The Circles - Book Seven - Chapter 20

The Circles - Book Seven - Land of Treachery
Chapter Twenty
An Unfriendly Reception
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

As Khaldun and his men neared the Oasis of the Solitary Cedar, they saw that the gates of the village were open. As they watched, young shepherdesses hurriedly drove a flock of bleating goats into the palisade. The girls looked back at the men, and for a moment Khaldun thought he saw the flash of gold as one of the girls pushed a stray lock of hair beneath the scarf she wore to protect her face from the sun. Could she be the kidnapped Rohirric girl for whom they had been searching? He could not be certain, for the girl scurried away to chase down a recalcitrant nanny goat.

Shouting at them to make haste, the guards at the gates urged the women inside, and then turned to face the intruders. There was no doubt to their intentions, for the sharp tips of their spears glinted in the morning sun. As his men closed the distance to the fortress, Khaldun ordered them to slow their horses to a trot.

"Captain Khaldun, you might recall that I told you that the Dolrujâtar are unfriendly to the point of hostility," Ulimaghûlb whined from his seat behind Khaldun. "We will be fortunate indeed if they do not send a party of men out to attack us!" Since he was supposed to be Khaldun's "wife," the Captain had insisted that he ride double with him. This was the first time the goblin vizier had ever been on a horse, and he did not like it one bit.

"Vizier, if they are hostile, it is because your folk are always raiding them," Khaldun remarked. Reining in his lathered horse just out of bow range, the captain ordered his men to halt on the plain in front of the village. His men's eyes were wary as they pulled their horses up behind him. "They are all good men," he thought. "I just hope I am not leading them to their doom."

"Look! It is as I have said!" The goblin quailed as a party of twenty grim-faced men rode out from the village gates. Ulimaghûlb tried to control his urge to leap from the horse and run away, for he knew if he did, the villagers would chase him down and slaughter him.

"All you have to do, my lovely bride," the Captain did not even glance back at the orc, "is keep your face covered and your mouth shut."

"Unless they kill all of you, and I am taken to their chieftain's harem," Ulimaghûlb muttered darkly. With a feeling close to panic, he saw that many of the men from the village rode with their bows drawn and ready.

"Then perhaps we should pity the Shakh. Think how disappointed he will be when he takes the coverings from his new prize… and finds you!" Khaldun laughed at the orc's distress. "At least you will be able to behold the beauty of his women before the executioner lops off your head. Now be silent!"

Grumbling to himself, Ulimaghûlb pulled his hood lower over his bowed head and hid his hands in the sleeves of his robe.

Riding their horses at a lope, the riders whooped as they neared Khaldun and his men. Like wolves coming in for the kill, their eyes gleamed as they halted a short distance away. Their wicked little bows trained on the newcomers, the Dolrujâtar warriors grinned as though they would like nothing better than to kill them all. Some of the horses smelled the sour stench of orc, and shied to the side, snorting and moving restlessly. Despite the horses' skittishness, their skilled riders soon had them under control.

"Hail! We come in friendship!" Khaldun called out. Keeping his left hand on the reins, he held up his right hand in a gesture of peace. He hoped that the unruly behavior of the villagers' horses would not give the goblin vizier away. His own horse and the mounts of his men were accustomed to the presence of orcs, but the animals of the Dolrujâtar knew the stench of an enemy.

"Who are you and what do you want?" the leader of the party demanded.

"I am Captain Khaldun, third lieutenant to Shakh Esarhaddon uHuzziya. We come on a matter of business with your chieftain." Khaldun looked directly into the other man's eyes, ignoring the two young men beside him with their bows aimed at his heart.

"You lie!" the man exclaimed. "Esarhaddon uHuzziya is dead, slain by uruk outlaws. Now, son of a dog, tell me who you really are, and your business with this village!"

Khaldun's men shifted uneasily in their saddles, careful to keep their hands from getting close to their weapons, for that would be all it would take to ignite the situation. The goblin vizier whimpered so faintly that only those near him could hear the piteous sound. Ulimaghûlb was glad that he could hide the trembling of his hands within the sleeves of his robes, but he flushed in embarrassment when he felt a wrenching sensation in his bowels. Gritting his fangs, he clenched his fists, fretting that his abject terror would cause him to have a sudden attack of dysentery.

"Shakh uHuzziya was merely wounded by the uruk raiders," Khaldun insisted adamantly. "He yet lives, although he was injured gravely. For days we have traveled through the desert under his orders, searching for two slave women who were reported to have escaped from the clutches of the Sand Orcs."

"I do not believe your tale; you have the look of a deceiver written all over your scheming face." The handsome young man eyed Khaldun with a scrutiny which made him feel strangely uncomfortable. "You will all drop your weapons to the ground and ride with us to the village."

"And if we do not?"

"We will kill you, and the sands shall drink your blood." The young man's gaze shifted to the two men at his side, and they drew back their bowstrings as though to loose their arrows. The other village men also readied their bows.

At that, Ulimaghûlb let out a terrible shriek, pressing his face into the Captain's back and holding on for dear life. He trembled uncontrollably as he waited for the bite of the arrow to tear through his body.

"Your people certainly have an interesting way of greeting strangers," Khaldun muttered out of the corner of his mouth.

"In these treacherous lands, strangers are often enemies," the man remarked grimly. "The Dolrujâtar have foes enough. With the war going on, the Sand Orcs have grown bold, raiding our flocks and herds. The lazy bastards do not work as we must, instead creeping out from their caves and striking during the night. If that were not woe enough, there have been reports of highwaymen harassing travelers upon the road."

"Obviously, my men and I are not orcs or brigands," Khaldun replied. Although perhaps it was his imagination, he had the most peculiar sensation that this tribesman held some personal grievance against him.

"My people are frustrated," the warrior returned. "They need a little blood to take their minds off their troubles."

"Just so long as it is not my blood," Ulimaghûlb thought to himself. The orc kept his head bowed deferentially, but beneath his hood, his eyes darted furtively about his surroundings. If these bloodthirsty barbarians discovered his identity, he wanted to have a plan of escape mapped out in his mind. What a fool he had been ever to offer his aid to Khaldun!

"There is no need for bloodshed. We shall come along peacefully." Khaldun signaled to his men to disarm themselves. Cursing under their breath, the men grudgingly dropped their weapons to the ground.

"You will ride beside me." Not waiting for Khaldun to reply, the man wheeled his horse towards the village and urged it into a trot. "The woman... who is she?" he asked as Khaldun caught up with him.

"She is my wife."

"You brought your wife with you through the desert?" The leader cocked an eyebrow.

"I come from Far Harad, and it is the custom of my tribe that a man's wife accompany him everywhere during the first year of his marriage," Khaldun explained. Of course, there was no such tradition, but he doubted that a group of herdsmen from Lithlad would know anything about the nations and tribes of the distant South.

"A strange custom," the man remarked, his expression dubious. "I cannot say I have heard of its like."

"My wife and I were married shortly before I started working for the House of Huzziya. Having my beloved with me has made traveling a joy," Khaldun remarked, stifling the urge to laugh. "Besides, she is a good cook."

"Damn him," the goblin vizier fumed to himself. "I should have cut out his liver and roasted it when I had the chance!"

The man was silent for a moment and then asked, "So you claim to seek for two missing slave women... How do you know they escaped from the Sand Orcs?"

"While searching for the women, we captured a goblin, and before he died under torture, he revealed that they had managed to escape into the desert," Khaldun replied.

The other man eyed Khaldun skeptically. "Why do you think they might be here in my village?"

"I have no reason to think that they are," the Captain smiled grimly, "but I cannot return to Shakh Esarhaddon until I have made every effort to find them. If it means inquiring at every Dolrujâtar village, so be it."

"Then the dead man must consider them very valuable," the young shakh laughed unpleasantly.

The man's probing questions made Khaldun feel uncomfortable, and he decided to change the subject. "I have told you who I am, but you have not told me who you are. My orders state that I am under no obligation to say anything unless it is to someone of authority."

"That would be me," the man smiled wolfishly. "I am Shakh Zarkfir, eldest son of Shakh Najor of the Dagrî Clan, head chieftain of the Dolrujâtar Tribe." He turned in the saddle to look at Khaldun. "By sparing your life, I have angered my brothers. They were hoping to kill you... Perhaps they might still have the opportunity."

"You mean the two archers who rode beside you earlier are your brothers?"

"Yes," Zarkfir replied, almost amiably. "Husu and Kangtar. They are excellent marksmen, by the way. Either can drop an arrow into a target at the range of 1,500 feet or more."

"Impressive," Khaldun noted. Though he was no novice with the bow, he was not sure if he could match such a feat.

"Now I welcome you to the Oasis of the Solitary Cedar," Zarkfir told Khaldun as they rode through the gates of the village. "You and your men will be my guests... at least for three days and a third of a day, as is the custom of my people when dealing with strangers. Then we can kill you if we wish."

A cold chill raced down Khaldun's back as he felt the eyes of the villagers upon him. A crowd of onlookers had gathered in the village square to gawk at him and his men. A mixture of emotions radiated from the crowd: curiosity, animosity, excitement. The tribesmen watched them warily, some of them muttering under their breaths and laying their hands upon the daggers at their belts. Children waved and pointed at the newcomers before being pulled away by their scolding mothers. Glancing fearfully at the strangers, the women dragged their offspring back into the safety of their tents. Dogs barked and snarled, and chickens squawked as they scrambled out of the path of the horses.

As he rode by his captor's side, Khaldun was impressed by the beauty of the oasis. A large spring lay at the center of the village, and a circular retaining wall had been built around it to collect the cool, fresh water that welled up from deep within the earth. Buckets were tied to iron rungs driven into the wall, and watering troughs were positioned nearby so that the villagers could draw water both for themselves and their animals. Groves of palms and other hardy trees were scattered around the dusty paths running through the village, turning the barren landscape into a verdant green.

Soon they came to a large cluster of tents separate from the rest of the village. "This is our destination," Zarkfir remarked pleasantly as he drew his horse to a halt. "Now you and your men will dismount." He smiled as the grim-faced men reluctantly slid from their horses' backs and turned the animals over to village boys waiting to take the reins. At Zarkfir's signal, warriors quickly surrounded Khaldun's men, directing them into a nearby tent. Khaldun was about to follow them when Zarkfir rode his horse between him and his men. "Captain, you will follow me to the tent of my father, Shakh Najor," he told him as he dismounted and gave his reins to a waiting servant.

Khaldun looked uncomfortable. "What about my wife?"

"Your wife?" Zarkfir jerked his head in the goblin's direction. "One of my men will take her to the tent of my father's first wife, where she can be housed while my father talks with you."

"I'm doomed," Ulimaghûlb thought dismally, hoping that he would be killed as quickly as possible and not tortured for endless excruciating hours. He had heard of the cruelty of the Dolrujâtar, and knew that they would never show mercy to an enemy. "Probably they will flay me alive and use my skin to make a quiver for their arrows!" He shuddered with dread, visualizing his torturers skinning him alive, beginning with his toes as they peeled the skin upward.

"That is very hospitable of your noble father, Shakh Zarkfir, but you should be aware that my wife cannot speak," Khaldun explained, trying to sound as convincing as possible. "She was always frail; hence her slight stature. We were childhood friends, you see, and though we were just wed this year, we have known each other since we were little. After she became ill with the Red Plague a few years ago, she was stricken mute. Whether this condition was brought about by the sickness itself or as a lingering memory of the horrifying ordeal she suffered, the healers do not know. She is unable to communicate, except by gibberish sounds, grunts and other noises that are intelligible only to those who know her... and her voice was once so lovely." He sighed sadly.

"Damn him," Ulimaghûlb cursed silently. "The bastard is enjoying this!"

"That is indeed unfortunate," Shakh Zarkfir remarked sympathetically, thinking to himself that Khaldun must have terribly angered the Lord of Middle-earth to bring a curse of such magnitude down upon his head.

As the two men walked to Shakh Najor's tent, Khaldun continued his maudlin tale in hushed tones. "My wife was quite a beauty, but unfortunately the Red Plague left her once lovely skin marred with horrible scars. She cannot bear that anyone should see her, and even when we are alone in the privacy of our chambers, she wears a veil to cover her face."

"It is difficult to understand why Fate plays its cruel tricks upon us." Shakh Zarkfir shook his head. How cruel indeed, he thought. The arrival of this agent of the House of Huzziya threatened to destroy his marriage to Özlem before it even began. He had tried his best to intimidate Khaldun in hopes that he would lose heart and leave the village, but the accursed man had been steadfast and resolute in his commitment to his mission. Zarkfir considered claiming that Özlem and Elfhild were not at the village, but telling such a lie went against his code of honor.

Trying to maintain a calm composure, Zarkfir continued speaking. "What is her name, so that I may tell the guard who escorts her to the first wife's tent?"

"Her name is Amara," Khaldun replied, saying the first name that came to his mind, that of one of his cousins. "She is quite shy, throwing herself into a fit of hysteria if anyone besides myself sees her without her robes. Please instruct the women to have mercy upon her, and not to press her to remove the coverings she wears to protect herself from the scorn of this cruel world."

"I hate him!" Ulimaghûlb clenched his fists tightly inside his sleeves, silently fuming. "There is no torture that would ever make up for this indignity, but perhaps I can think of one!"

"My father's women are kind, and will make her feel at home," Zarkfir assured, his gaze lingering upon Khaldun for a few seconds longer than he had initially intended. Not only did this man threaten his happiness, but he was almost identical in appearance to Jatagan, the poet who had betrayed him and broken his heart. There were differences, of course: Khaldun was taller and far more muscular than Jatagan, who was of a slender and delicate build; he wore no embellishments in his locks, whilst Jatagan's locks were always strung with beads and adorned with metal bands; his beard was scruffy and unkempt whilst Jatagan always kept his facial hair well-trimmed. But their handsome faces were much the same, and the disconcerting mixture of the familiar and the foreign left Zarkfir feeling confused.

"…you have the look of a deceiver written all over your scheming face" – Harsh words meant to drive the interloper away, but they contained a hidden truth. Zarkfir felt a gnawing ache in his heart. Though Jatagan had betrayed him, still Zarkfir would give his soul for one touch of his beloved's hand. Alas, their love was fated never to be. He had tried to drive all memories of Jatagan from his mind, but this wretched man was forcing him to remember what he longed to forget!

Was the Master of the Fates of Arda playing a phenomenal jest upon him?

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