The Circles - Book Six - Chapter 30

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

A day had passed since the Mountain of Fire erupted in fury and vengeance. 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 slave 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.

The guards had pushed the captives hard the day before, forcing them to maintain a grueling pace. Shakh Esarhaddon had demanded that the caravan put as much distance between it and the angry mountain as possible. His mind plagued with worry and concern, he could not understand why the spring slave buying trip had gone so smoothly while this one had been such an abysmal venture, fraught with disaster and misfortune almost from the very beginning. Fate, he concluded, and no one could fight that!

After a night of disturbed sleep, the Rohirric captives awoke to a feeling of unreality. 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, they had never witnessed the destructive powers of the Mountain of Doom firsthand, and all of them were shaken by the sight. Even though the horns had sounded earlier that morning, most of the captives did not require the slap of the whip to rouse them from their blankets. After a hurried breakfast of bread and dried fruit, once again they were on the road which led them southward, a feeling of urgency giving haste to their feet.

Here in the more southern regions of Gorgoroth, far from the fury of Orodruin, the land was less harsh and bitter. 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. 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. Mesas and buttes stood like tables for giants to sit and feast, and long, crescent shaped ridges marked where calderas once had pocked the earth in long ages past. Relics of ancient volcanoes and their fiery flows, these stone monuments were all that remained of their memories.

As Esarhaddon rode out that morning on his chestnut mare, he 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 was glad that at last he was free of the confines of the physician's wain. 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 the last five days being jostled and bounced as the wagon rattled its way south. Although Sauron's great master network of highways connecting His far-flung empire were exceptionally well kept up with pavement repaired when necessary, the war had created more traffic on the roads and a shortage of laborers. Roads could become impassible when sudden storms raged down wadis, or when rock and mudslides heaped massive amounts of debris upon the trail, and it might take a few days before a work crew could be sent out to remedy the problem. Still, the great caravans which hauled food, slaves, and precious goods made their way with surprising regularity.

Before beginning his journey, the physician had tried to dissuade Esarhaddon from riding in the same wain with Goldwyn because, as Tushratta had told him, "Your presence might unduly distress her delicate constitution." Though Tushratta had begged Esarhaddon to ride a different wagon which had been reserved for the sick and injured, the slaver refused to listen. He would see for himself if the woman were as mad as he had been led to believe. 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.

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.

Esarhaddon turned his thoughts back to the physician's counsel. 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 six days of traveling in the same coach, he was no closer to understanding the woman than he ever was.

The few times he could draw Goldwyn out in conversation, she had looked at him quizzically, mumbled something in her own language, and then, laughing, looked out the window. Once he tried to take her hand in his, but she drew back her hand and slapped his face so hard that it left the imprint of her palm on his skin. His temper boiling at this indignity, it had been all he could do to keep from striking back. Perhaps when they reached Nurn, he would have her locked in her room until she came to her senses. In spite of what the physician had said, all Esarhaddon's experience convinced him that a few good whippings would do Goldwyn a great deal of good and drive the insolence out of her. He would never allow her to go to the insane asylum in Turkûrzgoi, though, for he felt that was unnecessary, and that she could recover in the peace and security of his harem.

Tushratta had advice for everything. When Esarhaddon had told him that he would not ride another day in the wain, 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, the slaver'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 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 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 Rohirric twins... 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. Aziru 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. "Tonight I will cast some magic spells that will guarantee a successful hunt." None of the other men noticed the triumphant expression which brightened the little physician's dark eyes.

***

Aziru frowned as he peered down at the bloody remains spread before him. Something was peculiar about the entrails, especially the liver. Perhaps he had not read them correctly, though, for the dark Mordorian night was as black as a Nazgûl's cloak.

"Hold the torch nearer, boy!" he commanded Aban, who stood to his right. The servant was quick to obey him, his morbid curiosity aroused by the bloody organs which glistened dully in the light of the torches.

"Is something wrong, Master?" asked Aban, who was excited at the thought of some mystery being revealed to them.

Aziru scowled at the boy and then turned to Hibiz, whose dark skin had turned clammy and grayish. "Are you certain that all the pegs have been placed in the correct slots on the sacred model of the liver?" Of all the slaves that Tushratta could have purchased, why did he have to choose one who was cursed with an uneasy stomach at the sight of blood? Hibiz would have been better suited working for a scribe than for a healer.

"Yes, Master," Hibiz mumbled, trying hard not to let his eyes drift to the chicken's guts spread out upon the large, flat stone. The torch flickered in the slight breeze as he moved it, the light combining with that of Aban's torch. "See here," he pointed to the tablet. "Every peg is in its proper place, aligning with the correct sacred symbols."

"Are you sure there are no mistakes?" Aziru touched the top of a peg with a bloody finger.

"No, Master, I was very careful. I placed them exactly as you told me." Hibiz humbly bowed his head, catching Aban's sneering expression out of the corner of his eye. He knew the other servant held a low opinion of him, thinking him soft and weak.

"Let me see that!" Aziru exclaimed as he twisted his head around to view the liver-shaped tablet. The short Khandian looked from the plaque to the entrails and back again, fussing and muttering to himself. Suddenly his head jerked up. "No one could have performed the ritual any better than I did. Every last part of the rites was satisfied according to the ceremonial code practiced in Bablon. The only possible difference was that this bird had white streaking in his feathers. Never the best, never the best!" Aziru shook his head. "A pure black fowl, bred and consecrated for ceremonial purposes, is always preferred, but what can I do so far away from the Jewel of the East?"

"Yes, Master," Aban was sympathetic. "We labor under many obstacles."

"Obstacles untold, limits that are almost unbearable, but we endure." Aziru's eyes gleamed. "Yes, we endure, no matter how insurmountable the challenges seem." He lifted the cock's liver and held it up so that the light shown upon the glistening surface. "The liver, a perfect organ, the source of blood, the seat of life itself! The Gods have ordained that mysteries are revealed to those fortunate few who know the art of haruspicy!"

"That is true, Master," Hibiz agreed, now firmly in control of his stomach. The sight of the liver itself did not bother him, but he recoiled at the sacrifice itself. He always closed his eyes and looked away when Aziru slit the sacrifice's throat. Then the dying bird flopped and jerked on the offering stone, the blood spraying out from the wound until its heart ceased beating. At least this one was dead, its guts slit open for the ritual, and the boy no longer had to watch its death struggles. However, the rooster's dead eyes seemed to be regarding him accusingly.

"Boys, look at this!" He pointed to a raised place on the liver. "As I have taught you, this spot corresponds to a very auspicious sign. However, there is a blackish tinge to the bump, which bodes poorly for tomorrow's hunt. If these prognostications are correct, the hunt is likely to fail! What can I do, what can I do!" Aziru hurled the bloody liver down on the stone so hard that the organ almost bounced.

"Master, there are other birds," Aban offered. "Perhaps you can conduct another sacrifice." Always eager to be in his master's good graces, the servant boy was pleased that he had been the first to offer the suggestion. He and Hibiz were bitter rivals, always striving to gain the physicians' favor.

"There is no time tonight, boy!" Aziru snapped churlishly. "As it was, we took a risk even coming out here. All this sneaking around does not look good for us." He rubbed a finger through the chicken's blood, and then made a few marks on the stone around the sacrifice. Neither boy could decipher the writing, for it was in the secret language of the shamans of Khand.

"We must persuade the Gods to smile upon us, to bring good fortune to the hunters. If they cannot bring down a suitable prize, my chances for obtaining a bezoar stone are negligible, and I must have one, for they can work powerful magic!" Aziru lifted his balding head to the heavens, his arms upraised in supplication. He held his position until his arms began to ache, and then he stared down at the entrails. His shoulders slumped in frustration. "Bury this carcass and clean the stone," he ordered the boys. "If Esarhaddon uHuzziya ever learns of tonight, he will be furious!"

After Aziru had thoroughly cleaned his face, hands, and arms of all traces of blood, he stripped off his clothes and changed into fresh ones. Donning his burnoose, he pulled the hood low over his face and watched as the servants cleaned off the bloody stone, removing all evidence of the ritual and the rooster's demise.

The interpretation of the entrails perplexed the assistant physician. If Hibiz had placed the pegs correctly - and he had no reason to believe that the diligent boy had done otherwise - all the omens for the hunt were disturbing. When he returned to the camp, he would consult his astrology books and charts. Then when the sweet smell of incense wafted through the tent, releasing its heady balm, he would offer up incantations to every god and goddess in the entire pantheon. Surely they would be more favorable if he begged their help.

With Aban and Hibiz leading the way, Aziru followed them as they walked back towards the camp. When the three neared the outskirts of the encampment, they heard the cry of an owl, and then watched in dread as the bird flew close to their heads.

"A bad omen," Aziru muttered, and then attempted to slough off the idea. "The bird was merely frightened at our passage," he reassured the boys. Aziru did not quite believe his own explanation, though, and his sense of unease grew even more. Then far away, from beyond the camp, he heard another sound - the bellowing trumpet of a male orc, followed closely by an answering call of a female. He scowled, a disgusted expression upon his face. "Dirty, filthy creatures, always rutting!"


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