The Circles - Book Seven - Chapter 23

The Circles - Book Seven - Land of Treachery
Chapter Twenty-three
A Goblin in the Seraglio
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

"Amara, will you not have some more bread and cheese?" asked Lady Shabimi as she leaned down and placed her hand on the girl's arm. She was surprised at the thick muscles which she felt hidden beneath the dark robes. The girl shook her head. "Perhaps some curds?" Again the girl shook her head, more vigorously this time.

Lady Shabimi and her handmaids had done everything in their power to make Khaldun's wife feel welcome. At least she had a healthy appetite, consuming all that had been placed before her at the midday meal. Shabimi felt a pang of sympathy when she watched Amara shyly slip the food beneath her veil, never once revealing her face.

It was Shabimi's understanding that Amara's face and body were horribly scarred, and Amara was too humiliated by her deformities even to let her own husband see her unveiled. How sad that was! Shabimi did not know how old the girl was, but she assumed that Amara was still fairly young. What great pity it was that poor Amara would have to live the rest of her life shrouded in self-imposed exile. Perhaps if the Lord of Gifts blessed her with children, the little ones might assuage the bitter sting of her terrible misfortune. Shabimi frowned. Perhaps the disease had rendered her barren, and the poor girl would have to suffer the rest of her life without experiencing the joy of motherhood. Shabimi wiped away a tear with a well-manicured, henna-painted finger. Khaldun must love Amara very much to keep her as his wife and not divorce her. Shabimi knew her own husband would have no qualms about ridding himself of a once lovely wife who had been rendered grotesque by debilitating disease. "Men," she thought with disgust. "How cruel they can be!"

"Should you wish anything else to eat or drink, Amara, please do not be shy." She gave the girl's arm a motherly squeeze before walking away to sit upon a cushion. Then she called Lârniz to fetch her hand spindle. There was nothing like working with the hands to keep one's mind occupied, she thought.

As Lârniz gave her mistress the spindle, her eyes wandered to Amara. The mute girl was looking the other way, and Lârniz wrinkled her nose in disgust, for the girl smelled almost as bad as one of the male goats. Shabimi felt like chiding the handmaiden, but she knew that if Amara heard her, the girl's tender feelings might be crushed. Lârniz' eyes met those of her mistress, whose lovely brow was creased in a frown. That was enough to cause the handmaiden to blush in shame and drop her gaze. When possible, Shabimi would again have to talk to her handmaids in private, reminding them that Amara was a very delicate and sensitive young woman, and it was the height of rudeness to insult a guest.

Still, though, Shabimi had to admit the uncomfortable truth: that Amara stank. She so wished that Amara would agree to a bath, but she suspected that the poor girl had such a low regard for herself that she had simply let herself go. She raised an eyebrow at the girl's disregard for personal cleanliness, and she wished that she could help her. She could hardly order a guest to bathe, though. Instead, she would discreetly tell one of her servants to burn more incense. The scent of flowers and sandalwood would surely rid the tent of the strong smell.

"Kaira and Nadrói, will you dance for us?" Shabimi turned her gaze to the two senior handmaidens. "And, Özlem, I would love to hear you play the santur, and I am sure our guest will as well."

Soon the girls had formed a small musical ensemble, with Lârniz playing the oud and Özlem with her borrowed santur. Azul provided percussion with a goblet drum, and Zâhof had a reed pipe at the ready. Kaira and Nadrói began to dance, their bodies swaying to the rhythm of the music. The dance started slowly at first, with the girls focusing upon graceful arm movements and gentle undulations of their upper bodies. Then Zâhof began playing her horn, and the musicians sped up the tempo, the dancers swiftly matching their pace. Kaira and Nadrói twirled around each other, the skirts of their richly embroidered dresses swirling out from their bodies like the petals of a flower.

Beneath his veils, Ulimaghûlb the goblin licked his thick, greenish-gray lips as he watched Kaira and Nadrói dance. The two women were incredibly beautiful, their loveliness almost too much to bear. The evidence of Ulimaghûlb's lust was steadily rising, and he deftly concealed his raging orchood beneath one of the sumptuously brocaded pillows which were scattered around the tent. Ah, this was the life, the dream of every orc or man ever born, to be surrounded by beautiful women who lived and breathed only to please their master. Unfortunately, the goblin vizier was not the lord of these beauties, but, oh, he could dream, and dream he did, his mind filled with lascivious fantasies so obscene and bawdy that they almost caused him to blush in shame. And it was a rare thing when a goblin blushed.

Ulimaghûlb knew that he would be executed if anyone found out that he really was not a woman, but a Sand Orc, one of the enemies of the Dolrujâtar. Still, it might be worth it just to touch the silky flesh of one of these beauties before he was hacked to pieces. He felt sick with lust and unfulfilled desire, dying from pleasure which he could never obtain. He groaned in misery, both cursing and blessing this most embarrassing situation in which he found himself.

The goblin vizier's delicious state of distress continued, for as the afternoon wore on, he would be surrounded by even more beautiful women… and some not so beautiful… but still a far cry above the fair maidens of Kafakudraûg Cavern. Shakh Najor's other two wives and their handmaidens came by to pay Lady Shabimi a visit and extend a warm welcome to the mysterious Amara, wife of Captain Khaldun. Other women in the village, hearing the music and merriment coming from the tent, decided to investigate as well. Given its distance from the main thoroughfare, travelers seldom came to the Oasis of the Solitary Cedar, so whenever there was a newcomer, it was everyone's business. Soon there was a large gathering in the tent, and Lady Shabimi's handmaidens scrambled to serve each guest refreshments. Both tea and gossip flowed like waterfalls.

Lady Shabimi's handmaidens took turns providing musical entertainment for their mistress and her guests. Özlem, who had just finished performing a set of Nurnian ballads, took a seat at the side of the tent beside Elfhild while Lârniz performed a lute solo. Elfhild turned to smile at her friend, who returned the gesture. The attention of the women was upon Lady Shabimi and her enigmatic guest, and few paid any heed to Elfhild and Özlem, for they were just two faces amongst many. The lively sounds of music, laughter, and conversation drowned out their voices, allowing the girls to have a modicum of privacy in the midst of a crowd.

"There is something that bothers me about Amara," Özlem confided in a low voice, her gaze darting towards the veiled woman and then back to Elfhild.

Following Özlem's lead, Elfhild cast a surreptitious glance at Amara. "What do you mean?" she asked, her brow furrowed.

Özlem moved closer to Elfhild. "Well, quite simply, Khaldun does not have a wife."

Elfhild tried to suppress a gasp of surprise. "What… what do you mean?"

"When Khaldun joined the caravan back in the spring, he brought no wife with him," Özlem explained in a low voice. "Neither was any woman with him when the caravan left Minas Tirith last month."

Elfhild's gaze was drawn back to the concealed figure sitting across the tent. "Then who is Amara?"

"That is what I have been trying to figure out," Özlem confessed. "It is as though she came out of the desert like a djinn."

"Do you think she is a djinn?" Elfhild knew little about the legends of the South and East, but from what she understood, they were powerful spirits of nature who could change their shape at will.

Özlem laughed softly. "I highly doubt that, but still one cannot help but wonder."

"So do you have any idea of her identity, then? And from whence she came?"

Özlem tapped her chin thoughtfully. "It is possible that Amara might be one of the women with the caravan... Perhaps Shakh Esarhaddon was concerned about our treatment at the hands of the Dolrujâtar, and sent a spy along with his men to investigate. A man would be prohibited from entering the harem of another man, but a woman would be a welcome guest. The thing that puzzles me so is why Amara must hide her face."

"It does seem a bit strange." Elfhild had been willing to accept that Amara was this poor, disfigured woman who hid her face out of shame, but now she was not so certain. What if Özlem was correct in her assumptions?

"It is obvious that Amara is hiding something, and I highly doubt it is a disfigured countenance." Özlem dropped her voice even lower as she leaned towards Elfhild's ear. "I have a suspicion that she might really be a he."

Elfhild's eyes widened at this revelation. "You believe Amara to be a man?"

Özlem looked around to make sure no one was listening in to their conversation, and then nodded. "Perhaps Khaldun feared that negotiations with Shakh Najor might go poorly, and thus he came up with an alternate plan to free us from the Dolrujâtar. Khaldun's 'wife' might be one of his men in disguise, sent to help us escape from our captors in the dead of night."

"It would have been better had he brought a strong warrior," Elfhild remarked with a dubious glance towards the veiled figure who was the center of everyone's attention. "This little fellow does not appear too stout."

"Appearances can be deceiving," Özlem stated sagely. "There is a man in the caravan who is a half-dwarf. He is shorter than I am, but he is as strong as an ox. I suspect that 'Amara' might be he."

"Then dwarves must smell terribly." Elfhild wrinkled her nose in disgust. "Almost as bad as orcs!" A strange look suddenly came over her face. "Özlem, do you think that Amara could be an orc?"

A shadow of terror clouded Özlem's eyes; blinking hard, she turned her head away to regain her composure. "There are no uruks of so short a stature traveling with the caravan. 'Amara' must be the half-dwarf; I am certain of it. Khaldun must have chosen him as his comrade because his stature belies his strength, and he could pass more easily as a woman than could a big, burly guard."

"I am sure you are right," Elfhild nodded. "Whoever Amara is, whether they be man or woman, if they were sent by Shakh Esarhaddon, then they are on our side."

"That is where you are mistaken, Elfhild." Özlem sighed and looked away. "While you long to return to your sister, I would rather stay here with Shakh Zarkfir and the Dolrujâtar. The arrival of Captain Khaldun and his diminutive comrade may fill your heart with joy, but mine is filled with dread."

"Oh, Özlem." Elfhild felt a pang of guilt chastise her soul. If the agents from the House of Huzziya took Özlem back to the caravan, she might be separated from Zarkfir forever. Although she was thrilled at the prospect of seeing Elffled again, Elfhild had to temper that excitement for the sake of her friend. "I hope Captain Khaldun and Shakh Najor will be able to come to an agreement which will bring happiness to all."

"Only time will tell. Now we must wait." Özlem wondered what she would do if Khaldun and his men tried to rescue them that night. What would the would-be heroes do if only one of the maidens they had been sent to retrieve wished to be liberated from her captors?


Later that evening, a servant escorted Amara to Khaldun's tent; it seemed that the mysterious veiled woman would not be staying the night with Lady Shabimi and her handmaidens. Elfhild and Özlem were somewhat confused at this, for by that time, both girls were thoroughly convinced that Amara was really a half-dwarf warrior who was going to smuggle them from the camp under the cover of darkness. Beneath his veils and robes was an entire armory of daggers and axes; perhaps he even knew spells that would blind the eyes of his pursuers with caustic smoke, or could sing a song of wizardry that would sweep away his enemies with a great and terrible wind. It would be more difficult for Khaldun and his men to rescue them if they were not in the company of the mighty half-dwarf paladin, but not wholly impossible. 

The girls were even more bewildered when no midnight rescue was forthcoming. Early the next morning, Captain Khaldun, his men, and his peculiar wife departed from the Oasis of the Solitary Cedar, their destination the caravan of the House of Huzziya.

This was not how things were supposed to have gone. Khaldun and his men, with the assistance of the mighty half-dwarf, were supposed to have made an attempt to steal them away from the Dolrujâtar. Elfhild had planned to go along willingly, while Özlem hoped to slip away unnoticed in the chaos. The girls had even made their hasty farewells in secret the night before in preparation for this dramatic rescue. But all their joy and fears had been for naught.

As Elfhild and Özlem watched the party ride from the gates of the village, their minds were filled with questions.

Who was Amara? Was she man or woman? Was she daughter of Men, son of Dwarves, or one of the Ancient Ones who had existed before Arda was sung into being? And would they ever see her again, or would this be the first and only time that their paths would cross?

So many questions, and yet so few answers.

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