The Circles - Book Five - Chapter 39

The Circles - Book Five - Through the Valley of Death
Chapter Thirty-nine
Shrine of the Rose
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

"I see you finally decided to return," Ganbar told Elfhild amiably after she had caught up with him. "I thought you were going to stay back there all day."

"Hmph," she muttered, still irritated at Inbir. "If a lowly slave might speak freely and without fear of punishment," she remarked sweetly, "I would say that good Master Inbir certainly talks too much."

"What did he want with you?" Ganbar asked, arching a bushy black brow in curiosity.

"Ah, he was just sharing some of his poetry with me," Elfhild replied with a shrug, hastily putting on an air of casual indifference. "Unfortunately, some of his lays lose their flavor when translated into Westron. Probably due to the difference in languages, I believe..." She had heard the men praise Inbir's talents, and she did not wish to be rebuked for criticizing them. Besides, she just wanted to forget about the whole bizarre incident.

Elffled, who was riding just ahead of her sister, turned her head and shot the other girl a questioning glance. How could anyone not like Inbir's songs and poems? Though Elffled had not heard many of them in Westron, she was sure that they would be beautiful and sensual in any language. "Elfhild would insult Inbir's poems just for spite, for he is a Southron," she thought sullenly.

Though Ganbar observed the angry sparks in Elffled's eyes, he ignored the hostile exchange of glances between the two sisters. Long ago he had learned that slave girls were often petty, harboring unreasonable jealousies and resentments. These conflicts would sometimes grow so intense that fights could break out between two rivals, with the result being injuries everywhere from bites and scratches to outright murder. Fortunately, the two slave women whom he owned had been able to settle their differences... at the urgings of his whip, he thought with satisfaction. However, the slaves of another were of no concern to him. Letting Elffled stew, Ganbar looked down, admiring with pleasure the dark mane of his roan mare and the dappling on her sides.

When he finally lifted his gaze, his voice was tinged with amusement. "Actually, Inbir is an accomplished poet, earning the praises of a number of people in Nurn and Harad. However, he is an arrogant little pup, full of himself, and not a bit hesitant to brag about his abilities," Ganbar commented in a too loud voice, knowing that Inbir, who was riding behind, would hear every word. "Still, in spite of all his faults, there is no better man to have at your back if you run into a spate of trouble. But," he chuckled, "never let yourself be too impressed with his talents. It makes his head swell up larger than a sultan's turban."

Elfhild giggled, not fully understanding the reference, but sensing that it was meant to be humorous. Ganbar smiled and then fell into one of his infuriating silences. Elfhild began to wonder if he would ever continue with his account of the standing stone. Growing impatient, she decided to remind him about the matter. "Master, you were going to tell me about the standing stone before Master Inbir interrupted us."

"Still on that, are you?" Ganbar snapped, his sharp retort startling Elfhild. "Well, after the constant interruptions from Inbir, I do not know if I am in the mood to tell you or not." After seething over Inbir's slurs and insults, Ganbar decided he might as well be angry. That was one way to pass the time on a dull and uninteresting stretch of road.

"Oh, no, Master Ganbar!" Elfhild exclaimed, upset at his churlish reply. "Please tell me! Perhaps the telling would cheer your mood, or at least make you forget about Master Inbir."

"There is no way to forget Master Inbir!" Ganbar exclaimed gruffly. "His grandiose pretensions make that impossible! But no matter." He gave her a steely glance. "I am not quite finished questioning you. What else did my eloquent friend have to say... besides the tedious references to his own poetry?"

"I might as well tell him," she reasoned. "He wanted me to smile," she replied. "He - he said he needed inspiration for another song."

"Oh, he did, did he?" Elffled bristled to herself, overhearing every word. "He never says such things to me. How dare he flirt with my sister! Why, she is about as entertaining as a squawking magpie with a sore throat!" Her lower lip trembled, and she bit into it vengefully. "Life is so unfair!"

"Oh, he did, did he?" Ganbar guffawed loudly, slapping his hand on his thigh. "And you, being the unknowing innocent that you are, probably felt so flattered that you honored his request with one of your most radiant smiles." Ganbar noticed the hot flush of embarrassment color the girl's face. "My naive beauty, you have just been exposed to the arrogant scoundrel's brand of sarcasm and wit. Though you did not realize it, he wanted you to pass along that message to me, thinking it would make me irritated. Of course, you would not understand, but I do." He looked over his shoulder, almost shouting so that Inbir could hear him. "Is that not true, O incomparable Master of the Eloquent Verse and Stabbing Humor?"

"I see you have finally recognized my artistry, Ganbar!" came Inbir's reply, followed by a gusty roar of laughter. "Now tell the poor wench about the stone before she dies of curiosity, and try not to botch the telling with your usual bumbling style! Indeed, if you do, I will have to tell it myself." A pleasant smile on his handsome face, he laughed with affected villainy.

"Be silent, you baseborn miscreant!" Ganbar growled venomously. "If I hear another word out of you, I will cut off your tongue and shove it up your arse!"

"What an inglorious end for my golden tongue!" Inbir cried out in mock horror. "But even then, blessed as my tongue is by the gods, it would continue to extol the virtues of beauty and art with each flatulent salvo!"

"That is all your poetry is anyway, Inbir! Outbursts of foul wind!" Ganbar retorted sullenly.

"All right, have it your own way, Ganbar. You are incapable of understanding art anyway, so my poetry is wasted on a churl like you. I will keep my silence, and mayhap draw upon you as the inspiration for my next comedic poem. Perhaps I will make you famous someday." A disarmingly innocent smile lit up his handsome tawny face.

"Inbir, may my vile and profane habits be forgiven," Ganbar remarked sarcastically. "Now be quiet!"

"Aye, my lord, I am sure they will be, for the gods always take pity upon asses and madmen." With a grand flourish, Inbir touched his hand to his heart and bowed his head.

"Asses and madmen!" A deep frown furrowing Ganbar's brow, he opened his mouth as though to protest, but then convulsed into laughter. His eyes wet with tears of mirth, he turned to the slave girl beside him. "Very well, flower of the snow, I will tell you about the stone."

Finally realizing that she had been an innocent pawn in a game between the two Southrons, Elfhild pursed her lips in a sullen pout. Though she would never mention it to anyone, she had decided that Inbir with his sharp, barbed wit had bested Ganbar in the heated debate. Probably thrilled at his success, Elffled would be even more smitten with the handsome young Southron than ever. Elfhild felt a twinge of sympathy for Ganbar, who was not so clever as his overly literary opponent. She quickly pushed the sentiment aside, for she was irritated at his reticence in telling her about the standing stone. "Will he ever stop dragging his feet and just get on with it?" she grumbled sourly to herself.

Ganbar coughed, clearing his throat, and then pulled a not-so-clean handkerchief from his sleeve and loudly blew his nose. Having a little difficulty sorting through all the accounts which he had been told, he paused a few moments before starting the tale. "Being a foreigner, I know nothing for certain about the obelisk, only the stories which people have related to me. Many maintain that the spire is nothing more than a boundary stone which delineates the military jurisdiction of Minas Morgul from that of Cirith Ungol. As you might guess, both garrisons zealously guard what they consider their territory." He flashed her a lopsided grin. "Not a particularly interesting explanation, is it?"

"Actually, no," Elfhild told him, disappointment clouding her face. "All that sounds rather old and musty." She wrinkled her nose. "When I write my book, I do not want to tire my readers with discussions of boundary markers and military policies. I want to tell them something exciting that they will remember."

"Well," Ganbar drawled, "you and that book!" He shook his head. "I do not think it will ever be written. After you have been sold to some shakh for his harem, you will be far too occupied with bearing his children ever to have time for anything else."

"Well, then I do not want to tire my lord with a dull story," Elfhild retorted with a haughty toss of her head. "If I were the master, I would be very displeased at a slave who wasted my time with a tiresome tale."

Silent for a while, Inbir's unexpected interruption took them by surprise. "Ganbar, I think you have underestimated the blonde wench! Although it seems impossible, there appears to be something more solid than air underneath that tousled golden mane." Ganbar shot him a hostile stare, which did not perturb Inbir in the least. Instead, he moved his mount forward until the animal was beside Elfhild's, with the line of pack animals strung out behind them.

"Did anyone ask you to ride up here?" Ganbar snarled, his face darkening threateningly.

"No, my friend, but I thought you were in need of help relating the story to the girls. You have taken forever with the tale, and I have almost given up all hope that you will ever finish it!" he replied casually. "Besides, the view of your skinny arse was not improving the scenery, so I decided to ride where I did not have to look at it."

"Dammit, Inbir, shut up! You are getting too pompous for your own welfare. Remember, I have seniority here!" Ganbar's eyes narrowed as his face erupted in a scowl.

"O Great Master," Inbir bowed his head over and over, his voice agonized, "this wretched youth will strive to maintain his silence! But for the sake of the Gods, will you please get on with the story!"

For a few long moments, it seemed as though a dark and ominous thundercloud hovered over Ganbar's head, but then the storm suddenly broke into a great swell of laughter. "By the Gods, Inbir, you are right for a change! This story has gone on far too long." He stroked his chin. "Let me see now... Perhaps I know another tale which the wench might like better."

Ganbar leaned back in his saddle and beamed. He knew that his next statement would shock and flabbergast them all. Ah, he would enjoy the surprised, foolish looks on their faces. "Some say that the standing stone back yonder," he began in an affected, lofty style, "represents neither a boundary marker nor a memorial to some long forgotten battle, but is actually a shrine to a woman!"

"A woman!" repeated Ubri, his voice rising in astonishment. "That is impossible!" Ganbar's statement was so fantastic that for a moment the slaver's lieutenant forgot the debt owed to him by the recently executed Captain of Moskala.

"Who was she, Master? Do you know?" Elfhild cocked her head to one side, greatly interested in what Ganbar had revealed.

"I doubt that anyone knows her name, but probably that is not important anyway." Ganbar shrugged his shoulders. "She was very beautiful, of course, the way they all are in these legends. More than beauteous, if the stories are to be believed, and no doubt rivaling the grace and allure of all the love goddesses of Khand." He chuckled, winking at Elfhild as though they were two friends sharing some amusing tale. Pausing for a while to remember more details of the stories which he had heard, he watched in satisfaction as Elfhild's expressive face registered a mixture of emotions.

Satisfied that he had all the party's attention - except for Esarhaddon, who was riding too far forward to have heard any of it - Ganbar warmed up to his story. "The inscription on the stone, now... I know a little bit more about that. Once when I was in a tavern down in Harad, I met a derelict old foot soldier, formerly of the Khandian army. After a few drinks on me, he told me that once he had ridden by the stone and stopped to inspect it up close. You see, he considered himself something of an expert on Elvish writing, and thought maybe he could decipher it." The lines around Ganbar's brown eyes crinkled in a grin. "You could not prove it by me, though. I am only telling you what I was told. Maybe he did, and maybe he did not. Anyway, the fellow claimed that he had translated the wording." The Southron unconsciously smoothed a finger over each side of his mustache as he scanned the trail ahead.

Elfhild gripped the reins tighter and stared at Ganbar. She had learned that he found it amusing to irritate her by taking an inordinately long time to relate one of his tales. Sometimes she felt that she could gleefully strangle the man, if only that would make him talk faster! She had also come to realize, though, that nothing she could say or do could make the obstinate Southron pick up the speed. Though she tried not to become flustered, her patience failed her when Ganbar fell into one of his interminably long silences.

"I am waiting, Master Ganbar..." He ignored her. "Please..." She flashed him a radiant smile.

"What?" he asked sharply, his eyes riveted on the road ahead.

"Oh, you are so cruel to a poor, wretched slave!" she moaned piteously.

"What did I do?" He frowned, his eyebrows almost touching in consternation.

"You are teasing me outrageously, denying me the knowledge of what was written on the stone! Please, Master Ganbar, do not do this to me! I would be most happy if you would just tell me the rest of the tale." She gritted her teeth to keep from lashing out at him.

"Oh, the stone," he replied nonchalantly, as though the matter was so inconsequential that he had forgotten all about it.

"Yes, the stone," she repeated, her voice dripping with sweetened acid. "What words were carved into its surface?"

"Nothing much really," Ganbar stated blandly as Elfhild's spirits sank. "The old fellow said there were three words written on the stone in an ancient Elvish language - 'To my beloved.'" He rolled his eyes, obviously doubting the veracity of the tale. "Did you ever hear of such nonsense!" He laughed in disgust. "Buy a man a drink and he will tell you anything!" He watched her face to see if she had caught his humor, but she only smiled politely. That did not discourage him, though, for by then he was well into his tale. He seemed to gain new strength from his own unbridled enthusiasm. "If I had not been told better," his voice dropped to a low, conspiratorial tone, "I would have wondered if the Lord of Mordor wrote that about Himself. He is that vain, or mad, or so they say." Ganbar looked around cautiously, making the sign against evil behind his back... just to be sure.

Elfhild shivered as a cold feeling of imponderable dread washed over her senses like a dark, icy wave. Tugging her burnoose around her throat, she glanced up at the mountains around them, wondering if there were unseen watchers upon those craggy heights. Not wishing to linger upon thoughts of the Evil One, she quickly changed the subject. "Master Ganbar, does the little grove beside the standing stone have a name?"

"Slave girl, you will not be happy until you hear all there is to know about it, will you?" he laughed amiably. "Well, I will tell you all I know, which it is not much. In Black Speech, the place is called Taugaz Matum Narmatuga, the Grove of Undying Death."

A chill ran down Elfhild's spine and she began to tremble. "That is a horrible name, Master Ganbar!"

"The grove attained that name because there are rumors that it is haunted," Ganbar stated matter-of-factly. "But if that name is frightening to you, there is another name by which the grove is called. I think that you will find it far more to your liking. Many call it 'The Shrine of the Rose,' because of the beautiful rosebushes which still grow there to this day. Over there," he stabbed the air with a finger, pointing in the direction of a dark, shadowy area beyond the evergreens, "there was once a great garden filled with roses, both wild and cultivated. The water splashed and played in a hundred fountains and then cascaded down a series of skillfully engineered waterfalls. A lady most fair, the concubine of one of the lords of Dushgoi, often came with her maidens to this spot, where they enjoyed picnics in the shade of the garden. She came with a great entourage of her maidens, servants and guards." A faraway look came over Ganbar's eyes, and he peered into the trees as though some haunted glimpse of the beautiful lady and her retinue from long ago might still linger under the trees. "There is nothing here now. The spring dried to a trickle many years ago," he added.

"It sounds very beautiful," Elfhild murmured, trying to imagine how the grove appeared so long ago.

"It was," Ganbar nodded in agreement, "if you believe the legends, which I do not always hold in the highest of regard. But you never know." He gave his shoulders a slight shrug. "Maybe it is true. In any event, war with its terrible, grim power came to the Morgul Vale, leaving it nothing but a desolate wasteland from one side to the other. So complete was the devastation, they say, that if a crow flew from one end to the other, it would starve to death because there was nothing to eat. As the battles raged down the valley, the city of Minas Morgul was laid under a siege which lasted some months. In the end, it fell. Though her beauty was almost legendary, it could not save the fair lady, and she and all her maidens perished. The loss of life was horrendous, with many of the women and children of the Lords of Dushgoi falling under the mace, axe and sword. Her lord, whoever he was, set up this stone some years later, for it is said that he was deeply in love with her."

Ganbar coughed and reached for his waterskin, and after he had taken a long drink, he turned his gaze to Elfhild. "There is more to the legend, and well aware of your desire to know everything, I will tell you the rest of it. Sometimes when the night is lighted by a full moon and the air is soft and balmy and filled with the fragrance of blooming roses, it is said that the lady walks through the grove, returning once again to the place that was so dear to her in life. She appears as a pale spectre clad in a dress of soft pink, with roses and pearls threaded through her hair."

Such a look of baffled shock and amazement came over Elfhild's face that Ganbar felt a tinge of remorse for frightening her. Feeling guilty, he decided to mitigate the damage that had been done to her tender sensitivities. "Of course, there is no truth to any of this," he forced a laugh, despite the icy chill which ran down his back. "It is nothing but a tale of dreamers and drunkards. You can hear the same story, or a variation of it, in almost any coffeehouse or tavern in Nurn. There is always some down-on-his-luck poet who will recite it to you for a few coins. Now with all that said, the tale at last is complete," he announced, bowing flamboyantly from the waist.

"Thank you, Master Ganbar," Elfhild told him, expressing her gratitude for his efforts with a gracious smile and a slight incline of her head. Yet the tale had left her troubled. Her thoughts took her back to that night in the ruined castle. Outside the skies exploded with lightning, illuminating the spacious chamber with brilliant light. Yet when the room was plunged into darkness once more, the pale figure of a woman suddenly appeared, as though she had been birthed by the lightning and the fury of the storm. Tears like spring showers cascaded down the spirit's cheeks, and her dark eyes looked out sadly from dim, hollow caverns. She brought her hand to her heart and blood gushed from her chest, the crimson stain blooming like a sanguine flower as the blood poured down her snowy gown.

Were this mournful shade and the one who was said to haunt the grove one and the same? Or were they pale phantoms of two different women who had each met her doom upon the blade of her enemy? In a valley this scarred by violence, it was only logical that the place was filled with the mournful spirits of women whose lives had been unexpectedly and tragically cut short. Ganbar had said that all of the wives and children of the Lords of Minas Morgul had been slain in the war. When had this war occurred, and why was it fought? Had the present Morgul King's family been murdered, or did the tragic massacre and sack of the city occur before his reign?

Elfhild knew well the agony of losing loved ones. Though the rulers of Minas Morgul were said to be cruel, it seemed that they were still capable of love... and sorrow. Turning her head and looking back down the trail, she studied the grove. A vision came to her, and she beheld great powers striving against one another in battle bloody and fierce, sorcerous fights of fire and ice, towers falling, walls crumbling, children screaming, women dying, the bitter agony of defeat, woe and grief... and then the city lay dead like the tomb. As though peering through the filtered light of a deep mist, Elfhild saw a pleasantly furnished chamber and a beautiful lady whose hair was a rich shade of chestnut. She wore a dress which was as pink as the summer sunset, but then the color darkened to the shade of blood, and then she was lost amid the chaos.

Elfhild blinked. The vision had departed. With a shiver of dread, she turned back to stare at the road in front of her, her mind still reeling from all she had seen.


Art Credit: Painting by Hans Zatzka

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