The Circles - Book Five - Chapter 6

The Circles - Book Five - Through the Valley of Death
Chapter Six
The Sorrowful Road
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

The Southrons broke camp a little while after the return of the uruk. They mounted up and turned their horses' heads towards the east. Although the twins' wills had been subjugated by threats of abandonment or execution, the slave trader still considered them as rebels who would bolt at the first opportunity. Not wishing to chance losing two such valuable female slaves to another foolhardy escape attempt, Esarhaddon had ordered their hands bound in front of them. He had assigned one man to lead each of their horses - Ganbar was to supervise Elfhild and Inbir was appointed to be the keeper of Elffled.

The slaver, of course, was not aware that, in spite of her sorrow, Elffled's eyes had begun to stray to Inbir. When he had rescued her in the wilderness, he had seemed so kind and chivalrous, unlike the head slaver, who was heartless and cruel. Unfortunately, Elffled recalled that her new friend Aeffe had also expressed an interest in the handsome young Southron. Did Inbir feel the same way for Aeffe as she did for him?

Riding in line behind the men, the twins wondered at the uproarious laughter and raucous talk in Haradric which drifted back down the line. As Esarhaddon and Ubri rode at the head of the small column of riders, the slaver described again for his lieutenant how he had deceived the two naive peasant girls into believing that he would either abandon them to death or kill them if they refused to embrace slavery. The ruse was an old one which the slaver had used a number of times before, but still he found it effective and very amusing.

"Ubri, you should have seen the Northern maiden when I found her tied to the tree! When she looked up at me with her blue eyes wide and pleading, the sight would have been enough to melt the heart of any other man!"

"But not yours, my lord," Ubri chuckled, enjoying his master's deceitful ploy which had tricked the innocent girls into accepting slavery.

"Nay, never mine, for I am a man of trade and commerce, and it does not pay to have a heart when it comes to business. New slaves are ignorant, and while they have a fear of the unknown at first, they must be taught the specific fear of their masters. These slaves will be far more tractable and give us less trouble if they think that the threat of death constantly looms over their pretty heads. All I care about, Ubri, is what I can get out of them at the market, and I judge that they will bring the highest prices of any of the lot!" Esarhaddon exclaimed enthusiastically, his voice firm with conviction.

"Aye, Shakh, they should sell well," Ubri nodded agreeably. "...If they ever arrive at the auction block," he thought to himself. "I am not convinced that you can resist the urge to take these luscious wenches to your bed. Once you have had a taste of them, you might find you want to keep them for yourself! You would do far better with them than you would with that cold Northern witch, Goldwyn. Why you should want her is more than any of us can understand."

Ubri smiled wryly to himself. "Sometimes, my lord, you perplex me. You say you have no heart, but I suspect that you deceive yourself. Aye, it will be interesting to see if you actually possess such an organ, or if you will maintain the rigid mastery you have over yourself and not give into temptation. I know this: if you can resist these beautiful twin sisters, you are a far stronger man than I, for I would rush to these oh-so-delightful temptations upon swift feet!" Ubri, of course, said nothing to the shakh of his private musings and kept his own council.

As the small party rode east, they came to a mound of stones, a cairn raised over the body of the mare Mithril. Even though the girls had seen her fall, it was difficult to believe that the beautiful horse lay deep within the earth, stones mounded over her body. It was unbearable to think that she would never again run free as the wind through the fields of Anórien, never gently nuzzle their hands when they offered her a treat, never whicker at them when they called her name. She had been mercilessly slain by the uruks in the employ of that monster who now held their destiny in his hands!

"Rest in peace, brave mare," Elfhild murmured, lifting up her bound hands and wiping away a tear with her fingers as they passed the grave.

"Love and gratitude are in my heart for you, sweet Mithril," Elffled silently intoned as she raised a prayer for the mare's safekeeping to Nahar, the charger of Béma.

Elfhild managed to hold back the sobs as she turned to the slaver. "Lord Esarhaddon, thank you for giving Mithril a burial that was fitting to her faithfulness. She was a fine horse." She gave him a shy, wavering smile. "May the Gods bless you for your kindness."

"The Gods?" the slaver shrugged. "I care nothing for the blessings or cursings of gods, especially foreign ones. I ordered that the animal be buried because the people of my land consider the horse a noble beast."

"A noble beast indeed, but the uruks were sorely put out, for they wanted to butcher the mare and enjoy a taste of fresh meat." Ganbar jerked his head back to where the sullen uruk was marching behind the horses. "I would not put it past them to cut off a haunch of horse meat and then bury what they did not eat."

"Speak in Haradric, Ganbar!" Ubri ordered sharply. "Do not upset the slave girls, or our ears will be tortured by their incessant weeping! I hate to hear a woman cry! Their wails sound like the shrill cries of squawking ravens!"

"As you will, Captain," Ganbar answered in the Southrons' native tongue. "You are right, of course. Such talk would only make them cry the longer and louder."

"Still, Ganbar, there is no doubt that uruks will eat anything, even each other." Ubri sounded disgusted. "You forget one thing, however. These lads know better than to disobey my orders! If you have any doubts, though, I will excuse you to go back and dig up the mare and prove it one way or the other. You can catch up with us as you can."

"No, Captain," Ganbar shook his head gloomily. "It would be too late to do anything about it anyway." As he rode by the grave, he silently cursed the uruks. "Murderous, vile beasts! They have a streak of wildness in them which affects their judgment. Even though Torû excels in archery, what did he think he was doing? Shooting enemies in battle? These are only young women, and he could just as easily have killed one of them with a miss-aimed arrow. I wonder what has become of him, but I suppose we will never know." He glanced at Elfhild, whose horse he was leading, and felt his heart beat faster.

Passing by the grave, the horsemen took the trail to the south, riding silently through the forest. The only sounds were the jingle of bridle and harness, the creak of saddle leather, and the rhythmic thudding of hooves upon dry earth. Here and there the forest pressed close along the trail, the somber trees looming forebodingly above them and casting bands of shadowy grayness over the path. Dread filled the girls' hearts as they continued along the trail, for soon they would reach the stream where Tarlanc, his horse and beloved dog had perished.

After traveling through the thick growth of trees, the riders came to a stretch of road that was open to the sunlight. Free of the dismal press of the forest, the Southrons resumed speaking quietly in their own tongue. Where the forest once again pressed close to the road, the men dropped their voices, peering often into the trees along the side of the trail. When the party approached the site of the ambush, a feeling of gloom seemed to permeate the clearing, drenching the land with sorrow. All around them were somber trees, blighted bushes, dried bracken and ferns, and the dry stems of wildflowers which had perished before they had ever blossomed. Chills went down the spines of the Southrons, and the uruk looked apprehensive, but none of them said anything of their discomfort.

The twins cast glances at each other, each one trying to reassure her sister with her eyes. Nearing the stream bank, they saw a large cairn in the blood-soaked clearing, many of the weathered stones encrusted with gray-white lichens, while dirt clung to the sides of others that had long rested in the ground. Ubri gave them no time to do more than glance at the grave before hurrying them down the bank and over the stream, where he signaled for the riders to halt on the opposite bank. There was a low hum of flies buzzing about the spilled blood which smeared the soil, and the stench of death still lingered in the air.

The girls felt waves of grief cascade over them, for obviously this was the burial place of Sparrow. But it was the long, narrow grave, dark in shadows and foreboding, which captured their attention, and each girl felt sorrow clench the pit of her stomach at the stark realization that this was the grave of Tarlanc. Not far from the grave, Farmak, Tûrum, and Zaanûrz lounged against the trunk of a barren larch tree, their shovels close by. They quickly stood to attention when the slaver's party halted a short distance away.

"Dismount, men, and show the girls to the burial place," Ubri's sharp order was almost an affront to the stillness of the clearing. "Our employer has graciously allowed them a short time to mourn."

Ganbar and Inbir exchanged glances before sliding off their horses' backs and helping the twins dismount. With a ragged sigh, Elfhild brushed more tears from her face as Ganbar put his arm around her shoulder to steady her. "Poor Tarlanc, to die so far away from home with no one except us to mourn for him," Elffled murmured sadly, keeping her gaze averted from the grave, for she could not bear to look.

"Slave girl, you are not being forced to see the grave against your will. You can remain at a distance while the fellows bury him," Ubri advised.

"Ubri speaks correctly," Esarhaddon interjected, watching the scene as he sat on his horse. "It is nothing to us if you attend this old Tark's funeral or not."

"No," Elfhild spoke up firmly. "My sister and I will watch. Someone needs to say a few words over his grave."

"Then let us get on with it." Ubri tied his horse to a scrubby bush and walked over to peer down into the pit. "It appears you lads stayed sober long enough to dig the hole deep," he remarked, his gaze going to the uruks. The four grave diggers' expressions were solemn, but their eyes held a malicious glint.

"Captain, we've done quite a bit of hard work, as you can see," Zaanûrz assured the captain. "The horses took the longest time, for their graves are longer and wider. You want 'em nice and deep so the wild beasts don't pilfer the graves." Smiling broadly and showing a set of black and broken teeth, the uruk patted the handle of his spade. "After you give the word, we'll have this one all nice and planted in no time!"

"We done 'em all fine and proper, as good as any graves you'd find in a Tark cemetery, Captain," Farmak added, his green eyes glinting like emeralds. "When we get this one finished, it will be as pretty a grave as anyone would ever wish! 'Tis a great shame and pity there were not some dainty little forest posies about these woods to plant around the poor devil's eternal bed!"

"Inanna's tits, man, I know sarcasm when I hear it! You would not plant flowers on any grave, even if it were your mother's!" Ubri glared at the uruk until the smirk disappeared from the brute's face. "It is bad fortune to leave a body unburied and exposed to the weather and beasts. Even if he was a Gondorian, none of us begrudge him a decent burial! Who knows which one of his gods might be watching and set himself to do us some mischief for our impertinence?" Ubri frowned at the three uruks, his stern expression daring any of them to protest. It was absurd to think that any of the spawn of the Dark Land would have the slightest bit of sympathy or compassion for another living thing.

"Yes, Captain," Farmak returned sullenly, glancing over at his fellows. "We meant nothing by our remarks."

"Then let us get this task completed, or we will be here all day." Ubri turned to Ganbar and Inbir, who had halted a few paces away from the pit. "Bring the women forward and let them lament in their own fashion. The old man is theirs to mourn, not ours, but we will allow them to shed their tears in peace."

"Captain," Ganbar replied as he and Inbir nudged the girls towards the grave, "do you want us to stay by them as they perform whatever rituals their people follow?"

"No," Ubri replied. "We will wait by the horses." He looked to the twins. "You have ten minutes to give your last farewell, no more; so be quick."

"Untie their hands for now," Esarhaddon commanded, the abruptness of his order surprising them all. "I doubt that even this clever pair can find a way to escape with the nine of us watching them."

The twins' hands were quickly freed, and as they rubbed their chafed wrists, they looked at the slaver with gratitude, but nothing could be read in his hooded gaze. "Thank you, my lord, for allowing us this moment." Elfhild inclined her head and waited for the men to leave before she and Elffled walked the last few steps that separated them from the resting place of their friend.

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