The Circles - Book Seven - Chapter 21

The Circles - Book Seven - Land of Treachery
Chapter Twenty-one
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

Shakh Zarkfir halted in front of a large tent that was much like all the others in the village, except for its huge expanse. "This is the tent of my father; he awaits us inside."

"I look forward to meeting him," Khaldun remarked cheerfully as he and Zarkfir were ushered into the tent by an elderly servant. The Captain's eyes were drawn to an old, white-bearded man dressed in fine robes who rose to greet them.

"My father, this is Captain Khaldun, an agent of the House of Huzziya." Zarkfir gestured with a brief nod in Khaldun's direction. "He is quite eager to make your acquaintance." He paused. "Captain Khaldun, this is my father, Shakh Najor, the leader of both the Dagrî Clan and the Dolrujâtar tribe."

"Shakh, it is an honor to meet you." Khaldun touched his heart as he bowed his head. "May your house have peace and health."

"May the Eye look upon you with favor," the old shakh replied. "You are welcome in my tent." After the customary proprieties had been observed, Najor looked sharply at Khaldun. "It was my understanding that Shakh Esarhaddon uHuzziya had been murdered by a band of outlaws. Who is now in charge of his business interests in the North?"

"My lord, while it is true that Shakh Esarhaddon was grievously wounded, he still lives," Khaldun replied. "Despite all the evils which befell him, he is healing well."

"May the Giver of Gifts be praised for that boon!" Shakh Najor murmured reverently. "I hope that Shakh Esarhaddon continues to improve. Now, gentlemen, if you will please be seated, my servant Udahok will see that we are brought fresh tea." He gestured with his hand to a low table set with a brass teapot and a half-filled glass of tea. The stem of a narghile rested on the table, and the air was sweet with the scent of poppy smoke. Evidently, the old shakh had been enjoying a pipe before the two men arrived.

After the three had sat down, Najor interlaced his fingers together and looked at Captain Khaldun. "I must apologize for the reception that you received, but you must realize that we seldom have visitors here. Living in these treacherous lands, my people tend to distrust strangers."

"Shakh Najor, my men and I mean no trouble to you or the Dolrujâtar," Khaldun explained. "We are only searching for two missing slave women." Briefly he told of how Elfhild and Özlem had been kidnapped by a mutinous group of uruks and then taken to the fortress of the Sand Orcs, where they had managed to escape. By the time Khaldun finished recounting the story, Udahok had served them all glasses of tea and taken a place behind his master. "My employer, Shakh Esarhaddon uHuzziya, is prepared to offer a generous reward for the return of the two slaves."

"Captain," the old man sighed heavily, "it is true that these women are in my village, but I do not know if I can bear to part with them, for they are as dear to me as daughters." Of course, he was exaggerating about his regard for the women, but if Esarhaddon's agent believed he was telling the truth, he might implore his master to be more willing to negotiate. "Elfhild has become one of my wife's handmaidens, proving herself to be an invaluable servant. My eldest son, Zarkfir, desires to marry the one called Özlem, and I have given my blessings to this marriage." He looked to his son.

"Captain, I wish to make Özlem my wife," Zarkfir stated resolutely, leveling his gaze at the captain. "Even if I would accept a ransom for her release, your Shakh does not have enough gold to compensate me for taking the desire of my heart." The more obstacles that came between Özlem and him, the more determined he was to wed her, if not out of love, then out of spite towards all those who would challenge his will.

"Özlem is the property of my master, Esarhaddon uHuzziya," Khaldun returned firmly. "If you keep her, you are no better than thieves!"

"The Dolrujâtar have been called worse," Zarkfir chuckled. "But no matter." He waved his hand dismissively. "I am in a generous mood. I am prepared to pay a fair price for Özlem. I offer ten goats, ten sheep, a silver ewer, and a keg of the finest date beer."

"Shakh Zarkfir, while I am sure your offer is a worthy one, I am not authorized to make any sales." Khaldun tried to keep his voice from showing his irritation. This business had taken a different turn from what he had expected, and he was hard pressed to know how to handle the situation. "You will have to deal with Shakh Esarhaddon if you wish to buy one of his slaves. I will gladly relay your message to him, however."

"Gentlemen, we have reached a stalemate," Shakh Najor sighed. "Perhaps your master would come to my village, and we could discuss terms."

"I will convey your invitation to Shakh Esarhaddon when I return to the caravan," Khaldun replied diplomatically. "Now there is the matter of the Northern girl. Elfhild is a slave of Mordor, owned by the Lord of the Tower, and as such it would be unlawful for you to keep her. However, my master is prepared to pay twenty-five silver zûbardh to recompensate for the girl's food and board while she was in your keeping."

"I would not wish to anger the Lord of the Tower, for great is His generosity." The old shakh thoughtfully stroked his bearded chin. "Inform your shakh that I will accept his offer of compensation concerning Elfhild, but I will not release her until I receive the payment. She has done a great service to the Dolrujâtar, one that might just give us the upper hand against our enemies, and I am loath to lose her. As for the matter of Özlem's fate, my son is determined to wed the girl and will not be dissuaded."

A perplexed expression came over Khaldun's face. "What sort of service has Elfhild done for your tribe?" he asked, confused. Had not Ulimaghûlb told him that this girl was insane? What use could a madwoman possibly be to the Dolrujâtar?

"She was able to provide us with valuable intelligence concerning the Kafakudraûg," Najor replied enigmatically. "Since you are not one of the Dolrujâtar, I can say no more about this matter."

"I find this difficult to believe," Khaldun remarked. "I had received a report that the Rohirric girl is insane, probably driven to that sorry state by her ordeals."

"Who told you such falsehoods?" Anger flashed in Zarkfir's eyes, dark and deadly. "Only one who has listened to the Kafakudraûg could make such a preposterous claim. Since when did the House of Huzziya give ear to Sand Orc scum?"

Khaldun sensed that he should try to mitigate the situation, and quickly, lest he find himself at the point of Zarkfir's sword. "My lord, you are indeed correct that the rumors of Elfhild's madness were spoken by the foul tongue of an orc. Several days ago, while scouting around the cistern to the north of here, my men and I came across a wounded goblin in the desert. We captured him and took him back to the camp, where he revealed much under torment. When asked of the two women, he claimed that Elfhild was insane, and the orcs had let her be out of fear of her."

Suddenly Shakh Najor started laughing, his weathered body racked with peals of mirth. Slapping his thigh, he rubbed the tears from his wrinkled eyes and wheezed several times, out of breath from laughter. "Captain, it would do you well to take all words which are uttered by orcs with copious amounts of salt, for not only are the brutes compulsive liars, but complete fools as well." Clearing his throat of phlegm, he took a handkerchief and dabbed at his eyes and mouth. "Both Özlem and Elfhild are very clever girls, resourceful and quick-witted. It was Özlem's idea for Elfhild to play the role of a simpleminded fool, in hopes that the superstitious orcs would leave her alone, and she could escape while they were not looking. There is nothing wrong with Elfhild's mind; in fact, she is quite healthy, though this desert climate does not agree with her."

"This is indeed a strange tale, and I would hear more of it." Khaldun touched his mustache, reflectively stroking the side with one finger. "Though I am not authorized to make any decisions upon the behalf of the honorable Shakh Esarhaddon uHuzziya, he did instruct me to confirm that the women are alive and well. Until I see these slaves, I doubt that my employer would consider coming to your village, for as it stands now, I could not swear that they are even alive. I would speak with the women and question them further about their captivity among the orcs."

"That can be easily arranged, Captain," Najor replied amiably. Turning to his servant, he gave the man instructions to fetch Elfhild and Özlem from Lady Shabimi's tent.


Elfhild's eyes widened with surprise as she saw the tall black man who was seated at the table with Shakh Najor and his son. Though she had never spoken with the man, she recognized him as one of the captains of the caravan guard. His presence meant only one thing: that Tushratta had sent out scouts to look for Özlem and her, and finally they had found them. Her heart soared with excitement. Soon she would be reunited with her sister, and all would be well again. Well, as well as life could be, when being forced to march in chains into the land of one's enemies. It had been a fortnight since the uruks had attacked Esarhaddon's tent and taken her hostage, and Elfhild longed to be reunited with her sister. They had never spent more than a night apart from each other, and every day of this separation had been agony. She had tried to keep herself occupied with the chores that Lady Shabimi had given her, but in the night when all was still, the pain and sorrow came crushing down upon her, tormenting her mind and robbing her of sleep. Perhaps soon she could exchange her grief for joy, and embrace her sister once again.

While Elfhild viewed the arrival of Khaldun with hope, Özlem felt a sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach. She had enjoyed her days in the desert paradise, and she did not wish to leave. As Zarkfir's first wife, she would hold a very important position among the Dolrujâtar, and when her husband eventually became tribal chieftain, she would become even more powerful. She thought about her life at Esarhaddon's villa, where she served as an assistant tutor and an occasional entertainer. While she was surrounded by wealth and luxury, she had little freedom over her own destiny. She was not even a true member of Esarhaddon's household, just an assistant at the School of Industry. Perhaps over time, she would be promoted to the position of teacher and become an esteemed member of the faculty. Then she would be able to enjoy the security and status that came with that role, or save up enough coin over the years to purchase her freedom and start a new life as a Citizen of Mordor. However, the very fact that Esarhaddon brought her along on the caravan trip was proof that her services were not truly needed at the school, so there might be little chance of her receiving a promotion. Perhaps he meant to sell her at the massive slave auction which would be held when the Rohirric captives reached Nurn. Özlem had no way of knowing, and no control over what happened to her. As Zarkfir's wife, her future would be more certain, her freedom guaranteed. She would never have to worry that her children would be subjected to the same horrors which stole her youth and innocence away.

"Captain Khaldun, the sight of these two women should put your mind at ease," Shakh Najor stated as he instructed Elfhild and Özlem to sit on the cushions nearby.

"My master will be pleased to learn that they are safe and sound," Khaldun remarked as his gaze took in the sight of the two girls. Despite the fading cuts and bruises upon their faces, they appeared to be reasonably healthy. "They seem relatively unscathed, given all that has befallen them."

"Captain, that is where you are wrong." Zarkfir sighed deeply, his eyes lingering upon Özlem. "Both of them suffered from their ordeal, but under the care of my mother and her maids, they are recovering well."

Özlem met Zarkfir's gaze and smiled demurely. She prayed that he would reject any reward that the House of Huzziya offered for her. That evening by the lake, Zarkfir had told her that he would fight any man who tried to take her away from him. However, the hearts of men were often fickle and easily swayed with gold. She felt her heart begin to beat faster and her body stiffen with dread, and it was all she could do to keep her desperation and fear from showing.

"Many desert people are known for their hospitality, and the Dolrujâtar are no exception," Khaldun nodded. "The House of Huzziya will be grateful to your tribe for rescuing and caring for these two lost slaves."

After acknowledging Khaldun's pleasantries with a nod, Zarkfir looked from Özlem to Elfhild. "The reason why you were summoned here was because Captain Khaldun requested to speak with you. Apparently, he had some doubt that the two of you are still alive." Looking almost mischievous, the chieftain's son rested his chin on his palm and gazed at the captain.

Ignoring Zarkfir's nettling antics, Khaldun gave Elfhild a smile which he hoped would seem reassuring. "While Özlem and I are well acquainted, I fear I have never spoken with you before. I am Khaldun, Third Captain of the House of Huzziya caravan guard. Four days ago, my men and I captured a goblin who revealed under torment that you and Özlem had been able to escape from Kafakudraûg Cavern. Shakh Esarhaddon ordered that my men and I renew our quest to find you, and our search brought us here to the Oasis of the Solitary Cedar."

"Shakh Esarhaddon?" Elfhild gasped in astonishment, her hand flying up to her mouth. "Y-you mean he is not dead? But — but I thought—"

Özlem's eyes filled up with tears. "I saw him fall, struck down by Durraiz' knife."

"The Shakh's wounds were not fatal, but there were many days when we did not know if he would live or die," Khaldun explained. "Fortunately, he is doing much better now."

"Oh, thank the Gods!" Elfhild cried, sobbing with happiness.

Khaldun smiled at the girls' exclamations of joy at the discovery that their master yet lived. "After the assault upon the camp, the caravan was moved a short distance away to Dâltgund Cistern, where it remained for twelve days. However, as Shakh Esarhaddon's health returned, so did his eagerness to resume the journey. The caravan is traveling south on the road as we speak."

"Khaldun was sent here to negotiate for your release," Shakh Najor spoke up, and Elfhild and Özlem turned to look at the old man. "Elfhild, though thoughts of your leaving grieve my heart, you are a slave of Mordor, and it is your fate to journey to Nurn with the other captives. Your master has offered a generous reward for rescuing you from the desert and harboring you among my people. However, I would not have you depart just yet. You will remain at the Oasis until I take council with Shakh Esarhaddon."

"Master, while I am indeed very grateful for the kindness that your family has shown to me, I look forward to seeing my sister again." Elfhild felt her voice break and fresh tears filling her eyes. She wondered if the wily old chieftain actually held any fondness for her, or if he just wanted to make sure that he got the amount that he was promised.

After giving Elfhild a doting smile, Najor turned to Özlem. "Shakh Esarhaddon has also offered to pay a reward for your return. However, my son desires to make you his wife, and has presented a most generous offer for your hand in marriage. When Khaldun returns to the caravan, he will present Shakh Esarhaddon with his terms, and see if he is agreeable to this arrangement."

"Thank you, my lord." Özlem lowered her head in humility. "I would be honored to become a part of your family. I hope I bring much happiness to my husband."

"You already have, my desert gift," Zarkfir told her. "Once all these formalities with your master have been cleared away, you will be my bride."

A feeling of deep gratitude came over Özlem, and she gazed longingly at Zarkfir. If he was willing to purchase her from the slaver, that meant that his affections for her were true, or at least true for the time. Ever since that evening by the lake, he had acted like a lovestruck suitor, falling over himself to please her and make her smile. But Özlem did not believe in love at first sight; lust, yes, but never love in its truest form. Zarkfir was a man pining for an old flame; it was solace and forgetfulness he sought in her arms. Perhaps over time, Zarkfir's feelings for her would deepen… or perhaps not. As long as she had safety and security, she would be happy.

Khaldun cleared his throat softly, drawing the attention of all those in the tent to himself. "I understand that the two of you faced many perils over the course of the past two weeks," he began, addressing Elfhild and Özlem. "Shakh Najor has already told me some of your tale, but I would hear the rest of it."

The two girls turned to look at each other, their eyes meeting in an expression of frustration. How many times would they have to relate their abduction by uruks and captivity among the Sand Orcs? They were growing exceedingly weary of the tale. There was nothing they could do about it, though, and so they related their story once again, answering all of the questions that Khaldun asked of them until at last the man seemed satisfied with their accounts.


After Elfhild and Özlem were dismissed, Shakh Najor turned to Khaldun. "Now that all your questions and fears concerning the slave women have been alleviated, I would take you on a tour of the Oasis of the Solitary Cedar so that you may see the emerald jewel of Lithlad, the verdant desert paradise which has enchanted travelers in this region since ancient days." As the old shakh waxed poetic about the oasis, his eyes became filled with a sparkling exuberance.

"My lord, I really must be returning to the caravan—"

"Nonsense, my good Captain." Shakh Najor waved his hand dismissively. "I insist that you stay the rest of the afternoon and then take supper with us. You can return to your master in the morning."

Khaldun felt himself inwardly groaning. As representative of the House of Huzziya, he had to humor these tribesmen and placate their tempers so that they would be more agreeable to any proposals or counteroffers presented by Shakh Esarhaddon. At least the chieftain's son was in a better humor, he reflected, recalling the tense scene before the village gates. He wondered, though, why the man kept staring at him. Deep within his soul, he suspected he knew the answer. For there was a language spoken between certain men, a language not of words but of subtle nuance and gesture... He was fluent in that tongue, though oft he wished that he were not. But perhaps he was mistaken. One thing was for certain, though: he would be glad when he left this village far behind him.

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