The Circles - Book Five - Chapter 36

The Circles - Book Five - Through the Valley of Death
Chapter Thirty-six
Tales by the Fire
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

As the sun sank upon the camp at the Spring of the Silver Coin, Esarhaddon uHuzziya was in a reflective mood. To say that the events of the day had been strange was a vast understatement, but Esarhaddon refused to admit that supernatural powers had anything whatsoever to do with the phenomenal occurrences. How could they, when it was questionable in his mind that such forces as gods and djinns even existed? He had become almost convinced that the whole valley was honeycombed with subterranean caverns which issued forth poisonous gases that sickened or killed those unfortunate enough to contact them.

He considered other explanations for the nightmarish events as well. Perhaps while he and his bodyguards were unconscious at the bridge, one of the Seneschal's men had put a few drops of a hallucinogenic elixir in his mouth. That would account for his warped perception of his surroundings before his mare stumbled and fell on the bank. The drug or vapors had still been having their effect upon him when he dreamt the chilling, though very erotic, nightmare about the water nymphs.

Even though those explanations brought a degree of order to his thoughts, still his mind was not totally at peace, for a nagging doubt told him there was always the possibility that there might be a supernatural reason. These uncertainties affected his mood, causing him to be terse and distant. By the time the supper hour had arrived, he was in a foul temper. When Elffled served him a steaming bowl of savory soup made from dried meat and red lentils, he barely looked up at her. After the meal was finished, he dismissed the girls to go to the stream and wash the dirty dishes.

The sun slowly disappeared behind the western mountains, and the day gave way to darkness. In spite of their exhausted state, the men were in no haste to go to their bedrolls, and they sipped tea as they watched the crackling flames. The Shakh's deep voice finally broke the long silence. "Men, it is far too quiet here in these somber woods. We need some music to give us cheer. Inbir, bring out your oud and mellow the evening's harshness with your playing."

"Gladly, my lord!" The young Southron's teeth flashed in a wide grin. "It is my great pleasure to perform my music for my benevolent master," he told him as he rose to fetch his oud.

From her place behind the slaver, Elffled caught the young Southron's dark eyes gazing into her own. Blushing, she turned away, feeling once again those fluttery sensations she experienced every time she saw his handsome face, broad shoulders, muscular arms, and lean body. She remembered the time he had held her in his strong arms by the stream, and wished he were always so gentle and considerate. He seemed so different now that he was with the other men. "Probably trying to impress them," she thought resentfully. She wondered how he would behave around Aeffe when they returned to the slave caravan. Would he show her any form of affection, or would he be cold and indifferent towards her as well? Of course, Elffled considered, by the time they rejoined the other captives, perhaps Aeffe's feelings for the young Southron might have cooled.

Returning with his oud, Inbir sat down cross-legged on the carpet which had been spread before the fire. Softly strumming the strings with his eagle-feather plectrum, he was thoughtful for a moment, and then began a song in Westron: "My beloved's face shines like the full moon, and upon the face of this earth, there are none who can compare to her beauty. I am a slave to her ebony eyes, which have captured me with their soft glances. Oh, my gentle gazelle, take pity upon me and incline your heart to my pleas..."

Daydreaming about the soulful singer, Elffled sat listening to him as she absentmindedly twirled a curl of hair in her fingers. Her sister nudged her in the ribs and hissed softly, "Do you not remember what Ganbar has taught us? When sitting or standing, we must keep our hands clasped across our stomachs, not in our hair! Shakh Ubri has already informed us that the Master is in a foul mood tonight, and if we do not perform as he expects us, his ire will be upon our heads!"

With an embarrassed look, Elffled clasped her hands across her middle, so weary with the endless rules that were forced upon them. "Someday when I am the wife of a great lord and mistress of his estate, all this will change, and servants will be forced to obey me," she thought wistfully. "Oh, how I wish my lord could be Inbir, but he would probably be too poor to buy me!" She sighed as she listened to Inbir's manly baritone. As he sang a song in his own language, Elffled imagined that the foreign words were about her. "Oh, I am sure it must be a very sad song about a handsome young man who is too poor to pay the brideprice for the girl whom he really loves. Her heart crushed by this injustice, she is forced to marry another, and then both of them pine away and die." She felt tears sting her eyelids, and squeezed them tightly together to keep from crying. She was only partially successful, for she felt two silver drops sliding down her cheeks before she wiped them away with a brush of her hand.

"Inbir, another of your majestic tributes to Shakh Tahazu, that great early chieftain of our people, whose bravery and deeds have passed down to us in legend! Your music always inspires me." Ganbar's voice resonated with emotion. "Truly, you are one of the finest young Southern musicians of this age." As Ubri added his accolades to Ganbar's praises, Elffled sighed in disappointment. The song was about some hero of the enemy, and not the tragically romantic ballad she had imagined!

"You do me great honor, friends," Inbir inclined his head, smiling bashfully. "Although your words bring pleasure to my heart, I am often disappointed with my work. My poor talents are far below the genius of the widely respected master musicians of the South. Still," he told them as his fingers lightly caressed the rosewood, "if the Shakh finds merit in my humble work, I am satisfied." He looked to Esarhaddon, hoping to see approval on his employer's face.

"Inbir, I have had the privilege of hearing many of the best musicians from the four corners of the earth, and feel that I have some basis to judge. While you are not among the greatest, certainly you are not among the least. Who knows?" Esarhaddon smiled lazily at him. "Perhaps as you mature and gain more experience, you will exceed the masters someday."

"Thank you, my lord," the young man replied, bowing his head. He was humbled and gratified by his lord's positive remarks, but irritated at his reservations. Inbir grew pensive, his hand resting upon the neck of the oud as he stared into the fire. "Truly it was an understatement when the Captain said the Shakh was in a foul mood," he reflected. "Sour as vinegar would be a more apt description. He was far more affected by today's dark experiences than he wants to admit."

A low groan from Ubri caused everyone's head to turn in his direction. "Shakh... gentlemen... I fear I must leave this congenial gathering," he told them apologetically, "but my wounded foot vexes me exceedingly. Now if Ganbar would assist me to my bedroll, I will bid you good night."

Esarhaddon gave him a dismissive nod, and with the help of Ganbar, the Captain limped away, groaning as though his foot had been amputated and not merely bruised. When Ganbar returned to the group, he brought with him a wineskin, and soon the three men were drinking cups of wine. The tense mood of earlier quickly evaporated in the warm glow of the wine. As Inbir laughed at a comment by Ganbar, his dark, luminous eyes caught the firelight. Elffled's heart fluttered in her chest and she looked down shyly. "How I wish he would only smile kindly at me or give me a tender word," she thought wistfully, but Inbir's thoughts were far from the fair, golden-haired Rohirric maid.

"My lord Esarhaddon and Ganbar, my friend, when I write music and poetry, there are many things I use for inspiration - the way the sun breaks over the dawn horizon and turns the desert into light; the sight of a warrior's proud steed as he races across the plains; the stories and legends of our people's past." His voice was tinged with excitement. "This spring intrigues me greatly, and I have been toying with the idea of writing a song or poem about it. Other than praise for its crystal pure water, I could come up with nothing." His shoulders slumped slightly. "There must be a story, a legend, something from which I can draw inspiration. The Spring of the Silver coin... How did it get that name?" he mused out loud.

"You have never heard?" Ganbar raised an eyebrow in surprise. "My lord Esarhaddon, can you believe this young fellow is ignorant of such a famous story?"

"It seems incredible that he has never heard it, but since he has not, you must enlighten him, Ganbar," Esarhaddon replied disinterestedly.

"Surely, my lord. This tale was told to me some years back when I was at a coffeehouse in Nurn. The spring has made a name for itself, and is rather famous, even though my young friend was unaware of this." Ganbar shifted his position on the cushion, enjoying the good-natured baiting of the younger man. Though he was far from being a graybeard, Ganbar liked to remind Inbir of his seniority, for it seemed to perturb him.

"Well, Ganbar, if you are going to tell the story, then be about it, but if you are going to draw the tale out all night, I cannot be around to hear it. Soon I need to be looking about the horses, and after that, it is off to bed with me," Inbir muttered irritably.

Seeing the displeased look in Inbir's eyes, Ganbar smiled broadly. "The impatience of hot-blooded youth, always intent on immediate gratification, brash and eager for something new, but often unwilling to learn," he chuckled. "Well, my very good friend, while you enjoy your wine, I will tell you the tale of the spring."

"About time," Inbir grumbled low under his breath, lifting the pottery cup of wine to his lips.

"Many years ago, long before the Dark Wizard inhabited His Tower, a group of travelers was journeying between Gondor and Nurn. Passing this way, they chanced upon the spring, and sought out its pleasant waters to refresh themselves and their animals. The youngest of this company, a bold youth, powerful and vigorous in the first rush of manhood, wore about his neck a silver coin with the image of the Goddess upon its face. Considering the charm a harbinger of good fortune, he never removed it from his neck.

"As he leaned over to drink from the sweet waters, a great misfortune befell him." Ganbar paused, searching the eyes of the others to gage their interest. He was pleased when he saw that he had the complete attention of Inbir and the shy glances of the twins. His face turned solemn as he continued, his voice filled with emotion. "Suddenly the chain which held the coin loosened, sending the charm plunging into the water! He cursed when he saw the coin disappear into the clear depths. He was possessed of an astounding degree of courage, arrogant and full of pride, and he swore an oath to find the missing silver piece. The other men in his caravan implored him not to venture this perilous deed, but the young man was adamant. Taking off his boots and clothing, he stripped to his sirwal and plunged into the water.

"As his friends waited for him to return, their apprehension grew. After he had been gone for a long time, they shook their heads sadly, certain that he would never come back. However, the young man was exceedingly strong, a pearl diver from the southern coast of the Gulf of Harad. A powerful swimmer, he had spent his life from childhood diving into the sea.

"When the young man's head finally broke the surface of the water, his friends praised the Goddess for his safe delivery. Laboring for breath at the rim of the spring, he told them that the coin rested upon a small ledge against the side. When he had reached for it, his trembling fingers had accidentally knocked the coin from the edge. While his friends commiserated with him, telling him that it was not worth the risk to his life to dive again, he brushed their objections aside. Determined to retrieve it, he dived into the water as his friends muttered prayers and made mystic signs to ward off evil.

"Once again, the young man was gone a very long time, for he had to go deeper to search for the coin. When they had almost given him up for dead, his friends rejoiced when he surfaced again. Almost unconscious from lack of air, he allowed his friends to pull him from the water and cover him with a blanket. His best friend, a young man about his own age, laid his hand upon his shoulder and gazed into his eyes intently, his voice pleading.

"'You must not try again, for surely it is impossible to retrieve this coin!' his friend told him.

"'Only one more attempt!' the man gasped, his eyes wild and distant. 'I almost had it this time! My fingertips touched the coin! I must go back!'

"Rushing to his feet, he raced to the edge, pushing aside the men who attempted to restrain him, and threw himself into the water. 'He has gone mad,' they murmured among themselves. 'The spring has bewitched him!'

"Through the clear waters of the spring, they watched him going deeper and deeper. Soon he disappeared from their sight, and they mourned him as though he were already dead. An hour passed, and then another, but no sign of him did they ever see again. The legends say that to this day, he is still there, deep in the spring, searching for his accursed lost coin. There you have it, my friends," Ganbar tilted his cup of wine to his lips, "the Legend of the Spring of the Silver Coin."

"While I doubt the truth of the story, still it was an engrossing tale. Perhaps after I have reflected upon it some more, I will set the sad story to poetry and music." Inbir rubbed his chin thoughtfully and then turned to Esarhaddon. "Now, my lord Esarhaddon, if you will excuse me, I must see about those horses." He rose to his feet, bowing and touching his forehead, then turned and walked into the night.

Ganbar stirred restlessly. "Shakh, is there anything else you require before I go to my bed?"

"Some wine for the women, Ganbar, and then you may retire." Glancing over his shoulder at the twins, Esarhaddon smiled, his eyelids lowering halfway over his dark eyes.

"Yes, my lord, immediately." Ganbar rose and bowed. As he walked to the stock of supplies, he wondered to himself, "The girls have both learned by now that their wine is drugged. Why bother keeping up the pretense?"

Mixing the brown powder with the wine and adding some honey to dispel the bitterness, Ganbar took the two cups and presented them to Esarhaddon. Motioning Elfhild and Elffled to sit by him, the Shakh handed them the cups and watched as the resigned girls drained the vessels.

Soon after, feeling the burden of guilt, Ganbar excused himself and went to his bedroll. Unable to sleep, the Southron threw back his blanket, and, rising to his feet, paced back and forth restlessly. "I am old enough to be their father!" he thought wretchedly. "What kind of man am I to drug these young women?"

Left alone with the slaver, the twins waited apprehensively, their minds filled with humiliating images of the night before, when he had forced them to parade naked before him. Both feared the mind-robbing insensible stupor of the drugged wine, while at the same time they guiltily anticipated the sweet relief they would have from the grim reality of life. Esarhaddon rose to his feet, and snapping his fingers, he bid the twins to follow him to where his carpet had already been spread upon the ground. He reached for a lamp which had been hung on a low hanging bough and dimmed the light to a subdued glow.

"No sheltered accommodations tonight, my little pets, so the ground will have to serve as our bed," he told them as he unwound his turban and removed the cap beneath. After he took off his boots and sword belt, he lowered himself to the ground and lay down on his left side. "To me, my innocent virgins," his deep voice commanded them. "Neither of you should be jealous of the other, for I treat you both as equals. Tonight, Elfhild has been given the honor of warming my back, while Elffled will keep the rest of me warm."

Exchanging glances, the twins took their assigned positions on either side of him. Now came the moment they both dreaded - sharing the barbarian's bed. He had not taken off all his clothing, if that was any consolation. Perhaps he was exhausted from the strange, near-disastrous day, and wanted only to sleep? They certainly hoped so, but the man was completely unpredictable.

Pulling the blanket over the three of them, Esarhaddon leaned forward, his lips seeking out Elffled's ear and nibbling upon it as he wrapped his strong arms around her waist. "Oh, Master, that tickles!" she cried, squirming in his embrace.

"Sweet flower," his mustache tickled her jaw as his lips played with her earlobe, "perhaps in your innocence, you are unaware of what stirrings your voluptuous body brings to a man. Maybe there are other places on your body which might prove far more ticklish than this, and perhaps before the night is over, I will have discovered all of them," he murmured in her ear, his implied threat covered by a deep chuckle.

Her heart pounding wildly, Elffled forced herself to lie still. "Oh, Master, I am so very tired," she mumbled, her voice sounding far sleepier than she actually felt. "The day was long and terrifying, and I just want to go to sleep and forget it all."

Esarhaddon frowned, unhappy at being reminded of the bizarre and horrifying events which had transpired that afternoon. "You should have no fear, little flower. We are far from Minas Morgul now, and soon we will be free of this accursed valley. Already the air is clearer, for the foul miasma which taints the valley diminishes the further east one travels." He pulled her closer, holding her to his body in a possessive embrace that was so tight that her ribs began to ache, and she struggled to draw in a deep breath. "Never think that sorcery is the cause of the strange aberrations which plague the Morgul Vale! Only the ignorant cry magic when faced with phenomena that cannot be easily explained, for they are superstitious and fearful. Everything has a natural explanation, even if the scholars of this day have not yet found an explanation for it."

"You are so intelligent, Master," Elffled whispered. Truly the man was a fool, to deny the existence of magic, especially in a place where the very air seemed alive with spells! Perhaps that was what happened when people became too learned – all that education drove common sense out of their heads.

"You should be glad that I am your protector," Esarhaddon murmured as he pushed back her golden hair and licked and kissed the nape of her neck. "My men and I will keep you and your sister safe from harm."

"How grateful I am for your protection, Master." Elffled recalled how the slaver had toppled over like a felled tree when the Seneschal of Minas Morgul had cast his spell of enchanted slumber over the Southrons. She prayed that they would not meet any more sorcerers upon the road, for the next one might not be as merciful as the Seneschal. Esarhaddon uHuzziya, so confident of his own intelligence and superiority, was sorely tempting fate by denying the existence of powers and forces which were beyond the comprehension of mortal man! Elffled hoped that she and her sister were nowhere around the slaver when he received due comeuppance for his misbegotten vanity!

Esarhaddon turned Elffled's face to the side and brought his lips down on hers in a demanding kiss. He was disappointed to find that the girl had already fallen asleep in his arms.

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