The Circles - Book Seven - Chapter 17

The Circles - Book Seven - Land of Treachery
Chapter Seventeen
A Harsh and Desolate Land
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

Striking out in a southwestwardly direction through the desert, Ulimaghûlb, disgraced former vizier of the Kafakudraûg Clan, led the search party towards the territory of the Sand Orcs, where he hoped to pick up the trail of the two missing slave girls. The men rode for hours through the darkness of the cool Mordorian night. Above them in the velvety black sky shone half of a moon and innumerable stars. Going was slow, for the ground beneath the horses' hooves was uneven and strewn with rocks. There were no roads to follow here in the waste, save for the faint traces of meandering game trails. Uneased by the presence of intruders in their territory, scorpions scuttled away from the passage of the riders, taking shelter under rocks and shrubs. A Mordorian sand cat warily observed the party from beneath a low ledge jutting out from a stony outcropping, its small body hunched down and poised to flee. The riders were no threat to the cat, however. Even if it were day, few observers would have been able to detect the small creature, for its light tawny fur blended in with the desert rock and sand. In the sky above the travelers, the dark shape of a bat occasionally fluttered by in search of prey.

Khaldun drew a halt at midnight, for he and several of his men were exhausted. They had spent most of that morning and afternoon scouting the lands around the cistern when they had come upon the fleeing goblin vizier, and this renewed effort to find the kidnapped women was a journey that they had not expected. When morning came, the party set off again. Khaldun looked down at Ulimaghûlb, who loped along beside his horse, his long arms swinging from side to side. He wore the garb of a noblewoman of some distant Southern tribe: a long scarf was wrapped around his head to hide his pointed ears and beetling brow, and another scarf worn about his face concealed his orcish features. Atop this he wore a hooded cloak which he had pulled low over his face in the style of a Nazgûl's cowl, both to protect his identity and his eyes from the glare of the sun. Khaldun knew that the goblin must be suffering terribly from the heat and the light. He wondered if he had made the right decision in allowing Ulimaghûlb to accompany the search party, but he could not help admiring the goblin's grim stoicism. He knew that the exiled vizier had a grudge to settle against Prince Ashpar, and his offer to go as guide was his way of obtaining some small bit of revenge.

As they continued westward over the stony plain, the search party passed by tall rock formations which jutted up from the desert floor like thick, stubby fingers; long, blocky mesas and solitary ridges; buttes which rose up like enormous standing stones; massive boulders which were precariously perched upon much smaller bases; and other curious stone monuments and rock outcroppings. The land was a deep russet streaked with burnished tan and ashen charcoal, the sky above a cloudless azure, the sun a blazing orb of white-hot fire. The vegetation that grew in such a harsh, arid region was hardy and tenacious, vigorously clinging to life. The rugged, rolling ground was dotted by clumps of greenish brown desert grasses, low growing shrubs, tumbleweeds, aloes, and a variety of spurges. Mimicking their surroundings like chameleons, tiny pebble-like succulents peered out innocuously from the rocky soil, their drab colors making it difficult for the untrained eye to determine if they were alive or dead.

Cresting a small knoll, Khaldun halted his mount and wiped the sweat off his brow with the back of his hand. He squinted through the rising waves of heat that shimmered and writhed above the dismal landscape. The only sound to intrude upon the solitude was the labored breathing of the horses and the occasional buzzing of a fly. The heat and silence were oppressive, weighing down upon body and mind with a feeling of uneasy lassitude. A hawk rode the air currents above and then descended at a breathtaking speed to fall upon its prey. Death came quickly in the desert.

By midmorning, the party was drawing nigh to the encircling ring of the Ephel Dúath. Before them lay the grim, gray hills of the Morgai, the rocky peaks and ridges of the Mountains of Shadow rising up behind to tower above the shorter range. Marked with sheer cliffs and gullies so sharp and deep they could have been created by the blade of a knife, the foreboding barrier ringed Mordor's western border like the wall of a fortress. The elevation of the Morgai fell away towards the south, the last craggy ridge in the chain tapering down to a gentle slope which met the desert floor in a heap of broken stone.

Khaldun called the party to a halt at noon so that he and the men could rest, quench their thirst, and plan their next move. Though there was little relief to be found from the sweltering sun, they were able to take shelter in the shade of a tall rock formation which resembled a stack of crumbling flatbread. The men gathered round as Khaldun unrolled his map and spread it out over the sandy ground. Ulimaghûlb joined them, squatting so deeply that his knees were almost at the level of his long, pointed ears as he bent down to look at the map. His presence in the huddle earned him several glares from those who were prejudiced against Orc-kind. After the attack on the caravan and the attempt made on Esarhaddon's life, even men who had once been tolerant or indifferent towards goblins, orcs, and uruks now viewed them with suspicion and contempt.

Khaldun, one of the few who appreciated Ulimaghûlb's skills and contributions to the mission, frowned at the thinly veiled animosity which some of the men displayed towards the goblin. "From my estimations, we are around three leagues from the cavern, more or less," Khaldun stated, pointing to their approximate location on the map. "I think it best we stop here, and Ulimaghûlb goes on ahead to scout, as we discussed earlier. We do not want to encounter the Kafakudraûg and risk engaging in conflict with them."

"Captain, your men should be safe here, for the cavern guards seldom venture out this far, especially in daytime," Ulimaghûlb assured. "I will travel onward, approaching the cavern by stealth. When I come to the place where the slave women escaped, I will follow their trail for a few miles and then return. Expect my arrival at dusk." Although he was somewhat fearful to return to Kafakudraûg territory, given the fact that there was now a price on his head, the vizier was confident that he would not be detected. The robes and veils that he wore were shades of dun and brown, colors specifically chosen for their similarity to the desert landscape. While they possessed no magical charms of concealment, the garments would serve as adequate camouflage. Ulimaghûlb was also quite adept at sneaking. When he was vizier, he had many spies in his service, but spies could not always be trusted. So he became spy himself, lurking in the shadows to eavesdrop upon conversations and observe the goings-on in the cavern.

"How do we know this goblin is not planning on bringing his friends back to murder us?" spoke up a swarthy man whose lips seemed perpetually twisted to one side in a sneer.

Several of the other men, deeming these words as wise, nodded their heads and looked upon the goblin with growing suspicion.

"My 'friends,' as you say, would sooner murder me than they would any of you," Ulimaghûlb remarked indignantly, his voice filled with anger and bitterness. "Prince Ashpar put a price on my head, and I'm sure there are plenty who want to claim the reward." He paused, his feral yellow eyes glowering at the men. "Perhaps I should worry about the lot of you turning me in for a fat sack of gold!"

Khaldun's men angrily muttered amongst themselves, bemoaning their great misfortune to be forced to keep company with an accursed goblin. The Captain had the final say in the matter, though, and bade Ulimaghûlb safe travels on his mission.

Ulimaghûlb was glad to be rid of the superstitious Southrons for a while. He did not wish to take the men too close to the cavern, both because it would put him and everyone else in danger, and because he wanted them to know as little as possible about the place. When Chief Overseer Kopan had taken Elfhild and Özlem into the desert to gather firewood with a work party of goblin thralls, he had not used the main entrance, but rather one towards the south. Ulimaghûlb did not want these men to learn of the various side entrances and hidden doors which led into the cavern. Though Kafakudraûg Cavern was no hidden city like Gondolin, these men were outsiders and represented a potential threat to his people. Even though he could never return to his home, he still had kin and comrades there, and did not wish to bear the responsibility for betraying them. He still burned with the desire to revenge himself against the treacherous Prince Ashpar and his despicable cronies, however. There was always the possibility that Prince Ashpar would be assassinated or overthrown; if that were the case, the vizier wished to weasel his way into the good graces of the new ruler and be restored back into the position of power he once held...

Ulimaghûlb returned a few hours before dusk with news that he had picked up the girls' scent. Their spirits and bodies renewed after the rest, the party continued the search, following Ulimaghûlb eastward. When at last the men had passed Kafakudraûg territory, they were able to relax. They continued onward through the darkness, the goblin running ahead of them to lead the way.

Near midnight, Ulimaghûlb held up his hand, signaling the riders to halt.

"Captain, the scent of the women is very strong here!" The goblin knelt down, sniffing a faint track in the dirt. Before the party had left the slaver's camp, Ulimaghûlb had asked for some small possession of the kidnapped girls so he could learn their scent. Reaching into the bag at his belt, he drew out a handkerchief which had belonged to Özlem and a scarf that had belonged to Elfhild and inhaled deeply. Though he no longer needed the material to identify their scents, the intoxicating smell of females aroused him, and he felt almost addled as he remembered the two lovely captives the few times he had seen them back at the cavern. He kept his face blank, though, as he walked down the dune to where a tall spire of rock loomed up out of the dirt, the riders slowly picking their way behind him.

"Captain, observe the tracks in the shelter of this rock. Here the women rested for a while. But over here, you can see the tracks of three horses coming from the direction of the road." Ulimaghûlb motioned towards the highway. "The riders dismounted and walked towards the rock. There was a scuffle... see how the ground is disturbed here? Then the tracks lead away from the rocks." The goblin squatted down on his haunches and studied the ground. "The mounts carried double... the impressions are slightly deeper." He looked up at the men. "The women were taken by the horsemen."

"Ulimaghûlb," Khaldun leaned over the side of his saddle to see the tracks better, "you amaze me! We have been over some rough country, and yet you have consistently been able to follow the girls' trail in spite of the difficulty. Only once did I think you were baffled when we ran into that long stretch of rock."

"Captain," the goblin laughed, "you might have been baffled but I was not! The only reason I halted that time was because my feet hurt and I wanted to sit down."

The searchers laughed at that remark, but still there was a look of new appreciation in their eyes. When all had been ready to turn back in failure, the small, ugly creature had mocked them, laughing so hard sometimes that he had fallen on his back in the sand. "Weaklings!" he had shouted, finally catching his breath, and pointed at them, the tears running down his cheeks. "A rheumy-eyed old beggar with a white stone in his eye could see the trail better than you!" It was only after the Captain had acquiesced that Ulimaghûlb picked himself up, brushed the dirt from his robes and agreed to resume the search. It was obvious, though, that the goblin considered that the men were all incompetent, and that idea amused him greatly.

"Ulimaghûlb, do you have any idea who their abductors might be?" Khaldun asked as he studied the tracks which led away from the rocks. "Dolrujâtar, or Mordorian cavalrymen?"

"Captain, these tracks might be a week old." The goblin looked up at Khaldun. "It is apparent to me, though, that the horsemen are not from the Mordor cavalry. The markings on the sole of their boots are entirely different." He unslung the waterskin from his shoulder, pulled out the cloth stopper, and drank greedily before continuing. "Perhaps they were taken by bandits, but my guess is that the men were Dolrujâtar tribesmen who happened to chance upon them."

Khaldun's eyes met those of the goblin and held. Each could guess what the other was thinking: the men of the desert had a reputation as savage warriors. They were said to be hot-tempered and proud, quick to take offense when the honor of their tribe or themselves had been insulted. They were not men to be sought out unless there was a very good reason.

"We camp here for the night," Khaldun announced. "When day breaks tomorrow morning, we will return to the caravan and bring Shakh Esarhaddon these tidings." Since the women had been captured, it was unlikely that they would thirst to death or starve in the desert, so his quest no longer had quite the same urgency. However, he was not sure if they would be better off at the mercy of the Dolrujâtar or fending for themselves in the desert.


It was a day's ride from the large rock where Elfhild and Özlem had been captured to the caravan's current location on the Nurn Road, and Khaldun and his men arrived late in the afternoon. They were quickly ushered into Esarhaddon's tent, where the slave trader listened to the account of the searchers.

Esarhaddon thoughtfully stroked his beard as he reflected upon all that Khaldun had told him. "It could be possible that the women were captured by bandits… after all, there is a war going on, and the attention of the Great Eye is upon the West and not His own realm. During such times, there is always a degree of lawlessness that transpires, for unscrupulous men look for every opportunity to turn to brigandry and swell their coffers with stolen coin. However, it is more likely that Dolrujâtar scouts found the women wandering through the desert and took them back to their settlement." The slave trader sighed. "I feared we would be forced to have dealings with the Dolrujâtar. Most likely they will expect an extravagant reward for finding Elfhild and Özlem, and will be highly offended if the prize is not great enough."

"What would you have us do, my lord?" Khaldun asked.

"Go to the Oasis of the Solitary Cedar and inquire of the women," Esarhaddon instructed him. "Take the goblin with you and have him scout out the oasis under cover of darkness before you engage with the nomads. We should have a good estimation of their defenses should a conflict arise. By the time you meet with the Dolrujâtar, the caravan will be fifteen miles south of the oasis, so communications will be easier."

"It will be as you have said," Khaldun replied. "My men and I will set off on the morrow."


The smell of woodsmoke filled the early morning air as the leftover stew served the evening before was warmed up for breakfast. The camp was a flurry of activity as workers prepared for another day's journey on the road, feeding and tending to the animals, taking down tents and pavilions, and loading supplies back onto wains. Khaldun and his men left before the great caravan began to move out, riding due east towards the Oasis of the Solitary Cedar. The sky was still tinged with darkness, though no longer the deep black of night, but the dusky gray blue of morning twilight. There was a chill in the air that the sun would soon burn away, but for now the men gathered the folds of their cloaks tightly about them for warmth.

Khaldun's eyes roamed the rocky landscape before him, constantly on the alert for the approach of riders or the possibility of ambush. Though it would be some time ere the party reached Dolrujâtar territory, it was always wise to be wary and watchful. He frowned when he espied movement towards the south, beyond the road. It was still too dark to see clearly, but if his eyes were not mistaken, there were three riders. However, the animals which the strangers rode were too small to be horses, and their furtive, darting movements were much different from the steady gait of ponies. The riders approached the road but did not cross it; instead, they turned their mounts and rode back towards the west.

"Wolf-riders," Ulimaghûlb hissed, his greenish gray features turning ashen.

Khaldun looked down at the goblin, his face filled with alarm. "Is the caravan in danger?" His hand instinctively went to clasp the hilt of his scimitar. Several of the men muttered amongst themselves, making remarks about the treachery of goblins and looking upon Ulimaghûlb with renewed suspicion.

"I would say not. Prince Ashpar fears the wrath of the Great Eye and is opposed to raiding the caravans of Mordor." Ulimaghûlb reflected upon the political situation in Kafakudraûg Cavern. Ashpar was not a greedy brigand lord and warmonger like his father, the late King Thaguzgoth. In fact, this conflict of interest was doubtless what motivated Ashpar to hire assassins to murder his father, the vizier thought to himself, convinced that Durraiz and her band had been working for the prince even though he had no actual proof. "No, I suspect that the wolf-riders are looking for me. Perhaps I was not as careful as I had thought when I ventured close to the cavern."

"My men and I will keep you safe," Khaldun promised.

After sending one of the men back to inform the caravan of the three goblin scouts, Khaldun and his men continued eastward. They rode throughout the day, stopping a few times to water the horses and allow them to find what grass they could amongst the scrubby desert plants. That evening, the party camped ten miles west of the Oasis of the Solitary Cedar. Although they could have continued on their journey and arrived at the village by nightfall, Ulimaghûlb needed time to scout out the defenses of the nomads. While it was much safer to spy upon sun-hating goblins during the day, when it came to men, night was the best time to observe their doings.

As the men ate their supper, they discussed their planned visit to the oasis. This would be the first time that anyone from the House of Huzziya had met with the Dolrujâtar, so there was a certain degree of wariness and uncertainty upon how to proceed. The goblin vizier was far more acquainted with the Dolrujâtar than any of the caravanners, who all hailed from Nurn and Harad and knew little of the rugged tribesmen who called Southern Gorgoroth their home. The Kafakudraûg frequently raided the flocks and herds of the Dolrujâtar, and Dolrujâtar warriors hunted the goblins for sport and revenge.

"Captain, if these men catch sight of me, they will deem you and your comrades enemies and refuse to treat with you." Ulimaghûlb shook his head. "They hate my kind!"

"Captain Khaldun," one of the men spoke up, his face stony, "perhaps it would be better if the goblin stayed behind."

"It is not safe for him out here," Khaldun replied. "If those wolf riders find him, they will kill him. He stays with us. Besides, if the Vizier plays it safe, the Dolrujâtar will never know that he is a goblin. I will claim he is my wife, who is both mute and disfigured. This will explain why he can neither talk nor remove his veils."

"But, Captain, what if they find out he is not a female, or even a human for that matter?" the man insisted stubbornly.

"Then I will tell them that he is my male lover," Khaldun laughed, his eyes twinkling with amusement.

"What?!" Ulimaghûlb exclaimed, bristling. "You flatter yourself to think you could ever please me!"

"We will worry about it later, my friend," Khaldun chuckled, having difficulty controlling his laughter. "I suggest we stop talking and you set out for the Oasis... that is, if you can tear your eyes away from me long enough."

Baring his teeth, the goblin glared at the Captain. With a hiss of disgust, he turned and began trotting in the direction of the Oasis of the Solitary Cedar.


Ulimaghûlb returned a few hours before dawn and presented his report to Khaldun.

"Captain, I found the Dolrujâtar village, but it will not be an easy matter to take the girls from there," the goblin stated breathlessly, winded from racing back to the camp. "It is a good size village, encompassed by a high palisade with sharpened stakes at the top. I would guess that it must hold three hundred people or more, and who knows how many of them are warriors?"

The Captain's face dropped at the news. "That poses certain difficulties. We will just have to ride up in the open out of bow range and perhaps they will parley. Then if we are successful, who knows?" Khaldun shrugged.

"I pray to the Lord of the Fiery Mountain that we are," Ulimaghûlb remarked dourly. "Otherwise, the Dolrujâtar will kill us all, and we will be food for the carrion birds."

Next Chapter

Previous Chapter
Main Index