The Circles - Book Five - Chapter 21

The Circles - Book Five - Through the Valley of Death
Chapter Twenty-one
A Forgotten Castle
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

As the party of slavers rode their horses through the ring of ancient trees, they heard the distant rumble of thunder behind them. "What have I been telling you all this time?" Ganbar demanded as he waved his arm for emphasis. "Here it is now at our heels, coming on fast!" he shouted in excitement.

"No one was arguing with you," Ubri growled as he turned back to study the rapidly approaching storm. Jagged fingers of lightning sliced through the swollen black clouds and tore the heavens asunder before plunging to earth. "Still, it is not as bad as it could be. I have seen far worse storms."

"Bad enough," Inbir muttered as a sudden blast of wind slammed into their backs. Gathering in intensity, the gusty breeze spun dust and dry leaves into swirling spirals, whipping the debris ahead on the eaves of the storm. As the raging maelstrom swept closer, the clouds boiled and seethed with a malevolent fury. The skies lowered as though a vast, heavy black glove had been thrust against the land, and from the foundation of heaven, daggers of lightning forked and twisted like great, angry serpents intent upon destroying the very earth.

The road seemed to glow faintly, the pallor of the pavement taking on a faint greenish cast. Inbir cursed as some of the pack horses grew restive and fretful at the sounds of the storm, snorting and shying, and all of his attention was directed towards calming the frightened beasts.

The celestial bombardment increased in strength, with one savage bolt of lightning after another carving its way through the clouds like rivers and their tributaries. There was a pause and then a ferocious bolt etched a brilliant path through the clouds. An explosion of thunder soon followed quickly in its wake. "One... two... three... nine!" Ganbar called out. "That last one was only nine miles away!"

"Master Ganbar, how do you know?" Elffled inquired tremulously, frightened of the fury of the storm. She looked down to see her hands quivering against the pommel of the saddle.

"Thought everyone knew that." Ganbar's face lit up in an arrogant smile. "Since the people in your backward land are so ignorant, I will educate you. When you see a shaft of lightning, you begin counting seconds. Then after you hear the thunder, you stop counting. The number that you have reached will be the distance in miles from the strike. As the storm gets closer and closer, the count between the lightning and the thunder will get shorter and shorter. Thus you can predict how far away the storm is from you." He looked over at Elffled, pleased at his superior knowledge. "There went another... even closer now!"

Ahead of them, Esarhaddon moved his chestnut closer to the side of the road, slowing her to a walk to allow Ubri to catch up with him. The Shakh turned to Ubri and laughed. "Damn, Captain! By Inanna's succulent nipples, if we are not all going to get soaking wet before we ever get to shelter!"

"Unfortunately, my lord, you are correct," Ubri agreed dourly. "We are in for a royal deluge!"

"Men!" Esarhaddon shouted in Westron so that the captives could understand him and his men could hear him above the clamor of the storm. "Up that small path to the right! You know where the way leads! We have sheltered there before!"

Urging his horse to a spirited trot, he moved out ahead of his men as the rain began to pour down from the heavens and plummet the riders. The Shakh pulled the hood of his burnoose over his head and wiped the water from his eyes as he peered through the sheets of rain. His men could barely see him on the road ahead of them as the rain pelted them, soaking through their clothing to the skin.

Slowing his horse to a walk, Esarhaddon rode the mare up the Morgul Road for almost a furlong before he found the path for which he had been seeking. Turning her to the left, he led the entourage up a little-used trail. Their shoulders hunched against the driving rain, the horsemen struggled to see through the driving torrent of water. There was no let up in the storm, and the rain only intensified, stinging the riders' eyes and lashing their skin with needle-like prickles. The trail rose steadily beneath their horses' feet and wound its way through the shadowy forest. Rivulets of water rushed down the path, gathering up momentum until they turned into small, muddy streams.

The party came to a place where the grade leveled out and the road widened. The slaver reined his mare to a halt. "Ganbar, Ubri!" he barked out, shouting to be heard above the rain. "Untie the slaves! The trail grows steadily rougher past this point, and the wenches will need their hands to help them hold onto their horses!"

"My lord, are you sure?" Ubri asked, uncertain if he had heard the slaver correctly or not. "The slaves might make another escape attempt if they are given the freedom of their hands!"

"Not in this place!" Esarhaddon laughed. "Even the mad women of the Rohirrim would not be foolish enough to hazard such a risk!"

"How can you be so confident, my lord?" Ubri called to him as he tightened the rein on Elffled's horse, drawing it closer to his own mount. As she extended her bound hands, he untied her and slipped the rope into a saddle bag.

"Look up ahead," the slaver replied as he pointed the bat of his riding crop at a nearby pine. "There is an orc sign on that tree trunk. See the mark of the Great Eye? There were more signs like this back down the trail."

"I must have missed them," Ubri nodded his head gravely as he made out a bold scrawl on the trunk of a tree, visible in spite of the downpour. "No threat to us, for we have agreements with them." Grinning darkly, he leered at Elffled. "However, should these two run away, they would very likely fall into the brutes' hands, and there is nothing they would like better than to plunder some nubile female flesh." Elffled could tell from the expression upon Ubri's face that he wanted to be the one to do the plundering. Trying to ignore his dire threat, she looked down at her hands and concentrated on rubbing her chafed wrists.

Shuddering as she rode by the crude, primitive drawing, Elfhild whispered a prayer of protection. She glanced back behind her, and through the pouring rain, it seemed that the malevolent Eye was staring at her, following her. She shivered again and turned away quickly.

The trail steadily climbed through the dense forest, passing by an outcropping of rock that had once been cut away for the roadbed. Occasionally they saw a great broken boulder that had tumbled down from somewhere above. The downpour slowed for a short while and then renewed itself with a fury. Above them, outlined by a crackle of lightning, a mighty castle rose from the crest of the hill, as though it had sprung from the very rock which lay beneath the soil.

Twisting her head around, Elfhild dared to look behind them, only to see that the land below had been swallowed up in a thick, enveloping mist. She felt a chill go down her back, but ignored it and looked back up the slope. Crowning the top of the hill like a circlet were the ruins of an old wall, the keep's first defense against enemies, although the walls posed little opposition now. The castle itself was in better condition, though years of neglect had taken their toil, and the lofty spires which crowned the towers were damaged in many places. While she could not see the whole structure, Elfhild surmised that the castle was square in shape with four round corner towers and an impressive square-shaped gatehouse. Great floating clouds of mist seemed to wrap about the castle like gossamer sheets, only to be driven away like wisps of smoke in the breeze.

She wondered who had built the castle and for what purpose. Who had lived there? What had life been like for them? The only ones who could possibly know the answers to her questions would be the Southrons, but she was too frightened to ask.

Soon the castle which had seemed so brooding and ominous from the slope was right before them. Even though the fortress was by no means to be accounted as one of the mightiest strongholds of Gondor, still the sisters, who knew little of buildings other than wooden halls, thought that it was the mightiest structure they had ever seen, outside of Minas Tirith. Unseen from the slope, a dry moat surrounded the castle, though dirt and debris had been mounded up to allow passage into the structure. Esarhaddon led the party over the earthen bridge and through the gatehouse into the inner ward.

As the sisters looked around the bailey, they were struck by how empty it was. There should have been guards patrolling the cobblestone paths which flanked the buildings, grooms leading splendid destriers back to the stables, and people hurriedly bringing supplies to the kitchen and pantries. But there was no one there; the place had been abandoned for many years. The buildings showed the signs of abandonment, crumbling, stained masonry and ruined roofs. Trees and brambles had taken root in the bailey, and the forest had crept up to the outer walls.

Esarhaddon motioned for them to follow him to a long, one-story building which had once served as the castle's great hall. After the party had dismounted, the men tugged and cajoled the unwilling horses up the short flight of stairs which led into the structure. The stable, which had been constructed of wood, had long since fallen into shambles and rotted away with nothing left save a stone foundation. The great hall, once the pride of some Ithilean lord, now served as a stable to the Southrons' mounts. Grateful to be out of the rain, the twins lowered the hoods of their burnooses and looked around the large chamber.

Though the ravages of time had been as cruel to the interior as it had to the exterior, some of the former grandeur still managed to peek through the long disuse. The roof above was still intact, and the stone walls were still covered with plaster, though it was crumbling in places. Here once again, as they had seen so many times, was the grim reminder of the Master who now ruled this land - the mark of the baleful Eye of the Dark Lord was painted over sections of the wall where had once hung tapestries of Western victories; scenes from history, hunts, feasting; and the more gentle scenes of sowing and reaping. Most of the stained glass upon the windows had been broken out, although some of the colorful shards still remained, joined together by weathered lead casings.

The men tied the horses to a picket rope which had been strung between two iron rings driven into the masonry for just that purpose. As the men tended to the animals, Elfhild and Elffled retreated to the side of the wall and stayed out of their way. Taking off their burnooses, the girls loosely folded the sodden cloaks and laid them on a relatively clean spot on the rubble-strewn floor. Chilled by the rain and the coolness of the hall, they rubbed their arms vigorously, trying to bring heat to their limbs.

The dim light which filtered down through the tall windows, brightened now and then by a white flash of lightning, began to lessen as darkness fell. Throughout the hall, the men lit torches and set them in sconces along the walls. The dreary interior began to look, if not cheerful, at least more livable.

His saddlebags thrown across one shoulder, Esarhaddon strode over to the twins. Frightened, the girls knelt before him, their foreheads close to the floor, until he gave them permission to move. Righting themselves, the sisters sat back on their heels, their eyes watching as each drop of rain water dripped slowly from the Shakh's wet burnoose. There was nothing in the slaver's manner which suggested that he was still angry with her, but Elfhild, having felt the cruel caress of the flail, now greatly feared the whip. She kept her head bowed, not wanting to meet his fierce gaze.

"Rise to your feet," he told them as his eyes flicked over their soaked, clinging garments which revealed the details of their shapely curves. "The men will soon have a fire going in the fireplace." He motioned with his riding crop to a huge hearth along the other end of the hall. "I sense you are puzzled as to why there is dry wood waiting for us. This old, ruined citadel has long been used by travelers seeking shelter - soldiers and merchants, vagabonds, and even thieves, who have need of lodgings. Even the orcs take advantage of it. Rumor has it that the Lords of Morgul sometimes bring their women here. That, however, is something to which I cannot attest." He chuckled deeply, laughing at some joke that only he knew.

"Who are the Lords of Morgul?" Elfhild asked curiously.

He took a step forward and lifted up Elfhild's chin with the tip of his riding crop. "They are the overlords of this valley and all the territory you see round about you, though I suppose that they have not quite made the annexation of Ithilien official... As of yet, they have not begun building watch towers and fortresses... but they will in time." His head nodded up and down, as though he pondered something complicated but had not yet arrived at a conclusion. "Although I do not know whom they have to fear now, unless they think that the West could somehow summon up enough strength to launch a counterattack and retake lost ground. A dubious proposition at best."

Elfhild's brow furrowed in confusion. "But, my lord, I thought that Mordor lay over yonder mountains."

"You, my little dove, are far too curious about these matters. Why does a foolish woman want to ask so many questions? What good will the answers do you?" The slaver's eyes were hard as he traced the crop over the fair skin of her throat and down between her breasts. "Think of how you can please your new master and that will be more than enough to occupy your foolish mind."

Elfhild's face flamed with sudden embarrassment, but she was determined to stand firm. "My lord, I am but a poor, lowly peasant maid," she told him meekly. "And, having little learning, I know that I must appear dull and backward to you. This is no fault of mine, for I was never taught to read or write. I merely wished to learn about the land through which we travel and not appear so ignorant, for surely a master would soon grow tired of such a dim-witted slave as I am."

The slaver chuckled as he brought the crop back to rub under her chin. "Perhaps my little Northern flower is not so dense as she has led me to believe." The crop gently tickled and teased over the hollow of her throat, stroking the skin as though it were an extension of his own hand. "While it would please me if I thought that you were really eager to do something that would increase your value to me, I hardly believe that is your intent." He smiled arrogantly, his sensual lips parting enough to allow her a glimpse of his pearly teeth. "You are merely curious. Am I correct?" His dark eyes were amused as he brought the tip of the crop to her lips and slowly outlined their curving planes.

Elfhild wanted to move away and halt the infuriating tickle of the leather, but she knew that he would punish her swiftly if she did. Instead, she pretended to pout, her lower lip trembling under the bat of the crop as though she were on the verge of tears. "Forgive me, my lord. I am only a slave."

Esarhaddon threw back his head and laughed. "Such a charming expression! Perhaps you should employ it when you stand on the auction block. It might deceive a buyer into believing that such a show of naivete was further proof of your virtue, modesty, and maidenly innocence. You do not fool me for one moment, slave girl, but you are entertaining, I will admit that, and so I will take a little time to answer your question, but I will not spend too long at it."

"Thank you, my lord," Elfhild replied dutifully. While her feminine wiles did not impress him, at least they made him more willing to answer her question.

"There is a small kingdom, little more than a city-state really, which claims the pass through the mountains and many of the surrounding peaks, highlands, and tributary valleys," Esarhaddon explained. "This principality is known as the Kingdom of Morgul, or Dor-en-Ulaer, and is ruled by a mighty king who is vassal to the Lord of Mordor. The name of this king is known only to his closest confidants, and when people speak of him, they call him by his various titles. The chief city of the kingdom is called Minas Morgul, or Dushgoi in the language of Mordor. We will be passing by the city on our way to Mordor."

"The Morgul Lord is the Great One's most powerful vassal, and a mighty king in his own right. He commands the Western armies of Mordor, and has been away leading the troops to victory in Gondor and Rohan. He is also the leader of a secret order called the Nazgûl, which is composed of formidable vassal lords who swear allegiance to him. These men are said to be cruel, ruthless, unyielding, implacable, and full of hatred. Several of them dwell in the city with their king, while others reside elsewhere." He would not call the Nazgûl sorcerers, because he believed that they were masters of illusion and alchemists who had secret knowledge of natural philosophy, as opposed to workers of wizardry. Besides, he did not want to frighten the girl, and have to listen to her hysterics.

"The Morgul Lord rules the valley with an iron fist, and his men are quick to destroy any who dare trespass." His eyes narrowed, his strong chin tightening, Esarhaddon spat out an inditement. "Imbued with total power, the Lords of the Vale demand exorbitant tolls from any who must pass through their valley, insisting that poor merchants like me pay unreasonable taxes that suck out the life and vitality of our businesses," he growled. "But what can we do against such unmerciful tyrants? Pay their tolls and taxes, damn it, or take the long way around the Mountains of Mordor to Harad! We might as well not even try to earn an honest living if we are forced to do that! Now we have talked about this subject long enough." He scowled, his tawny face dark with anger at the avarice of the Morgul Lord and his greedy cronies. He stared at the twins for a few tension-filled moments, then suddenly turned on his heel. "Gather up your burnooses and follow me."


Art Credit: Castle Study by Julian Bauer.

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