The Circles - Book Five - Chapter 7

The Circles - Book Five - Through the Valley of Death
Chapter Seven
Morbid Thoughts, Dark and Dreary
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

The afternoon was pleasant, the weather warm and balmy, belying the sorrow of the tragedies of that day. Though the sun was shining brightly, a melancholy mood lay over the small clearing like a chill mist over a field. Like other places in Gondor and Rohan, the forest had suffered from a lack of sunlight caused by the thick clouds of smoke which had issued forth from the Mountain of Doom. Yet it was not the gloominess of their environs that weighed heavily upon the hearts of Elfhild and Elffled, but the memory of what had happened there just a few hours before. Deeper in the forest, birds chirped and called to each other, but around the site of the small skirmish, silence reigned, the crushing stillness seeming to press in upon the girls.

Halting suddenly, Elffled turned tear-filled eyes to her sister. "Oh, Elfhild, I cannot bear to behold Tarlanc's cold, dead face!" she sobbed, bringing her hands up to cover her eyes.

"You will not have to see him," Elfhild replied solemnly as she knelt by the grave and peered into the doleful chasm below. "It appears that they have laid him upon one of our blankets and wrapped him in one of the spare cloaks which he brought with us. You cannot see his face." Turning back to her sister, she managed a weak smile through the tears that cascaded down her cheeks.

"Aye, I see," Elffled whispered, kneeling beside the other girl. "And they placed poor dear old Haun there beside him!" Her tremulous lips twitched up in a tiny smile, and she tucked a sweaty strand of hair behind her ear. "That was thoughtful of them. Tarlanc would have liked that. Sparrow is buried not too far away, so they will all have each others' company."

Sniffing, Elfhild wiped her eyes with her sleeve. "Oh, Elffled, just think of what a beautiful place this will be when at last the trees are cloaked in leaves and the flowers are blooming!"

"I do not care how it might look. I never want to see this sorrowful place again!"

Sobbing softly, the sisters mourned their three valiant friends until the poignant moment was interrupted by Ubri's brisk reminder, "You have only a few minutes left!"

"Elfhild," her sister put an arm around her shoulder, "we must be going now. Our captors are becoming impatient." When the other girl did not reply, Elffled shook her gently. "Please get up!"

"Yes..." The word slipped past Elfhild's lips as a sighing murmur. Bracing her hand upon the ground, she forced her shaky legs to bear her up. She looked down into the pit before her, staring at the oblong shape of the body hidden beneath the cloak. Haun lay beside Tarlanc, his mouth open in a grimace of pain. Yet she was not looking at the unfortunate dog, but rather his master. The breeze had died down and now the air in the forest seemed stifling, musty even, like the stale air in a little-used cellar. The pace of time seemed to slow, each second lengthening like a coil being stretched to its breaking point.

Morbid thoughts insidiously crept into her mind. The dark green cloak obscured every feature of Tarlanc's body, hiding the silver strands of his gray hair, the wrinkles of his face, his gnarled old hands. He no longer looked like a person, but a thing, an object wrapped in an austere shroud of green. His heart no longer beat its steady rhythm; his lungs would never take in the floral-scented breezes of spring or the crisp winds of autumn. His life had fled from him to... to wherever the dead men of Gondor went.

He was just a corpse now, a faceless shape wrapped in green, a lifeless body of flesh and bone destined to molder beneath the earth, like a sack of refuse in a garbage heap discarded to rot away and be a home for generations of flies. A corpse like a soldier slain upon a battlefield, a small child who died of fever, a woman who killed herself because her lover rejected her. All cold and dead, whether by noble or ignoble causes. All just lifeless sacks of flesh and bone hidden beneath shrouds of cheerless material as stark and barren as death itself. All corpses. Tarlanc was a corpse just like them.

But, wait -- the green mass was not entirely without feature. Along the sides of his body, the folds of the cloak dipped down, resembling deep ravines, hollows, and trenches in the earth. Where the folds rose up again resembled mountains and ridges. His head was a rounded knoll; his chest and stomach a broad plateau; and his legs two ridges with a narrow valley running between them. How strange it was! How wondrously strange! As the years passed, his body would decompose into the dirt, and now already, wrapped in a cloak green as pine needles, it resembled the mountainous evergreen forests which rose up to the south of the clearing.

Elfhild's legs buckled, causing her to pitch forward. She fell, almost gracefully, into the grave, where she landed atop the old man's body, her face pressed against his silent heart.

"Elfhild!" her sister shrieked as she stood at the top of the grave, staring down into it in dismay. "Oh, Gods!"

His back turned to the scene of burial, Ubri had not been aware that anything was amiss. He spun around at the sound of the girl's piercing scream. Surprised when he did not see the second twin, he raced to the grave where he found Elffled, one hand muffling her sobs and the other pointing towards the dismal contents of the grave.

"She - she fainted!" Elffled wailed. "Oh, please, sir, rescue her!"

Giving Elffled a mystified sideways glance, Ubri peered into the grave and was shocked when he saw Elfhild's limp body sprawled over the corpse. Stunned, he jumped into the hole and landed beside Tarlanc's body. Kneeling beside the corpse, he turned the girl over onto her back. She lay there, pallid and unmoving, her eyes closed, her arms draped bizarrely over the sides of the dead man. A look of revulsion upon his face at the ghastly scene of the living and dead lying in the grave together, Ubri made the Haradric sign against evil before picking her up and rising to his feet.

Ganbar, who had been preparing to mount his horse, gave the reins to Ásal and ran to the grave. "Is she dead?" he called down to Ubri.

"No, at least she still breathes. Here, you take her," he muttered. "I will lift her up to you." Bracing her body against the earthen wall, Ubri hoisted Elfhild up to Ganbar's waiting arms. Ganbar slid his arms under the girl's prone body, grunting as he pulled her out and laid her on the ground. He then turned his attentions to helping a cursing Ubri out of the grave.

"Did she jump in, Captain, so that she might be buried with him?" Ganbar asked gruffly. "Women sometimes do strange things like that."

"Damn! I do not know! Perhaps she did. She might be mad, or maybe she collapsed from grief! Who can understand women?" Ubri growled as he brushed the dirt from his burnoose and pantaloons.

"Maybe she is diseased, sick with some fever, and does not know what she is doing," Ganbar suggested nervously. "She seems to be a sickly thing. What if she has some Northern pox that will kill us all?"

"Ganbar, maybe it is nothing more than the weakness of women, and she fainted from that and the heat. In that case, it is best to let her sister tend to her," Ubri admonished, his face puckering in disgust as though he had eaten something sour.

The two men stepped back as a frantic Elffled moved quickly to her sister's side. Wringing her hands and muttering fearfully, she knelt on the ground beside her. A slight trickle of blood oozed from Elfhild's right nostril. Wincing in sympathy, Elffled dabbed it away with her handkerchief. Murmuring Elfhild's name, Elffled gently shook her shoulder and whispered soft reassurances to her in Rohirric.

By that time, Inbir and the four uruks had heard the commotion and made their way to the site. The Southrons stood around the grave, murmuring at the strangeness of the occurrence and making signs to ward against evil.

Elfhild's eyelashes slowly fluttered open and she moaned at the rush of pain which assailed her bruised face. With a cry of joy, Elffled hugged her sister to her body. Her expression of happiness quickly turned to apprehension as she looked towards the other side of the clearing and saw a horseman.

Riding up at a trot, Esarhaddon reined his chestnut mare near the grave. Not liking the smell of orc in her nostrils, Ka'adara snorted and pawed the ground, the look in her rolling eyes causing the orcs to move away and give her a wide berth. Pointing his riding crop towards Ubri, the Shakh demanded briskly, "What in the hell happened here?"

"My lord," Ubri inclined his head and replied unemotionally, "apparently the girl fainted and fell in the grave. Ganbar and I retrieved her from the pit. She seems all right except for a bloodied nose."

"Aye, Shakh," Ganbar added, looking down at the girl and rubbing his nose, "just toppled over, she did. We all got here as quickly as we could."

"Strange." Esarhaddon shook his head from side to side. "Ubri, you and your men take the girl away from the grave and back into the trees. Her sister will go with you. We will remain here for a while and let her rest."

Turning towards the uruks, he ordered sternly, "Fill the grave now and raise a cairn over it! After you have finished, the four of you are to journey east and join the rest of my caravan. Report to the head physician all that has transpired here. Inform him that we will be joining him in a few days, but first we will go to the city."

"As you wish, Master," Zaanûrz bowed and signaled to the other uruks to join him.

The slaver did not guide the mare forward for some moments as he observed the uruks set to work again shoveling dirt into the grave. Idly drumming the end of his riding crop against his thigh, he watched as the three men carried Elfhild away and laid her on the mat that Ásal had spread upon the ground. He paid scant notice as the attentive servant boy propped her feet up upon a stack of blankets and put another under her head. When Ásal's black eyes caught his master's gaze, a flicker of resentment crossed his face, for the slaver signed for him to leave.

"He has already become far too attached to these slaves," Esarhaddon thought to himself. "A bad habit for a eunuch." His expression thoughtful, he turned the mare and trotted her over to the picket line, still thumping the crop against his leg.

A short while later, Esarhaddon, a small cloth bundle in one hand, his riding crop in the other, walked over to the sisters. The girls looked up to him questioningly.

"You," he pointed the whip towards Elffled as he held out the bundle, "here is food for you and your sister, dried dates, raisins and some dry biscuits. How long now has it been since you have eaten?"

"We ate this morning, my lord," Elffled replied gratefully as she smoothed out the cloth and inspected its contents. Her stomach had recovered from its earlier sickness, and now it was groaning for want of food.

His eyebrows furrowed, the slaver turned to Elfhild. "Why did you cast yourself into the grave with the dead man? Was it your wish to be buried with him?"

Elfhild looked up at the Southron in dismay. "No, no, of course not! I merely fainted and fell into the grave."

"I did not think that it was the custom in either your country or in Gondor for a man's women to be buried with him when he died. However," he tapped his bearded chin with his forefinger, "I have heard that in some countries that when a lord is buried, a poisoned cup is passed around to his wives and servants and they all die with him. Even his best horses are slaughtered with him. Then when he is buried, he is surrounded by his household and many of his finest possessions. An interesting custom, but one not practiced among my own people."

"How horrible!" Elfhild exclaimed. She was glad that this gruesome ritual was not practiced by Esarhaddon's kinsmen. In case by some strange chance the slave trader should perish along the journey, she did not want to join him in death!

"Then, too," he went on, ignoring her, "it is said that in some of the lands to the East when a great lord passes to the Unknown Realm, his body is burnt upon a great pile of wood. If his wives do not throw themselves into the pyre with him, they are considered dishonorable and have lost all hope of an eternity." He was obviously enjoying his dissertation, and a tremor of fear passed down Elfhild's spine. Could he be hinting that he would sell them to such people if they did not bend to his will? Shivering, she averted her gaze from the intimidating Southron.

"I only fainted, my lord," Elfhild stated, speaking slightly louder in an attempt to change the gruesome subject.

"Aye, my lord," Elffled spoke up. "Two days ago, my sister was overcome by the heat, and she is still a bit weak. Then she has been much aggrieved at the death of our friend, and the torments she endured at the hands of the orc."

His hard expression softening, a vague smile came over Esarhaddon's face as his eyelids drooped lazily and his whole body relaxed. "My gentle dove, do you think you are able to ride? There is no time to build a litter for you and your sister so that you might ride in comparative ease."

Elfhild narrowed her eyes at what she felt was an insult to her pride. "My lord, I was in the saddle but a few hours after I had suffered the sun sickness... when my sister and I set off with Tarlanc."

"When you were attempting to escape from me. Aye, I know," he chuckled, holding up a hand to stay them from speaking. "You thought highly of the old man, did you not?" he asked, already knowing the answer, but merely asking the question to gage the strength of her reply.

"Aye, my lord," she replied sadly, her long lashes lowering to cast dark shadows on her cheeks. "He was a kindly gentleman, his wish only to help us, and we brought him and his faithful companions evil fortune."

"Fate will be what it is," Esarhaddon shrugged. "You cannot change it, only accept what kismet decrees." Sliding closer to Elffled, he cupped his hand around her cheek and drew her face towards him until it was only a few inches from his. "And you, my little flower," he murmured softly, a trace of sarcasm in his tone, "do you accept the workings of fate?"

"I – I do not know, my lord," Elffled stammered, flinching at the Southron's touch. "Fate has certainly been cruel to my sister and me. I do not know if there is aught we can do to change this doom that hangs over us."

"Perhaps your fortunes are about to change." The fingers of his other hand traced the outline of her lips as his dark brown eyes stared into hers. Elffled blushed and looked shyly away. Abruptly Esarhaddon rose to his feet. "You will be ready to leave in an hour. Now eat! Our only stops will be to rest the horses, and you will not delay us!" He turned on his heel and walked to where the other men sat under the trees, laughing and drinking wine.

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