The Circles - Book Seven - Chapter 12

The Circles - Book Seven - Land of Treachery
Chapter Twelve
The Oasis of the Solitary Cedar
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

Elfhild awoke to the sound of a horn blaring somewhere close by. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she blearily looked around. Twilight had fallen over the desert, but she saw the lights of a village in the distance. The horn sounded again, and she observed a distinctive pattern – one long blast followed by two short ones – and then the sequence repeated. Obviously this was a signal that the approaching riders were friends. From the direction of the village, soon there was the answering response of another horn.

"Where are we?" she moaned, feeling dizzy and disoriented. Exhausted from the heat and two days of wandering in the desert, she found herself frequently surrendering against her will to the irresistible call of sleep. Her mind urged her to remain on guard around these strange men, but her body was far too weary to care. The journey to the village was a long one, and the riders had stopped once to rest and refresh themselves that afternoon, but that had been hours ago. She leaned back and felt the solid wall of Husu's chest pressing against her. Chuckling, he tightened his hold around her middle. For a moment, she imagined that he was Esarhaddon, but then she realized, with a stabbing feeling in her heart, that her master was dead.

"Ah, you have finally awakened after a long sleep," Husu remarked in Westron. "We are approaching the Oasis of the Solitary Cedar, which belongs to my clan by right of conquest." He smiled, thinking of the many skirmishes with other clans over the years that had won them the oasis. "My father, Shakh Najor, is the chieftain of the Dolrujâtar."

Shouting jubilantly, the men kicked their horses into a canter. As they approached the small settlement, guards drew open the main gate to the stockade. Elfhild and Özlem could see the sharpened points of date palm branches, thorns and scrub brush which comprised the village wall. As the men rode their horses through the opening, barking and howling dogs rushed from the lantern-lit streets and alleys to greet them. Several of the men standing near the gate cursed the beasts and pelted them with garbage, driving the snarling dogs away. Zarkfir and his brothers rode their horses into a large open space, which was surrounded by low, rectangular tents of dark goat hair. There, waiting for them, was a group of men and boys. Beyond the men, dark-eyed women and young children peered shyly out from tent openings.

"Welcome back, my sons!" An older man, tall and stately, his mustache and beard streaked with silver, stepped away from the group and greeted Zarkfir, Husu and Kangtar. As he looked behind the horses, his bushy eyebrows lowered in a frown, making deep furrows upon his tawny, weathered forehead. "I see you did not bring back any of the stolen sheep, or the orcs who pilfered our flocks." The older man's face, before a wreath of smiles, sagged in disappointment.

"My honored father," Zarkfir replied, "we managed to find and kill two of the thieves, but unfortunately, they had already slain the animals which they had stolen."

"While I would wish that you had been able to return the missing sheep, at least you killed two of the villains." Shakh Najor's voice held the bite of disapproval. The other men were silent as they listened to the reprimand, knowing that a rebuke from the chieftain, even a mild one, was a bitter blow. Shakh Najor made no allowances for failure, even when it came to his sons.

"Father, at least two of the devils will never be able to steal again. We sent them screaming into the arms of Death," Zarkfir told him conciliatorily, hoping that would appease his stern father.

"You did well there, my son," the older man replied. "That band of goblins had been stealing from us for a long time." He looked up at his sons, who had not yet dismounted from their horses. "I see that you found something more valuable than the lost sheep and goats." He smiled, noting that the men and boys in the crowd murmured in approval. "How did you come by the women? Were they prisoners of the Sand Orcs?"

"After killing the two thieves, we resumed our search for the others. We were scouting several leagues west of the main road when we came across these two slave women. They managed to escape from the clutches of the Sand Orcs, and were trying to flee across the desert." Zarkfir smiled, knowing that even if he had displeased his father by not salvaging any of the stolen sheep and goats, the old man was at least pleased with the sight of the two fair maidens. "If you wish, we will resume the hunt for the orcs tomorrow, but I think by this time, it will be impossible to find them. The brutes have probably gone back to their lair."

"You are perhaps right, my son," the Shakh replied, his eyes on the girls. "Now I would gaze upon these women whom you have found." He squinted as he looked to Elfhild, who was sitting on the saddle in front of Husu. "Unfortunately, I cannot see them well. My eyes were not what they once were." He gestured for the man beside him to lift up the torch in his hand. Elfhild blinked as the bright light was moved closer to her face. "Ah, yes," Shakh Najor looked into Elfhild's eyes for a long time, and then his gaze took in the rest of her. "Very pleasing," he murmured, his eyes shimmering with unbridled lust. "I would look at the other one." He motioned towards Özlem, and the servant stepped closer to her, holding the torch aloft. "Very good, my son." He smiled approvingly and then turned back to Zarkfir. "Now I know that you and your brothers must be weary after your long journey. When you have dismounted, come inside my tent, where my women will prepare some refreshments."

The two men exchanged glances, and then Zarkfir slid from his horse's back and helped Özlem down, while Husu lifted Elfhild from the horse. Two servants came out of the knot of men around the older shakh and led the horses away to be cooled down and watered. Shakh Najor led his sons inside the tent and then motioned for one of the women present to come to him. The woman, a stately looking lady of middle years, looked Özlem and Elfhild up and down, her dark eyes appraising them. When she seemed satisfied, she turned to the old shakh. "My lord?"

"Take these two to your tent, Shabimi, and see to their comfort," he told her. The woman bowed to him and then motioned for Elfhild and Özlem to follow her.

"Sit down, my sons," Shakh Najor told them after the women had left. Gracefully, the older man sat down cross-legged on the cushions. "Although it is past the supper hour, I am sure that my wives and handmaids will be able to find something for you to eat." He smiled, signing to the women.

"Father, some bread and cheese will do us quite well," Zarkfir informed his father, and his brothers nodded in agreement.

"Father, while I appreciate your desire to see that we dine, I am most eager to return to my own family," Husu told him politely.

"Patience, my son. You are with your wives almost every night," Najor chuckled. "Now I would hear of your adventures."

"Father," Zarkfir spoke up, controlling the irritation in his voice, "I told you most of what happened. When we caught up with the orc bandits this morning, we surprised them. They had made a small camp in the shade of a rocky ridge. There were five of them, all in a state of drunkenness."

Shakh Najor frowned and shook his head. "Drunkenness is an evil, a destroyer of the mind and body and a robber of the soul. It would do you well, my sons, to remember that, and drink in moderation when next you raise the jug!" He looked up as his women set down a tray of round, dark bread and cheese, an earthen container of goat milk, and four cups. After the women had washed the men's hands and dried them, the Shakh filled the cups for his sons and himself and then waited until the women had quietly retreated into the interior of the tent. "So the entire lot of them were intoxicated," Najor repeated what his son had said. "I should expect no better from such wicked, slothful creatures. You had said you slew two of them. Why did you not kill them all?" He wrapped his fingers around the small cup.

"Unfortunately, things did not go the way we planned." Zarkfir lowered his head in embarrassment. "When we came upon the scoundrels, we made short work of two of them, but the other three managed to get away. We were in pursuit of them when we came upon the women. My father," the young man looked up, his expression unreadable, "if you should wish it, we could try to track the orc bandits tomorrow."

"No, no, my son. They would be long gone by now." Gazing in the direction of the distant Mountain, the Shakh tore off a piece of bread. "Let the Giver of Gifts bless this food," he intoned solemnly, and his sons bowed their heads in reverence.

It was not until after the meal was finished and the Shakh's women had washed and dried all the men's hands, that Najor again broached the subject of the two captives. "Zarkfir, the women that fate has put in your hands... what do you plan to do with them?"

"I am uncertain yet," Zarkfir replied. "They belonged to the slave trader Esarhaddon uHuzziya, but they say that he was murdered by treacherous uruks in his own employ."

"A pity, a pity," Shakh Najor murmured, shaking his head. "It just goes to show that those brutes can never be trusted." He paused, studying his son intently. "Do you intend to keep the women for yourself, then?"

Zarkfir considered his father's question for a few moments. "My lord, if you desire them, they are yours." He noticed that his younger brothers looked disappointed.

"My son, you honor your father, and I am pleased. However, I must decline your most generous offer, for I have women enough to keep me happy." Najor studied Zarkfir's face for a moment, as though deliberating upon some grave matter. "As the eldest, these women are yours by rights. I shall have them sent to your tent after they have bathed and refreshed themselves."

"Father," Zarkfir replied respectfully, "while at any other time I would be glad for such fair company, tonight I must confess that I want more than anything to have a bath, and then sleep the slumber of the exhausted."

"My son," Shakh Najor reached out and touched his son's shoulder, "since when has any man ever turned down the opportunity to have two lovely young women in his bed at one time?" He chuckled, deliberately trying to get a rise out of his son. He was pleased when he saw the look of discomfort on Zarkfir's serious face.

"Father, if the truth be known, I prefer to question both women before I decide upon their fates," Zarkfir replied, his voice strained. "I know nothing about them, and we found them under strange circumstances. Besides, they have been wandering through the desert for days, and the blonde girl is suffering from heat exhaustion."

"They are spoils, my son, booty, yours to use as you wish." The old man squeezed his son's shoulder harder, enjoying his chagrin.

"This may not be true," Zarkfir replied. "There may yet be claims upon these women. Only by questioning them further will I be able to make a decision."

"You are far too cautious," Najor chided, giving his son a critical scowl. "Their owner will not miss them, for he is dead. A true man takes what he wants!"

"We will discuss it later, Father," Zarkfir stated coldly. Why did the old man always have to make his sons feel less than men? He had always wondered if perhaps their father were jealous of their youth and strength. "Now with your permission, I would like to retire."

"Certainly, my son." Shakh Najor rose to his feet, a signal that the audience with his sons had concluded. "The blessings of the Eye be upon you all. May your rest restore your strength."


Some time after the three young men had gone, Shakh Najor looked up to see the arrival of his favorite wife. A slender woman with dark hair flecked with a few gray streaks, Lady Shabimi had piercing black eyes that flashed when she looked at him. Dressed in a soft blue caftan with matching pantaloons, she still possessed a youthful beauty despite her almost fifty summers. As his first wife, she held a high place in his harem and had control over his entire household.

"My lord, I just finished having dinner with the two girls that your sons found in the desert," Shabimi informed her husband as she sat down beside him on the thick carpet that covered the tent floor. "It is horrible, absolutely horrible, what happened to them! They were forced to watch as the uruks murdered both their master and a loyal servant who tried to defend him. Then the brutes took them hostage, carried them away across the desert, and then gave them over to the Sand Orcs. It was amazing that they were able to escape! Would you believe that Özlem managed to stab one of those foul beasts? She is so small and dainty!"

"You must tell me more about these two incredible young women," Najor remarked, listening intently as Shabimi related all that Elfhild and Özlem had told her and her handmaidens that evening.

"What is your plan for these two?" Shabimi inquired, nestling against her husband's side and taking his hand in hers. She was highly suspicious of his intentions concerning the two lovely maidens who had come to them from out of the desert.

"I have not yet decided," Najor told her as he gently squeezed her hand and interwove his fingers between hers. "I suggested to Zarkfir that he take them for himself, but he wants to think upon the matter longer. While I think he is often overly cautious, perhaps he is right on this occasion. He should be careful, though, for the women are so beautiful that I might just claim them for myself."

"I see." It was just as she had feared then: Najor desired both Elfhild and Özlem. Her husband's lusts were insatiable, even though he could not always perform satisfactorily because of his age. Earlier that year, he had taken a woman over twenty years her junior as his concubine. Another woman, whether she be wife, concubine or slave, meant that much less work for her, but Shabimi still resented the time her husband spent with the others.

Her clever mind scheming up ways to keep the two newcomers out of Najor's bed, Shabimi moved even closer to her husband and rested her chin upon his shoulder. "My lord, I think Özlem and Elfhild would be good concubines for Zarkfir, for he has no women to call his own."

"Perhaps I will make the suggestion again, but I now have other matters on my mind." He turned his head and kissed her lips, his arms reaching out to pull her closer. "My darling wife, even though we have been married for over twenty years, you never fail to arouse me."

"Ah, my love, your touch is so stirring," Shabimi murmured as she returned his kisses and caresses. She knew that the two newcomers had inflamed her husband's passions, and she was not about to discourage him. Still, she was determined to plant the seed in his mind that he should give the women to Zarkfir or his other sons. Even though Elfhild and Özlem seemed pleasant enough, she did not need two more rivals!

Najor took her hand and placed it over his swollen manhood, which had begun to tent out his pantaloons. "Let us retire to my private chamber, my beautiful wife."

"If my lord increases in size," she gasped, pretending to be surprised, "he will tear the seams of his pantaloons!" She gripped him hard, her hand squeezing his burgeoning member.

"Come then, Shabimi, and put me off no longer!" Najor moaned as she stroked him. "I ache for you!"

"Yes, my lord, certainly! But..." she hesitated, lowering her eyes, "I fear that I am far too fretful to serve my lord properly."

"What!" he exclaimed in dismay. "What matter can vex you so much?"

"I fear that my only son will never take a wife or concubine, and I will never have grandchildren." Shabimi's eyes became misty with tears. "After all, Zarkfir is approaching his twenty-sixth year, and has never found a woman who pleases him." She sighed heavily. "At least I suppose I should be grateful that he sent his lover away a few months ago. I thought that weak, lisping young poet had captured his heart for all eternity! At least Zarkfir finally developed the resolve to end their affair after the knave proved unfaithful." Shabimi had never believed that her son's relationship with the poet would ever be a lasting one, but knowing her son's inclinations, there was always the possibility that he would find a replacement. Since she was just as eager to keep Elfhild and Özlem from her husband's bed as she was to see her son start a family, she would attempt to solve two problems with one sure strike. It never hurt to exercise her subtle control over her husband.

"Oh, my wife!" Najor's hand left hers as though it were a burning hot coal, and his lusty member began to wilt, dying an ignoble death. "Do not mention Zarkfir's transgressions now!" He shook his head sadly and put his hand to his forehead. "I thought he would never tire of that strange foreigner from Nurn! At least he has taken no others to his bed. Perhaps he is now free of the madness!"

"I hope so, my dearest lord," Shabimi returned solemnly, disguising her triumph with a gentle smile. "I thought my heart would break when he first took Jatagan as his lover, and then when the whole sordid affair continued, I thought the strain might kill me. And, my lord, I must confess in all honesty, sometimes I wonder if Kangtar might have the same desires. It would be well if wives and concubines were found for both of your sons, so they can sate their lusts upon women, instead of handsome young men." She stroked her husband's bearded cheek. "I praise the Giver of Gifts that Husu has never shown the same hunger!"

"My dearest, I will continue to encourage Zarkfir to take an interest in Özlem and Elfhild." He lightly stroked over her fingertips. "But fear not, my dear one. If these women do not prove suitable for my son, I will find others for him." He gave her a reassuring smile and patted her hand. "As you know, the chieftain of the clan east of here has an eligible daughter, and it would be an advantageous match if Zarkfir took her as his bride." He looked into his wife's eyes and was relieved to see that she seemed satisfied. His love for her was so great that he oft gave into her whims too quickly, but he could not help himself. It was a vast misfortune to be the slave of love – and the best of fortunes, as well!

"My lord, you relieve my mind." Shabimi touched her husband's member and smiled to herself when it began to rise once more to its former glory.

"Now that that has been settled, light of my life, let us now go to my couch, where we might have a little sport before going to sleep." His pleading eyes gazed into hers.

"Yes, my beloved," she murmured softly, smiling sweetly into his eyes.

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