The Circles - Book Seven - Chapter 15

The Circles - Book Seven - Land of Treachery
Chapter Fifteen
Interlude by the Lake
Written by Elfhild

Shakh Zarkfir sat beneath a large cedar tree, his back resting against the shaley bark. Özlem sat beside him, playing sweet melodies upon a borrowed santur. The balmy air was rich with the scent of evergreen, the sandy ground scattered with dried needles. Before them lay the salt lake for which the oasis was famed, the light of the setting sun turning the crystalline water to gold. The dusky blue sky was streaked with red and orange, the sun a ball of fire descending into the shadowy haze of the western horizon.

Three days had passed since Zarkfir and his brothers had come across a pair of frightened women wandering in the desert. After listening to their harrowing tale of captivity among the Kafakudraûg, Zarkfir had been amazed by their bravery, resilience, and determination. He felt the stirrings of both admiration and affection towards Özlem, and he found himself frequently seeking out her company. He wanted to learn more about this exceptional woman who had captivated him so. When she informed him that she was a skilled musician, he had been able to procure a santur for her. It was a simple dulcimer owned by one of the herdsmen, and surely it could not compare to the finely crafted instruments provided to the musicians of the House of Huzziya, but it was all that Zarkfir could find. He wanted to make Özlem happy and content, for she had experienced many sorrows in her life, and he felt great pity for her.

Özlem's deft fingers manipulated the lightweight mallets used to strike the catgut strings of the hammered dulcimer, her hands fluttering over the instrument like a pair of graceful doves. Zarkfir closed his eyes, feeling himself becoming lost in the music of the santur. Though the melody had no words, it possessed a certain haunting melancholy which seemed almost otherworldly in its beauty and mystery. Never before had Zarkfir heard songs so beautiful and rapturous; the santur's original owner did not possess the skill to coax melodies of such exquisite loveliness from the instrument. Indeed, Özlem was a master at the art.

At last the music ended, and for a moment Zarkfir felt disoriented, as though he had been ripped away from some fair realm which existed only in the imagination.

"That was superb, Özlem," he told her reverently, clapping his hands in awe.

She inclined her head in gratitude. "Thank you, my lord. It is a melody popular in Kaskal, the city where I was born."

"I do not know much about the lands beyond Lithlad," the desert prince admitted, flushing slightly as a sheepish expression crossed his face. "The little I do know comes from tales shared by caravans, travelers, or soldiers." He fell silent for a moment, and his next words seemed rushed, as though he were compelled to say them. "Many times I have thought about leaving this place behind and seeing the world which lays beyond the mountains and the desert."

Özlem looked at him in surprise. "But you are the son of your tribe's chieftain."

"Too well I know." Half of a chuckle and a wry smile turned up the corner of his lips. "The position comes with certain responsibilities and requirements, which sometimes feel as heavy as chains and just as binding. I am lord over more sheep and goats than I am of men, and my kingdom is so small that it feels suffocating at times." Ever since Jatagan had broken his heart, the village seemed more stifling and oppressive than it ever had before, and he longed to leave behind all reminders of the one who had caused him so much pain, as well as all those who judged and condemned him for loving other men. There was also a part of him who wanted to chase after Jatagan, to beg him to take him with him everyplace where his restless feet might wander. It would be just them, together, fighting against the barbs thrown at them by a world cruel and unjust. But he knew that Jatagan was just as cruel as the rest of the world, and that he was better off alone than with him. Yet a heart such as his seldom obeyed any sort of logic or reason…

Özlem tilted her head to the side as she listened to Zarkfir's words. "Many men who bear great responsibility often feel much the same as you, my lord. In Harad, the storytellers oft relate tales about sultans who dress up as commoners to escape the duties of rule for a time." She sensed, though, that not all of Zarkfir's frustrations came from being the heir to a tribal chieftain, and that there were other reasons for his discontent. Working in a brothel, one gained a sense for such matters.

Zarkfir chuckled softly. "It is difficult to dress up as a commoner when most everyone knows your face. Perhaps that is why I long to visit other lands than these, places where I would just be Zarkfir the Wanderer, not Shakh Zarkfir, heir of the Dolrujâtar tribe."

"But your people are wandering herdsmen, are they not?" Özlem looked at him with uncertainty. Having grown up in a city, she knew little of the ways of nomadic herders. His world was just as foreign to her as hers was to his.

"While my people are nomads, we wander to the same places each season," Zarkfir explained. "In the spring, we take our flocks and herds to the Oasis of the Solitary Cedar and other wadis in the Lithlad; in the autumn, we travel to the Ash Mountains. Seldom do the Dolrujâtar venture from Southern Gorgoroth." He fell silent for a moment, staring at the reflection of the westering sun upon the water. "My life must seem so much different from yours. Traveling with a caravan, you would be able to see so much more of the world."

"This is only my first year accompanying Shakh Esarhaddon's caravans," Özlem confided. "But I have seen more this year than I had ever seen before in my life. The Mountain of Fire, the great cities of Minas Tirith and Minas Morgul, the River Anduin. Before this spring, these were only places I had heard about in tales or read about in books." A slight frown puckered her brow, and, sighing, she looked down at her lap. "I have also seen places that I would rather not have, such as the inside of Kafakudraûg Cavern." She idly ran her mallet across the strings of the santur, not wishing to remember the horrors which befell her in that dread place.

"What was your favorite place in all your travels?" Zarkfir sensed that Özlem had become troubled, and he wanted to distract her by causing her to think upon happier memories.

"On this trip?" Özlem reflected for a moment. "I would say the city of Minas Tirith in the western land of Gondor. It is an enormous city built upon a spur in the mountains. It has seven levels, and all of the walls save for the outer one are as pale as alabaster and glisten in the light of the sun. Some of the other servants of the House of Huzziya and I toured the city, an experience which I will always remember." She paused, remembering that eventful day back in June. "Many of the buildings were damaged by catapults and fire in the battles in the spring, and the streets were still filled with heaps of rubble and debris in places. The occupying forces had impressed many of the citizens into service, forming them into work parties to clean up the mess."

She saw that Zarkfir was listening to her in rapt attention, and she felt a sense of pride and satisfaction in her abilities as a storyteller. "There was a terrible battle fought upon the fields surrounding the city, and many of the bodies of the slain still remain unburied. Most are just bits of flesh and bone now, picked over by the carrion birds. That part I did not like… so much death and bloodshed, and the stench of decay everywhere." She shook her head, feeling sorrow that so many brave men from Harad and Mordor had fallen upon foreign fields far from home.

Not wanting to end her tale on a sorrowful note, Özlem left the subject of Minas Tirith behind and moved on to lands untouched by war. "As for my favorite sight in all of Middle-earth? The Sea of Núrnen. It is so wide, and the waters are a deep, dark blue, and there are always boats sailing to and fro from the different cities located along the coast."

"I have never seen a body of water larger than the lake before us," Zarkfir admitted hesitantly, fearing that this worldly, well-traveled woman might think him terribly backward. Though she was only three years younger than he, she had been to so many places and seen parts of Middle-earth that were so foreign to him that he could not even visualize them inside his head.

"Well, there is not much water in a desert." Özlem laughed good-naturedly.

Zarkfir laughed with her, and then, suddenly feeling ill at ease, changed the subject. "How do you like it here among my people?"

A smile lighting up her face, she set the santur down upon the ground and turned to look into his eyes. "Your mother and her handmaidens have been very kind to me, treating me as though I were a member of their own household."

"Would you like to stay here at the Oasis? I would greatly miss you if you were to leave." His dark eyes searched hers for answers, praying that he would find one that he desired to hear.

Özlem felt her cheeks blossom with warmth, and her heart began to beat faster. "I… I would like that very much, my lord," she began hesitantly, "although it is not my decision to make."

Zarkfir felt his spirits sink at her words, for they were a reminder that another held claim to her, even though in his heart he considered her his. He sighed and leaned back against the rough bark of the tree, surreptitiously scratching an itch in the process. "Perhaps those who are now managing the caravan assume that you are lost forever to the wastes of Gorgoroth. After all, no one would even know for a certainty where the uruks took you and Elfhild."

"They might have employed trackers," Özlem pointed out. "You may yet hear from the House of Huzziya. Shakh Esarhaddon would have stopped at nothing to recapture a stolen or runaway slave, and I am sure his successors have the same policy."

Zarkfir groaned. Of course, a pragmatic woman such as Özlem would bring up such matters, he thought despondently. At first, he had considered sending messengers to the slave caravan, informing the House of Huzziya that the stolen slaves were now in the keeping of the Dolrujâtar. This would be the most lawful thing to do, for in Mordor it was illegal for a man to detain another man's slave without permission. There was also good coin to be made in retrieving runaway or stolen slaves; the more wealthy the slave's master or mistress was, the greater the reward would be for the safe return of their property. However, if the House of Huzziya knew that Özlem and Elfhild were alive and well, messengers would be sent to retrieve the two women, and Zarkfir did not want to lose Özlem. Although he held no special fondness for Elfhild, she had done extensive exploration of Kafakudraûg Cavern, and her knowledge would prove invaluable should the Dolrujâtar ever launch an assault upon the Sand Orcs. No, Zarkfir had no plans to contact the House of Huzziya. And if one of the slave traders should contact him instead? Well, he would consider that whenever the unlikely event occurred. In the meantime, he would enjoy the companionship of sweet Özlem, the santur player from Harad.

"If the House of Huzziya wishes your return, they will have to fight me for you!" Zarkfir exclaimed emphatically. "I say whatever a man finds in the wastes becomes his property, whether be it a lost sheep, a cask of treasure, or a woman. I found you, and you are mine!"

Raising one eyebrow, Özlem gave the hot-blooded shakh a dubious look. "Instead of resorting to violence, you could merely purchase me from the slave traders," she remarked drolly. "Merchants prefer to settle disputes with coins as opposed to swords."

"I would rather use the sword," Zarkfir answered, a comically gruff expression upon his face.

Ozlem shook her head in exasperated amusement. Zarkfir was like a feisty young rooster, seeking to do battle with all the other roosters to prove his superiority. She just hoped his impulsive nature would not cause him to end up in a stew pot.

"It is not my place to gainsay you, my lord, but do keep in mind that, unlike me, Elfhild is a slave of Mordor," Özlem pointed out, the paragon of respect and decorum. "You would face great penalties if the authorities learned that you were keeping her without paying your due to the Lord of the Tower."

"This is true," Zarkfir admitted reluctantly. He had no desire to anger the Lord of Mordor, for the Giver of Gifts had bestowed many blessings upon the Dolrujâtar. However, if the House of Huzziya knew that the missing slaves were safe and sound, their agents would come for Özlem and Elfhild and take them back to the caravan. While he could part with Elfhild, he did not want to be separated from the fair Haradric beauty.

"Though she is indeed grateful for the hospitality of your house, Elfhild longs to be reunited with her sister," Özlem confided. "She calls out Elffled's name in her sleep, and just last night, Kaira caught her sleepwalking. I think she was trying to return to her sister in her dreams." Perhaps she should have pressed more for the release of Elfhild, but she dared not do anything that would anger their hosts. She was only a slave, and her very existence depended upon how pleasing and indispensable she could make herself.

Shifting his position upon the sandy ground, Zarkfir leaned forward, looking deeply into her eyes. "Even if Elfhild goes back to the caravan, I do not want to lose you."

Özlem felt her cheeks flushing again; her heart was pounding in her chest, and she did not know how to respond. The nearness of his presence had that effect upon her, and such sweet, earnest words amplified those sensations almost beyond what she could bear. She feared that she was falling in love. Or perhaps it was lust. Zarkfir was quite handsome, after all…

When she did not reply, Zarkfir continued speaking. "In the brief time that I have known you, Özlem, I have become quite fond of you. You are braver than any woman I have ever met, and I greatly admire your courage and compassion. Would you honor me by returning my affections?"

Özlem felt tears welling up in her eyes. "Oh, yes, my lord!" Perhaps she should think long and hard upon his proposition, or at the very least play coy, but her future was uncertain, and she was afraid. Although never once in her life had she imagined becoming the companion of a desert chieftain and living in the wastes amongst the sheep and goats, this would be a far better fate than being just another expendable slave of the House of Huzziya. While in her wildest fancies she imagined herself as a musician in the court of a Mordorian noble, or perhaps part of a troupe of performing artists, she knew that most would deem her a filthy whore because of her sordid past. Shakh Zarkfir accepted her for who she was and who she had been, and treated her with respect and kindness. Although she sensed he could be impulsive and even immature at times, he was a good man with a compassionate heart. And he was quite pleasing to the eyes as well, she thought mischievously.

Zarkfir sighed heavily, as though some great matter weighed heavily upon his mind, and Özlem, concerned, gave him her full attention. "There is something I must tell you about myself, although perhaps by now you already know, or have guessed. My mother's handmaidens are notorious gossips, every last one of them."

Özlem giggled. "They do talk about you quite a bit, my lord."

Shifting uncomfortably upon the ground, Zarkfir gazed out over the lake, hesitant to meet Özlem's gaze. "I pray that what I am about to tell you will not diminish the respect you have for me…"

"My lord, you know of my past and do not despise me for it, so it would not be fair of me to despise you for your secrets." She gently laid a hand upon his shoulder.

Reaching his arm across his breast, he patted her hand, wondering if she would recoil from him when she heard his next words. "I suppose there is no delicate way in which to explain it," he sighed, and then bravely forged on ahead. "I am a man who favors other men, although from time to time a woman, such as you, excites me. Most in the tribe prefer to ignore my peculiarities, while others desire or despise me for them. However, as the son of Shakh Najor, I am expected to wed and father many sons to continue the family line."

"The responsibilities and requirements that you spoke of earlier," Özlem nodded with understanding.

Zarkfir flushed. "Yes, that is part of it."

So Zarkfir was a lover of other men, Özlem reflected. She did not feel particularly surprised – for there was little that could leave her in a state of astonishment, given the sort of life she had led – but she had wondered why an attractive young man such as Zarkfir had no wives or concubines. Then, too, Kaira and the other handmaidens had referred to the shakh's "peculiar" tastes, which seemed to imply more than being extremely selective when it came to lovers. She had encountered a few men of similar persuasion before; in fact, she enjoyed the pleasures of other women from time to time. Growing up in a brothel, one received a thorough education in the mysteries of life and love, and all of the myriad entanglements in which men and women could involve themselves.

When Özlem did not say anything, Zarkfir asked hesitantly, "Have I offended you, my lady?"

"Nay, my lord. It takes a lot to offend me." She laughed softly. Zarkfir was so charmingly innocent when it came to the ways of the world, and his sweet naïveté warmed her heart. Suddenly she felt a pang of guilt, for she feared she might somehow corrupt him.

"I had a lover – his name was Jatagan. He was not one of the Dolrujâtar, but a wandering poet who hailed from Nurn. He had a chance to achieve great renown, for several nobles and wealthy merchants offered to be his patrons, but his spirit was too restless to stay in one place for long. Leaving behind the splendors of Nurn, he traveled north to play at being a shepherd amongst the desert wanderers. I loved him dearly, but he abandoned me for another." Zarkfir paused, contemplating his next words. "Perhaps you remind me of him in a way."

Özlem gave him a dubious frown. "I do not know whether this is for good or ill, given that this man broke your heart."

Zarkfir chuckled sadly. "Though he did not play the santur, his poetry had the power to edify the mind and capture the heart, much like your music."

"My lord, you are a man of culture," Ozlem remarked, thinking that Zarkfir might be happier dwelling in a large, bustling city where there was music and dancing no matter the time of day or night, instead of in the desert amongst all the sheep and goats.

"I certainly like men and women of culture," he chuckled, proud of his play on words.

"Perhaps I could make you forget about Jatagan… at least for a little while." Özlem moved closer to Zarkfir and leaned her head against his shoulder. She ran her fingers down his arm, lightly grazing over the muscles which lay hidden beneath his robes. Perhaps she was being too forward, but she was more adept at speaking the language of love with her body than she was with words.

"I doubt that you could drive him away entirely, but you could try."

Zarkfir brought her hand up to his lips, his mouth lingering upon her skin in a tender kiss.

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