The Circles - Book Seven - Chapter 18

The Circles - Book Seven - Land of Treachery
Chapter Eighteen
Secrets Within the Flames
Written by Elfhild

The dusty trail seemed to glow softly in the gloaming like a silvery river winding its way through the shadowy desert landscape, and the almost full moon glinted off the sides of rock outcroppings and distant mesas, painting the rugged plain in sharp contrasts of light and darkness. A sense of urgency lent speed to Zarkfir's feet, and he hurried along the path as one on a mission to fulfill some greater purpose. His quiet, swift footsteps brought him ever nearer to a rocky knoll which had been battered by the harsh wind over the many long ages of the earth, revealing much of the sandstone that lay beneath. His eyes could discern several openings in the side of the rock, a deep black against the evening gray, like eye sockets in the skull of some enormous, many-eyed beast that had once terrorized the earth with its fell presence. A small campfire had been built near the largest opening, the flames gently swaying and dancing in the night breeze, either in welcome – or warning.

Suddenly a tall figure emerged from the shadows of the cave opening. This mysterious personage made a fearsome sight, for upon his head he wore a turban crowned with the long, curling horns of a goat, making him appear half man and half beast. A crown of feathers ringed the turban, and a fringe of beads and metal chains dangled from its brim. His long beard was parted in three plaits and banded with silver cuffs, and his long hair hung about his shoulders in matted, rope-like brown and gray streaked locks. Around his neck hung many amulets, the largest and most prominent being an enormous red jasper wrapped with golden filaments to resemble the Great Eye.

"Welcome. I have been expecting you."

The sight of his clan's shaman always unnerved Zarkfir, and for a moment he felt as though his voice had left him. He quickly gathered his wits about him, however; he did not wish to appear a fool in front of the holy man.

"How did you know I was coming, O Shaman? Was it because of your great powers of foresight?"

The shaman chuckled. "A bit of foresight, perhaps… Then, too, I have heard quite a few rumors from the village that gave me cause to suspect that you would soon be paying a visit to my cave. Have a seat by the fire and we shall talk." He gestured towards the campfire.

Soon the two men were sitting on a carpet by the fire and drinking tea that the shaman had made in honor of his guest. Zarkfir related how, a week before, he had come across two women wandering in the desert, and had brought them back to the village. He told the shaman all about Özlem, and his growing feelings for her.

"I wish to take Özlem as my first wife," Zarkfir confided. "While she may be a slave and an outsider, I choose her over all the other maidens in the village."

"You, falling in love with a woman?" The shaman's bushy eyebrows disappeared beneath the beaded fringe which hung from his turban. "I must say that I have my doubts that even I could have foretold that."

Zarkfir felt his cheeks growing warm, and he began to fidget, self-consciously rubbing the back of his neck. While it was true that he did not feel the same passionate desire for Özlem that he felt for his male lovers, he had become quite fond of her during the brief time that they had known each other. She was a good companion with a sympathetic ear, and he could not stand the thought of losing her. When she spoke of her past, he felt great pity for her, and he was filled with a desire to protect her and keep her from harm.

"What can I say?" Zarkfir shrugged, trying to seem nonchalant. "Özlem is an incredible woman. I would do anything for her."

"Or perhaps the truth of the matter is that you would do anything to avoid marrying the daughter of Shakh Murlât of the Kukumak Clan." The shaman chuckled in amusement as he watched Zarkfir's dark eyes grow wide with astonishment and his face take on a sickly ashen shade. "Do not be so surprised! Your father came to me earlier this week to inquire if you and Lady Latagúniz would be a fortuitous match. The visions revealed to me in the sacred flames showed much conflict, and I counseled your father not to pursue this union. However, he still remains convinced that a marriage to Lady Latagúniz and an alliance with the Kukumak Clan is the best choice."

Zarkfir struggled to close his gaping jaw, which had fallen open at the shaman's revelation. "A messenger from Shakh Murlât visited my father to propose a union between Lady Latagúniz and me," he explained, his throat dry. "I told my father to give me a week to think upon the matter. It has been six days so far, and tomorrow I must give him my answer." Of course, he could merely refuse, but his father kept berating him, telling him how he was being selfish by refusing to marry, and that he must consider the good of his clan and tribe. The harsh criticisms of his unmarried state had gotten worse with each passing year since Zarkfir had come of age, and the desert prince was unsure how much more he could bear. He had stalled as long as he could upon Shakh Murlât's proposal, waiting for some escape to present itself. He had half hoped than an orc arrow would take him out before he was forced to make a choice, but he had not been so lucky.

"Six days ago, you say?" An inscrutable expression came over the shaman's weathered face. "That would have been the day when you and your men found the two women in the desert."

Zarkfir nodded. "Though I have known Özlem only a short time, I would rather her be my first wife than Lady Latagúniz. Truth be told, I think I would rather flee into the Dreadful Gorge and take my chances with the monsters that dwell there than marry that horrid shrew!"

Zarkfir had met the daughter of Shakh Murlât before, and he had not been impressed. The woman was most uncomely, with a pudgy round face, scowling narrow eyes, too-thin eyebrows, a pig-like nose, and tight lips that were perpetually frowning. Even though he was usually not attracted to women in the way of most men, Zarkfir was able to appreciate the beauty of a woman, and he shuddered with disgust when he tried to imagine himself attempting to perform his husbandly duties with such a woman. Not only was Latagúniz ugly outside, but she was ugly on the inside as well, treating her servants and handmaidens most cruelly.

A thoughtful expression upon his face, the shaman pensively stroked his beard. "Given the reputation of Lady Latagúniz, I can certainly understand why you would wish to marry Özlem instead."

"Perhaps I am a fool for having this desire, or utterly given over to vanities, but I would prefer my first wife to be a woman of my choosing than one chosen for me." Zarkfir sighed. If he could have his way, most likely he would remain a bachelor for the rest of his days, but as the eldest son and heir, that was a luxury denied unto him. As he often did, he cursed his lot in life. Surely it would have been much better to have been born a pauper instead of a prince!

The shaman reflected upon his words for a few moments. "You are indeed an unconventional man, but your father is one who rigidly upholds convention. It is easy to see why you and he butt heads like two rival rams."

"I must tell my father of my wishes on the morrow, but I am uncertain of the best path to take, or of what to say. This is the reason why I came here tonight, to seek your wisdom in the matter, O Shaman." Zarkfir looked imploringly at the older man.

"Come then, my son, and we will look into the secrets of the fire together."

The shaman ducked briefly into the cave to gather his supplies, and soon returned. Taking a shovel that had been lying nearby, he dug a small heap of coals from the fire and dumped them into a bucket. Carrying the bucket a short distance to the northwestern side of the cave, he poured the coals into a large stone basin and then fed the flames with kindling from a nearby woodpile. According to Dolrujâtar legend, the fire bowl was crafted from basalt from the Mountain of Doom, and the Lord of Mordor Himself had etched runes of power upon its sides. Zarkfir was not sure if he believed the legends or not, but he did feel a sense of unease whenever he was around the basin, as though the stone possessed a will of its own.

As the shaman worked, his lips were moving constantly in whispered incantations. Soon a fire was blazing in the bowl, lighting up the night with its brilliance and sending sparks flying up into the velvety sky. Chanting louder, the shaman took various mineral salts from pouches hanging from his belt and tossed them into the fire. The flames leapt into the air, changing into shades of orange, red, green, and blue. Zarkfir felt a compulsion to stare deeply into the flames until his entire being was burnt away and naught was left but dust and ash. Before he could fully realize what was happening, his mind darkened and his unblinking eyes became fixated upon the fire before him… the hypnotic, ever-shifting colors pulling him deeper, deeper, deeper into the swirling conflagration…

"Ask your questions and I shall interpret what the flames reveal."

The shaman's deep voice shook Zarkfir from his trance, and he tore his gaze away from the ensorcelled fire. The afterimage of the flames danced in his vision, a twisted mirror of garish colors opposite from those in reality.

"Will… will I find happiness with Özlem?" he asked, struggling to find his voice. Half of his heart longed to find the answer, while the other half dreaded what the shaman might say.

The shaman pondered the flames for a long moment, and then replied. "Fate has brought you together, but a chance meeting could tear you apart. Do not let your devotion to the past destroy your hope for the future."

Zarkfir's brows knitted together in confusion. "I do not understand. What does my past have to do with a marriage with Özlem?"

"The flames do not reveal all; only glimpses of what may yet come to pass. The destiny you seek will bring you happiness, but at a price. Sacrifices must be made to ensure the balance."

"What else do you see in my future, O Shaman?"

"You will be surrounded by many women of various beauty..."

Zarkfir shifted uncomfortably. While it might be the dream of many men, amassing a large harem had never been one of his goals in life.

"…And an even greater number of handsome men."

He brightened considerably at these prospects. Now this would be a dream come true!

"You will become a mighty chieftain, the father of many fine sons and fair daughters," the shaman continued. "Long will be your years; great will be your legacy; and many will be the tales told about you. The flames have spoken."


Zarkfir's mind was filled with uncertainty that morning as he made his way to his father's tent. Although he considered himself a brave warrior, speaking with the old man was always a formidable challenge. He dreaded the confrontation that was about to happen, but there was no way of escaping it. Well, actually, there was; he could take Özlem and flee to the south and start up a new life in Nurn or Harad. While that idea appealed to his sense of romance and adventure, he knew that it was the wiser course to meet a challenge head on rather than to run from it. Yet such fanciful daydreams of escape had much more appeal than being reviled by his father.

Zarkfir preferred to keep discussions with his father light in tone, because Najor could be a very unreasonable man. The chieftain was determined to have his own way, and did not take well to having his authority questioned or usurped. To make matters worse, Zarkfir always felt that his father looked down upon him, for he had not been cast in the same mold. Najor seemed convinced that he could transform Zarkfir into the ideal son by belittling him. Whether they were subtle or outright, Najor's criticisms could cut like knives. Husu and Kangtar often incurred their father's ire as well, but it always seemed that Zarkfir bore the brunt of it. Such was the doom of the eldest son and heir, he supposed.

The colorfully woven curtains to Shakh Najor's tent were pulled up at the entrance, a sign of welcome to family and guests. Najor had just risen from his bed and was seated at his table, waiting for his wives to bring him breakfast before starting his day. This was the day that the shakh reserved for meetings with tribal elders, but these meetings would not occur until later that morning. When he saw the approach of his eldest son, his eyes widened in surprise.

"My son, welcome!" Rising to his feet, Najor greeted Zarkfir, who usually took breakfast in his own tent. "To what do I owe the honor of this visit upon this fine morning?"

Zarkfir nodded to his mother and his father's other two wives, who were preparing breakfast over a small cook fire, and then took a seat at the table opposite from his father. The three women regarded them curiously and then turned back to their cooking.

"I have decided whom I will marry."

"Wonderful!" Shakh Najor's eyes lit up with joy. "I will send a messenger to Shakh Murlât straight away with news that you have agreed to marry his daughter, the charming Lady Latagúniz. An alliance between the Dagrî and Kukumak clans will be most fortuitous indeed."

"Actually, I have decided that Özlem will be my first wife."

Shakh Najor, who had just taken a sip of tea, suddenly became choked and started coughing and gagging. When he had at last managed to clear his windpipe, he gaped at Zarkfir with utter astonishment, his face red and his eyes watering.

"You – you cannot be serious! Özlem is a slave with neither family nor title."

Zarkfir steeled himself for the quarrel that was about to break loose like a sudden storm. "I care naught about Özlem's status. I love her, and I want to make her my bride!" An exaggeration, perhaps, but the words made him feel passionate and alive, and perhaps there was some truth in them after all.

"This is just one of your whims, like all your other… dalliances." Najor snorted with derision. "Özlem is not even your slave! By the laws of Mordor, she belongs to the eldest heir of Esarhaddon uHuzziya."

"No one has come to claim her; therefore, she is mine." Zarkfir held his ground, determined to win this battle. "I am a grown man, and should be able to make my own choices!"

"You are heir to both the Dagrî Clan and the Dolrujâtar tribe, and the choices you make should be determined by the benefit they will have upon your people." Gripping the table in both hands, Najor leaned forward, his shoulders trembling slightly with his heavy intakes of air. "The Kukumak Clan is one of the most powerful clans of all of Lithlad, second only to our own, and it would be prudent to seek an alliance with them, lest they become too powerful. There have been rumors of discontent, and a marriage between you and Lady Latagúniz would ensure the peace."

"Then have either Husu or Kangtar marry Lady Latagúniz; I choose Özlem!"

His face dark with rage, Najor straightened back up and slammed his fist down on the table. "I refuse to allow you to marry this girl!" His chest was heaving with his heavy breathing, and he began to wheeze noisily.

"Then I shall take Özlem and leave the village forever! We shall find freedom in the south!"

Zarkfir leapt to his feet and turned his back upon his father. His fists were clenched at his sides, and his entire body was shaking with anger. He had not wanted it to come to this, but the old man had given him no choice. Years of frustration boiled up inside him, like the fires that churned within the Great Mountain, and every fibre of his being yearned to flee somewhere far, far away from this place.

Lady Shabimi, who had been observing the heated discussion in silence, spoke up.

"My lord husband, your own grandfather freed his favorite slave girl and married her," she remarked calmly.

The sound of his wife's voice placated Najor somewhat, and his body seemed to sag as though he were a bellows with the air being squeezed out of it. "He had other wives besides her, wives from prominent families with many sheep and goats, so he could afford to marry a slave upon a whim. Zarkfir has no wife and has rejected all of the potential matches that have been proposed so far." He sighed heavily and shook his head in dismay.

"A marriage to Özlem does not prevent Zarkfir from marrying other women!" Shabimi laughed lightly, but there was an edge of steel in her voice. "While the first wife rules over the household, all marital alliances are equally as important. Lady Latagúniz can always be Zarkfir's second wife, if he so desires." In truth, Shabimi hoped that Zarkfir would refuse to marry Latagúniz, as she had little love for the Kukumak girl, considering her headstrong and quarrelsome. Latagúniz had a younger sister, however, who was much nicer and prettier, and who would be a much better match for Zarkfir…

Najor glowered at his wife for a long moment and then finally lowered his gaze in defeat. "All right, all right, you have made your point!" Muttering to himself, he rose to his feet in a huff and stalked over to where Zarkfir stood fuming. "My son, I give you permission to marry Özlem, but you ask much of me! Such a generous boon will demand great recompense!"

Shakh Najor's eyes flashed with a calculating glint, and Zarkfir felt a tremor of dismay as the words of the shaman came back to haunt him:

Sacrifices must be made to ensure the balance.

You will be surrounded by many women of various beauty.

Was this suffocating feeling in his throat caused by the chains of Fate wrapping themselves around his soul? Zarkfir imagined himself surrounded by a harem of nagging, quarrelsome women with insatiable lusts who constantly demanded that he pleasure them in bed. Would this be the price for having the freedom to choose his first wife? To be obligated to marry every last woman whom his parents desired him to marry? He certainly hoped that all the sons and daughters who would come from these unwanted couplings would be worth all the hassle and bother!

"I think it is wonderful that our son has finally chosen a bride," Shabimi exclaimed, clasping her hands together with excitement. "Özlem will make a wonderful daughter-in law." She strode forward and took her husband's hand in one hand and her son's in the other. "Truly this is a joyous day! We must start planning the wedding at once!"

Zarkfir groaned inwardly. He wondered that if by seeking freedom, he had unwittingly submitted himself to the whims of destiny.

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