The Circles - Book Seven - Chapter 11

The Circles - Book Seven - Land of Treachery
Chapter Eleven
Shakhs of the Desert
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

The sun beat down savagely upon the two girls as they trudged through the torturous desert of Southern Gorgoroth. The afternoon before, they had left the low-lying mountains in their desperate search for the great southern caravan road. Now before them lay the shimmering, sandy dunes and rocky outcroppings which seemed to stretch on into infinity. It had been two days since their escape from Kafakudraûg Cavern, and though they still had some orc draught left, their waterskins were almost empty.

Their strength waning, they struggled to climb to the top of an immense dune. When they had reached the crest, they saw the road far in the distance, shimmering like a pale ribbon through the desert. Directly below them lay a vast expanse of sand turned golden orange by the sun's fiery light. Dark, jagged boulders, remnants of rocky ridges worn down by the ages, stood out from the sand around them. Far beyond the road, a short stretch of low, flat-topped hills rose from the barren, rolling plain.

"Look over there! A lake!" Elfhild exclaimed, pointing to a shimmering mass of silver which lay at the base of the hills. "Though it is out of our way, we could refill our waterskins there."

"No!" Özlem caught Elfhild's shoulder as she started to walk down the slope. "I can see it, too, but it is not really there. You behold a mirage."

Elfhild turned to look questioningly at Özlem. "A mirage? What is a mirage?"

"It is an illusion caused by djinns and their trickery," Özlem explained. "Pay no heed to such illusions. If you chase after every oasis you see in the desert, you will be lured out into the wastes, either to die of thirst or be at the mercy of the evil spirits that dwell there. Come, and you will see." She took Elfhild's forearm and started down the slope.

"The lake is no longer there!" Elfhild exclaimed in astonishment as the image gradually faded until it disappeared altogether. She stared unbelievingly at the empty expanses which stretched out before them.

"The magic of the djinns," Özlem whispered, shaking her head. "If we had journeyed to the lake, we would have found nothing but the sand."

"What is a djinn?" Elfhild asked, putting her hand over her eyes to shade them. "Can you see them?"

"They are powerful spirits which can pass between the worlds. Unless they choose to reveal themselves to mortals, they are invisible to the eye. They can change their appearance as easily as we change our garments, so they can appear in many forms, both terrible and fair." Özlem lowered her voice, in case one of these powerful beings were close by, eavesdropping upon the conversation. "Some are good and some are evil, but all like to play games with mortals. Now let us go down to the road."

The two girls were quiet as they made their way down the gentle, sandy slope. The sun was little past her zenith, and the heat demons swayed and shimmered, rising in the sultry July air. The heat was like a curtain, distorting the landforms beyond as though they were being viewed from under a crystal sea. Beneath their clothing, the girls' bodies were bathed in sweat, the salt collecting in patches under their armpits.

Elfhild had never felt such heat; it seemed to dry her out, sucking the life from her body. Thinking about slaking her thirst with cool water or bathing away the sweat and grime in pleasant, languid pools only made her thirst more intense. As she stumbled along behind Özlem, she could not keep her eyes from straying to the waterskin which Özlem had slung over her shoulder. She licked her dry, cracked lips and swallowed hard, no longer having saliva to soothe her parched throat. Her tongue felt thick and clumsy in her mouth, and her lips seemed sealed together. If only she had a few drops of water, then perhaps she could go another mile or two.

As though reading her mind, Özlem turned to look back at her. The Southern girl seemed almost immune to the blistering heat, and she had drunk far less of the waterskin than Elfhild had. The thought came to Elfhild's reeling brain that she had not been able to tolerate the heat as well since that day – which now seemed so long ago – when she had collapsed from heat exhaustion near Tarlanc's mill. As her gaze met the deep pools of darkness that were Özlem's eyes, she saw for a brief instant the kindly miller, a smile on his wrinkled old face and a large pitcher of cool water in his hands. Smiling, she reached for the pitcher, but it faded into nothingness as she fell unconscious onto the ground.

"Elfhild!" Someone was softly calling her name, but she could not locate the source. The desert wind whipped the voice around in Elfhild's mind until the sound was no longer human, but some great, ravening beast that would consume her. The wind picked her up in its invisible arms and then capriciously tossed her down at Özlem's feet.

"Elfhild!" There it was again. Slowly she opened her eyes and tried to remember where she was. There was a damp cloth on her forehead, and someone was bending over her.

"Özlem?" Elfhild asked questioningly. Her eyes were able to focus more clearly now, and with a sense of keen disappointment, she discovered that Tarlanc was no longer there. How could he be? she asked herself. He was dead! There was nothing but the bright blue sky overhead and the wind, which seemed to blow constantly, never seeming to settle. She tried to sit up, but found that she was too weak. She looked at the other girl apologetically. "Let me rest a while longer," she told her, "and then I will be good as new." She tried to laugh, but the sound caught in her throat. As her mind became clearer, Elfhild discovered that they were no longer in the open, but in the shelter of a large boulder which provided some shade from the scorching sun.

"How did I get here?" she asked weakly. "Before I fainted, we were walking through the sand."

"I half dragged, half carried you here, Elfhild," Özlem replied. "It is not much better than out in the open, but at least there is some shade."

"Could I have some more water, please?" Elfhild asked piteously, her mouth feeling as though it were stuffed with cotton. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a sluggish lizard lying on a shallow ledge in the rock, where it eyed her languidly through bright, beady eyes.

"Just a little," Özlem told her as she handed her the waterskin. "I have been diluting the water with orc draught to make it go farther. There is not much left, and we must conserve what remains. Perhaps we will be lucky and find a real oasis." Of course, Özlem did not believe that, for she feared that there was nothing for miles around but endless, unmitigated sand and rock. If she were alone without the burden of Elfhild, she might be lucky and come across a wadi. There she could dig with her knife and perhaps find some water which had collected from one of the infrequent rains, but with the sickly Northern girl, she could not risk going off their course. Özlem shuddered in disgust at the wheeling vulture which circled above them. The bird had appeared two hours back and had been following them, waiting for them to die.

How much time had passed since Elfhild had fainted? Özlem looked to the transit of the sun across the sky and estimated that perhaps an hour had passed since she had brought the Rohirric girl to the shelter of the boulder. If she could only keep Elfhild alive long enough until some merchant caravan from Nurn passed by on the road, they stood a chance of surviving. That plan was beginning to appear doubtful, however, for the road was as empty desolate as the surrounding landscape.

Özlem reached over and gently shook a sleeping Elfhild's shoulder. "Do you think you can walk now?" she asked hopefully.

"Yes, I will try." Blinking the weariness from her eyes, Elfhild looked up at the bright sky, wondering if her shaky legs would hold her.

"That is all you can do, Elfhild – try. I know that you are not accustomed to such high temperatures, but we cannot stay here; we must keep moving." Özlem's voice was encouraging as she bent down and helped the other girl to her feet. Slowly Elfhild tested her trembling legs and found that they would bear her weight.

When they moved from the shelter of the rock, the sunlight struck Elfhild's eyes like a blazing orb of searing light. She pulled the hood of her cloak over her face and plodded onward. Somehow, they had to get back to the slave caravan. Then the troubling thought struck her – perhaps while she and Özlem had been captives of the Sand Orcs, the slavers had passed this point and were somewhere far to the south. If this were true, she might never see her sister again.

"Elfhild!" Özlem suddenly cried out. "Look there yonder on the road! There is a dark speck, and it is moving this way! Get down!" Before Elfhild could protest, Özlem had grabbed her and pushed her to the ground. Crawling like lizards, the two girls moved behind a large rock. "If we are lucky, they did not see us," Özlem remarked with more certainty than she felt, knowing that if she had seen the riders, that they must surely have seen them.

There were three men, all riding like devils, racing their swift desert horses up the caravan road. By their clothing and the accouterments of their horses, Özlem knew them to be from one of the warlike nomadic tribes which populated the wastes of Mordor. A shudder of fear went through her body, for she had heard that the tribesmen of Lithlad were grim and cruel men. They were impressive, though, she had to admit, with their long, flowing burnooses that billowed out behind them as they galloped along the road. Colorful tassels bobbed on the steeds' bridles and hung from the bright, richly adorned caparisons positioned behind the saddles. The horses themselves were high spirited creatures, their long, graceful necks arched, their beautiful tails held high and flowing freely behind them as they raced up the road.

"Why are we hiding from them?" Elfhild whispered. "They might be able to help us."

"We do not know if they are friend or foe," Özlem hissed. "The tribesmen of Mordor all have reputations for savagery. After having their way with us, they might kill us and leave our bodies to rot in the desert."

As the riders drew closer, Özlem could make out the faces of the men. She shuddered when she saw the grim, cold features of the one who rode slightly ahead of the riders. He was only in his mid-twenties, but a life lived in one of the harshest regions of Middle-earth made him appear older. The other two men – lean and wiry as the desert men usually were – were slightly younger, their tawny faces not so scored by the unrelenting adversity of the barren wastes. She prayed that Elfhild and she would not be discovered.

For a while, the men seemed to take no note of the two girls who lay hugging the sandy ground. Then with a shout, the riders veered their horses off the road and headed directly towards the girls. Özlem wished that she could slither beneath the sand like a serpent or a lizard, or simply vanish as though a friendly djinn had carried her away. The strangers reined in their lathered steeds a few feet from the cowering girls and eyed them suspiciously. The leader of the band signed to his men, and after dismounting, they walked to stand towering over the girls.

"My brothers," the man exclaimed, speaking in the language of Mordor, "we set out to find our missing goats and instead found ewes!"

"I wonder what strange circumstance has brought these women so far into the wastes?" The middle brother, a man in his twentieth year, scratched his bearded chin reflectively.

"Perhaps they are pilgrims who have become lost," suggested the youngest brother, a youth of approximately sixteen summers.

"More likely they are escaped slaves," the eldest brother scoffed. "But we will find out soon enough what purpose they have for wandering in the wilderness, bedecked in rags." He turned to Özlem and Elfhild. "Stand up, the two of you. I would know more about what the desert has delivered into my hands."

Hastily Özlem rose to her feet, pulling Elfhild with her. "Indeed, we are slaves, but we are not runaways; purely by misfortune do we find ourselves wandering in the wastes." Özlem flipped her hair back haughtily as she glared at the three men. "Our master is Shakh Esarhaddon uHuzziya of Turkûrzgoi. He is a wealthy merchant, high in the esteem of the Tower, and will pay much gold to have us returned."

"Shakh uHuzziya?" The middle brother rubbed his beard speculatively. "I doubt that there is anyone who has not heard of the rich, powerful Shakh."

"If your master is Esarhaddon uHuzziya, then I fear I have woeful tidings to relate. Rumor has it that the Shakh was slain by orcs not more than a week ago." The leader of the three men watched Özlem's face for her reaction and did not miss the look of sadness that filled her eyes.

"Then our worst fears have come true," Özlem confessed, all defiance leaving her face to be replaced by grief. "I saw him fall to the carpet, a sword thrust through his side, but I had hope that he yet lived." She could not control the tears that began to flow when she thought of her beloved master as he lay bleeding to death at the feet of the hated Durraiz. "I fear that he is dead!"

Elfhild looked back and forth from the three men to Özlem, not understanding the language. Confusion filled her face as she heard the frequent references to Esarhaddon and saw Özlem openly weep. Turning to Elfhild, Özlem put a comforting hand on her shoulder. In a voice scarcely above a whisper, she hurriedly explained what had been said. Elfhild burst into tears, mourning the death of her master.

"The blonde girl," the leader motioned towards Elfhild with a jerk of his chin, "why are you so protective of her?"

"She has a frail constitution and is easily overcome by the harsh desert heat," Özlem answered him truthfully. "She is also a foreigner, ignorant of the ways of Mordor, and cannot speak the language."

"I see." The leader nodded thoughtfully. "What is your name? I am not going to hurt you." His voice was gentle, imploring.

"Shakh, my name is Özlem." She smiled softly, relaxing somewhat at his kinder attitude. She realized that when he smiled, the eldest brother was quite handsome, even though his face was rather thin and his hawklike nose gave him a look of austerity. His dark eyes were almost black, and blazed with an intensity that could stir the heart of a maiden. She was not a maiden, though, and after the life she had led, she considered herself immune to such things.

"You are from the South, I suspect." He smiled back, and when he smiled, the hard lines of his mouth softened, and he looked younger. "I am Shakh Zarkfir of Clan Dagrî of the Dolrujâtar tribe, and these are my brothers, Kangtar and Husu. Kangtar is the one who is still trying to grow a beard; Husu is having more success." The shakh chuckled and grinned at his brothers. The youngest man glared fiercely at him for a moment.

"Most worthy shakhs, I am honored to meet you," Özlem murmured.

"And the golden haired one, what is her name?" Zarkfir demanded as he looked to Elfhild.

Though she could not understand most of what the man had said, Elfhild recognized the few words and phrases that she had been taught by Rose Petal. "My name is Elfhild, Master," she stammered in thickly accented Black Speech.

"Özlem, I thought you stated that the girl does not know our language, but still she understands what I said. How do you explain that?" Husu asked suspiciously.

"Shakh," Özlem replied, "before she was kidnapped, she and her sister were receiving lessons in Black Speech from one of our master's eunuchs. She knows only a few words in either language."

"Then you must serve as an interpreter for her." Zarkfir looked between the two young women. "While some in my tribe can speak Westron, not everyone can. My brothers and I know the language to some degree, but the Dolrujâtar have little converse with outsiders."

"It would indeed be a great privilege for me to act as interpreter." Özlem bowed her head demurely. She could almost laugh; she knew men so well. Always defer to them, be polite, flatter them, tell them what they wanted to hear, and if fate were auspicious, a woman would have her master wrapped around her finger.

"Zarkfir, while it is indeed a wonder to find two such beauteous maidens in the desert, still when I think of how they could have gotten here – alone, far from any settlement, and deep in orc territory – reason takes flight on the wings of fantasy." Husu gestured towards their bleak surroundings. "I hardly think they were brought here on the back of one of the great flying beasts and then left behind."

"Brother, I cannot fault your logic," Kangtar spoke up. "There are other questionable things about the pair. The one called Özlem is wearing an orc's shirt with black blood stains on it!"

"And the golden-haired girl wears a cloak that is far too small for her," Husu interjected. "Either it belonged to a child, or more likely, a goblin."

"A goblin, Shakh," Özlem quickly explained. "He attacked me, but I managed to best him in the fight. We divided his clothing between ourselves, and I took the orc's tunic, breeches and boots."

"You killed an orc!" Husu exclaimed as he gave her an incredulous look. "A slight little thing like you... I can hardly believe it!"

"I am more resourceful than I look, Shakh," she laughed softly.

"I am not quite sure I believe the tale that you tell, Özlem." Zarkfir's voice held an edge of accusation, as well as a hint of wonder.

"Let us take them back to the camp, where they can be questioned further," Husu suggested.

"If we are to travel, my lords, we must have water!" Özlem begged. "If you have any to spare, please allow us to drink!"

Kangtar tossed Özlem a waterskin, and as the girls slaked their thirst, the three men watched them warily. Finally, Zarkfir snatched a surprised Özlem off her feet and set her in front of his saddle, then leaped up behind her. "Husu, since you are second eldest, you get the pleasure of allowing the golden-haired one to ride with you."

"Surely, brother, just the sight of her puts joy in my heart!" The young man eyed Elfhild, who considered trying to run away, but knew it would be hopeless to flee into the scorching heat of the desert. Besides, she was too weak to manage much more than a few yards before she would collapse. Soon Husu's strong arms were around her, lifting her upon his saddle, and then with a chuckle, he was behind her. Closing her eyes, she slumped against his muscular chest, drifting off into a daze between wakefulness and exhaustion.

Grinning at each other, the three men reined their horses back towards the road. Then with a wild yell, they galloped away towards the place where their people were camped.

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