The Circles - Book Six - Chapter 4

The Circles - Book Six - Across the Wide Hamada
Chapter Four
The Truth Potion
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

"Who gave you this undertunic, Elfhild?" Corporal Bekir asked, holding up the finely woven linen garment. "This tunic has been warded with runes and esoteric symbols, the signs and symbols of priests and shamans, written in Haradric calligraphy. Your sister was also in the possession of an identical garment. Two Rohirric peasant wenches attired in garments warded by one adept and skilled in the arts of magic - obviously someone powerful had to give you such raiment. Who was this person?"

Elfhild stared stupidly at the tunic, trying to focus on the colorful embroidery. "Su-a and Su-din," she sighed, remembering the two Haradric girls whom she met at the encampment of the slave traders back in Minas Tirith. "They were so kind and sweet to Elffled and me...."

Bekir frowned, not expecting this answer. Perhaps the truth potion had not yet fully taken effect… He would have to ask the same question again later. "And this coin?" He held the silver coin in front of her eyes. "Who gave you this coin?"

Elfhild blinked repeatedly, the light reflecting off the silver disc enchanting her senses. It seemed the image of the Great Eye was winking at her, and she giggled with amusement. "The Seneschal… of Minas Morgul."

"I knew it!" Bekir clapped his hands in triumph and turned to Pirooz. "These girls are spies in the service of Minas Morgul!"

An uneasy silence descended upon the room in the wake of Corporal Bekir's startling revelation. Pirooz, momentarily too shocked to resume his note taking, stared at the corporal in dismay. "Sir, I do not understand the basis for your allegations. These girls are from Rohan, a land which is allied with our enemies, the Gondorians. Why would they willingly give their aid to Minas Morgul?"

Bekir looked down at the girl who lay upon the couch, her eyes glazed. "Our spy, a man who has always been reliable in the past, reported that he saw the two wenches speaking with Lord Kalus. Obviously, the Seneschal gave them a verbal message to pass on to his operatives at Moskala, and the silver coins were payment for their service. Who could be better as the conveyers of a message of great import to Captain Valto than two apparently innocent girls? No one would ever consider that they had the ability to do anything more involved than spreading their legs to receive a man!"

"Corporal Bekir, why would Lord Kalus employ two ignorant peasant girls as his couriers? Surely he could send one of his messengers." Pirooz frowned. All this had begun to confuse him.

"The answer is quite simple, Pirooz." Bekir stroked his beard, his lean face in shadow. "If caught, a courier could break under the rigors of torture. When their agent felt the hot irons on the soles of his feet, there is every likelihood that he would confess all that he knew. He would beg to tell the names of all those involved. While our men are always on guard against spies, few would ever suspect that two slave girls from Rohan were messengers for Minas Morgul."

"Well, sir, that makes sense," Pirooz agreed, glancing down to his papers and then back to the Corporal. He was still unconvinced that Bekir's theory was true, but there was no point in getting into an argument.

"You are aware, are you not, Pirooz, that Commandant Panturion and his top aides suspect that there is a plot afoot to take over Cirith Ungol?" Bekir asked, a certain bored hauteur in his voice.

"There are some rumors being bandied about, sir, but I know nothing for certain," Pirooz replied, keeping his growing annoyance to himself.

"No one does, Pirooz," the Corporal snapped churlishly. "The necessary evidence we need to substantiate our suspicions has been slow in coming, but all that has changed. We are very close to uncovering the sinister plot. I believe that today will be the day when we will have all the evidence to clench the matter! Some very important heads will soon rest uneasily upon their illustrious shoulders. You can be sure of that!" He chortled with glee.

"Sir, do you mean Valto?" Pirooz asked, still puzzled but beginning to believe that he was at last understanding. "I know he has never been a friend of Cirith Ungol, but..."

"Valto!" the Corporal laughed. "That insignificant worm is nothing! He is merely another pawn in a large game. He does what he is told and is glad to be able to do it. They have fed upon his ambitions and probably have him believing that Moskala is but the first step to glory. No, Pirooz, Valto is nothing. Can you not see that?"

"No, sir, I am sorry." Pirooz shook his head. "If not Valto, then who?"

"The Nazgûl, Pirooz, the Nazgûl! The Lords of Minas Morgul!" His eyes burning with fanatic zeal, the Corporal slammed his fist on the railing of the divan. "I see that you are amazed, but this fact should be as plain as the nose on your face." Grinning, Bekir took a sip from his goblet. "For many long years, Lords Gothmog and Krakfakhthal, the Third and Fifth Nazgûl, commanded the garrison at Cirith Ungol. While the Lord of Mordor was away, His Nazgûl played, spending all their days and nights in drunken debauchery like the False Gods of the Uttermost West. Then, seventy years ago, the Lord of Mordor returned to claim His rightful place upon the throne of Barad-dûr, and His recalcitrant servants were none too pleased to relinquish their freedom. For nine months, the Nazgûl were in open rebellion against their Master, but in the end the treacherous vassals were forced to submit and accept the rule of their Overlord. After the rebellion was squelched, the command of Cirith Ungol was turned over to the orcs."

Corporal Bekir cleared his throat and then resumed speaking. "For the past seventy years, the Nazgûl have been wanting to regain complete control of this valley, and they will do everything in their power to reach that end!" He was pleased to see a spark of understanding at last cross Pirooz' bland face, for the man could be quite dense at times. Bekir attributed it to a combination of the man's innate lack of intelligence and inexperience as a scribe. "If you will remember, Valto's predecessor was Captain Caran, who was removed by the Mordorian high command. Now Valto has Caran's position, and he smiles and struts about as though he had obtained it by his own merits. He is one of the Nazgûl's men, and will do anything to debase himself in gratitude to his masters in Minas Morgul."

"But, sir," Pirooz was lost in the intrigue, "say that all these charges are true. What could Lord Kalus have told these wenches that would have anything whatsoever to do with the plot to take over Cirith Ungol?"

"Simply this." Bekir leaned forward, his voice dropping. "The proposed date and hour of the assassination of Commandant Panturion and all his staff, as configured by Lord Kalus through his astrological charts and esoteric insights!"

"By Melkor! The Nazgûl have the audacity to plot Panturion's undoing!" Pirooz exclaimed, his mind reeling.

"Of course!" Bekir hissed, his eyes wild with fanatical gleam. "They are none too pleased that the former Commandant, Shukur, was assassinated. Like Valto, Shukur was loyal to the Nazgûl. Panturion, on the other hand, is loyal only to the Lord of Mordor, and was given his position by the Great Eye Himself!"

Pressing his fingertips into his temples, Pirooz massaged his head, which had begun to throb with a bloody fierce headache. "How can this outrage be stopped?"

"By establishing enough evidence to prove unequivocally that the Nazgûl are behind this whole plot! Once the Lord of Mordor is convinced that His pets are plotting to kill His appointee, He will smash them down so hard that they will tuck their tails between their legs and run yapping back to their City. We will not have any trouble from them for years!" Chuckling, Bekir rubbed his hands together, relishing his coming triumph. Why did that stupid ass Pirooz not share his enthusiasm? He was almost as impassive as the drugged girl.

"Truly, sir, I am astounded," Pirooz remarked politely. "Unfortunately, I do not possess your powers of deductive reasoning and perception. I never would have considered that such a plan was afoot." That was true enough, he thought wryly. Although he was not quite certain whether he understood the whole conspiracy theory or not, he still thought the idea was farfetched. Surely Bekir had become obsessed by his own conjectures, obsessed to the point where he could no longer see things in their true light. Pirooz valued his own neck far too much to contradict his superior, though, and so he would agree with whatever new absurdity the Corporal spouted.

"Merely exceptional training, Pirooz - and a good bit of intuition," Bekir boasted, a smirking grin on his face.

"What about Esarhaddon uHuzziya and his men?" Pirooz asked. "Are they involved in this Morgul plot?"

"Highly unlikely." The Corporal swirled the wine around in his goblet. "Esarhaddon has far too much at stake to dabble in espionage. The Shakh would much rather be a living merchant than a dead spy."

"Aye, sir." Pirooz nodded his head in agreement. He wondered if Bekir planned to boast the rest of the night before finally getting down to questioning the girl. He wished he could forget all this business and go back to the tiny room he shared with another scribe, where he planned to drink enough wine to send his senses fleeing.

"Lest you still feel that Esarhaddon uHuzziya is a party to any of this, you must realize that our spy informs us that the slaver and all his men fell into a dead faint at the bridge before the girls went away with the Seneschal," the Corporal explained. "Kalus smote them with the Black Shadow so he could be alone with the wenches.... one of those infamous Nazgûl tricks that they do so well. You do not know the Dushgoi fiends as I do." Bekir smiled smugly, lording his superior knowledge over Pirooz.

"And I hope I never do." The secretary could not control an involuntary shudder.

"You might be a changed man if you did," Corporal Bekir laughed.

"Now these girls, sir..." Eager to change the subject, Pirooz looked at Elfhild, who lay on her side, her golden mane obscuring her face. "Are they willing accomplices?"

"It certainly seems that way," Bekir nodded smugly. "The girl said that Lord Kalus gave her that silver coin… obviously, payment for her services. Perhaps she and her sister are eager pawns, gullible enough to believe they will be rewarded for their compliance... perhaps given their freedom or a high position in one of the Nazgûl's harems. Of course, when their usefulness is over, the Morgul King will have them killed. For now, though, the Lords want them very much alive. Why else would Kalus give them these tunics of protection?"

"That seems entirely likely, Corporal," Pirooz dutifully replied. Perhaps the Corporal was onto something. It seemed unlikely that the twins would have obtained such garments in Rohan.

"I am glad you see it my way." Bekir congratulated the secretary with a smug smile that went no higher than his cruel mouth. "More wine, Pirooz?" he asked, looking at the bottle on the table. Before the secretary could answer, Bekir had refilled both their goblets. "Now that we are settled comfortably, let us get on to our questioning."

"Certainly, sir," Pirooz told him as he accepted the goblet. The secretary's mind was sorely troubled. When he had first been given this assignment, a scribe fresh out of the academy, he had not been informed that the fearsome Nazgûl might somehow be involved. If he had known, he would have tried to beg off, pleading that as a new scribe his skills were not adequate for the task and that a more experienced secretary would be more appropriate. His career might have suffered, but the thought of incurring the wrath of the Nine Lords was far more disturbing than any possible damage that might have been done to his career. How he wished that he had possessed the courage to refuse! Now it was too late, and he was in so far over his head that he could never get out.

The insignificant scribe was quickly forgotten as the Corporal began his interrogation. Grasping Elfhild's long, golden mane, he lifted up her head and slapped her face lightly several times. "My lovely dreamer, do you think you can answer some questions now?"

Her dark lashes fluttering open, Elfhild looked up at him blearily. His eyes appeared as dark lumps of coal, the light reflecting off them distorted and twisted. "Yes, Master," she mumbled, trying to blink away the disconcerting image. Her mouth was so dry, her throat parched and hoarse. She licked her chapped lips. "So thirsty..."

"Certainly, my dear. Drink and refresh yourself." Bekir held a glass of water to her lips, and she drank thirstily. The Corporal was exultant. The potion was working, and soon she would be telling everything she knew. He smiled.

"Good, good water," Elfhild murmured stupidly and then giggled. A puzzled frown on her face, she realized that the water was dripping from her lips and dribbling down her chin. When she tried to wipe the moisture away, she had trouble lifting her hand, and so she let it sink weakly back onto the mattress. Though her body weighted her down, she felt as though she were floating. The rich brocade of the cushions seemed to be alive, the ridges and whorls of the fabric moving beneath her fingertips.

"Now that is much better, is it not?" He patted her hand and smiled when she nodded her head. "Did you have a pleasant journey up the valley?" With satisfaction, Bekir noted that Pirooz was intent on the conversation, a pensive look upon his face as he furiously scribbled in his journal.

"A lovely journey... the flowers... the beautiful flowers... So white they are, like snow..." She closed her eyes, and once again she was in the fields of poppies before the alabaster city of enchantment. The sun was shining, and she could feel the dewy grass beneath her bare feet. Bending down, she picked one of the poppies and held the blossom up to her nose, burying her face in the satiny petals. The swirling mists which rose from the river surrounded her, obscuring her vision. When Elfhild opened her heavy eyelids, she was looking into the face of Corporal Bekir, her fingers clenching and unclenching a flower that was no longer there.

"Everyone enjoys flowers, Elfhild." Bekir wiped the water from her mouth, revolted at her idiotic expression as she drooled upon herself. Although he had been expecting this lack of physical control, he noticed that Pirooz seemed uneasy at the disgusting appearance of the girl. "Well, let him learn," he thought. "He will see a lot worse than this." Bekir had more important matters on his mind than his squeamish secretary. The girl's mind was wandering, and Bekir knew that if he did not keep her directed, she would spout rubbish all night.

A sharp, twisting pressure on her shoulder made Elfhild gasp out, wincing. She opened her eyes to see the bizarrely misshapen form of Bekir glaring down at her like a great, bloated toad. His voice was indistinct, a whisper, as though it came from deep within the bowels of the earth.

"And after you traveled past the flowers, I believe you met someone. Is this true?"

"Lord Kalus and his escort…"

"Lord Kalus, the Seneschal of Minas Morgul?" The Corporal raised an eyebrow. The girl would be like clay in the hands of a potter, pliable and yielding, eager to tell him all he needed to know.

"Yes, Master." Elfhild rubbed the bruised flesh of her maligned shoulder, or thought that she did. She did not really know for certain. The concept of reality no longer mattered. "His name is Kalus... Kalus, the Seneschal of Minas Morgul." She giggled at the sound of her own voice. Too heavy for her to hold them up, her eyelids slid unbidden over her eyes like draperies and sealed off the sight of the rapacious corporal.

"And did Lord Kalus take you and your sister away for a meeting in private?" the Corporal asked, lacing his fingers together.

"Yes... yes, he did," Elfhild replied dreamily. Staring ahead, her eyes unblinking, she watched in spellbound awe as the dreary ceiling melted away like icicles on a sunny day, revealing azure blue skies and puffy white clouds. The castle chamber seemed to hang suspended in the heavens, held up by magic strings which disappeared into the blueness of the ether.

"What did he say to you?" the Corporal asked, placing his hands on her shoulders and turning her to look at him.

"He said we were beautiful..." Poppies sprang from the Eastern carpet, their colors matching those of the intricately woven rug. The dazzling hues pulsed and throbbed as though hidden within the paper-thin petals were living hearts. Fascinated, Elfhild clapped her hands and laughed gleefully. Unsteadily rising from the divan, she knelt down and reverently caressed one of the blossoms, closing her eyes as she inhaled its sweet scent. When she looked up again, she discovered she was back on the divan; she had never once left the opulent cushions of the couch.

"What else did he tell you?" Bekir persuasive voice slithered through her ears. "Try to remember how long that you and your sister have been in his employ." This was taking far too long. It would have been much quicker just to put her on the rack and torture the information out of her. He was not ready quite yet to admit that the truth potion had been ineffective.

A confused expression upon her face, Elfhild shook her head. "But we are not in his employ... Lord Esarhaddon is our master..."

"Oh, yes, you are," the Corporal insisted. "The Seneschal Kalus is the one who gave your sister and you these tunics, is he not?" Grabbing the garment, Bekir wadded it between his fingers and shoved it in her face. "What else did he promise you?"

"No, no, Master..." she murmured, trying futilely to focus on the cloth. The glare from the light reflecting on the white cloth seemed to burn her eyes, and she was forced to look away. "The slave girls gave us these tunics, when we were in the camp at Minas Tirith. Su-a and Su-din... they gave us baths, and oiled our hair to kill the lice which had been plaguing us so."

The Corporal's face turned red beneath his tawny skin, the bulging vein in his neck throbbing visibly. "You lie!" he shouted as he slapped her across the mouth, sending her head flying to the side. "You dirty little whore! You are trying to deceive me! I will ask you again! Who gave you this tunic?" Damn her! He would get the information out of her one way or another!

"I told you, Master..." Elfhild mumbled, rolling the metallic taste of her own blood in her mouth. It actually helped to relieve the withering dryness which made the insides of her cheeks stick to her teeth. "Su-a and Su-din.... slaves of Shakh Awidan. Lord Esarhaddon ordered that we were to be given new clothing after our baths."

"Shakh Awidan?!" the Corporal bellowed. "That slimy old Haradric slave trader gave you this tunic?" What had gone wrong with the elixir? Had the apothecary who formulated the potion failed to mix the adequate amount? He would have the imbecilic apothecary's tongue nailed to a board while the executioner hewed off his hands and stuffed them up his rectum!

"Not in person, Master... his slaves brought them to us, at the command of Lord Esarhaddon. Our other clothing was bloodstained and ruined." Mindlessly obedient to his commands, Elfhild tried to force her addled brain to remember more. "Su-a and Su-din said these tunics would protect us, but I really do not think that the Gods of the South favor Northern girls..." Her tongue felt thick and clumsy, and she sucked the blood from her lip.

Bekir grabbed Elfhild's chin and forced her to look at him. "Why did Lord Kalus give you the silver coin?"

Elfhild squinted up at the corporal. "To reward me for my loyalty to my master, because I am such a good slave… an obedient thrall of Mordor!" Her bloody lips curled up in a twisted grin and she broke out into hysterical laughter, her body twitching helplessly upon the couch. "And because my master complained about paying the toll… Lord Kalus thought that perhaps Lord Esarhaddon had fallen on hard times and needed charity like a beggar…"

For a long moment, Bekir stared at her incredulously. His cold eyes turned to Pirooz. Was that a faint smile on the secretary's thin face? Bekir cursed under his breath. Was Pirooz laughing at him? If he were, the Corporal swore that he would see that the secretary was sent to the most remote, wretched outpost on the border of Nurn and Khand and let him rot there! Wiping his hand across his sweating brow, Bekir fought to hide his anger. He must not let these trifling inconsequentialities perturb him. Drawing on all his training and experience, he resolved to get the truth out of this girl.

But... the thought flashed across his mind... could she actually be telling the truth? He was no longer quite certain. Bekir suspected that she was lying. Yet how could she be? The truth potion had been created to force victims to tell the truth, rendering them helpless and open to suggestion. He knew that after the elixir had been improved, it had been effective in most cases. Only those of the strongest will had been able to thwart the potion, and he doubted this girl had such inner resolve... but then, perhaps all along she had been playing him for a fool. Maybe she was a trained actress in her homeland, and that was the reason his fiendish opponents had chosen her to be a spy. If that were their game, they were dealing with the wrong man. He, Bekir, master of inquisition, could extract information even from the most obstinate! He would break this wench!

"All right, then, whore of the Nazgûl," Bekir gripped her wrist, digging his fingers into her skin, "did Kalus give you or your sister a message to convey to anyone at Moskala?"

"No... why would he do that? We are from the Mark, and know no one in these lands." Elfhild continued to giggle, snicker and snort. Though the Corporal twisted her wrist mercilessly, the pain no longer seemed to matter. Her mind was detached from her body; her own flesh was alien to her. The only sensation of which she was aware was her overwhelming thirst. "Thirsty, so thirsty," she moaned, whimpering. "Please, oh, please, give me a drink of water!"

Seizing her by the shoulders, Bekir shook her fiercely, her head bobbing up and down. "Damn it, you stupid whore, tell me the message that you were to relay to Valto!" He slammed her back against the divan, where she lay motionless.

"No message, no message," Elfhild mumbled helplessly into the cushions.

"Sir," Pirooz cleared his throat, "I think the girl might be telling the truth..."

"Stay out of this, Pirooz! Your task is to record the proceedings, not comment upon them! If I want your opinion, I will tell you!" Corporal Bekir told the startled secretary, who flushed in embarrassment and quickly looked down at his notes.

"Answer my question, you impudent little bitch!" Bekir snarled as he clasped a thick hank of Elfhild's mane, jerking her back into a sitting position. Picking up the carafe of water, he forced open her mouth and poured the water down her throat, causing her to sputter and cough. "You deceitful little wench, stop lying to me!" His lips pulled back in a vicious sneer, Bekir slapped her across the face again. "What was the message?"

"Oh, I do not know," Elfhild giggled, vaguely wondering why she could no longer feel her face and concluding that it was the most amusing thing in the entire world. "Why do you not ask him yourself, since you want to know so badly?" Her head drunkenly lolling upon her neck, she laughed and laughed, her slight frame shaking with deranged mirth. Then her eyes rolled back in her head, and she slumped against the cushions, her mind lost to oblivion.

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