The Circles - Book Five - Chapter 19

The Circles - Book Five - Through the Valley of Death
Chapter Nineteen
The Enchanted River
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

As the party of horsemen journeyed east through Ithilien, Elfhild and Elffled were silent, their minds filled with endless questions which had no answers. Still stinging from the harsh injunction against speaking in their own language, they had decided to say as little as possible in either tongue, and thus avoid trouble. Although quiet, the twins gazed about inquisitively, wondering what new dangers this unknown land might hold, and hoping that one of the Southrons might inadvertently offer some scrap of information that could answer at least some of their questions.

Although Ithilien had once been lauded as one of the most beautiful places in all of Gondor, after months without the Sun, the vegetation was as withered as that across the Anduin. Still captured in the clutch of unnatural winter, the somber landscape held no hint of vernal color to brighten and refresh the eye of the weary traveler. The hills which flanked the sides of the valley appeared as indistinct grayish brown ridges, the only variance in their monotony the deep gullies which had been carved in their sides long ago by the rushing and tumbling streams created by abundant rains.

At the lofty heads of deeper ravines were weathered cliffs, their harsh faces scored and exposed by the constant ravishment of water and wind. Strewn down the eroded waterways beneath them were masses of tumbled rock and the uprooted wreckages of trees which formed staircases of rubble leading down the hills. Whenever the sullen skies opened and lashed out their pent-up fury, torrents of water cascaded over the sheer cliffs and swept downstream to collect in deep pools before continuing on their way to merge with the Morgulduin. The only evidence of the violent storm four days before were the sluggish trickles of water which dripped over the rocks.

Had the Lord of the Dark Tower allowed the gentle touch of spring to fall upon the land, Ithilien would have been filled with the beauty and splendor of summer. No flowers bloomed to grace meadow, woodland or hillside, though. In the narrow lowlands on either side of the Morgulduin grew spreading groves of cedars and olive trees, all ravished by the days of darkness. Springing up near lichen-covered ruins of old stone foundations were the descendants of old orchard trees, their barren branches doomed to remain fruitless that year. Ancient oaks with massive boles and sturdy maples marked the borders of long abandoned fields.

At the edges of the forest, groves of hawthorn trees were brooding gray clouds of thorns, and the scraggly tops of crabapples provided little shade for the few birds which nested in their unruly branches. The ashes and oaks which grew deeper in the forest should have been clothed in their summery finery, but, alas, they were not. In sunny woodland glades, the spreading boughs of tamarisk trees were not laden with pink blossoms, and the bay laurels, prized by cooks for their pungent leaves, languished sadly. The beeches which clung to the hillsides should have been full of life and vigor, their silvery trunks dappled with shadows cast by their merry green leaves. At least the evergreens had retained some of their color, but the tall pines and firs, dagger-shaped cypresses and junipers, and fair-barked hollies and box trees had more brown foliage than green.

Yet along the banks of the misty river which paralleled the roadbed, the trees seemed to have been spared from the full fury of Sauron's might. The willows, alders, plane trees, and black poplars which crowded its banks held a faint cast of green, a promise of new life to come. Below them the Morgulduin splashed and gurgled on its way to the Anduin, twisting around great boulders in the midst of the channel and then boiling over small waterfalls, sending up great plumes of steam. Other than the sounds of the noisy waters, the narrow valley was quiet, as though the progress of the slavers and their two charges was being observed by unseen eyes.

Although the sunrise that morning had been vibrant, the clouds streaked with red and pink, as the day had worn on, the sky turned leaden in the west. By mid-day, the heat under the solemn clouds had built up and now seemed so heavy and oppressive that it was difficult to breathe. The rocky peaks of the Mountains of Shadow were cloaked in a summery haze which obscured the towering horizon and caused the craggy mountainsides to blend into brooding shades of brown, the narrow hollows gloomy smears of charcoal and sable. Far behind them, the White Mountains were dull shadows beneath a dismal sky.

Ganbar, who led Elfhild's horse, slowed down and allowed her to move up beside him. Taking up the slack in her horse's lead rope, he pronounced glumly, "Take my word for it - there will be rain before dark, and when it comes down, it will be by the bucketfuls!"

Elfhild had been about to respond, but before she could speak, Ubri interjected coolly, "Unless they are blind, Ganbar, everyone can see that." He also slowed his horse so that Elffled rode abreast of him. The sisters exchanged glances, wondering why they were being allowed to ride beside the men instead of being led behind them like young children. Ubri turned to Elfhild, the expression on his face as close to a smile as he had ever shown her. "Ganbar has the most amazing penchant for continuously stating the obvious."

Scowling, Ganbar muttered a few unintelligible words and stared straight ahead over his horse's ears. Although Ganbar was by nature good tempered, he had never appreciated being the brunt of a joke, especially when he was merely trying to elaborate on one of his favorite topics, the weather.

"Ganbar, we know the old saying, 'Red skies at night, sailor's delight; red skies in morning, sailors take warning' just as well as you do," Inbir laughed. "Everyone does, except possibly babes still suckling at their mother's breasts."

"I was merely explaining that conditions are right for a very bad storm," Ganbar grumbled, his tone turning unpleasant. "And I was not addressing you anyway! Next time I will keep my observations to myself!"

"Will you swear to that, Ganbar?" Inbir teased good-naturedly, his handsome face lighting up in a wide grin.

"Leave him be, Inbir! Do you not see that he was trying to impress the slave girl?" Ubri pointed out dryly, his upper lip curling in derision.

"Oh?" Inbir's eyebrows arched upward. "And I thought he was trying to impress us!"

Her head lowered demurely, Elffled was unsuccessful at stifling her giggles at the men's banter, and she pressed her bound hands against her lips to subdue her errant laughter.

Elfhild turned and looked solemnly at Ganbar. "The poor, sad earth will rejoice at any rain that it can get, Master Ganbar," she remarked, her voice as somber as her expression.

Nodding their heads up and down in agreement, the men murmured a sincere "Aye."

Up ahead of the small column, Esarhaddon slowed his horse to a walk, signaling a halt with his upraised right hand. His chestnut mare, impatient to be moving again, tossed her head and pranced as he turned to look back at the riders behind him. "The animals are thirsty and so are we. Here we will diverge from the main road and ride up this stream to a point where the bank is not so steep." After crossing a stone bridge which rose in an arch over the short breadth of a brook, Esarhaddon turned his horse to the left and led his men on a path which ran along the stream and disappeared into the woods. Coming to a small glen, he reined in his horse and announced, "Here we will halt for the mid-day meal, but we must not tarry long. The clouds promise a fierce storm."

While the men let their horses drink from the clear running stream, they washed their faces and hands and then refilled their waterskins. Not sparing the time to spread carpets for any but the Shakh, the three bodyguards sat cross-legged on the ground, talking quietly among themselves while the sisters served them a small meal of dried food. After the men had eaten and turned to their tea, Esarhaddon beckoned the twins to sit beside him while they ate their sparse meal.

Both girls felt uncomfortable when they were in the presence of the slaver, and Elffled's discomfiture increased when she felt his eyes studying her. His sensuous orbs, partly hidden behind their drooping lids, burned with a look so torrid that it seemed to scald her skin. When he reached over and caught her braid in his hand, rolling it between his fingers, she froze in place, the dried date in her fingers halfway up to her mouth. Frightened, her throat constricted in a gulp, and she put the date back on the tray and looked down at her lap.

"My little treasure, your hair shines pale yellow and gold with the radiance of the Sun," he murmured as he caressed the woven plait, his face very near to hers. "I long to see you nude, your body covered only with your hair, your long tresses shimmering like cloth-of-gold over your ivory shoulders."

"I – I am your slave, Master." Elffled swallowed hard. Though the slaver terrified her, she thought it best to submit to him. She had always thought that her introduction to the physical aspects of love would happen at the hands of her husband upon the bed of marriage, but what did that matter now? She was a slave, and had little say in what happened to her. Perhaps slavery was a bit like marriage, she considered wryly. Although there were no slaves in her own land, women did not always have a choice in which man they married. A peasant such as she could marry for love, but a noblewoman might have to marry a man she despised to secure an alliance with another prominent family. Being a slave was like being trapped in such a marriage, but perhaps if she were meek and obedient, her lord would show her kindness and affection.

Esarhaddon reached out his powerful arm pulled her to his side. As Elffled trembled against him, he crushed the braid in his hand, brought it to his nostrils and inhaled deeply. "Perhaps tonight I will see your shimmering mane spread out over the pillow while I taste the honey of your lips," he whispered in her ears.

"Please be gentle with me, Master," she whispered back as she hesitantly placed her hand upon his chest.

"Do you deserve gentleness?" His eyes narrowing, Esarhaddon gripped her hand tightly. "You and your sister caused me much trouble with your ill-conceived attempt at escape. The two of you deserve to be punished severely for your foolishness, but I am a merciful man."

Elffled lifted her face up to look pleadingly into his eyes. "Forgive me, Master. I know that you are much aggrieved with us for our disobedience, but please know that I never wanted to escape. I only did so out of loyalty to my sister, who insisted upon running away." Ignoring Elfhild's angry glare, she nestled closer to the slaver and rested her head upon his shoulder.

Releasing her hand, Esarhaddon cupped her chin in his palm and tilted her face to look up into his. "And should your sister decide she wants to escape again, will you stay or accompany her?"

"There is naught but death and destruction out there," Elffled whispered, evading a direct answer. "My only hope of survival lies in slavery." Captain Ubri said that the slaver might treat her and her sister more kindly if they promised never to escape again. Elfhild, stubborn and hardheaded as she was, would be loath to take such advice, but Elffled did not see the harm in trying.

Her fists clenching with unspoken outrage, Elfhild watched in revulsion as Elffled degraded herself before the Southron. Her own sister was throwing her under the wagon in a pathetic attempt to win his favor! The pain of betrayal lashed her soul. True it was that Elffled had never wanted to escape and had only done so out of duress, but did she have to tell this man of the enemy that? So much for loyalty!

Elfhild looked around the clearing. She longed to get away from the loathsome slave trader and her fawning sister. Perhaps if she were allowed to take a short walk, she could work out some of her anger and frustrations without accidentally saying something that would offend her illustrious master. But would the request itself offend him? The man was often inscrutable and highly unpredictable. Still, though, she had to try, for she felt as though she were suffocating!

Elfhild cleared her throat loudly, a note of impatience in her voice. "Master, if a slave is permitted a question..."

Burning with desire for Elffled, Esarhaddon scarcely heard Elfhild's words, for he was busy dallying with her sister. When Elfhild placed a gentle hand upon his sleeve, he turned angrily to confront her. "What is it?" he growled, his face darkening with fury as he drew back his hand to strike Elfhild. "The audacity of this rebellious wench is intolerable!" he fumed to himself.

Elfhild knew that she would hate herself for what she planned to do, but she was learning that sometimes even these vile slavers were lenient, if one postured and groveled enough. "Master," she cried suddenly as she fell forward and pressed her forehead against the ground, "have mercy! I beg you not to strike me!"

His upraised hand poised in mid-air, he glowered down at her. "Insolent, yes, but the girl is quite lovely," he mused as his gaze wandered from her golden hair down her shoulders to the graceful slope of her back and finally to her firm, round buttocks, which rose up enchantingly. Slowly a pleased smile spread over his face, and the hand which had been so threatening dropped down to stroke gently over her hair. "Slave girl, I grant you mercy this time, but you must learn that when I want to amuse myself with one of my other women, you are not to interrupt. Curb your impetuosity and learn discretion. Now look at me."

Lifting her head, Elfhild gazed up at him, her blue eyes wide and innocent, her lips trembling. His eyes caught hers and held them in their intimidating gaze, and she was forced to look down at her hands. Had he not dealt with wily slaves such as this one for many years, Esarhaddon might have accepted her seemingly artless ploy as the truth. Though he did not believe the girl's newfound meekness for one moment, still she amused him, and he enjoyed being entertained by beautiful women. Let her play her games! He knew how to play even better ones. This time, he was willing to forgive her, and forgo any punishment.

"Speak, my pretty little flower; you may ask whatever question you wish, but you must ask it with the proper humility." He was curious to know what question could possibly be important enough to her that she would risk incurring his displeasure. "Some frivolous thing, no doubt, or else she merely hoped to distract me from committing some supposed outrage upon her sister." He laughed to himself, thoroughly charmed by her naivete.

"Master, I was wondering..." Elfhild hesitated, her courage beginning to dissipate like smoke in the wind, but still she pressed on. "Would I have permission to stretch my legs and walk about the glade for a bit?"

Esarhaddon regarded her suspiciously, wondering if the girl was planning some mischief. These untamed barbarian women could not be trusted, and this one especially seemed to be a recalcitrant troublemaker. Still, though, pretending to trust her intentions would be a good test to determine if she were finally learning obedience. "Aye, I will grant you this request. Do not venture too far, and stay away from the river, for its waters are treacherous. We must be departing soon, so do not tarry long."

"I promise that will not go far, Master," Elfhild replied as she rose to her feet and bowed to him. "Thank you for this boon." She turned on her heel and stalked away, fuming at both Esarhaddon and Elffled.

Elfhild knew that her sister was probably wise to fawn and simper before Esarhaddon, but she chafed at thoughts of acquiescing to the enemy. She felt that if she submitted to the slaver, she would bring shame to her family, her country, and her King. Her father and mother gave all in the fight for freedom, and if she simply gave up and accepted slavery, she would be dishonoring their memory. She would also be making a mockery of the sacrifice that poor old Tarlanc had made to help her and her sister escape to their homeland. He had given up his home, his livelihood, and his life to help them. Her thoughts went back to her horrible nightmare about Tarlanc's unhappy wight. In his youth, Tarlanc had sworn upon the Valar that he would kill Dezi, the man whom he believed had stolen the affections of his wife, Tabahanza. However, he had never fulfilled that oath, for both he and Dezi were too heartbroken by Tabahanza's tragic death to continue their quarrel. Would the Valar pardon him, or would he be bound by the conditions of his vow, doomed to roam the earth forever as a restless spirit?

While Elfhild felt bound by duty and honor to continue resisting her captors, she knew in her heart that her struggle was doomed. If she continued to resist the might of Mordor, she would lead a life of misery, beatings, and rape. Perhaps if she were lucky, her suffering would be brief, and she would swiftly meet her end at the hands of an outraged Southron who could bear no more of her impertinence. Perhaps that was what she really wanted, to provoke the slavers to the point of killing her. Then she could join her family in the Halls of the Dead, and would be free at last of the travails of this cruel world. But then Elffled would be heartbroken, and Elfhild could not stand to bring her sister pain.

As she followed the course of the little stream, her thoughts raging inside her mind, Elfhild slowly became more aware of her surroundings. The clearing possessed an austere beauty, the branches of the surrounding trees forming intricate patterns against the overcast skies. Here and there a pine or cedar peered out from amongst the leafless brown and gray trees, adding depth and variety. Truly, this glade would be a most beauteous place if the trees were in their full splendor, the meadow grasses green and filled with wildflowers. Elfhild sighed deeply, imagining strolling through the tall grass and picking a bouquet of pristine white daisies and bright purple lupines.

She had walked much farther and quicker than she realized, and now the stone bridge was before her. Just a short distance from the bridge was the place where the brook flowed into the misty waters of the Morgulduin. Ever since she had first laid eyes upon it, the Morgulduin had enchanted her with its ethereal beauty. The trees and plants which grew along its banks seemed greener and brighter than any other foliage she had seen upon her journeys through the desolate, war torn wilderness of Rohan and Gondor. The long, trailing fronds of the willows, covered in bright green buds, swayed and undulated in a soft breeze, beckoning her to come closer. Smiling to herself, she daydreamed about sitting beneath the willows and watching the churning water of the silvery river swirl around rocks and fill small inlets near the shores with bubbling foam.

Elfhild looked back towards the slavers' camp. Esarhaddon had said to stay away from the river, that the waters were treacherous… but what harm would it be if she ventured closer to the rocky shore? She clasped her hands before her and sighed as her gaze returned once more to the river, for its ethereal beauty made her heart ache. How could any stream so fair and beauteous hold any danger? Never in all her weary miles of travel had she ever seen such a delightfully enchanting stream whose beckoning waters gleamed like quicksilver and sang with their own merry tune as they rushed to the Anduin. Surely the elven-folk had once favored this place with their blessings, and perhaps even now, they could be seen on moonlit nights dancing in mystic circles along the banks and frolicking amongst the waters.

Seemingly of their own accord, her feet took her closer to the steep bank. Steam rolled over the surface of the water, as though the river itself were boiling, but the mists which swirled and danced in the heavy air were as cold as the wind in winter. Elfhild closed her eyes, for the chill vapors felt refreshing against her sweaty brow. How wonderful it would feel to slip into those cool waters, and forget for a while the sorrows of her unhappy life… the grief she felt for her parents and brother, the guilt she felt for Tarlanc's death, the degradation of being forced into slavery… She felt herself falling forward towards the ensorcelled river below, but it did not matter, for soon the icy waters would welcome her and she would at last be at peace…

Suddenly a grip of iron upon her wrist drew her back from the brink, and she found herself in the arms of Esarhaddon uHuzziya, the treacherous spell of the Morgulduin broken.

"Foolish wench! Have you taken leave of your senses?" Esarhaddon grabbed Elfhild's shoulders and pulled her so close to his face that she could feel his heavy breath beating down upon her skin. "I told you to stay away from the river! The water is poisonous, and breathing in the vapors which rise from its surface can cause one to become grievously sick!" His eyes wild and ferocious, he shook her so savagely that her head rocked on her shoulders. "This river is called the 'Morgulduin' in the West and the 'Dushana' in Mordor, both words meaning the 'River of Black Sorcery.' In Harad, these foul waters are called 'Id Namushak,' and in Khand, 'Mütänim Näru.' Both mean 'River of Pestilence and Death.' If I had not reached you in time, you would have perished!"

"Master, I – I did not know!" Elfhild cried piteously, tears streaming down her face. "Something… something came over me, and I found myself drawn to the water's edge! It was as though I were under some sort of spell!" Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Esarhaddon's three bodyguards and her sister rapidly approaching on running feet, their faces aghast at what had just befallen.

His dark eyes flashing sparks of fire, Esarhaddon dug his fingers so fiercely into her shoulders that Elfhild cried out in pain. "All, save for ignorant peasants such as yourselves, know of the fame of the Morgulduin's lethal poison and its evil potency. There is some foul miasma which hovers over the waters, defiling them and causing any who drink from them to become grievously ill," he grated harshly. "It is said by some that one drink brings madness and two is instant death, while others say that a draught of these foul waters will cause cankerous lesions that slowly eat out the entrails, causing the victim to die an excruciatingly long and painful death."

Elfhild's heart pounded out a frantic rhythm in her chest, and her mind reeled in terror. How close she had come to death! And worse still, she would have blithely leapt to her doom without ever realizing the peril she faced! She looked up with tear-filled eyes at Esarhaddon's face, and quailed at the fury she saw there. Though his anger filled her with dismay, she felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude wash over her. This man, callous though he could be, had saved her life once again!

"Master, thank you for coming to my rescue," she cried out as she fell to her knees before him.

Unimpressed by the girl's gratitude, Esarhaddon grabbed her by her hair and hauled her back to her feet. "Men! Bring me ropes and a flail! This slave must be punished for her disobedience! It is the only way she will learn to obey!"

Muttering under his breath, Ganbar took a coil of rope from his pack, and, roughly pulling her hands forward, he bound her wrists. Out of the corner of her eye, Elfhild saw Ubri hand Esarhaddon a flail. The slaver gripped her bound wrists and dragged her over to a large tree a goodly distance away from the enchanted river. She gasped as he pulled the sash away from her waist and pulled her tunic and undershirt up to rest around her shoulders. Holding her bound hands aloft, Esarhaddon pushed her against the bole of the tree. She felt her exposed breasts press against the rough bark and she winced in pain, for her bruised body still ached from the tortures she received at the hands of Sharapul.

"Keep your arms raised over your head," Esarhaddon ordered, his hot breath blowing against her ear. "You have disobeyed me and now will receive your punishment. Under no circumstances are you to cry out or make a scene. If you do, I will whip you more."

Taking a deep breath, Elfhild closed her eyes and braced herself for the pain she knew would soon come, but she was totally unprepared for the full might of the flail as it came down mercilessly upon her exposed back. Fresh tears sprang to her eyes and she choked back a sob. Though the orc slave drivers had kept the captives moving by striking sluggish legs with their whips and flails, she had never received a whipping like this before.

"You are to remain silent when you are being chastised," Esarhaddon urged her, and she caught a hint of cruel amusement in his voice. "If you ever venture near the Morgulduin again, you will find that the punishment you receive will be far harsher than this." He drew the flail back and struck her a second time. The stinging blow was so wickedly severe that Elfhild could not help the agonized gasp which escaped from her lips. "You are doing very well, my gentle dove. I know you are not trained to obedience, but you are remaining as quiet as you possibly can. You will learn to be strong and bear your pain."

Tears streamed down Elfhild's cheeks, and her body shook with the sobs she was holding back. Though this punishment was cruel, she probably deserved it, for she had almost paid for her disobedience with her life. If Esarhaddon had not found her in time, she would have succumbed to the spell of the Morgulduin and perished beneath its icy waters. Since he had saved her life, she would try to bear this whipping without complaint. Still, though, the third blow of the flail left her writhing in agony, her tormented skin feeling as though she had been scourged by fire. Gnashing her teeth, she clenched her fists and ground the toes of her shoes into the dirt, but still she did not make a peep or let out a whimper.

"Your first lesson in obedience is concluded." Esarhaddon pulled her rumpled tunic down over her stinging back and turned her around to face him. "You will now show how grateful you are for my discipline by kneeling and kissing the flail." A smug smile upon his face, he held the many-tressed whip out before her.

Wincing in pain, Elfhild struggled to her knees, her abused flesh screaming in protest. She leaned forward and lightly brushed her lips over the flail. So many conflicting thoughts and emotions were racing through her mind… anger, resentment, fear, shame, gratitude, guilt… She felt as though she were drowning in her own head, and the only thing which kept her from sinking beneath waves of confusion was the throbbing pain in her back. As she gingerly rose to her feet, Esarhaddon offered her a hand to support herself.

"My little flower, you should know that I did not want to do this to you, but you left me no choice," he murmured consolingly. "You should take comfort in the fact that this punishment was a mild one, and no permanent harm has been done to your lovely back. If you learn from your mistakes and try to be an obedient slave, your life in Mordor will be much easier. Now come, it is time that we leave this place behind and continue on our journey."


Proof that vegetation grows along the Morgulduin - "But the horsemen passed on and ere evening they came to the Cross-roads and the great ring of trees, and all was silent. No sign of any enemy had they seen, no cry or call had been heard, no shaft had sped from rock or thicket by the way, yet as they went forward they felt the watchfulness of the land increase. Tree and stone, blade and leaf were listening." - The Black Gate Opens, The Return of the King, p. 160

The dangers of the Morgulduin are never explained in the books. "You will have no lack of water as you walk in Ithilien, but do not drink of any stream that flows from Imlad Morgul, the Valley of Living Death." - Journey to the Cross-Roads, The Two Towers, p. 303. Faramir never said why Frodo, Sam and Gollum could not drink from the river.

One draught of the waters might have brought about instant death, or perhaps madness or maybe even amnesia, much like the River Lethe in Greek Mythology. Maybe those who drank from it would be stricken with the Black Shadow and slip into a nightmare-filled slumber from which they would never awake; this concept was explored by Tolkien in The Hobbit with Mirkwood's Enchanted River. Faramir probably did not know what would happen to someone who drank from the river, but he had heard enough tales passed down over the years to know that the waters were perilous. Still, though, the consequences of sipping from the Morgulduin can only be speculated upon.

Next Chapter

Previous Chapter
Main Index