Beyond the convergence of the two streams, the mountains grew closer together, constricting the valley into a narrow trough. The land became harsher, the climate dryer and more arid. Thorns, aloes, thistles, and spurges grew in abundance; the trees became short and stunted, clamoring for footholds upon the rock-strewn hillsides. Wiry grasses and silvery lavender swayed in the breeze, and the reddish pink blossoms of sage brightened the rugged landscape. Hardy rose bushes trailed down over large, lichen covered boulders, their thorny vines covered with pale pink and white blooms.
Though the land was harsh and stern, it was not wholly without beauty. Or perhaps it was. Each of the travelers beheld a different vision of the valley, and while some saw fair roses and tenacious wildflowers, others saw naught but vicious thorn trees burgeoning with stinking blooms. Which vision was the truth? What mortal could judge in a place such as this? Even one of the elder race, the wise and noble elves, would have trouble sifting reality from fantasy. The valley was as fickle and capricious as the shifting sands of the desert, constantly changing from one moment to the next. Perhaps every traveler who ventured into the haunted vale saw what he wanted to see. The twins, orphaned and alone, wished to see only beauty, and so they did.
The Morgulduin had dwindled into a wide, rocky stream which cascaded from its head high in the southern peaks. Making a broad arc to the north, the river carved a crescent into the side of one of the northern ridges before resuming its southwestward course towards the Anduin. Sheer cliffs jutted out from the mountainside, frowning at the travelers from across the valley. Gullies swollen with water from the recent rains spilled over the steep bluffs and plunged into the river below. Above the cliffs, there was a narrow shelf of ground where unruly thickets of hardy shrubs stubbornly weathered the elements. They were just as worn and jagged as the stone, for many had been struck by lightning, and others had been left sickened by the suffocating ash of Mount Doom. Rising above the narrow band of vegetation were the stony peaks of the crescent ridge, the savage summit barren as the desert and sharp as a knife carved of stone.
Surrounded by the austere majesty of the Ephel Dúath, Elfhild felt very small, a tiny insect in a land of giants. As the party crossed over a tall, arched bridge, her attention was caught by the wisps of mist which curled out from a narrow dell in the southeastern mountains. From this tiny hollow flowed the Morgulduin, the mysterious waters ever shrouded by a fog of enchantment. The pallid vapors rose up and ringed the jagged tops of the surrounding ridges. "The source of the Enchanted River," she realized, wondering what dark secrets that tiny hollow held.
As the riders traveled along the eastern cusp of the sickle ridge, the road rose steadily beneath their horses' hooves, and the weary beasts strained to carry their passengers up the steep grade. Elfhild cast a glance back at the road behind them. Glistening in the afternoon sun, the river shone as a ribbon shot with threads of silver and ivory as it curved towards the north. Far away, she could see the Shrine of the Rose, a dim speck of dark green in a hazy world of muted browns, grays, and greens. She felt a pang of homesickness; somewhere far to the West lay the home she would never see again. With tears prickling her eyes, she looked resolutely towards the East, where she saw a horizon which was bleak and gray.
The late afternoon sun warmed the backs of the Southrons and their two lovely charges as they drew nigh unto the monstrous, sulking fortress of Cirith Ungol sitting embittered high atop a brow of the northern mountains. Just below the steep hill which led to the stronghold was a way-meeting where the road branched off into two paths, one leading to Cirith Ungol, the other climbing up the mountainside and disappearing around a bend.
As the riders neared the grim promontory of rock, Ganbar scowled at the foreboding walls. "The citadel of Cirith Ungol," he remarked bleakly.
"Another one of their interminable checkpoints," Ubri complained, groaning in frustration. When Esarhaddon motioned for him to ride beside him, Ubri leaned towards Elffled and winked. "Think you can live without me for a few minutes?" When she pretended not to hear him, he laughed and rode ahead.
Glad to be free of the hateful man for a while, Elffled turned her head and smiled over her shoulder at her sister. "He is the most detestable man," her mouth silently formed the words. "A pig, a veritable pig!"
A mischievous grin on her face, Elfhild mouthed back, "He might improve considerably if he were roasting on a spit with an apple in his mouth! But I would venture that the meat would be both tough and stringy."
"Not to mention the ripe odor," Elffled giggled.
"Do you think I am blind and deaf? I know what you two are doing," Ganbar grated harshly as his hand moved menacingly towards the flail at his belt. "You will cease that disrespectful behavior right now! You, Elffled!" He gestured to her. "You will come back and ride on the other side of me until the Shakh has concluded his discussion with Captain Ubri! I expect no more of this nonsense from either of you!"
Effectively separated by the gruff Southron between them, both girls frowned petulantly, refusing even to glance in his direction. "I suppose it is perfectly fine for the Southrons to make us the butt of their jokes, but woe be unto us if we enjoy a little laugh at their expense," Elfhild fumed to herself. These men of Harad had no sense of humor whatsoever!
Leading the vanguard, Esarhaddon and Ubri were far more interested in the intimidating sight on the road before them than they were in the trifling commotion behind them. "Strange that such a large party would come to welcome us, my lord Esarhaddon." Ubri jerked his head in the direction of the fierce black uruks who blocked the narrow road. How menacing they looked with the afternoon sun glinting off their spears and turning the baleful red eyes on their shields into reproachful flame!
"They do not look too sociable, do they, Captain Ubri?" Esarhaddon asked as he looked over the fearsome warriors. "A whole troop of incorrigible idiots, not a bright mind in the bunch, but all quite cunning with the slyness of their kind. Their officer, though, is not orcish, but one of those Black Númenórean bastards who makes his bed with them!"
"But, Shakh," Ubri dropped his voice, speaking in a tribal dialect known only to a few outside the South, "there have never been more than a few guards at these checkpoints. Something must be afoot, and I do not like the looks of it."
"Neither do I, Captain, but I guarantee that we will learn soon enough what this is all about." Esarhaddon pressed his knees against his horse's sides, and the fine mare moved forward, snorting and prancing, loathing the smell of the detestable orcs.
Elfhild turned to Ganbar, her face tense with fear. "Master, what is happening up ahead?" she asked timidly. "Those uruks do not look like they are there just for show - they look like they mean business!"
"I am frightened, Master," Elffled whimpered, terrified of the orcs.
"Slave girls, set your minds at ease. The Shakh has never had trouble at Cirith Ungol. The House of Huzziya is respected in these parts. Whatever it is all about, Lord uHuzziya will set it straight," Ganbar replied confidentially, hiding his own uncertainties. He looked towards the line of uruks. "But... should trouble come, remember Inbir and I are close by, and we will do everything in our power to protect you." He swallowed with some difficulty. "...And if we cannot, you are to ride back to Moskala for all you are worth."
Biting back her fear, Elfhild glanced over her shoulder to Inbir. The young Southron, who had been trying to soothe the restless packhorses with calming words, fell silent and regarded her gravely. She gave him a feeble smile, which he acknowledged with a nod. Only the hint of a smile flickered in his solemn brown eyes, but the girl drew reassurance from it.
As the party of Southrons and their captives waited apprehensively, the officer moved to the front of the line of uruks and held up his hand in greeting. "Hail, Shakh Esarhaddon uHuzziya! Welcome to Cirith Ungol!"
"Silim, Corporal!" Esarhaddon touched his fingers to his brow, inclining his head slightly. "May peace be upon you this day." Beneath heavy lids, his eyes warily surveyed the Corporal. "Unfortunately, I have not made your acquaintance, but apparently you know me." He turned to Ubri. "This is Captain Ubri uMandum of Harad."
"Silim," Ubri bowed his head respectfully, wondering what kind of torment that Mordor had devised for them now. Nervously, he cleared his throat, his hand on the reins trembling slightly. He hoped fervently that these brutes would not sense his crumbling inner resolve. How much more of this place and these conditions could he endure without losing his mind!
"I am Corporal Bekir, lately of the Army of Khand, but now as fate would have it, a wound has made me unfit for active duty." Regret traced over the angular planes and hollows of the Corporal's face. "It is a great pleasure to meet you both, and I am sure I will be equally pleased to make the acquaintance of the rest of your party." An orcish foot soldier behind him laughed grimly and tightened his grip around the haft of his spear, an action which caused the other uruks to chortle in menacing voices. A faint smile curled over the Corporal's lips. "Now after I have examined your credentials, you will be free to resume your journey. Papers, please!" he barked out crisply, suddenly very brusque and businesslike.
Nudging his horse forward, a stone-faced Ubri extended the packet of documents to the Khandian. Esarhaddon briefly explained the situation with the Morgul Toll, informing the man that the matter had been resolved back at the city. While the Corporal perused the papers, the slave trader took the opportunity to study the man. Occasionally the Khandian glanced up, his contemptuous brown eyes shadowy beneath bushy brows which met in the middle above a hawk-like nose. His lips, which were almost too full and sensual to be masculine, were embedded between a dark mustache and a well-trimmed, pointed beard. Splendidly attired in the black and crimson livery of Mordor, the heraldry of the Eye emblazoned upon his ebony surcoat, Corporal Bekir cut a dashing, though menacing, figure.
As the Corporal continued to leaf through the documents, his eyes narrowed suspiciously. When he came to a certain page, Bekir looked up, his face unsmiling, his mouth tightening in a harsh, thin line. "Shakh, there are some discrepancies in your papers. I am afraid that we will have to detain you for a while until you can answer some questions."
Stunned for a moment at this ridiculous charge, Esarhaddon was silent, and then, his face reddening in sudden rage, he bellowed, "What?! Such a charge is pure rubbish! I told you that I had resolved the matter of the toll back at the City! We have passed all the checkpoints between here and Minas Tirith. Now suddenly you tell me there are inconsistencies!" The hot-tempered slaver's hand grasped the hilt of his scimitar, his fingers touching lovingly over the metal. The uruks began to mutter sullenly among themselves, and one shook his spear threateningly.
"Now cool your temper, Shakh! If you give us your full cooperation, I am certain that everything can be speedily resolved," Corporal Bekir replied in a soothing, placating tone. "Probably nothing more than a few scribal errors."
"I wonder how big a bribe he wants to 'resolve' this matter," Esarhaddon mused, smiling wryly to himself. He knew well the venality of petty officers such as the Corporal. They would make up any charge, no matter how preposterous, just so long as they could fleece honest merchants of their hard-earned coin. All he had to do was find out the nature of the alleged "crime" and what was the lowest price the Corporal would take to ensure his silence. "How very simple," the slaver thought ruefully, already calculating his monetary loses.
"Corporal Bekir, I am as eager as you are to settle this matter. However, the middle of the road is not the most propitious place to talk. Perhaps you and I can discuss this situation in your chambers? The rest of my entourage need not be involved." His heavy-lidded eyes drooping even lower, the slaver smiled wearily, seeming almost on the verge of exhaustion. How many other officials had he bribed over the long years since he had joined his brother as a dealer in human flesh? The Corporal would be like all the others... a hint, a suggestion, perhaps a veiled threat, then an agreement and an exchange of money. Seldom did he find officers and officials of irreproachable ethics, and almost all of them could be bought. All one had to know was the price.
"My lord Esarhaddon, I am afraid what you suggest is not possible," Corporal Bekir replied stiffly. "Not just you, but all the members of your party, must be questioned, for they might be able to contribute to the investigation." Filled with bureaucratic zeal and puffed up with his own importance, the Corporal gazed at the slaver sternly, not willing to compromise. "Now if you and your men will come along, you will be our guests in the tower."
"Corporal, does this mean we are under arrest?" Esarhaddon asked, feeling more and more uncomfortable. Had the fool not understood that he was willing to negotiate, but not in the middle of a public road with the men and the orcs hearing every word? This could only mean that Bekir planned to ask for an enormous bribe. The slaver's heart felt as though it were being wrenched out of his chest. Then another disturbing thought struck his mind: "Perhaps the bastard plans to hold us all for ransom!"
"Please, Shakh," the Corporal replied in a conciliatory tone, an apologetic smile on his face, "no one is being arrested. However, while we are settling this unfortunate matter, your companions will be placed under protective custody... for their own good, you must understand."
"Protection from what?" Esarhaddon snarled. "From you?" By the Gods, they really were under arrest! He gripped the hilt of his scimitar harder. The matter could only be settled by an outrageous bribe, or even worse, they would held until ransom could be raised to free them! He wondered how much this would this cost the House of Huzziya, and if his brother could raise the required sum before the Corporal decided to demand even more. He felt a twinge of pain in the pit of his stomach, and wondered, as he often did, whether he might be developing an ulcer. Esarhaddon sized up the orcs again; they were a big, rough, ugly-looking bunch, their reeking bodies adorned with charms and ornaments crafted from human bone. "All right, Bekir, I will go with you, but there is no need to detain the rest of my party."
The Corporal laughed disparagingly. "No, no, Shakh, you do not understand. Some of them might be able to shed some light on the difficulties with your papers. Let me assure you that your companions and your women will be perfectly safe in the tower - I swear it on my honor! Now if you will just lay down your arms and come along quietly with us, we can get this all settled quickly."
The two men eyed each other, their gazes locked in unspoken combat. Esarhaddon weighed the possibility of escaping. Considering that he and his men were outnumbered almost three to one - and with the women worthless hindrances, only getting in the way - the chances of escape seemed bleak. The Gods only knew how many other soldiers were quartered in the fortress above, waiting only for a signal before pouring out of the citadel and charging down the road. Quietly submitting to the inevitability of fate, Esarhaddon sighed, calmly acquiescing, "My weapon, Corporal." Unsheathing his scimitar, he flipped the blade around to present the hilt to Bekir.
"Lord uHuzziya, I felt sure that you were a sensible man and would give into reason." Corporal Bekir smiled smugly, extending a slender hand to take the sword.
While this exchange was taking place, Ubri's sanity, already stretched to the limit from days of embarrassment and fear, began to unravel strand by strand like a rope overburdened and pulled too tight. "No! Never!" he sputtered. "We will not submit so easily!" With foolhardy aplomb, he drew his sword and waved it wildly at the Corporal. Tension crackled in the air as the uruks braced themselves for battle.
"Captain!" the Shakh shouted over the din of snarling orcs and screaming girls. "There is a time to fight, and this is not it! Listen to the voice of reason and put away your sword!" Not heeding the Shakh's words, Ubri glanced wildly about, his bloodshot eyes bulging. "Damn," Esarhaddon cursed to himself. "The Captain has finally slipped over the precipice of madness and plunged to its depths! If we live to get out of here, the gibbering ape will probably start penning worthless drivel about unrequited love!"
His mind reeling at the rapidly spiraling descent into violence, Corporal Bekir reached for his sword. "Seize them!" he shouted, backing to safety behind the orcs as they surged forward like a black tide.