "Be still!" a deep voice ordered her. Looking up through a veil of tears, she could see the face of Esarhaddon leaning over her. "Will you be quiet?" he asked, and when she nodded her head up and down, he released her.

"Oh, my lord, it is you!" Elfhild almost sobbed in relief. "The monsters in the sky frightened me!" She reached a shaky hand out to touch the slaver. Perhaps this man could protect her from the terrors of the night.

"You heard nothing, only an owl, or your own imagination. Drugs can play tricks with your mind," he murmured reassuringly as he stroked her face.

"But the horses," she insisted in a weak whisper. "I know I heard them! They were terrified to a state of madness!"

"Nothing more than a row between the beasts... there is a troublemaker amongst them. Apparently he felt that another one was too close to his fodder, and so he lashed out with his hooves. Nothing to be concerned about. It is all over now." Esarhaddon's voice was calming and soothing, and, oh, how she longed to believe him, to believe that all she had heard was only an aural phantasm of her own mind, brought on by the poppy potion.

"Go back to sleep, my little dove," Esarhaddon ordered her. She heard his soft breathing as he tugged off his boots and set them at the edge of the carpet. A shock of dread sent Elfhild's pulse racing as she saw him bend down and toss back the covers, for she realized that he planned to sleep between her sister and her.

Lying down, he rolled to his side and leaned on one elbow while he gazed down at her, his dark eyes glittering in the fading moonlight. "I will guard you throughout the night and protect you from any harm," he murmured as he ensnared her waist with his arm and turned her to face him. Pulling her still closer, he drew the blanket over them both. She tried to push away from him, and gasped when he caught her hand and pressed it firmly against his chest. "Would you like to feel what lies below, little dove?" he chuckled.

"Oh, no, Master, please!"

He held the back of her neck and silenced her protests with a firm kiss. Laying his bearded face against her cheek, he whispered, "Perhaps you will find out what is there one day, but not tonight. Now go to sleep."

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