The Circles - Book Five - Chapter 20

The Circles - Book Five - Through the Valley of Death
Chapter Twenty
A Convergence of Ways
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

Esarhaddon put his spurs to his mount's sides, and the chestnut mare tore up the main road like a sweeping storm across the desert. Ka'adara, his exuberant mare, was all spirit and fire as she sped down the road, her pounding hooves churning up a small cloud of dust behind them. The rest of the horsemen raced behind, but at a slower pace than the speedy mare. Although they were fair riders, the twins found that their bound hands made it difficult to keep their balance in the saddle, and more than once they were forced to clutch the pommel to keep from falling.

As they rode, Elffled looked towards her sister with concern. She did not understand all the chaos that had transpired that afternoon. All she knew was that Elfhild had stalked off in a fury, abandoning her to the slaver's amorous desires. The next thing she knew, Ganbar started shouting and pointing towards the river, throwing the camp into an uproar. Elfhild was blindly walking towards the Morgulduin in a trance and would have thrown herself into the bewitched waters had not Esarhaddon reached her in time to pull her back. "For a man of his bulk, the slaver can certainly run fast," Elffled reflected, grateful that he had saved her sister's life. However, Elfhild had paid a terrible price for her folly, for Esarhaddon had flailed her back with the whip.

"My dear sister certainly put the slave trader into a foul mood, and he punished her sorely for her transgressions," Elffled mused as she leaned slightly to the right and peered past Ubri's mount to where Esarhaddon's chestnut mare was far in the distance. Though she could not see the slaver's face, she knew by the rigid way which he held himself in the saddle that he was in a black rage. Such a terrifying man, she thought, given to such violent tempers and seething passion! A shiver of fear and dread raced up her spine as she thought of the long journey ahead of them and how they must suffer as the unfortunate victims of this man's impetuous whims.

As Ka'adara raced on ahead, her tail arched out behind her and trailed down like a streaming fountain. Esarhaddon gave the mare her head and she raced like the wind, her shoes pounding on the pavement and sending up sparks. Although their riders' expressions showed that they were weary with the uneven race, still the men kept urging their blowing, lathered mounts forward to attempt to catch up with the mare.

"The arrogant brute is showing off," Elffled thought, with more than a trace of admiration mixed with her ire.

At last slowing his horse, Esarhaddon held the chestnut at a brisk trot, obviously proud of the splendid animal and her paces. The spirited mare, unwilling for her romp to be over, chafed at the rein and mouthed the bit, playfully rolling it between her teeth. Though the mare was by no means large at only fifteen hands high, and of a fine, almost dainty build, still her short, sturdy back carried the tall, heavyset slave trader well. Elffled could not help admiring the mare's superb carriage, her long, flowing mane and tail, and her arching neck set with a small, refined head that curved gracefully down to a small muzzle.

While Elffled was admiring Esarhaddon's graceful mare and excellent horsemanship, Elfhild rode quietly upon her own horse. Her back was in agony, and every fall of the horse's hooves upon the rocky, uneven ground made shocks of pain race through her body. She wept silently, still reeling from her first real punishment at the hands of her master. But even more disconcerting was what she had done to incur his wrath. The River of Black Sorcery had drawn her to its rocky banks, compelling her to surrender herself to the enchanted waters, and she had been so bewitched that she would have plunged into those unknown depths without a second thought. If she had only obeyed Esarhaddon's order that she avoid the river! But the Morgulduin called to her, summoning her to its banks, its allure all but irresistible.

Even now the silvery river caught her gaze again, and as she looked at the serene waters, once more Elfhild felt its seductive call. How could an entire river be poisonous? The water was always flowing, and any evil taint would quickly be washed away! Her eyes followed the course of the Morgulduin as it disappeared into the dismal mists of the Ephel Dúath. Perhaps the cause of the river's malignancy was the location of its headwaters - the sullen, brooding Mountains of Shadow. But how could a river so beautiful be evil? Evil was supposed to be dark and frightening, and not tranquil and lovely! Perhaps the Southrons were mistaken, and the Morgulduin was not as dangerous as they thought. Perhaps not all the legends about the river were true. Perhaps these frightening tales of horrible diseases borne by the water had been invented by the Enemy to frighten slaves into submission. Perhaps if she had fallen into the river, nothing bad would have happened to her other than her clothes becoming soaking wet. But, then again, perhaps it was best for her to avoid the Morgulduin altogether, as she had no way of knowing whether the dark tales about its bewitching waters were true or false. And, besides, she did not want to receive another whipping.

At that moment, the wind swept aside the dark, threatening clouds, and the sunlight lit up the rugged vale. Caught in the breeze that blew along the road, Ganbar's keffiyeh trailed behind him. He leaned back in the saddle, looking up at the clouds. "It is going to be a bad storm when it gets here."

"You have said that before," Inbir muttered under his breath.

As the small party trotted their horses along the Morgul Road, the ground continued to rise gradually before them. Ahead loomed a great wall of evergreens, taller and more magnificent than any of the other trees which grew about the surrounding woodlands. Though the tops of many of these somber, ancient giants had been shredded and broken by some fierce calamity, still they had resisted the destructive force and clung relentlessly to life. When the entourage passed through an archway of overlapping branches, the twins discovered that they were in a ring of trees where the convergence of four roads met.

Curious tourists investigate the statue of the fallen king...
The King at the Crossroads by Darrell Sweet.

For a time at least, a hush fell over the group as they beheld the marble statue of a stately figure which sat upon a great throne. Erected in the far past near the juncture of the road to the Black Gate and the road to Osgiliath, the magnificent stone sculpture was set high atop a lofty pedestal with several steps. Obviously the image was of some illustrious personage, for the sculptor had fashioned it with an artfully crafted medallion about its neck and flowing robes of stone to adorn its body. The sisters felt a sadness come over them as they realized that at some time in the past, the great noble's head had been hewed from his stony neck and now lay at some distance away. In the place of the kingly visage, a large stone had been hoisted upon the statue's shoulders and painted with a grotesque face from which one obscene red eye leered mockingly at passersby. Crude black runes and lewd scribbles crawled over the base and knees like seething worms infesting a corpse.

Remembering the obscene artwork scrawled upon buildings in the deserted hamlet by the Anduin, Elffled recognized the work to be that of orcs, and cringed inwardly. Gathering up her courage, she decided to ask Ganbar to tell her anything he knew of the statue's origins. "Master Ganbar, do you know the name of the king whose likeness was portrayed, and when the statue was erected?"

Sniffing loudly, Ganbar studied the statue for a few moments and then spat to the side. "Some old Gondorian king from the past. No one knows who he was, or really cares. Whatever he said or what great deeds he might have accomplished are long since forgotten. That is all I know about him." He shrugged.

"Surprised you do not add your signature to all the rest, Ganbar." The corners of Inbir's mouth turned up in a teasing grin that flashed his sparkling white teeth.

"I did that the last time I went through here," Ganbar muttered. "That is my name down there near the base of the pedestal." He motioned with an upward flick of his chin.

Ubri turned his mirthless smile on Elffled. "Some say the ruler's name was Isildur, an early king of Gondor," he interjected pretentiously. "He was a Moon worshiper and dedicated this land to his patron god. The irony is that, long after he died, the city which he founded was taken over by other Moon worshipers." Chuckling dryly, he urged his horse forward, pulling Elffled's mount behind him.

Elffled gasped as her horse suddenly moved beneath her. "Yes, Master, but who was he?" she called out as her mount moved in step with Ubri's.

"Isildur was co-regent of Gondor, along with his brother Anárion," Esarhaddon's deep voice rang through the clearing. He had turned his mare about to face his men. "He and many of his people escaped from the Accursed Island which drowned many years ago in the sea. The world would have been better off had they gone down with their wretched island," the shakh added grimly. "They brought nothing but slavery and war with them." As he looked over his men, who all nodded their heads in agreement, a faint smile crossed over his face. "We have seen all there is to be seen here and will tarry no longer," he told them as he turned his mare and rode away.

"Thank you for answering my questions, Masters." Elffled bowed her head respectfully, but other than a grunt from Ganbar, no one acknowledged her as they rode towards the meeting place of the four ways.

"We have now come to the Cross-roads," Ubri pronounced. "Behind us lies Minas Tirith. To the north is the road which leads to the Black Gate, where we certainly are not going. If you follow the road which leads to the south, you will come to Harad, the land of our people. But the road which we now travel leads to the Kingdom of Morgul, and then on to Mordor."

"There are a lot of other places where I would rather be going," Ganbar muttered dourly. He glanced up the road ahead of them as though expecting some dark apparition to materialize.

"Ganbar, you worry too much, always expecting trouble. There will be no problems, I tell you. All the necessary papers have been completed, and the Shakh has paid all the taxes and tolls in advance," Ubri remarked crossly, a flicker of doubt passing over his face as he scanned the trail ahead.

Shifting his position in the saddle, Inbir craned his neck and gazed up at the distant mountains before them. "Ganbar, the Captain is right; there is nothing to be gained by worry. If you were not supposed to be here, then you would be someplace else. Everything was ordained long before you were born. Fate has brought us to this valley on this day for some purpose," Inbir pronounced with unshakable certainty.

"Inbir, how do I know that is true?" Ganbar asked skeptically. "Just because you think that way does not make it true. For all I know, I am really supposed to be in a tavern with a cup of wine in my hand as I watch beautiful dancing girls twist and sway." From the smug expression on his face, it was apparent that Ganbar considered that the discussion was over and that he was clearly the winner.

"Because you are not at the tavern at this present moment," Inbir quietly pointed out.

Scowling, Ganbar reflected a few moments on Inbir's words. "Bah!" he muttered under his breath. "Philosophy has no purpose other than to confuse people and make their brains stick together! I will keep to the things I understand, such as the weather, which, if you have been too preoccupied with your philosophy to notice, is about to get much worse!" Smirking, he held out his left hand and felt a drop of rain splash on his palm.

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