As the last of the rain fled to the northeast, the Sun warily peeked from behind a billowing, gray-cloaked cloud. Light washed over the valley and colored the towering rocks along the left of the trail with tinges of yellow. Glistening raindrops clung to branches and then slowly dropped one by one to fall on the pale road. As they fell, they merged with other droplets, creating rivulets of water which streamed across the way to the river below.
The twins gazed around in wonder, for it seemed as though several weeks had passed and now the loveliness of early spring had descended upon the land. Tiny leaflets of cheery chartreuse graced once barren branches. Diminutive hyacinths, dead-nettles, and other tiny wildflowers bloomed along the road, and the green fuzz of new grass carpeted the open places beneath the forested hillside. The scent of growing things filled the cool, damp air with a heady balm which soothed the nostrils and bewitched the senses. Water cascaded down meandering gullies, singing like the sweet voices of dark elf maidens. Wispy mists still clung to the tops of the hills, floating lazily by like gossamer curtains stirred by a gentle breeze.
"What a beautiful place this is, my lord!" an awestruck Elfhild exclaimed, glancing furtively in the slaver's direction. "I feared that we would never see anything green again!" After almost being swept away by a raging flood of mud and rubble, she took comfort in the scene of peaceful tranquility around her.
Esarhaddon jerked his head sharply in her direction, his eyes shooting her a disbelieving stare. "Foolish woman, you babble like one in a delirium! What sort of nonsense are you spouting?"
Elfhild tensed at his harsh tone. "I - I was just remarking about the lovely land about us, my lord..."
"Lovely land?" he laughed as he looked at his surroundings. Obviously, the mudslide had frightened the girl half out of her senses. Her face was pale and drawn, and her hands trembled on the reins. He would not be too harsh upon this pretty little creature, for if she were pushed much further, she might be driven completely mad. He shook his head. That would indeed be a pity, for then she would fetch only a small fraction of the price she would have brought if her mind were whole. Ah, he had seen others much in the same state, and there was only one fate for them. This one, though, was far too alluring to spend her days in the pits servicing the loathsome orcs and having goblins bred upon her. That must never happen! The next time that he gave her the sleeping draught, he would sedate her more heavily. For now, though, he would concentrate upon opening her eyes to the wretchedness of this place.
"Be quiet, my sweet one, and I will tell you about what you call a 'lovely land.'" He waved his hand, gesturing from one side of the valley to the other. He smiled indulgently, his voice taking on the patient tone of a teacher explaining a difficult concept to a backward student. "As far as you can see, the only things which grow are twisted thorn trees, dwarfed shrubs, and evil little flowers. There is nothing green here, unless it would be mold clinging to the rotting trunks of dead trees. 'Lovely land?'" Esarhaddon threw back his head and roared with laughter. His men joined with him, and the combined sound vibrated harshly in Elfhild's ears. "Your eyes deceive you if you think that you see anything save desolation here."
"How can this be, my lord?" Elfhild asked in bewilderment.
"Ah, sweet one, do not look so alarmed! Your face betrays you so quickly!" Chuckling softly, he reached over and lightly flicked the leather tongue of his riding crop across her thigh. "There is a logical explanation for your confusion. Your long travels have made you weary, so your perceptions are faulty." He rubbed the hard shaft of the crop over her thigh, and when he spoke again, his voice was so soft and tender that she had to struggle to keep from being lulled into believing him. "You are not alone in suffering such erroneous conceptions, for this happens to many. You are like someone lost in the Empty Desert - your waterskin is empty; you are dying of thirst; your brain is baked by the Sun; and you see oases of blue water and green palms where there is nothing but unending sand dunes! Now do you understand?"
"My lord, I am not so weary that I see things which are not there!" Elfhild shot back, hurt and offended at the slaver's admonishment. "I know what I saw!"
"Why do you have to be so obstinate, slave girl!" Esarhaddon brought the crop down hard on her thigh. Elfhild jumped in the saddle, the suddenness of his rebuke catching her by surprise. "Never contradict what I tell you!" His voice was so harsh that she felt like clasping her hands over her ears and shutting him out. She dared not do that, for she knew that he would only strike her harder, and her thigh smarted terribly as it was. "Now there will be no more talk of anything beautiful in this valley! There is nothing here but death and desolation!" He emphasized his words with a light slap of the whip on her thigh.
"Yes, Master," she replied sullenly. His ridicule had cut her deeply and she was close to tears. Why could he not see the beauty that was all around him? Was he deliberately trying to confuse her? Was he trying to break her spirit so that she would not have the will to disagree with him about anything, even when her senses told her that he was wrong? She rubbed her stinging thigh. Oh, she did not even know why she had spoken to Esarhaddon in the first place! He was a cruel, wicked man! Willing herself not to cry, she tossed her head to the side and refused to look at him anymore.
Ganbar cleared his throat and spoke up. "Three times have I been through this valley, and each time the place has looked more desolate and forlorn than the time before," he frowned as he glanced around him. How he wished that he were anywhere but here, for the oppressive ambience of the valley had laid its chill hand upon his heart. He was glad for the warmth which radiated upward from his steaming mare's body, but each time her hooves came down upon the glittering pavement, he could hear a cadence as dreary as any funeral march.
"Aye, Ganbar," Captain Ubri concurred enthusiastically, careful to keep the worry out of his voice. "The landscape hereabouts is every bit as blasted and barren as any desert in Harad." His eyes had been lying to him; he was certain of that! Every other time when he had passed through this deep, gloomy valley, nothing had been growing save for odd and strangely formed vegetation. Now the landscape was alive and vibrant with the first green blush of spring's soft grasses, and the trees were adorned with tiny leaves. He had decided to agree with the other men, though, for if he told them what he had actually seen, they would believe he was insane. Though perhaps, he thought grimly, they might not be that far from the truth.
Elfhild and Elffled were dismayed by the men's words, but dared not disagree again. How anyone could say anything ill about this beautiful place was just too preposterous for them to comprehend. True, the land was still withered from the blighted spring, but it was recovering by leaps and bounds. When was the last time they had seen the loveliness of nature, unmarked by winter or the scourge of Mordor? It had been in the previous autumn, when the leaves were turning red and gold and the apples and pears were hanging ripe and heavy from the trees in the orchards. Now they were seeing the splendor of the earth once again, in the least likely of places.
Incredible though it seemed, the beauteous visions which the sisters beheld were not all that uncommon. Though some travelers through the Morgul Vale were struck mad by the terrifying phantasmagorias they beheld, a few others were driven just as mad by a strange and all-encompassing love for the valley. Which was the crueler sorcery? Love, perhaps, for it rendered the mind senseless and ensnared the heart.
As he pointed ahead with his crop, Esarhaddon's loud voice intruded into the sisters' thoughts. "Slave wenches!" Startled, they quickly turned their heads towards him. "You must be alert and not dawdle, for the road drops sharply just ahead of us. Be careful lest your horses slip and give you a nasty tumble."
Riding abreast, the slaver and the two girls began the descent of the hill with the other riders and the orc following at a good distance behind. Below them, spanning the misty waters of the Morgulduin in a graceful arch, was a mighty bridge of pale stone. Tall statues at both ends of the structure welcomed those who crossed over the river, but at this distance, the sisters were unable to make out the details of their likenesses. On the eastern shore of the river, the silvery road forked into two paths. One way traveled an easterly route up the valley, and the other wound up a steep hill to the white city of Minas Morgul.
Inbir drew in a deep breath as he guided the pack horses down the hill. Less than an hour before, he had lost the best horse in his string. Though not of good breeding by any means, the strong, sturdy gelding had been his favorite. Never again would the affectionate beast nuzzle his hands and search the pockets of his burnoose for a piece of bread or a bit of dried fruit. "Ah, well," he mused to himself, "such is the unfathomable course of fate, and it is useless to attempt to avoid it. What will be, will be." He shook his head. Perhaps the horse was better off than the rest of them. "May I have the strength to face whatever terrors await!"
With reverence Ganbar drew the amulet from around his neck, brought the charm up to his lips, and kissed the image. His mouth felt warm as it lingered against the charm, and his fears fled away like frightened birds. Touching the image was always a comfort, but as he rode down the hill, he wondered if the charm was powerful enough to protect him in this unholy place. Troubled at the thought, he slowly pushed the charm back into his tunic. "Curse the wicked djinns for their evil ways! May they be condemned forever to the darkest pits of the night!" he swore vehemently to himself and spat on the ground. "What cunning wonders and deceitful marvels do they have in store for us now?"
Tense and edgy, the six riders stared with dread upon the city. As they watched, the metal teeth of the mighty portcullis rose steadily up into the gatehouse like the opening jaws of a great monster. From out of the portal rode a somber contingent of horsemen. Slowly the dark-clad procession made its way down the winding road, its curving line resembling a slithering serpent of blackest onyx.
"It seems that there is a welcoming party coming out to greet us." His eyes narrowing, Esarhaddon's face grew grim as he watched the approaching line.
"Have you ever noticed that even when there are no guards about, they always know when someone is coming?" Inbir's hushed voice was filled with apprehension.
Drops of cold sweat broke out on Ganbar's forehead, and he wiped his sweaty palms off on his filthy pantaloons. It was torment to be this frightened, but he was determined to appear unperturbed. "It is times like this when I wish that I had my hookah." Laughing far too loudly, he looked around, and when he saw that no one else joined him, he muttered to himself for a few moments and then fell into a resentful silence. "Someday I am going to learn to keep my mouth shut," he told himself.
Descending the hill, the band of slavers and their charges came to the narrow valley floor. The bleak mountains seemed to close in around them like walls, making them feel trapped and caged. The sensation of being watched had intensified until the very air seemed to vibrate and hum with angry, accusing voices. Men could be driven mad if they strained their ears to decipher the barely heard whispers. A sheen of sweat broke out on Ubri's forehead and he clenched his brow as though warding away dark spirits which sought to seep through his skull and devour his brain.
Before them, the Morgulduin flowed silent and cold under the magnificently wrought stone bridge. Mists poured off the surface of the silvery waters like steam rolling from the top of a boiling cauldron, rising into the air to be scattered by a warm eastern breeze. Through the ever shifting mists, the travelers beheld the city of Minas Morgul, the pallid, ghostly dwelling place of the unquiet dead. Falling in terraces like the cascading tiers of a fountain, the city towered above them, austere and apathetic like a snow-capped mountain. Here and there on the slopes which led up to the city grew groves of dark junipers and cedars like clusters of spear points. Wide meadows filled with white flowers lay upon either side of the river, fading into a vague carpet which reached the alabaster walls.
A fragrant haze hung over the meads like the phosphorescent vapors which rise over a fetid swamp, or the mists which coil about the barrows of the dead upon a foggy night. The perfume of the ghostly pale blossoms was like the scents of every flower wrapped up in one, tinged with exotic essences and spices for which Elfhild and Elffled had no names. The flowers appeared to be some type of poppy, with papery white petals that seemed as delicate as a butterfly's wing. Mingled with the pallid blossoms were orbs of frosted celadon crowned with purple coronels. Perched high upon slender stems, they resembled the sceptres of a legion of forgotten kings whose frail mortal flesh had long since rotted into the earth, their only memorials the flowers which had been planted upon their graves. These were the barren remnants of blooms past, filled with smoky black seed for yet another harvest in the endless cycle of death and rebirth. Delicate black butterflies flitted from blossom to blossom, becoming drunken upon their bewitching fumes, and strange black-and-silver honeybees gathered the magical nectar to take back to their hives.
As they trotted their horses through the fields of white flowers, it seemed to both sisters that the unusual plants sprang from the ground full grown and blooming. After rapidly metamorphosing through the course of their season, the petals dropped away to reveal bulbous seed pods. Within a single heartbeat, the seed pods turned dark and burst open, scattering tiny seeds everywhere. Immediately, new stems surged from the earth and burst into pale blossoms.
The twins gazed in disbelief, first at the blooms, and then at the men, who appeared to be completely oblivious to the demented growth all around them. How could they be so calm? Had the aberrant valley somehow robbed the Southrons of their sight? Even their horses seemed far too calm and steady! This was just too much for Elfhild's mind. Dark spots swam across her vision, and she felt close to fainting. Her eyes rolled back in her head and she blindly groped for the pommel of her saddle in an attempt to hang onto something which was solid and real.
The stinging slap of a riding crop across Elfhild's thigh shocked her back to her senses, and she looked up into the angry eyes of Esarhaddon. Another bite of the crop's tongue across her leg made her squeal in pain. "Mercy, Master, no more!" she begged, but her plea was in vain, for the sting of the crop fell on her thigh a third time.
"Pretty trinket, if you should faint, expect nothing better than a pail of water thrown in your face to wake you up! Then after I have you stripped, I will tie you up and beat that lovely arse of yours in front of my men! Now move! You are holding up the line!"
"Yes, Master," she mumbled deferentially and tightened her hold on the reins. When she blinked her tear-filled eyes and looked all around her, she discovered that the deranged garden had stilled its ceaseless cycle of life and death, and the flowers seemed to be content to grow the same as any other plant. Somehow the startling normalcy was more disconcerting than the peculiar animation, and Elfhild rubbed her eyes, uncertain if what she saw truly existed.
As they rode across the narrow valley, the sisters glanced around at the other perverted vegetation which grew in the meadows, bordering the fields, in waste places, and on the edges of the woods. Bushes covered with pale trumpet-shaped flowers sprung up here and there, and dainty purple nightshade grew between strangely wrought trees. Along the rocky hillsides, there grew henbane plants with veiny green and purple blossoms, stinking hellebores, purple wolfsbane, various poisonous spurges which caused caustic lesions to the skin, and mystical shrubs whose leaves, stems and roots brought bouts of frenetic energy if eaten.
In the shadowy recesses among the upraised roots of bizarrely formed trees, there grew mushrooms in profusion. Some were long and spindly like twisted mûmak tusks, their stems gray and mauve, akin to beryllium ore in color. Tiny circlets like bronze torcs were about their necks, and atop their heads were caps of golden ginger. Others among the robust fungi had wide tops like saucers which had been painted a cheerful color of red and dappled with white spots before being fired in the kiln. A dainty fringe circled about their middles like tiny skirts.
The party had entered the Garden of the Lord of the Nazgûl, and many remarkable wonders grew there, not the least or greatest of which were the snowy white blossoms for which the valley was famous.