The Circles - Book Five - Chapter 37

The Circles - Book Five - Through the Valley of Death
Chapter Thirty-seven
The Captain of Moskala
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

The next morning, when the band of slavers and their captives had ridden two miles from the Spring of the Silver Coin, they found that the valley flared out to the south, where three spurs of the mountains came to their sloping ends. An imposing fortress of gray stone loomed high atop the middle spur, its grim silhouette stark and foreboding, its dark archer-slots and windows keeping watchful vigil over the road and surrounding lands. As the sisters gazed up, they felt a shiver of dread run down their spines. They could almost hear the whistle of arrows which would rain down upon any attackers who dared try to breach the stronghold. The whole place had a foreboding aura about it, and even though the sun was shining, it was surrounded by a gloom that no light could penetrate.

Ahead of them, the narrow highway was blocked by a party of horsemen. They sat atop their mounts proudly, the bright, sharp spears in their hands reflecting the glow of the early morning sun. Esarhaddon ordered his men to halt, and, with Ubri by his side, he rode forward to meet the riders.

"You must be Esarhaddon uHuzziya," the lead horseman greeted, raising his hand in salute as he inclined his head in a brief nod. "We were told to be expecting you." The two men's eyes met, and Esarhaddon had the impression that the other man was weighing his motives, testing him as a warrior would test a foe. Apparently the rider considered him no threat, for his lips twitched in a condescending smile. "Ah, I see I have you at a disadvantage, Shakh uHuzziya, for you do not know my name. Let me introduce myself." Bending at the waist, he gave the slaver a crisp, military bow. "I am Valto, the newly appointed Captain of the Guard, Fortress of Moskala, the Midway Point of the Morgul Vale."

Esarhaddon returned his brief bow. "Hail, Captain Valto! Honored to meet you, sir. As you probably already know, beside me is my lieutenant, Ubri uMandum, and the others are--"

"Ah, yes, I know," the captain interrupted, sweeping out his hand in an expansive gesture. "The other two are the Southrons Ganbar and Inbir." He nodded to them. "From all the accounts that I have heard, our Southern allies are commendable fighters, lending us invaluable assistance in our struggles against the corrupt West." He paused reflectively, as though pondering upon his own words, but in the end rejecting them. "Ah, war, grim and terrible! What a pity it is that good men must die! But it is all for a noble cause, the eternal struggle of all righteous men against the warmongers, eh, Shakh?" A slight hint of sarcasm tinged the captain's voice.

"I agree that sacrificing one's self for a just and noble cause would be consolation for holy warriors, Captain," Esarhaddon hedged, trying to sound convincing. He was a merchant, not a warrior. Although the present war had added to his coffers, he knew that things could quickly change with the vagaries of war, and he could well be left penniless. Already troubled by the bizarre occurrences which had plagued them since they arrived in the valley, he felt himself becoming melancholy. He longed to return to Nurn, where he could lock out the world and retreat to the peaceful sanctuary of his harem with its high walls and stout bolts. There he could enjoy the women, luxuries, and riches for which he had labored so long and hard.

Apparently satisfied with Esarhaddon's answer, the captain relaxed in the saddle and continued in a conversational tone. "We heard that you had a little trouble down the road... something about a mudslide and the unfortunate loss of a horse?" He looked questioningly at Esarhaddon.

"Aye, Captain," Esarhaddon nodded. "We were lucky that the whole damned hill did not fall in on us!"

"A dreadful possibility to contemplate, Shakh. Indeed, truly you were favored by fortune, or as you would say in your own land, fate intervened on your behalf," the captain suggested casually. Though the man's tone was congenial, Esarhaddon detected a note of derision in his voice.

"Captain, it all depends upon what you believe. Many say that before we are born, our fates were written on our foreheads. It was fortuitous for us that fate did not have something else planned." Esarhaddon shrugged, his unreadable eyes betraying no emotion, but he was irritated at what he considered a veiled insult to his people. Still, that was no reason to provoke an argument which might lead to a scuffle that he and his men had no hope of winning.

"Fate, destiny, kismet... that is as good an explanation as any, Shakh." The formal pleasantries dispensed with, Captain Valto smiled and got down to the real business. "Now if I may see your papers, Shakh." He kneed his mount forward until the two horses were side by side, his stirrup almost touching the slaver's.

As the officer slowly examined the documents from the well-worn leather pouch, Elfhild cautiously peeked up at him from beneath the veil of her long eyelashes. Captain Valto was a man in his mid-thirties, clean-shaven, with clear, gray eyes, fair skin, and a rather thin nose set in a triangular shaped face. Although his tall frame was spare and angular, the combination of face and body was not unpleasant. Her eyes moved away from him to rest upon his escort of six horsemen. They all wore ebony and silver livery and were mounted upon the splendid black horses which she had come to associate with Mordor. She recognized the banner that the standard bearer carried - a sickle moon upon a field of black – and realized that the men of this fortress were allied with Minas Morgul. She quickly lowered her gaze, fearful of these mighty warriors.

"I understand that there was a misunderstanding concerning the Morgul Toll, but the situation was remedied. Everything else appears to be in order, and you have paid all the requisite tributes and tariffs." Giving Esarhaddon an officious smile that held nothing, the man handed the packet back to the slaver.

"Our abundant gratitude to you, Captain." Esarhaddon returned the papers to his saddlebag.

"Shakh, you and your men are free to go." Valto turned and motioned for his men to move to let them pass. "May the rest of your journey prove more auspicious than its beginning--" he began to say, but was interrupted by Ubri's demanding, slightly nasal voice.

"Captain Valto, I was acquainted with your predecessor, Captain Caran of Moskala. As a matter of fact, we shared a few drinks together back in the spring. Has he been called away?" Ubri, his eyes piercing, seemed bent upon making a veiled accusation.

At this remark, Ganbar stiffened in the saddle, but then caught himself. He raised his eyes heavenward, the right corner of his mouth twitching unpleasantly to the side. "Damn fool," he muttered under his breath, but not so quietly that the twins could not hear him.

"No, Captain Ubri," Valto replied stiffly. "Only in the most elementary way would I describe it as 'called away.' Unfortunately, Caran was executed just a few weeks ago."

"Oh?" Ubri raised a questioning brow. "What was the nature of his crime? Captain Caran always seemed like a responsible man, not given to sticking his nose in trouble."

Captain Valto absentmindedly fingered his horse's reins as his cold eyes bored into Ubri's. "Not quite true, Captain... As have so many others, he made the mistake of dabbling in politics. That is always a mistake for a soldier; military men often do not have the minds for such complicated intrigues. Regrettably, it was his undoing," the man replied grimly, his gray eyes narrowing. "Does that answer your questions?"

"I see. Yes, it does." Ubri's face fell. Suddenly he felt as though a trap door had been sprung under him, spilling him into uncharted waters. The plunge lasted some moments before Ubri regained control over his thoughts. He turned away, his face a grim outline.

The lines around his eyes crinkling into a smile, Ganbar stared at Ubri's back. "Good... that will quiet him down. I was afraid the damn fool would raise such a fuss and stink that we would all get locked up in some filthy, dark dungeon," Ganbar grumbled under his breath. "Have to watch what you say here, or you will find yourself in serious trouble."

After Captain Valto's revelation, an uncomfortable silence settled over the slaver's men. All felt intensely aware of the common sounds of champing bits, creaking leather, snorting of horses and the clink of iron-shod hooves pawing the hard roadbed. The young officer broke the silence with the flicker of a smile as he jerked his pointed chin in the direction of the twin sisters.

"My friend, Shakh uHuzziya," Valto began, "how good it is to see such modest, respectful slave girls!" The Captain was obviously seeking to break the thick tension, which was as taut as skin stretched too tightly over a drum. "These two beauties, captured prizes of the enemy, have already learned their places. How rewarding it must be to have slaves whose tongues are quiet, their heads bowed in the presence of their superiors! These two will never bear children to our enemy, but raise up fine sons to the honor of the King of Men and Lord of the Earth." Captain Valto's eyes gleamed as he regarded the twins. He had not had a woman in over two weeks, and his nerves had grown testy. "What a shame," the Captain thought, "that this was not another time and place, and I were not responsible for the slaver's safety... Those girls would be mine!"

A lazy smile briefly flickered in Esarhaddon's sleepy-lidded eyes, the corners of his mouth turning up in a grin. He had correctly read the envy in the other man's voice, and found it satisfying. When another coveted something he possessed, Esarhaddon always enjoyed a sense of prestige and power. He would never betray his reactions to anyone, though, and his voice was almost sincere as he replied, "Captain Valto, what is the enemy's loss is our gain. These two will never see anyone from the West again, unless it would be other slave girls."

The Captain's eyes glowed with unmistakable desire as he took in the twins. "Raise your heads so that I may look upon your faces," he commanded. Shyly the girls glanced up at Captain Valto, and his eyes met theirs in a look that told them he was pleased with what he saw. "Ah, such lovely creatures," Valto mused. "A pair of conquered beauties… A fine catch there, Shakh. I am envious."

"No need to be envious, Captain. The North is filled with others as good as these two, and even better. If you are interested in purchasing these two, I encourage you to attend the auction in Turkûrzgoi and bid on them," Esarhaddon suggested, always eager to see that his family's auction house received all due publicity. "If all goes as planned – and I am confident that it will – the caravan should arrive in Turkûrzgoi by the last week of July. If you cannot leave your post, perhaps you would consider sending your agent instead."

"No, Shakh," the Captain looked disappointed, "I must wait until the price of slaves goes down... Perhaps at the next sale, I can manage to swing it."

Uncomfortable at being the center of attention, Elfhild and Elffled flushed red and lowered their eyes, pretending to study the pommels of their saddles. All this talk of public auctions was so degrading, for it made them feel like property rather than people. But was that not what they were now – the property of Mordor?

The two men gave each other knowing smiles and began to talk amiably, as though they were old friends. They discussed such matters as the condition of the trail ahead, the weather, crops, the price of horses, the execution of the war, and the fact that the slaver's main caravan had passed by Moskala three days before. Relieved that the men had moved on to other topics of conversation, the twins tried to think about more pleasant matters. Neither one was successful, though.

Behind them, one of the packhorses whinnied, and its investigating trumpet was answered by one of the guard's steeds. While Ganbar appeared to be giving his full attention to the discussion between the Shakh and the Captain, his fingers never left the golden earring in his left ear, touching it almost reverently. Sensing that behind that bland face, the Southron was reliving old, pleasant memories, Elfhild smiled to herself. In the five days she had been in the company of these men, she had come to know Ganbar fairly well. While the twins still feared them greatly, they no longer considered any of the Southrons to be the monsters they had first assumed them to be. Actually, with the Mordorian force so close, the girls felt the men were as much their protectors as they were their captors. While she and her sister might be only property, Elfhild knew that the Southrons would defend them.

Elfhild glanced up at the towering fortress and then let her eyes skim over the ascending jumble of rocks and scrubby evergreens. Along the mountainous ridge to her right, she saw that many trees had been shattered, while others had been split down the middle where lightning had driven its fiery finger deep into the heart wood. She wondered how long the Shakh and the captain would continue talking. She could not understand what they were saying anyway, for they were having a spirited, though not unfriendly, conversation in what she had come to know as Black Speech. Her shoulders sagged and she looked down, worrying her lower lip. Whenever her captors spoke in other languages, it always made her feel uncomfortable and somehow inadequate, for she knew only Rohirric and Westron. Even in the latter, she did not possess the fluency of these great warriors and worldly merchants.

Not wishing to brood upon her foibles, Elfhild raised her head and brushed away a stray lock of hair that had fallen across her vision. From the corner of her eye, she saw a man walking down the road that led to the fortress. Slowly she turned her head to look directly at him. At this distance, he appeared as a dim figure, nothing more than the shadow of a man, the edges of his nebulous form seeming to undulate in the heat which radiated from the steaming pavement. Something about his presence made her feel uncomfortable, and she pulled the edges of her burnoose around herself to ward off the chill which prickled her skin. Soon enough they would all find out what the fellow wanted, for he would have to report to Captain Valto. Disinterested in the affairs of the Morgul Kingdom, Elfhild turned her gaze to the river, but some force, some sense of uncertainty, compelled her to look back. The man had vanished, as though he had never been there in the first place. Elfhild blinked... had her eyes deceived her?

Icy spikes of fear shot through her veins like needles fired from tiny bows. Where could he have gone? Her eyes scanned the rocky hillside. Maybe he had darted into the thickets of evergreens which lined the western side of the road that led to the fortress? She squinted into the distance, but saw no suspicious shapes lurking in the trees. She became more alarmed by the second. Had she just seen some wraith, some shade of man who had once walked the earth? Had, for a brief instant, the portals which passed between the worlds of the Seen and Unseen been opened, and she had gazed beyond to the other side? Perhaps she had looked through time itself and caught a glimpse of a figure from the past... or the future. A shiver traced its way down her spine. In this twisted valley of mists and illusions, anything was possible. Perhaps the shadowy figure was just that - a shadow. But of what?

Concentrating on developing some logical explanation for what she had seen, Elfhild was irked when her thoughts were interrupted by the voices of the Captain and the Shakh. Once again, they had returned to Westron, and so she could understand most of what they said, at least the words with which she was familiar. The Captain had extended an invitation for the Shakh to join him in the guardhouse for a few drinks. Esarhaddon had politely refused on the grounds that his party was too far behind schedule as it was.

"Shakh Huzziya," Valto urged as he put his hand companionably upon the other man's shoulder, "surely you have time to spare for a goblet of exceptional wine to cheer you on your way. The journey ahead is even more arduous than the path you have already traveled, and perhaps you might regret your refusal. As you have found, these mountains can be treacherous, and beyond this fortress, they rise even steeper. I must advise you to proceed with great caution, for you never know when another avalanche might betake you."

Esarhaddon's senses sharpened at that remark, and the unpleasant thought came to his mind that perhaps the man was trying to warn him of something. Esarhaddon quickly dismissed that idea as being ludicrous. The Captain probably meant nothing by his comments other than friendly congeniality. "Captain, I fear I must decline your generous offer. I had been in hopes that my men and I would catch up with the rest of my caravan in Gorgoroth by evening, but now I doubt that we will achieve this goal. We still have to pass by the guards at Cirith Ungol." Resting his hands on the pommel of his saddle, Esarhaddon turned his eyes towards the east.

Valto followed Esarhaddon's gaze. "Shakh, you really should have no concerns about the Tower," he told him reassuringly. "The guards never detain anyone unless they suspect them of being miscreants, spies or impostors, and your papers are entirely in order. They should not trouble you about the matter of the toll, for it has already been paid."

"Captain, when we passed through here back in the spring, I found Commandant Sukkal of Cirith Ungol to be quite a friendly, urbane fellow. He was admirably helpful, I might add." Esarhaddon turned back to look at Valto.

"Alas, my friend, Shakh uHuzziya, it is my regretful duty to inform you that Commandant Sukkal is no longer in charge, and another is in his place." A concerned look on his face, the officer sighed regretfully.

Ganbar perked up at those remarks. "What would you expect?" he muttered out of the side of his mouth. Though his voice was low, Elfhild could make out his words. "Around here, they go through officers quicker than the butcher's assistant brings up the next beef for slaughter." Elfhild had no comments for that, but a slight smile turned up the corners of her mouth.

"That is incredible!" Esarhaddon exclaimed, shaking his head. "I had understood that Commandant Sukkal, who was descended from one of the most powerful tribes of my land, was doing a remarkable job. He was beginning to redeem the fortress, which had turned into a wretched orc den, and turn it into a respectable military stronghold once more. And you tell me that he is dead?" Seldom did anything disturb Esarhaddon's studied languor, but his eyelids raised slightly at these unsettling tidings.

"Alas, I am afraid it is true," the Captain added, lowering his voice. "The unfortunate Commandant was drinking a goblet of wine when suddenly he fell to the floor, shaking and frothing at the mouth. It was mere minutes before he was dead. Assassinated, just like that!" His voice rose with emotion. "Some think that it was one of his own officers," he added incredulously. "Even though a number of officers and men were interrogated by the most strenuous methods, no one confessed or gave any information. The mystery remains unsolved. Now Commandant Pantúrion is in charge."

"A very unfortunate thing, Captain." Esarhaddon stroked his beard thoughtfully, his eyelids sliding down once more to half veil his eyes. "It would seem that Cirith Ungol has known its share of misfortunes," he remarked commiseratively. Actually, the Shakh was far more curious about these affairs than he would ever admit. One never knew when a piece of information attained casually might someday prove useful.

"Unfortunate is an understatement, my friend. In a short time, Commandant Sukkal made great strides at restoring the calibre of Cirith Ungol. As you were no doubt aware, there was that regrettable massacre back in March. The sole survivor of the incident was the orc Shagrat, Captain of the Tower. He claimed that an elf warrior was responsible for the slaughter, but the official report states that the incident was actually caused by a quarrel over the possessions of a prisoner who had been caught sneaking around in the pass. Shagrat was executed for his incompetence. The tower was subsequently refitted and remanned, this time by Easterlings and Southrons."

"Interesting," Esarhaddon thought as he continued to stroke his beard. "Captain, I knew this day would come," he proclaimed out loud. "Orcs are foul beasts, unfit to command anything except their own clans. Even then they are subject to constant fighting. They have their place, but they are far too unsteady for important things. The Lord of Mordor shows great wisdom in evicting them from their positions."

"We are in agreement there, Shakh," Valto nodded. "Throw them in the front lines and let them take the brunt of the enemy efforts, but never should one be in command. There, Men are the only ones qualified by race and temperament." He glanced up at the arc of the sun. "Shakh, this has been an engrossing discussion, but I know you need to be leaving and I shall not detain you any longer. You are free to go. Perhaps the next time you pass through here, you will join me in that drink."

Grasping each other by the shoulder, the two men shook hands. Captain Valto signaled to his men, and they moved aside to let the slaver's entourage pass. Soon Moskala was only another memory in a long chain of memories that were building up in the minds of Elfhild and Elffled. Even though they had crossed the Anduin only three days before, the journey through the Morgul Vale seemed vague and blurry, as though it had happened many years before. The Great River, the Cross-roads, the enchantments of the Morgulduin, the ghost in the castle, the runaway orc, the storm and the mudslide, the pale city of Minas Morgul, the Seneschal and the terrifying incident at the bridge - had they really experienced so much in just three days? The twins had difficulty forcing their incredulous minds to comprehend everything that had befallen them in such a short time. Their memories fled from them, like the fleeting remembrance of a dream upon awakening, like a puff of smoke from a snuffed out candle, like the ephemeral glimmer of a shooting star.

For that matter, their own past had begun to seem hazy, and their memories of home no longer seemed quite so vivid as they once had. It seemed like the further East the sisters traveled, the more distant the West became, in terms of space as well as memory. Had they been captured only a month ago? It seemed so far in the past. Perhaps this sensation was caused by the constant threat of danger that hung over them... Or perhaps the mists of the enchanted valley had begun to cloud their senses and cause them to forget any life they had known before coming to Mordor...

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