The Circles - Book Six - Chapter 30

The Circles - Book Six - Across the Wide Hamada
Chapter Thirty
The Southward Journey
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

For the next three days, the caravan traveled through the desolation of the plateau of Gorgoroth, venturing further into the dark heart of Mordor. The smoky haze which clouded the sky obscured the rising Sun, subduing her light to a yellowish glow. Even though they could remember the days without dawn, the captives had never witnessed the destructive powers of the Mountain of Doom firsthand, and all of them were shaken by the sight. Far away across the plain, Orodruin's rivers of flaming lava still coursed down the steep slopes, smoking and hissing like streams of dragon's blood. Occasionally tremors would ripple through the earth as more magma was forced up from the fiery chambers which lay beneath the ground. Many in the caravan reported that they could still hear great explosions, and all looked back over their shoulders with trepidation as they moved as quickly as they could away from the great volcano.

By the fifth day of July, the caravan had reached the western reaches of the region of Southern Gorgoroth known as Lithlad, the ash plain. Far from the fury of Orodruin, the land was less harsh and bitter, although it was still a grim sight to behold. Tufts of desert grass dotted the rocky landscape, and foxes and other animals hunted in the cool nights. This strange realm, formed by the violence of the earth, was like nothing the captives had ever seen before, even in their wildest dreams. Mesas and buttes stood like tables for giants to sit and feast, and the Rohirric women and children could not help feeling intimidated by these imposing stone towers. Other bizarre rock formations rose out of the desert floor, some jagged like fangs or splintered trees, others resembling mystical faces set upon very long necks.

Because of the wounds he received while quelling the orc mutiny, Esarhaddon was under orders not to tax himself unduly, and so he had spent much of the last few days riding in the company of Goldwyn. He had hoped that the journey would be an enjoyable one filled with pleasant conversation, but much to his chagrin, the lady had been determined to say as little as possible. As she sat across from him in the coach, he was once again impressed by her regal bearing and cold beauty. Occasionally when she turned her head to the side, he was reminded of a marble statue which had been so skillfully crafted that it had captured the essence of the model's soul.

While Esarhaddon found himself growing irritated at the insolence of the haughty Northern woman, Tushratta had cautioned him that the only way to deal with Goldwyn was to treat her kindly, never making demands of her and always speaking gently. Possibly he could win her to himself, but it would take time. If he alarmed the woman in any way, there was no telling what might happen. She could easily fly into a rage or sink into the deepest pit of melancholy. Although he was an impatient man, Esarhaddon promised himself that he would try to follow the physician's advice, but after three days of traveling in the same coach, he was no closer to understanding the woman than he ever was.

What was there about this woman that caused him to desire her so much? Though she was lovely, her beauty was not exceptional. He could choose any woman he wanted from the hundreds of beauties who were sold at the slave establishment which he and his brother operated in Nurn, and he was so wealthy that high-ranking nobles and prominent merchants offered their lovely daughters to him in marriage. Whether it was Goldwyn's arrogant pride – so unlike the gentle, amenable women he had known – or her cold beauty, he was not sure, but he knew that he desired her, and would have her!

His informants had told him of the rampant rumors that had spread throughout the camp, spoken by the tongues of both the Rohirric captives and his own slaves. These lying gossips had accused Goldwyn of being a Northern sorceress who possessed a powerful magic from the foreign land. He had to laugh when he was told that Goldwyn and Tushratta were lovers, and that she had bewitched the physician with love spells and potions. Such talk was absurd. Esarhaddon discounted any credibility of sorcery, considering magic the work of frauds and mountebanks who deceived the gullible and parted them from their gold. Besides, anyone who was acquainted with Tushratta knew that he was a dispassionate, rational man of natural philosophy who long ago had set his mind to a lifetime of study and discipline that left little time for the affairs of the heart. Any talk that such a man had been rendered into a lovestruck fool was ludicrous. Esarhaddon would never believe that the physician was anything but an honorable man whom he trusted implicitly. His command that all rumormongers were to be soundly whipped would soon end all this malicious gossip.


Goldwyn highly resented the presence of the slave trader in her place of sanctuary from the cruel world which lay outside the doors of the wain. He was like rain on an already cloudy, miserable day, and it was all that she could do to keep from expressing her displeasure at having him intrude upon her refuge. She knew that he had been wounded in the skirmish with the uruk rebels, and that he needed time to recover from his injuries. However, several supply wagons had been repurposed to transport all those who had been wounded during the orc mutiny, and there was no reason why he could not have ridden one of those instead. He was using his convalescence to burden her with his unwanted company! It was a sore challenge for her to remain civil towards this insufferable man.

She knew that Esarhaddon harbored an obnoxious obsession for her, and desired to make her his concubine. He had two wives already; why did he need her? It was a most unwholesome situation, and she wanted no part of it. She supposed that she had little choice in the matter, though, for she was at the mercy of the accursed brute. She could tolerate the man to a degree, as long as he kept his hands to himself. However, given his uncontrollable lusts, she feared that at any moment he might throw himself upon her like a rutting beast. That was what would have happened in Osgiliath when he had stated his intentions for her, but she had bought a reprieve for herself by playing the part of the coquette and stalling for time with sweetly worded excuses. She had attempted to escape with her sons that night, but she had been forced to send the boys away while she ran in the opposite direction to lure the slaver's men away from them. Eluding her pursuers, she had taken shelter in an old crypt. Her memories after that were hazy, and she tried not to ponder the fractured images that came to her mind like patterns on broken pottery, for they filled her with a terror that she did not understand.

As long as Esarhaddon believed that she was sickly and frail, he dared not do anything more than hold her hand. She would like to think that the man was developing a sense of compassion, but she knew that his motives were purely selfish ones, and he was just waiting until she recovered before he dragged her off to his bed. Esarhaddon did possess a sense of justice, though. He had led his men into battle against the rebel uruks, receiving several wounds in the fray. After the uruks were defeated and bound in chains, he had seen to it that those responsible for the mutiny were executed. Because of this, Goldwyn's regard for her captor had gone up slightly. Though she hated the Southrons, she hated the orcs even worse. It was because of this reason that she was able to tolerate Esarhaddon's presence. She also felt that it would be most uncouth to castigate a wounded man for riding in the healer's wagon, even if she did wish that he had chosen another wain to be his conveyance whilst he recuperated.

Although she resented the presence of her unwanted traveling companion, Goldwyn was too weary to defy him, so she tried to say as little as possible. Ever since she had hidden in that crypt in Osgiliath, she had suffered from a mysterious sickness that she could not seem to shake. The littlest effort made her exhausted, and she frequently had to rest. Whenever she asked Tushratta about the nature of her illness, he gave vague but long-winded theories which were filled with many fancy-sounding words but offered few true answers. There was something he was not telling her. Perhaps by the end of this miserable journey, she would ferret the truth out of the infuriating healer.

For the past eighteen days, Goldwyn had traveled in the physician's wain. She missed the company of the other captives, and she wondered how they fared. Did they still long for escape as she did, or had their hearts given up hope? With two deaths and numerous injuries, the attempt for freedom had come at a great cost, and it had all been in vain. Goldwyn felt deep remorse when she thought about the two women who had perished. While one of them she had never met, she had been well acquainted with the other. She had known Waerburh from the village, and had walked in chains with her during the journey from the Eastfold to Gondor. Goldwyn wondered if the other captives blamed her for the deaths of the two women. Although it was a cowardly thought, a part of her was glad that she was forced to stay in the healer's wain, for she would not have to endure the scorn of the women who she had tried so desperately to save from lives of misery.

It seemed that the healer's wain had become both her sanctuary and her prison…


When the morning of July 6 came, Esarhaddon informed Tushratta that he desired to ride out and explore the surrounding countryside. The Khandian physician had been upset and urged him to reconsider, warning him of great perils if he did not rest more. Though his injuries still pained him, Esarhaddon's head no longer throbbed as it once had, and his leg wound showed no signs of deteriorating into the fearful rotting black tissue which oozed corruption and stank like death. As a groom held his horse, he fought the pain as he stiffly mounted the mare. The gentle creature looked back at him patiently, as though she understood his discomfort. Atop the animal, he broke into a sweat, feeling lightheaded and dizzy, and he cursed his wounds and the ones who had given them to him. At least most of those were now dead, he thought with malicious satisfaction.

Esarhaddon looked over the surrounding territory and thought how much it resembled the land of Harad where he had been born and spent his early years. While the landscape was harsh, it was not that much different from the deserts and rocky wastes of the South. Unlike the smoking lava field of central Gorgoroth, it was a land that he could understand. He smiled as he looked towards the head of the column, where he could see the standards of the House of Huzziya snapping briskly in the morning breeze. The trumpeter sounded the call to march, and the great caravan seemed to shake itself like some huge serpent before lurching forward. Riding behind the standard bearers and the trumpeters was a small group of horsemen, the slaver's escort, and behind them came Esarhaddon; his two lieutenants, Ganbar and Inbir; and his two physicians, Tushratta and Aziru. Far ahead of the long column, Khaldun and his scouts made up the advance guard, while at a distance on either side of the great caravan were the flankers, always scanning the horizon for robbers and brigands. More horsemen, mounted on the swift horses of the South, protected the end of the line. Riding before them and setting the pace for the whole march was a mounted drummer who struck the cadence on the great kettle drums mounted on either side of the front of his saddle. That morning, each measured beat of the drums was an insistent demand to march faster.

Esarhaddon found it invigorating to be mounted once again on his spirited mare Ka'adara and away from the stuffy confines of the wain. Although Goldwyn was excitingly lovely, and her handmaid Barsud was pleasant enough to look upon – if one ignored all the scars – the constant company of only one or two women often proved tiresome after a while. His extensive household in Nurn provided him with an abundant variety of sultry, vivacious beauties to entertain him with their dancing and singing, and when his hunger was aroused, they would warm his couch. After a week with Goldwyn, however, he was eager to sample more subservient flesh. There was Hrothwaru, the charming singer whose melodious voice had cheered him when he had first been injured. Ah, there was a piece who would whet any man's appetite! He imagined enjoying her soft lips under his as she spread her creamy alabaster thighs beneath him. Then, just as delicious, were the twin sisters, Elfhild and Elffled... he must question Rose Petal about the progress they were making in their studies, and if he gave a pleasing report, he might dally with them in his tent that night.

Esarhaddon squinted into the distance. There, far ahead of the caravan, a small cloud of dust swirled beneath the afternoon sun, moving rapidly towards them from the south. The Shakh raised his hand, signaling for the caravan to halt, and the long line ground to a stop.

"Shakh, a message from Khaldun," the young messenger informed him after he had ridden to the head of the column where the slaver waited on a restless Ka'adara, who was pawing the ground and snorting. "The lieutenant sends you his regards and wishes you peace and blessings. He reports that nothing of interest has been seen on the trail, and there is no sign of any bandits or robbers anywhere." The young man, his honest face filled with the unjaded earnestness of youth, looked intently at the slaver. "Do you wish to send any messages back by me?"

"Only this," Esarhaddon replied. "Although I did not expect to hear news of any brigands, we should never let complacency cast a veil over our vision. Here of late, we are sorely undermanned, and one never knows when an unexpected enemy might strike." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a scorpion, but before he could spit in its direction, the creature skittered under a rock.

Shortly after the messenger had ridden away to deliver his report to Khaldun, the chief slaver and his escort sighted a long, blocky ridge of dark gray stone to their right. The sides of the ridge had been riven and scored by the relentless elements, and mounds of golden sand and sooty colored rubble lay heaped up against the base of the formation. Sloping masses of sand had been swept down by the wind and almost touched the edge of the road. To the east of the thoroughfare stretched a vast field of dark brown rock, broken by the occasional clump of grass. Sharp and jagged in places, the stones ranged from the size of pebbles to large cobbles, and were mixed with coarse gravels and sand.

"Look up there!" Ganbar gestured by raising his chin towards the high, fortress-like ridge. "A wild goat is watching us from a ledge on the side of the cliff!"

"Too far away for a shot from the bow," Inbir muttered regretfully, keeping his eyes trained on the handsome beast. The buck stood three feet tall at the shoulder and had long, scimitar-shaped horns which curved back over its shoulders. It was a young animal, its blackish brown markings contrasting with its reddish brown coat, its legs striped with dark brown and white. It had a fine, long black beard, almost as wide as its chin. Catching the scent of the caravan, the large beast shook his horns menacingly. "Seldom have I ever seen horns so long and thick on such a young beast! What a splendid trophy they would make!" Inbir exclaimed, touching the bow slung about his shoulders. "A shame he is not closer." He shook his head, his voice filled with both regret and admiration.

"A double shame, my friend," Aziru lamented. "If only I had some fresh goat meat, I could prepare a stew so delicious that even the Gods would be envious! I could almost weep!" A wistful expression on his face, he rubbed his rounded stomach.

"From the appearance of that bloated gut of yours, Aziru, you could do well to curb your appetite." Ganbar chuckled when he saw the hurt, offended expression on the assistant physician's face.

Motioning the rest of the caravan to pass by them, the slaver and his officers pulled off to the side of the paved road, where they halted their horses. All of them stared at the buck, who looked boldly down upon them. Even though the buck was wary of the men, he did not retreat. His eyes blazing menacingly at the long line of riders below, he lowered his head and pawed the rock with a forehoof.

"Shakh," Inbir asked politely, "do I have your permission to try for the buck? Perhaps if I rode closer, the cocky fellow might be just arrogant enough to try to hold his stronghold for a while."

"Certainly, Inbir." Esarhaddon inclined his head slightly. "And if you are fortunate enough to make a kill, I will give you a silver coin or two." He smiled as he saw Inbir's eyes brighten. It was common knowledge among the guards that the young Southron was trying to save up a hoard to buy the slave girl Aeffe.

"My gratitude, Shakh." Inbir pressed his hand to his heart. His mount had picked up Inbir's sense of excitement, and the eager animal snorted, its muscles tensing for action. With a soft laugh, the young Southron stroked the horse's satiny neck. Squeezing his knees against its barrel, he urged the horse into a quick walk, moving away from the main column.

"May fortune favor you!" Aziru exclaimed fervently as he raised his short frame up in the stirrups so he could get a better look at the heights above. He was a mediocre rider at best, and he would much rather ride in a wain than be mounted on horseback. Riding in the Shakh's party was considered an honor, though, and when he had been commanded to join them, Aziru had donned the best clothing he owned, vainly thinking that his fine garments would impress the others. As Inbir's horse set off, Aziru's gentle steed pulled at the bit, and stepped off a few paces forward as she tried to follow the other horse. Aziru was finally able to curb her restlessness, but not before she had let out a number of mournful wails to the other animal. He flushed in embarrassment and then called out to Inbir.

"If you are successful, my young friend, I beg that you pay special attention to the beast's stomach and intestines when you gut it." Aziru kept his eyes on Inbir, willing him to make a successful shot at the buck. "If there is a bezoar stone present, pray give it to me, for it is said to have magical qualities! Many noted healers set great store by that hardened mass, swearing that it is an antidote for poison!" Though Aziru shouted, Inbir was already out of hearing range, and Aziru's words were muffled by the din of the caravan.

"You fool!" Ganbar turned to look back at Aziru accusingly. "With all that bellowing, you will scare the buck away!"

And Ganbar was right, for the wily beast gave a great leap, sprang almost straight up to the ledge above, and then disappeared out of sight. Cursing, Inbir looked sadly up at the retreating buck before reining his horse back towards the caravan.

"There goes my bezoar!" Aziru put his hand to his forehead and moaned.

"How can a mass of undigested goat hair protect anyone from poison?" Ganbar growled, shaking his head in disgust.

"You know nothing of the workings of magic! Bezoars develop only under auspicious circumstances in certain animals which are favored by fortune!" The small physician puffed himself up importantly, his small, beady eyes bulging with anger. "Bezoars are much like pearls that form over time in the shells of oysters, and some call them 'goat pearls.' Surely you know that! If you only knew the great powers of bezoar stones, you would beg for an amulet made from one!"

"What are they supposed to do for you?" Ganbar asked. He gave Inbir a sympathetic look when he returned to the group of horsemen. "I know that oysters are supposed to whet the appetite for more intimate fare." He laughed. "But what use are 'goat pearls?'"

"Behold, O scoffer," Aziru challenged as he pulled a round silver amulet from his tunic. "They are far more wondrous than the pearls that are formed in the shells of clams. Not only do the bezoar stones possess a supernatural intelligence all their own, but these fantastic stones will attract luck like a magnet, make everyone want to be friends with you, and develop any charisma you might possess. In addition to that, they can be used for casting spells of healing." A sly smile came over Aziru's face. "Not only will they increase your juices of regeneration, making them more potent, but they will also make you as randy as a goat in rut!"

Ganbar threw back his head and laughed. "Every time I see a woman, whether she is ugly or fair, my organ of regeneration has no trouble rising to the task!"

"Bah!" Aziru waved his hand dismissively. "What you need is one of these amulets crafted for you by one of the adept who are skilled in such matters." He pointed with pride to the smooth red and brown banded stone which was encased in the round filigreed cage of silver.

"I have my own amulets," Ganbar stated as he tugged several bronze medallions inscribed with arcane words and images from beneath the neck of his tunic. Fondly he ran his fingers over the circular metal plates attached to leather cords.

"But these are far more powerful! If the women desire you now, think how much stronger would be their attraction if you wore an amulet made from a bezoar stone!" Aziru shook the amulet for emphasis.

"It did not do the goat much good, did it?" Ganbar taunted the sputtering little man.

"Bah! I should not have wasted my knowledge on you! After all, you were brought up in ignorance in a wretched fishing village on the Gulf of Harad, where they know nothing of esoteric knowledge!" Aziru was shaking with rage. "It is not for us to judge why the Gods have selected these animals to be the bearers of blessings!"

"Blessings?" Ganbar laughed scornfully. "Those rocks in their guts are probably what kills the beasts! Plugs them up, and if they cannot pass the stones out of their arses, they swell up like rotten fish until they finally explode from the pressure!"

"Gentlemen," Esarhaddon interjected, frowning, "while I have enjoyed listening to this conversation, the subject has become wearisome. My opinions on magic and sorcery are well known, and all of you know that I take no stock in any of it."

"My apologies, Shakh." Ganbar flushed, self-consciously touching his golden earring.

"My Shakh, you must forgive me." Aziru inclined his head. "I just become so enraptured when I discuss the metaphysical that I feel my mind might spin off into other realms." He noticed the chief physician had an amused expression on his usually indifferent face.

"His mind has already spun so far, that it is doubtful that he will ever be able to retrieve it," Esarhaddon thought to himself, but he did not comment. He turned to Inbir. "The day is growing late, and soon we will be camping for the night. Since tomorrow is our usual day to rest, it would be a perfect time for a hunt. Although my physician advises me to curtail my activities while I convalesce, I will host a hunt for all of my officers." He turned to Tushratta, who rode by his side, and gave him a dark look, but the physician only smiled cheerfully. "Perhaps one of you will bring down that magnificent buck which proved so elusive today." Reaching over, Esarhaddon clasped Inbir's upper arm and smiled encouragingly.

"And maybe then I will get my bezoar, my prized goat pearl!" Aziru chortled to himself, anticipating with great relish the possibility of having one of the mystical stones at last come into his possession.

Next Chapter

Previous Chapter
Main Index