The Circles - Book Six - Chapter 18

The Circles - Book Six - Across the Wide Hamada
Chapter Eighteen
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

The next morning, Elfhild and Elffled awoke to stuffy noses and clogged sinuses brought on by the foul air and volcanic dust of Gorgoroth. To add to their miseries, they were still chained to Tove, who had once again kept them awake during the night with her incessant snoring. Irritably, the three girls had scrambled to their feet when the guards ordered them to assemble with the others for the morning roll call and the required salute to Shakh Esarhaddon. With the chant - "Good morning, most honorable Shakh Esarhaddon uHuzziya" - still echoing in their ears, the girls were marched to the breakfast line.

There was nothing pleasant about that morning of June 30. If anything, it was even more grim and gloomy than the day before. The fetid air was oppressive, the sullen skies the color of ashes, charcoal and smoke. The Mountain of Doom stood as an ominous conical shadow, black and gray smoke billowing from its summit and rising up to choke out the sunlight. As the breakfast line moved forward, the captives' eyes were constantly drawn to the brooding peak.

Breakfast was unmemorable - stale flatbread, dried fruit, and water. They would have to endure the slim fare for two more days, when the caravan camped and the bakers once again set up their portable ovens. During the night, the twins had often thought of their aunt and her perfidy, but they refused to air their jangled thoughts in front of Tove. For her part, the distant kinswoman of King Théoden refused to say anything more to them than what was absolutely necessary, keeping a resentful silence most of the evening.

By mid-afternoon, the caravan had reached a small settlement in Orodruin's looming shadow. As they passed down the main thoroughfare, the captives looked at the squalid hovels and filthy, ash-stained buildings and smelled the stench of raw garbage. A faint, sickening smell of offal plagued their noses, but since the bound slaves could not cover their faces, they tried to keep from gagging by taking shallow breaths. Filled with putrefying, malodorous brown ooze, open gutters lay on either side of the streets. Swarms of black flies hung low over the trenches and greeted the new arrivals with a constant buzz. As the line neared the maggot-infested carcass of a dead dog lying in the gutter, Elfhild closed her eyes. For an instant, he had reminded her of Brúwann, her beloved dog back in Rohan, even to the spots on his ears. She felt a deep feeling of sadness, but then her stomach lurched at the odor. She forced down the sensation and kept shuffling along.

Hooting, whistling, and making bawdy comments, hard-faced men and orcs watched hungrily as the Rohirric captives moved down the street. When the slaves heard a commotion behind them, they could not help glancing over their shoulders. A man, his face bloody and battered, had just been thrown out of one of the taverns and lay kicking and screaming in the street as he was plummeted by his assailants. No one came to his rescue, and no one really seemed to care as he crawled away to a narrow, stinking alley. Such was life in Mordor.

The village of Stazmûlkrak was scarcely more than a wide place in the road, a way spot on the route from Gorgoroth to Nurn. Cartographers in the West seldom mentioned it in their geographies, considering it a place that was forever lost to all civilization. Things had not always been that way, though. Back before the memory of living men, the hamlet had been part of the territory guarded by Gondor against the return of a Being so dark, wicked, and cunning that His evil was surpassed only by His Liege Lord, Melkor the Mighty. After the War of the Last Alliance, the Gondorians built fortresses in the Mountains of Shadow and established outposts throughout Gorgoroth and Nurn to guard against the return of the Dark Majesty. Stazmûlkrak was one of these outposts, although the settlement had a different name then. Over time, that name was forgotten, replaced by "Stazmûlkrak," a name in Black Speech meaning the "Place of the Five Roads."

During the days of Orodruin's slumber, Stazmûlkrak was a small but thriving town. It was the converging spot of five roads - the road from Minas Morgul, then Minas Ithil; the road to the ruins of Barad-dûr, a route few dared to venture; the road leading northwest to converge with the route to Isenmouthe; and two roads to Nurn, one approaching the garden lands from the northwest and the other from the northeast. Gondorian cavalry and infantry patrolled the roads, keeping them safe from the predations of the orcish clans and aggression from Lithlad tribesmen who resented the presence of foreign invaders in their territory.

Conditions had been so stable in those peaceful days before the ravages of the Great Plague that a mercantile company based in Minas Tirith even considered establishing an office in Stazmûlkrak. The founders had visions of developing a rich trading enterprise with Nurn, and possibly even Khand. Unfortunately, the entrepreneurs had been unable to interest any but the most daring investors, for the conservative Gondorians thought the proposition far too risky. Far ahead of their time, the investors shelved their plans and looked elsewhere for safer prospects.

Then the Great Plague came, and everything changed. The illness spread out of the East, devastating entire populations in its wake. The Gondorians were forced to abandon most of their distant outposts, for there simply were not enough soldiers left to guard both home and afar. As Gondor struggled to recover from the ravages of disease, the watch on Mordor came to an end.

Over two hundred years after those first woeful days of the Plague, a fearsome warlord from the East claimed the lordship of Nurn. This warlord was none other than Khamûl, the Shadow of the East, and at his side fought Zagbolg, the Fourth Nazgûl. After conquering Nurn, the Black Easterling turned his eyes upon Gorgoroth and brought both the orcs of the mountains and the tribesmen of Lithlad under his dominion. Over a century later, a third Nazgûl would make his way back to Mordor – the former Witch-king of Angmar, the Lord of the Nine. After summoning the rest of his brethren to his side, the Lord of the Nazgûl launched an attack upon Minas Ithil; two years later, the city was theirs.

As the sands of time fell through the hourglass, Stazmûlkrak began to recover from the devastation of the Great Plague. Those were the days in which the Nazgûl ruled Mordor, and there was much trade between Minas Morgul and Nurn. Since Stazmûlkrak lay along the trade route, the town began to flourish once again. This period of peace and prosperity would last for over nine hundred years, and by the latter part of the Third Age, the town had doubled from its original size.

All this would change when the Lord of Mordor returned to His ancient home. After slumbering for almost three millennia, Orodruin awakened with a fury. Fire exploded from the mountain's summit and flames poured down its sides; black clouds obscured the sky, and the ground trembled and shook. The town of Stazmûlkrak was devastated by the violent upheavals of the earth, and many of its residents were left injured or dead, its buildings reduced to ruins. Most of the townspeople fled south to Nurn, although a small community remained behind, determined to stay until the very end.

Sixty-five years later, all that remained of Stazmûlkrak was a squalid shantytown frequented by military patrols and road workers who came to the dismal hamlet to draw water from the state-operated cisterns. Occasionally nomadic tribesmen from Lithlad traveled to the village, but for the most part they tended to stay in Southern Gorgoroth, where the land was more hospitable. Only a few ramshackle taverns and brothels managed to stay in business, and they were considered by the elite of Mordor as being nothing more than waste holes of debauchery. They were allowed to exist, though, because they fulfilled the baser needs of the passing soldiery. However, it was rumored that one of the Nazgûl - in disguise, of course - patronized an establishment called The Cockeyed Wench, where he could lay aside the formalities of his position and drink himself under the table.

The proprietor of the pub, a half-breed orc, did nothing to discourage these stories, and as a matter of fact, he was convinced that the fame surrounding the Nine added a patina of elegance and class to his otherwise ignoble tavern. When asked if it was indeed true about the illustrious patron, he would wink his one good eye and tell the questioner, "Ain't never been one to 'obbob with the 'igher ups, but if the gentry decides to come in, I can't very well deny the blokes a drink, can I?"

If the hobbit Frodo Baggins and his servant Samwise Gamgee had veered on the journey to the Mountain of Doom and headed southwest, they could have lingered a while and had a tankard of ale at one of the taverns which the hamlet boasted. Perhaps they would have even chanced upon The Cockeyed Wench and found themselves staring up into the gleaming eyes of one of the Nazgûl. Destiny, though, had a far different fate in store for them.

Besides the dangers of catching a particularly nasty social disease, those sojourning in Stazmûlkrak faced other perils. Being in such close proximity to the Mountain of Doom - only fifteen miles - the settlement was always under the threat of being leveled by earthquakes caused by Orodruin's raging fury. The residents of Stazmûlkrak also had to abide volcanic dust, foul fumes, and general malaise caused by lack of adequate sunlight. Everything in the city, from the streets to the interiors of the ramshackle buildings, was often covered with a fine layer of volcanic dust.

Finally the caravan passed through the precincts of Stazmûlkrak and came to the spot selected for the evening's camp. As the captives stood in line for the evening rations, Ali and Böri sauntered over to the twins and Tove.

"Tove, that is your name, is it not?" Böri asked, leaning over and looking at the girl's collar. "I see you are from... hmmmm..." he squinted as he struggled to pronounce the inscription, "Horse-shield. Never heard of the place."

"The name is pronounced Horscelde in Rohirric, sir," Tove retorted coldly.

"Never heard of that either," Böri laughed. "What about you, Ali?" He turned to look at the other man.

"No, but the place surely produces lovely daughters." He smiled a crooked smile as his beefy hand reached out and gathered up a lock of Tove's auburn hair.

"You ass!" Tove shrieked, jumping away from his touch and landing on Elfhild's foot.

"Get off me, you fat cow!" Elfhild gave the girl a stout push and sent her crashing into Ali's arms.

"Get your filthy hands off me, Ali! You make me feel dirty!" Tove exclaimed as she struggled free of his grasp and stood there panting in rage. She gave a shudder of disgust and then glared at Ali, her eyes furious.

The two men roared in laughter, which only infuriated Tove more. As they stood there, almost overcome with mirth, the line inched forward, and the girls moved ahead. Pushing through the waiting captives, who recoiled at their advance, the two guards positioned themselves on either side of Tove.

"Impudent for a slave, are you not?" Ali hooked his fingers under Tove's collar and forced her to look at him. "You are never to call your superiors by their names, wench! Have you not learned that yet?" He smiled when the girl struggled, and then with a fierce twist on the metal, he brought her to her knees.

"Please!" Tove whimpered, grasping at her neck. "You are strangling me!"

"Want to know what happens to wenches who put on airs and refuse to be respectful?" Böri moved behind the terrified girl and slammed his knee into her back, sending her sprawling on the ground.

"What, Master?" Tove's voice trembled. A sharp rock bit into her hand, but she was barely aware of the pain.

"They get a cord wrapped around their pretty little necks. I have heard it is a fairly easy way to die... you just lose consciousness and then it is all over." Ali laughed grimly as he grabbed her hair at the base of her neck and jerked her head up. "A lot more pleasant than being impaled upon a pole and left to die a slow and agonizing death. Are you going to remember that, pretty Tove?" He smiled down at her.

"Y-y-yes, Master!" Tove cried, almost hysterical with fear. Collapsing at his feet, she grasped his ankles and began desperately kissing his boots.

"I thought you might," Ali murmured softly as he stroked the back of her head. Grinning, he looked over to Böri and said a few words to him in Haradric. The two men laughed. "We best let these wenches eat before they die of hunger," he stated in Westron.

As the two men swaggered away, Tove whispered, "That filthy bastard! I hate him!"

"Then stop trying to provoke him," Elffled told her matter-of-factly. "If you give them no trouble, they will usually leave you alone. They cannot do anything to us, for we are too valuable to the Shakh."

"What do you know, you ignorant little rustic?" Tove blustered as she rose to her feet and wiped the dirt off her tattered dress.

"I must know something, for I am rarely whipped, and then it is usually Elfhild's fault." Elffled lifted her chin and smiled haughtily, ignoring her sister's cry of outrage.

"Why are we standing here?" Elfhild asked, her voice filled with irritation. "The line passed us long ago!"

After supper, the three enemies once again found themselves cleaning dirty pots and pans. The chief cook Muhaldim and one of his assistants went over to where the girls were working and silently watched them for a while. When Elfhild accidentally caught his eye, Muhaldim frowned, and she shifted her gaze back to her work. After their tasks were finished, all three girls were tired, frustrated, out of sorts, and in desperate need of a bath. Their clothing was saturated with grease and food stains, and the oppressive heat had soured the material of their garments, causing them to reek. Irritably flinging a sodden lock of hair from her grime and sweat streaked face, Tove groaned. "I am sick of all these pots and kettles, but most of all I am sick of the sight of the two of you!" she exclaimed wildly. "Where is that skinny little scoundrel Akil?"

As though by magic, the smiling young eunuch appeared around a huge pilaf kettle. Bowing in greeting to Master Muhaldim and smiling at the other kitchen thralls, the boy made his way towards the three girls. His eyes sparkling, he stopped in front of them and put a long, slender finger to his lips, looking the three girls over from top to toe. "Little mistresses do not look so pretty tonight... you do not smell so very good, either." He shook his head, his nose wrinkling. "Never fear, though. I have come to rescue you from your drudgeries, so follow me, and I will see you to the sleeping area."

As Akil led them away, the three girls stumbled with exhaustion. When their heads hit their rolled up scarves which served as pillows, they were sound asleep.


The sun dropped behind the Mountains of Shadow and twilight gradually gave way to the enveloping darkness. Lamps glowed brightly under the open awning of the chief slaver's pavilion, and the kamancheh player teased a soft melody from the strings of his spike fiddle. His eyes closed, a drum player set the rhythm, tapping the head and sides of the goblet drum with his fingertips. Passing under the colorful green and yellow awning, the guests were greeted by Rose Petal and Carnation before being ushered into the tent. When all the guests had assembled, the outer curtain was closed, and the amber glow of the brass lanterns played over the two dancing girls as they rose to their feet. Poised to dance, a girl nodded to the musicians, and the men struck up a more sensuous, undulating melody punctuated by a throbbing rhythm from the drums.

Across the camp from the slaver's pavilion, the caravan's riding horses nosed for fodder under the picket lines, or stood sleeping, their legs locked and rigid. The warm, earthy smells of hay, grain and horse were sweet on the night air. Here and there, nipping and kicking, horses argued over hay, positions, or simply because they did not like the horse beside them. A gray gelding lifted up his ears questioningly, flicking them back and forth as he looked towards the Mountain. His sharp whinny went unnoticed by the grooms, but was answered by another horse on the opposite picket line.

A solitary cur in the village of Stazmûlkrak cut the night with a mournful howl. His plaintive baying was soon joined by a chorus of other mongrels, until all over the village, dogs threw back their heads and howled out their souls. Angry villagers stumbled out of their hovels and pelted the dogs with rotten fruit and vegetables. Owners of the taverns and brothels, their business disturbed by the cacophony of howls, yelps, and wailing barks, took clubs and spears after the hounds, but the wily beasts slunk into the night. Inside dwellings, cats meowed piteously and paced through the rooms, until their disgusted owners kicked them through the doorways. Green eyes gleaming in the darkness, a mother cat, feral as any wild beast, carried her kitten by the scruff of the neck as she moved her entire litter out from under a building.

"I cannot sleep," Elfhild whispered as she woke up for the third time that night. Shifting her position, she tried to find a more comfortable spot on the hard ground, moving as little as possible lest Tove stir in her slumbers and start tossing and turning. "Is it just me, or are the orcs making even more of a racket than usual tonight?"

"They have been pounding on those drums for what seems like hours now, and they have built up their campfires," Elffled grumbled. "I wonder if they ever get tired! However, it is not the drumming which bothers me." Her voice grew tense and she huddled under her blanket. "It is that constant chanting. I never like it when they chant that way." She looked in the direction of the orc camp, and the distant glow of their campfires seemed to peer out of the darkness like angry red eyes. Brought to the surface by the savage drumming and ominous chanting, a memory of the early days of her captivity came to her mind. Thrilled by the success of Mordor's invasion of Rohan, the uruks who guarded the captives had stripped two women and taunted them before tying them to trees and throwing daggers at them. She shuddered at the memory.

"At least it is not bothering Tove," Elfhild chuckled softly, suspecting that the insufferable girl only feigned sleep while she listened to their every word.

"She could probably sleep through anything," Elffled remarked snidely. "Her snores are so loud that she is deaf to all other sound!"

"I doubt she could sleep if this big, ugly spider crawled over her face..."

"It would be better if you dropped it into her mouth!" Elffled added, her lips curling into a malicious smile as she watched her sister snatch up a harmless green beetle which was crawling across the corner of her blanket.

"What a good idea, Elffled!" With a fiendish giggle, Elfhild dropped the insect on Tove's forehead.

"Ohh!" Tove shrieked, sitting bolt upright and clawing at her face and hair.

"Ha!" Elfhild proclaimed proudly. "I knew you were only pretending to be asleep!"

"You wretched peasants! That was horrible!" Tove screamed in rage. She brought back her hand to slap Elfhild, but the giggling girl drew back quickly, narrowly avoiding her blow.

"We will have quiet in this camp!" the cold, curt voice of a guard barked out. "Be still before you feel my whip on your--"

The guard did not have the opportunity to finish his warning, for the earth shuddered violently, sending the bewildered man sprawling on the ground, his hand narrowly missing the guards' campfire.


While Tolkien wrote about Gondor building fortresses in the mountains around Mordor (Minas Ithil, Cirith Ungol, Carchost and Narchost), Angmar wanted to depict Gondor as having more of a presence within Mordor itself. In The Circles universe, Gondorian forces occupied Gorgoroth, Lithlad, and Nurn from the first years of the Third Age to the Great Plague of 1636. In the years following the pandemic, the Gondorians began withdrawing from Mordor. By 1856, the Gondorian occupation was all but a memory, and several of the Nazgûl had migrated back to the Dark Land.

Many people believe that all of Mordor, with the exception of Nurn, resembles the region of Gorgoroth that Frodo and Sam explored: a harsh and desolate wasteland. However, this might not have always been the case throughout the long history of Middle-earth. Fellow Tolkien scholar Gordis, with whom Angmar had many discussions during the early days of The Circles, believed that Gorgoroth would have had periods of great fertility, as volcanic soil is very rich. Gordis also believed that there would have been many springs that ran down from the encircling mountains into the plain, creating intermittent swamps and boggy regions. Based upon these theories, Gorgoroth could have been quite green from the beginning of the Third Age to the year 2954, when Orodruin erupted for the first time since the Battle of the Last Alliance. After Sauron's return to Mordor, he surrounded the northern part of his realm with scorched earth, much in the same way that Melkor left Ard-galen a desolate ruin. If Sauron had been successful in his conquest of Middle-earth, perhaps he would have commanded the volcano to sleep, and then Gorgoroth would have looked eerily similar to Sam's vision. ("And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit.")

The exact location of Lithlad in the books is somewhat of a mystery, and because of this reason, various media depicts this region as being in a number of different places. In the Atlas of Middle-earth, Karen Wynn Fonstad depicts Lithlad as being the area around the Sea of Nurnen. However, the name Lithlad means "ash plain," which could be taken as an implication that it lies closer to Orodruin. In The Circles, Lithlad is another name for Southern Gorgoroth.

In the Tale of Years found in Appendix B of The Return of the King, the Witch-king arrives in Mordor in 1980, where he gathers the other Nazgûl. However, there is a note in "Gondor and the Heirs of Anarion," Appendix A, that states that eight of the Nazgûl may have returned to Mordor in 1856. (Emphasis upon "may" - a hint that the person writing this text in-universe was theorizing upon historical events rather than stating actual fact.) It is possible that the other Eight Nazgûl had been dwelling in Mordor since 1856, and the Witch-king merely "gathered" them in the sense that he organized them for war. However, if the other Nazgûl were waiting in Mordor, why did the Witch-king wait twenty years before assailing Minas Ithil? Perhaps the scribe who theorized that eight of the Nazgûl had returned to Mordor in 1856 had been mistaken, and only one or two Nazgûl were residing there at the time of the Witch-king's arrival. Perhaps the Witch-king had to send out summons commanding the other wraiths to join him, and this is why it took twenty years for the Nine to organize an attack against Minas Ithil.

After the defeat of Sauron in the Battle of the Last Alliance, the Gondorians build Cirith Ungol and the Towers of the Teeth to keep watch over the land in case Sauron should return.
THE CIRCLES: Gondor establishes various other fortresses throughout the mountains, as well as remote outposts in Mordor and Nurn.
1050 - Sauron establishes Dol Guldur as his new base of operations.
1300 - The Witch-king establishes the northern realm of Angmar.
1636 - The Great Plague severely diminishes the population of Gondor, and the Gondorians withdraw from Mordor.
1856 - Eight Nazgûl may have returned to Mordor at this time.
THE CIRCLES: Khamûl and Zagbolg return to Mordor, where Khamûl sets himself up as the ruler of Nurn. The other Nazgûl remain in Angmar, Rhûn, and Harad.
1975 - The kingdom of Angmar in the north falls; the Witch-king is without a realm to rule.
1980 - The Lord of the Nazgûl returns to Mordor and organizes the other Nazgûl.
THE CIRCLES: After the destruction of his kingdom, the Nazgûl Lord takes what remains of the Angmarian forces, as well as a large number of refugees, and travels to Mordor. He plans to use the Dark Land as a staging ground to launch an attack on Minas Ithil, both to avenge his losses as well as create a new kingdom to stand in opposition to Gondor. Although he faces initial opposition from Khamûl and Zagbolg, he persuades them to join him. He then sends messengers to the other Nazgûl, who rally to his cause.
2000-2 - The Nazgûl besiege Minas Ithil. Two years later, the city is theirs.
2942 - Sauron returns to Mordor in secret.
THE CIRCLES: In an attempt to regain part of the power which he lost after the Battle of the Last Alliance, Sauron demands that the Nazgûl return their Rings, for he plans once again to wage war against the West and conquer all of Middle-earth. There is a nine-year conflict between the Nazgûl and Sauron as the Nazgûl attempt to resist their master. This conflict ultimately results in the fall of Minas Morgul to Sauron's forces and an epic battle between Sauron and the Witch-king.
2951 - Sauron declares himself openly and begins to rebuild Barad-dûr.
2954 - Mount Doom bursts into flame.
3018 - The Hunt for the Ring begins.
3019 - THE CIRCLES: Sauron's forces attack Gondor, and the Battle of the Pelennor Fields is a victory. Ten days later, on March 25, Sauron regains the One Ring.

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