Time seemed to stand still as the murderous band of stinking, reeking uruks poured into the tent. Three of their number charged into the front chamber, and there was the sharp clang of steel meeting steel as the attackers dealt with the eunuchs on guard. A scream of horror tore itself from Özlem's throat, but one of the uruks was quickly upon her, silencing her cries with the blade of a knife pressed against her neck. Shrieking, Elfhild scrambled to her feet and tried to get away from the hooting, leering uruk who lunged for her, but he caught her around the waist and clamped his hand down upon her mouth. At the first sight of blades ripping through the cloth wall, Elffled had hidden behind a chest, where she cowered in helpless terror.
Exposed and vulnerable, Esarhaddon cursed the fact that his scimitar was hanging on a nearby tent pole, just out of his reach. The slave boy who had been waiting in attendance at the side of the tent drew a knife from his belt and rushed into the circle of blades to defend his master. A young boy, his swordsmanship was no match for theirs. His face contorted with maniacal glee, one of the uruks sliced down with his scimitar, steel meeting flesh in an explosion of blood. The boy watched in horror as his severed arm dropped to the carpet with a soft thud. Blood sprayed from the gory stump in a gush of angry red, splattering both the uruks and the slaver. With a wicked laugh, the uruk plunged his scimitar deep into the boy's chest and twisted the shaft viciously. Cursing when the blade caught between two ribs, the uruk put his foot on the boy's groin and jerked the weapon out, unleashing another violent gush of blood.
As Elfhild watched the gruesome carnage unfold around her, suddenly she found herself back in the Mark upon the night that the uruks attacked her home. When the poor, brave boy fell to the ground, she saw her mother's body slide to the straw-covered floor, her hands desperately clutching her stomach, as though she were trying to keep the blood from spilling out from the fatal wound she had been dealt. So vivid was her vision that Elfhild felt as though she had been ripped from the present time and plunged back into the past by some strange magic. Vaguely, she was aware that she was about to die, that they were all about to die. She could no longer see clearly, for a dark shadow had passed across her vision. As her eyes blurred and the images became dim, she gave in to blessed oblivion, escaping the cruelty of reality, lost within the safety of her own mind.
Enraged by the murder of the loyal slave boy, Esarhaddon bellowed in fury and rushed the gloating uruk, who had just pulled his blade from the boy's still quivering body. The uruk turned his head, and Esarhaddon managed to land a smashing blow into the uruk's face, breaking the beast's flat, broad nose. Snarling, two other uruks grabbed him from behind and held him fast. Blood streaming from his nose, the uruk howled in rage and pain. As the other brutes pinned Esarhaddon's arms behind him, the uruk savagely pounded his meaty fists into Esarhaddon's ribs and stomach, hitting him over and over again. Doubling over in agony, the slaver slumped forward. His captors slapped heavy iron shackles on his wrists and chained his hands behind his back.
"Move aside, matey!" a harsh female voice barked out an order to the slaver's assailant, and the uruk stepped aside. Esarhaddon felt his head being pulled up roughly by his hair. A taloned hand lifted his chin up higher, and he was forced to look into the gloating yellow eyes of Durraiz, the acknowledged leader of the she-orcs. "Well, well, what do we have here? The illustrious slaver, caught bare balls naked while he was sporting! Was she fun?" Feral eyes flicked to the unconscious Elfhild, who lay sprawled upon the carpet. "If I had known she was so handy with her mouth, we could have shared the tasty little morsel!" A low, guttural murmur of laughter rose up among the other uruks, and their long tongues slithered across their lips.
Straightening his back, Esarhaddon ignored the pain in his abdomen and spat in the she-orc's face. "You wretched spawn of hell! Why did the boy have to die? When my men get through with you, there will not even be a scrap left for the flies to blow!"
"Ooo, mateys, he's got a tongue on him, he has!" Durraiz taunted as she wiped the spit off her face with the back of her hand. "I'd cut out his tongue, but then I'd be denied the pleasure of hearing him scream for mercy when I slice his toes off one by one!"
"Lady, please let me cut 'im!" Sulmûrz stepped over the dead boy, her eyes flashing. "'E 'ad me mate killed, and it will give me great pleasure to take me revenge upon 'im!"
"What do you want to cut first, dearie?" Durraiz asked, a hard, cruel look upon her face. "You have first rights to him, but there are others who seek vengeance, same as you. Must save a piece for everyone, you know!"
"'Is cock and then 'is cullions!" Sulmûrz gestured with her sword towards the slaver's crotch.
Durraiz lifted Esarhaddon's flaccid member with the flat of her sword. "There ain't much meat here to cut, just a soft little worm, not big enough to use for fish bait! Why, I've seen pleasure buttons on me own gender that would make two of that pathetic little thing!" The other uruks roared in laughter and slapped their thighs, amused at the slaver's sudden downfall.
"You do not expect to get away with this, do you, Durraiz?" Esarhaddon asked coldly. His face red with rage, he tried to control his anger, determined that no reeking she-orc would have the best of him.
"This is your answer, slaver," she gloated as she prodded his limp manhood with the tip of her sword, drawing tiny droplets of blood from the veiny flesh. "Your men won't give us any trouble. Soon there will be other things on their minds," she laughed knowingly, her voice a harsh bark. Esarhaddon set his face into a hard mask, enduring the pain with only his eyes showing a brief flicker of discomfort.
"What do you mean, Durraiz?" Esarhaddon asked warily, summoning all his will to keep from crying out from the pain. His belly muscles felt bruised, and the ache in his still unhealed ribs was like stabbing fire.
"Did anyone ever tell you, Shakh, just how stupid you are?" she asked.
"Well, let me be the first to tell you that there are few as stupid as you are." Durraiz looked over to the other uruks to gauge their reaction, and when she noted they were all grinning, she continued. "Right about now, whilst your men are occupied with drinking and swiving, my compatriots are raiding your camp, torching the tents and wagons. Makes it look like enemies have attacked, you see. Your men will be so busy trying to put out the fires that they will not know what is happening to you." She stepped back from him, her face triumphant as she crossed her arms over her massive bosom, which was barely covered by her iron-studded leather brigandine.
"And my guards? What did you do with them, Durraiz?" Esarhaddon asked, his voice filled with disgust. "I swear, if any harm comes to them, I will cut out your gullet and throw it to the vultures!"
"Haven't you learned by now that only a braggart makes boasts which he will never be able to fulfill?" Durraiz smiled as she made another tiny but excruciating gash across his shaft, and the pain almost drove Esarhaddon to his knees. "Quite simple, Shakh," the she-orc told him jovially. "They aren't any brighter than you are, so they were caught unawares when my comrades rushed them. Now your eunuchs are trussed up as fine as Yuletide hams!"
"They ain't much at fighting, are they, Lady?" Sulmûrz remarked, a smirk on her face.
"No, lovey. They ain't got no balls!" Durraiz roared in laughter, and the other uruks joined her, laughing until their faces colored with the strain. "Very soon the slaver will be joining the illustrious brotherhood of the eunuchs, but he sure as hell won't be guarding any harem after we get through with him!" Her blood-smeared sword engraved another crimson streak on Esarhaddon's tortured member, and he bit his tongue to keep from screaming.
"Maybe the Mighty One will bugger 'im in the Void!" a scrawny, sneering uruk spoke up, slapping his bony knees.
"Nar, this piece of filth don't deserve Melkor's 'oly black cock up 'is arse!" another uruk shook his head and howled in laughter.
Durraiz raised her hand to silence the raucous uruks. "Time's growing short, and if we want to send the Shakh to his final destination, we need to do it now!" She stepped back, gesturing to Sulmûrz. "All right, now, darling, he's all yours! Hold him, mateys!"
"Ooo! Ooo! I'm going to cut 'im good!" Sulmûrz growled deep in her throat as she unsheathed her dagger. "I'll drink 'is blood after I cut off that scrawny twig of 'is!" Grabbing Esarhaddon's bleeding manhood in one hand, she yanked it hard, bringing an unbidden shriek to his lips. "'Old 'is 'ead up, Lady! I want to look 'im in the eye when I slice 'is prick off real slow and then cram 'is bloody cock down 'is throat! Going to gut 'im like 'e was a pig! Then before I saw off 'is 'ead, 'is last sight will be the smile on my face as I make a necklace out of 'is entrails and drape it around 'is neck!"
The orcs had been too busy with their cruel sport to notice Elffled's hiding place, but she knew that it would not be long ere a meaty hand clamped down upon her shoulder and dragged her out into the open. And what then? Would they murder her like that poor slave boy? He looked to have been only thirteen or fourteen, little more than a child, and they had shown him no mercy. Esarhaddon's screams of agony ripped through her ears, and she clamped her hands over her head to block out the terrible sound. How much blood would be spilled before these fiends were at last satisfied? Her gaze went to the santur player, who sat helplessly at the side, her hands bound behind her back and a gag stuffed in her mouth. The uruks had tied up Elfhild as well, though there was little chance of her escaping as she had not yet recovered from her swoon. After these monsters had slain Esarhaddon, would they come for Elfhild next, and then the musician? Elffled felt sick with dread. She had to escape and get help!
Her eyes went to the gaping rent which the uruks had cut through the canvas with their wicked knives. The opening was not far away, only a few feet from her hiding place. Her heart lurched in her chest, and she felt the air go out of her lungs. Could she make it…? As the uruks' malevolent laughter and Esarhaddon's groans of pain reverberated in her ears, she knew she had to try. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, steeling herself for what she must do.
Creeping out from behind the large chest, Elffled crawled along the side of the tent, keeping low to the ground. Too preoccupied with wreaking their cruel vengeance, the uruks did not see the slight figure edging along the tent wall, nor did they see the tattered flaps of canvas flutter slightly even though no breeze stirred the heavy air. The tent behind her now, Elffled almost collapsed upon the rocky ground with relief. In the distance she saw the glow of many fires piercing the darkness, and a sinking feeling hit her deep in the stomach as she thought of those who might die that night. She prayed that Elfhild would not be among their number.
His teeth bared in a ferocious grin, Tuzug knocked an arrow and pulled the string back to his ear. He held his breath as he loosed the flaming arrow and saw it sink into one of the supply wagons with a dull thud. The fire from the oil-soaked tow beneath the arrowhead began to lick up the side of the wain, and soon the whole side of the wagon was in flames. The diversion was going better than he had expected. As he took another arrow from the quiver, he listened in satisfaction to the terrified screams of horses. The stupid beasts were panicking, snorting and bucking as their nostrils took in the stench of smoke and orc. His comrades must have overcome the guards, freed the horses, and were stampeding them through the camp. Tuzug wished that there were time to butcher one of the breasts; a haunch of horse meat would be some reward for his night's work. Unfortunately, there would be no opportunity for that.
He licked his lips, thinking of the warm blood streaming from the guards' bleeding throats as he unleashed another barb and saw it strike a nearby wagon. Several wains were on fire, the acrid smoke billowing upward in the still air. Laughing, he sprinted to another location, where he took position in readiness to immolate another wagon. Tuzug lifted the bow and took sight along the trajectory of the arrow's flight. A grin on his face, he did not expect the unseen enemy's barb as it slammed into his back, the leather armor giving way to the superior weaponry of the Southrons. He slumped to his knees, reaching a hand back to wrest the arrow from the wound. His hand still clutched around the blood-smeared shaft, he fell on his face and lay still.
As the camp's horns blared out the alarm, the uruk raiders were scarcely troubled, for they had known that their ploy would be discovered sooner or later. There was just a little time for some quick looting, and they pilfered whatever they could from the wagons. Then as they saw the caravan guards rushing down the camp road through the smoke and flames, the uruks dispersed, separating and fleeing into the dark night, where they were the masters.
At the sound of the horn, Durraiz lifted up her head, her broad brow furrowing. "That was a little quicker than I had expected, dearie," she muttered, disappointed. "We've had our fun. Time now to say farewell to the good Shakh. Finish him off, Sulmûrz!"
"M'Lady, I wish I could make it slower! You know how much I would like to prolong 'is sufferin'!" Sulmûrz' yellow eyes turned to Durraiz, who was staring at the doorway which separated the two chambers as though she had heard something.
Perspiring heavily, Esarhaddon felt the sweat dripping off his face, soaking his chest and armpits, rolling down his naked body. He felt as though he had been trampled by a herd of enraged camels. As he waited for the sting of death, he thought of his family in Nurn. At least they would be safe. After his death, his brother would be the guardian of his sons, and Esarhaddon could trust him to see that the great fortune which he had left for them would be judiciously spent. His two concubines and his principal slave girls would never want for anything. At least fate had been kind there... And Goldwyn, the blonde-haired Northern woman who had shunned him repeatedly... would she ever think of him?
Durraiz watched the slaver, hating every feature on his handsome face. Even though the accursed Southron was about to die, she could detect no fear in his expression, only pain. Durraiz grew restless. Why was Sulmûrz taking so long? Was her resolve weakening? Had she lost her nerve?
"Just kill him, lovey!" Durraiz hissed. "Gut the bastard and then let's get out of here!"
"Garn," Sulmûrz thought, staring at Esarhaddon, "but 'e is an 'andsome bloke! Broad-shouldered and well-muscled, even if 'e is inclined to fat! And that fine prick of 'is! What would it feel like to 'ave 'im pokin' me with it? Although I came here to kill 'im, I get wet just lookin' at 'is big sticker!" She knew that Durraiz was glaring at her, trying to hurry her along with her fierce expression. By Melkor's hairy balls, she must not think this way! Esarhaddon had ordered her mate killed, and so her knife must drink deeply of his blood! But, oh, she had never realized just what a beautiful, virile man he was!
The uruk guarding the entrance of Esarhaddon's tent scanned the darkness around him, alert to every sight and sound. Even though it had been only a few minutes since he and his comrades had stormed the tent and disarmed the guards, he still felt apprehensive. His brow furrowed with impatience, he wondered what was taking Durraiz and the others so long to kill the slave trader.
Still, there was no reason to fret. Everything was going according to Durraiz' plan. Though the guard did not like to admit it, the she-orc had proved herself to be a commendable leader. A grin came to his heavily tattooed face as he smelled the smoke from the burning wagons and tents. Chuckling, he watched as the pinpoints of fire in the distance grew into roaring blazes. The other uruks had hit fast and hard, torching wagons and tents to divert attention from the real purpose - the assassination of Shakh Esarhaddon uHuzziya. Very soon the slaver would be dead, and they would be back at the trysting place, where Durraiz would divide up the loot. The guard could use some orc draught, but Durraiz' orders had forbidden drinking until the raid was culminated. He would just have to be patient.
He was thinking about his share of the booty when he heard the sounds of hoofbeats thundering up the camp road to his right. Three terrified horses, their eyes rolling white in the sockets, tore past him. The other raiders must be stampeding the camp horses. He stifled a laugh as two more galloped by him, but the laughter died in a bloody gurgle as a knife hurled from the darkness struck him in the neck.
No sooner had the uruk guard fallen to the ground, his dying body twitching and jerking, than a host of men led by Ganbar and Khaldun rushed into the tent, their weapons gleaming in their hands and a war cry on their lips. As wild and savage as berserkers intoxicated upon the sacred mushrooms, Esarhaddon's guards raced through the public chamber and into the harem. There they were met by a surprised Durraiz and her followers, who stared blankly at them for a moment.
"Damn you, bitch!" Durraiz hissed, her eyes shooting fire at Sulmûrz. "You should have killed the Shakh when you had the chance!" In the split second before Esarhaddon's captors released him and turned to flee, she drew a dagger and drove the knife into the slaver's side. With a low moan, Esarhaddon swayed on his feet and sank to the floor, his blood spilling out on his expensive carpet.
As two cowardly uruks raced for the rent in the tent's wall, two more turned to face the Southrons. Fighting with the courage of desperation, they slashed and parried, wounding several of their opponents before they were surrounded by the vengeful men. A slash to the neck cut one of the uruks down, his throat ripped out by a scimitar, while the other howled in anguish as a sword thrust through his belly, opening up a gaping hole. Moaning piteously, he desperately tried to push the mass of his bloody intestines back into his stomach, but it was no use.
As they watched the other uruks fall, Durraiz and Sûlmurz caught the deadly battle fury in the Southrons' eyes. Frantic to escape before the Southrons could reach them, Durraiz seized Özlem around the waist and pressed her dagger against the girl's neck. Edging in behind Durraiz, Sulmûrz picked up the unconscious Elfhild and tossed her over her shoulder, presenting the men with a full view of the Rohirric slave's naked backside. Durraiz held the terrified Özlem in front of her as a shield, daring any of the guards to come closer.
"If you don't want these pretty trinkets dead, you will all back away!" Durraiz growled, dragging her dagger across Özlem's throat for emphasis. A bright red trickle of blood oozed from the shallow cut as the girl whimpered, her cries muffled by the gag.
"Be a shame to 'urt these little pretties! You don't want that to happen, do you?" Sulmûrz challenged the Southrons, who had halted their advance and stood watching the uruks warily.
Lowering his sword, Ganbar leveled his steady brown eyes on the uruk's face. "Durraiz, what do you hope to gain by this? You will be hunted down like the vermin you are!"
"Time, Lieutenant, time," Durraiz answered. "Give us a half hour's head start, and we will set the girls free. Refuse, and we'll kill them right now!"
Ganbar's expression was furious, but his voice was calm, icy fury as he replied, "Do you think I believe you, Durraiz?" He knew that with one word from him, his men would drive their blades into the uruks' hearts.
"What choice do you have?" she laughed viciously, slicing another thin cut across Özlem's already bleeding throat. The terrified girl tried to pull her head back, but Durraiz pressed the blade to her throat again.
His face suffused with rage, Ganbar clenched and unclenched his sword hand as he stared at the two she-orcs. Only recently promoted to his position, the Southron was uncertain on how he should proceed. Already the uruks had slain a servant boy, and from his appearance, Esarhaddon would soon join him in death. Perhaps he should signal to his men to rush the she-orcs, and if they were lucky, they could kill the brutes before they slaughtered their captives... and if the men were unlucky, the women would die. No one would blame him if the women were killed, for slaves were expendable. Still, he could not bring himself to signal the charge. Though he knew he was a fool, he could not take the chance.
"All right, you bitch," he muttered. "You have your half hour!"
"I could kiss you for this, Lieutenant, but you're the wrong gender for me!" Durraiz howled in laughter as she slid her hand down Özlem's bodice to cup one of the girl's breasts.
"You filth!" Khaldun snarled as he gripped the hilt of his scimitar. "If you do anything to those women, I will kill you myself!"
"Ooo! 'E just wants to do something to 'em 'imself, don't 'e, Durraiz?" Sulmûrz giggled, patting Elfhild's bare bottom with her hand.
Khaldun stepped forward, but was restrained by Ganbar's hand on his forearm. "Steady, my friend! There will be time for vengeance later," he told the other man in Haradric.
"We're wasting time here, Lieutenant! Now take one look at these little beauties again before we leave," Durraiz told him, amusement in her voice. "Remember they will be our hostages for only a half an hour. They will not be hurt unless you follow us! Give me your word on it!"
"Go!" Ganbar spat out. "You have my promise!"
"Oh, one more thing, Lieutenant. Your men captured two of my comrades when they tried to escape through the back of the tent. I want them released now." Durraiz smiled confidently.
"You have that, too, Durraiz! Now go, damn you, before I change my mind!" A brilliant blood red haze spread over Ganbar's vision, and he fought the urge to kill.
"Farewell, gentlemen!" Durraiz inclined her head as she and Sulmûrz backed out of the tent.
When the uruks and their captives had gone, the men rushed to their fallen master. Ganbar bent down and rolled Esarhaddon onto his back. "Inbir!" he shouted. "Summon the physician!"
Here ends the sixth book of THE CIRCLES.
The seventh book is called LAND OF TREACHERY.