The Circles - Book Six - Chapter 15

The Circles - Book Six - Across the Wide Hamada
Chapter Fifteen
Delays Upon the Road
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

When the first horn sounded - the signal for the captives to rise to their feet and wait for their hands to be bound - a few of the slaves muttered, but none dared challenge the pitiless guards. The second horn rang out not too long after the first, and the guards, eager to be about their business, cracked their whips sharply over the prisoners' heads to impress upon them the need to make haste. With a great clatter of chains, the women and children filed into column. Then the great merchant caravan set off again, beginning its slow journey, the line making its way across the plains of Gorgoroth like a trail of ants in the dust.

That afternoon, the caravan encountered a company of uruks marching towards the war in the West. Sauron's forces always had the right-of-way, and the merchant train was forced to pull off to the side of the road. The officers in charge, who were men, nodded curtly at the caravan guards, but the common soldiers, uruks and mixed breeds, looked greedily over the women, their eyes gleaming with lust. When the last of the soldiers passed by, the captives breathed a sigh of relief. The stench of the orcs, however, remained a long time in the nostrils of the prisoners.

The whips rang out again as the guards herded the women and children back on the road. As the slaves marched ever closer to the crossroads that led to Nurn, the guards kept up a constant string of taunts: "Straighten up that line! Are you a gang of cripples! Lift those legs up higher! Careful now, you fat sow! Keep your brat close by! Lazy whore, you will walk that fat off by the time you are on the auction block!"

Although the Mountain of Fire lay quiet with only a faint trail of smoke rising from its molten interior, the lusterless heavens provided little cheer to the stark, grim monotony of the barren landscape that spread out on all sides. The sky faded from pale blue at its peak to a dusty gray haze which hung close to the earth, making the plain appear indistinct and vague. Far away on the eastern horizon, the train could see the remote form of the great mountain, rising up as a massive prominence of shadowy gloom.

Though traveling these lands was a dismal affair indeed, at least the oily stench which had permeated the cool morning air had dissipated somewhat as the day grew warmer. This foul odor was unknown to the Rohirric captives, but they attributed it to being just another fault of a miserable land. Being unlearned peasants from a purely agricultural society, they had no knowledge of the sources of the unwholesome vapors and the cloak of grimy haze. These evils were caused by a dismal mixture of the fumes of the volcano and the endless mines and factories which sprang up along the periphery of Gorgoroth like giant, malignant weeds. Not too long in the past, the smokes from the forges and chimneys of Gondor had also contributed to the haze over the blighted land, although the Stone Kingdom itself was spared from these malignant ethers by the fair western breezes. Indeed, one of the reasons why many of the trees high atop the Mountains of Shadow were stricken and blighted was because the tallest peaks caught the full force of the sulfurous wastes of Gondor.

"I certainly hope Nurn does not look like this," Elfhild grumbled in a whisper.

"It makes little difference to me how it looks," Elffled laughed grimly. "It could be the most wretched desert imaginable! I certainly cannot do anything about that! What I want right now is a cool drink, a real meal, a nice hot bath, and a comfortable bed! Not much chance of that here, though."

"No talking in the ranks!" one of the guards shouted, his flail slapping against the backs of Elffled's calves. The guard's face lit up in a broad smile as he heard the girl scream. "If I hear one more word spoken in Rohirric, the offending wench will be gagged!"

By mid-afternoon, the caravan drew near to the prearranged spot which had been chosen for the night's camp. With thoughts of supper and rest on their minds, the captives' pace quickened, their mood noticeably brightening. Their anticipation was crushed, however, when the march was abruptly halted by a disturbance up ahead. The women and children craned their necks, hoping to get a glimpse of the obstruction, but the line was far too long for them to see anything.

"I hope they let us sit down while we have to wait," Elffled leaned forward and whispered in her sister's ear. "My feet hurt!"

Determined to find out what was happening, Elfhild took the chance that a nearby guard was in a fairly reasonable mood and called out to him. "Master, why are we having to wait? Is the road being repaired?" she asked in her sweetest voice.

"How would I know?" the guard shrugged, a bored expression on his face. Turning his head, he looked up the road. "Maybe your people have come to rescue you," he laughed sarcastically.

"Then they are coming from the wrong direction, Master, unless they somehow managed to circle around and attack from the east," Elfhild remarked innocently. She heard Elffled's whispered gasp, "Be still! You will only anger him!" but ignored her.

The guard's gaze shifted back to Elfhild, and he looked at the twins with suspicion. "Our armies are slaughtering the troops of Rohan. They die every day by the thousands and their stinking corpses are carrion for the vultures! There is no possible way that they could pull a surprise attack, especially from that direction! Your people have lost the war, can you not understand that, you foolish wench?" Involuntarily, his fingertips skimmed over the hilt of his scimitar.

"Master, you cannot expect much of a poor, ignorant peasant who knows nothing of the doings of armies." Elfhild lowered her head in feigned subservience. "The West has no hope of winning against the great forces of the Land of Shadow and its allies." Though she almost choked on the words, she did not want her ears to ring with the conqueror's gloating, so she decided to disarm the situation by willingly admitting defeat. Besides, this man was too stupid to understand that her remark had been sarcastic, and had instead taken her statement seriously.

The guard was no longer looking at Elfhild; his gaze had shifted back to the east, where he was staring intently into the distance. While the girl's comments had been absurd, still the guard was a careful man, and one could never be completely certain of the enemy's intentions. While it was highly improbable that a band of the Rohirrim had created some diversion ahead, still it paid to be cautious. When he saw Ali and another guard hurrying up the road, he hailed them down.

"Hear anything, Ali?" he asked, taking a step closer to the other man.

"What could I hear back there at the end of the slave column?" Ali looked almost insulted. "Maybe some of the uruks breaking wind, but not much else! While we are held up like this, I decided I might as well go up and see what the stir is all about."

The guard smiled and scratched a sweat-soaked armpit. "Well, when you find out the cause of the commotion, come back and let me know."

"I do not think there is much to it all, Böri," Ali told him as he and the other man walked ahead. Looking back over his shoulder, Ali called out, "If there were, they would have depended upon our swords!"

When Ali returned some minutes later, the expression on his fat, round face was one of excitement. Walking over to Böri, he and the other man began talking rapidly in Haradric. Ali pointed up the highway, motioning with his hands and laughing. Böri grinned and glanced towards the captives, while the other guard never let his eyes drift from the road ahead. They laughed among themselves for a while longer before Ali and his companion took their leave of Böri, who sipped from his waterskin after the others had gone.

"Well, those jackasses are not going to volunteer anything," Elfhild thought resentfully. The sight of the water running out of the corners of the guard's mouth and dripping down his beard made her thirsty. She touched her lips with the tip of her tongue, wishing that Aeffe would make her rounds soon. "Even though it might get me in trouble, I will still ask what is holding up the caravan," she resolved.

"Master," she called out, her eyes respectfully lowered, "did those two men bring tidings of what is happening?"

For an instant, a flash of anger flickered in Böri's eyes, and then he gave Elfhild a look of pained indifference. "Nothing that should be of concern to a slave," he replied. Why did that pair have to be so beautiful, he wondered. Surrounded as he was by so many lovely women, there was nothing easy about this duty, and he often found himself growing embarrassingly aroused when a pair of blue eyes caught his. Sometimes he entertained himself by imagining that all of the beauties belonged to him, and all he had to do was snap his fingers, and twenty women would be groveling at his feet. He sighed. He might as well answer the girl. Surely no harm could come of it.

"Since you are so curious, I will tell you. As you might know, that was Ali." Böri pulled himself up to a straighter position, but his back and legs were aching from standing so long, and he winced as he moved. "Ali knows some of the orc lads, and he was talking to one of them. It seems that up ahead of us, there is this small caravan of Gondorian and Rohirric prisoners on their way to the mines. Well, one of the prisoners," he took another deep drink of the tepid water, "insulted an officer, a hot-tempered Khandian. Another man somehow worked his bonds free and tried to strangle one of the guards with his chain. He did not get very far with that!" The guard laughed mockingly. "But the commotion held up traffic on the road. For their crimes, the rebels are to be executed."

"Oh, Master, that is horrible!" Elfhild exclaimed in dismay.

"It was their own fault," Böri's upper lip curled in derision. "They just got what they deserved." He started to say something else, but a loud blare of the horn called the line to attention. "Looks like we are going to be moving out soon!" His mediocre-looking face brightened.

At the sound of the second horn, the caravan was in motion, and as the captives marched a few hundred feet up the road, the gruesome sight came into view. The two men, barely recognizable as humans, still clung to life. After the flesh had been flailed from their backs, they were impaled diagonally through the intestines up to the shoulder. Bloody strips of skin, muscle and tendon hung down from bones laid bare by the lash. Women and children screamed, some fainting and others becoming deathly ill at their stomachs. The line halted once again as the unconscious women were unchained from the lines and hauled to the side of the road until they could be revived.

"Do not look, Elffled! Just do not look!" Elfhild warned, averting her eyes from the gruesome scene.

"It is too late for that, sister," Elffled murmured, her face ghastly white. Her stomach fluttered violently before she gagged, hurling the contents of her midday meal upon Sauron's road. "Oh, I am sick!" she cried as another spasm slammed into her stomach. Panting, she sank to her knees, bringing the whole line to a jerking halt.

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