The Circles - Book Seven - Chapter 24

The Circles - Book Seven - Land of Treachery
Chapter Twenty-four
Desert Alliances
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

"Outrageous!" Esarhaddon shouted after hearing Khaldun relay Shakh Zarkfir's proposed offer of ten goats, ten sheep, a silver ewer, and a keg of date beer as payment for Özlem. "He would have me burden down the already overburdened caravan guards with chasing sheep and goats all over Lithlad! The other half of his offer to purchase my slave – a silver ewer and a keg of beer – is a paltry one, for such goods can be obtained from any marketplace in Nurn. A skilled and talented musician such as Özlem is worth far more than that!" The slave merchant's face had turned dark with rage, and his voice shook with fury as he glared at the men who had gathered around the low table in his tent. Earlier that morning, Khaldun had arrived at the caravan camp, bearing tidings from the Oasis of the Solitary Cedar. Esarhaddon had swiftly called a council to discuss this new development and debate what was the best action to take.

"My lord," the physician Tushratta spoke up, his voice calm and soothing, "you should not tax yourself unduly. Your wounds—"

"Damn my wounds!" Esarhaddon exclaimed, turning to face him. "Most of them are healed." He sometimes wondered if the Khandian physician was determined to turn him into an invalid.

"Shakh, I need not remind you that it will be a good month or more before you have even begun to recover." Tushratta was not intimidated in the least by his sulking master. "Your ribs have not fully knitted, and I do not need to mention the other—"

"I know, I know all that!" The Shakh waved his hand dismissively. "Now keep silent, Tushratta! This is not a discussion of my health! Speak only when you have something to contribute to the discussion at hand!"

"As you will, my lord." Tushratta inclined his head deferentially, unruffled by the Shakh's rebuke. Why waste words upon a stubborn fool? He was far too dignified to argue the matter anyway.

"My lord Esarhaddon," Captain Khaldun spoke up, "I fear I am confused as to your wishes in this matter. Do you propose that we attempt to rescue Özlem and Elfhild?"

"No, of course not!" Esarhaddon looked at Khaldun as though he had lost his mind. "The Dolrujâtar far outnumber the caravan guard!"

"We have barely enough men as it is to protect the caravan." Ganbar, Esarhaddon's chief lieutenant, shook his head morosely.

"Perhaps if we employed a band of assassins, we could steal Özlem away from the Dolrujâtar, but I do not see any way that any of our men could pull off such a feat," Inbir added with a tone of defeat.

"My lord, if you do not intend to accept Shakh Zarkfir's offer, nor make any attempt to reclaim Özlem, I am uncertain as to what you wish to do," Khaldun remarked hesitantly.

"I am pondering the matter as we speak," Esarhaddon snapped, glaring daggers at all of his men. "Shakh Najor is willing to accept the reward for Elfhild's safe keeping and return, but his son's offer for Özlem makes a mockery out of the House of Huzziya. Though Özlem has been a worthy servant who has enriched my house with music, I would be willing to part with her if an appropriate offer was made, but Zarkfir's offer is unacceptable. Yet if I refuse, the accursed scoundrel gets my slave, and I get nothing!" The slave trader was accustomed to haggling over the price of slaves; in fact, he quite enjoyed a good challenge from a shrewd buyer who was determined to keep costs low. However, he was accustomed to having his merchandise safely in his possession, and not in the custody of the buyer, when engaging in such games of bargaining. He felt as though he had one hand tied behind his back, and he feared that his usual tactics would not work in this situation. How could he make a profit when the odds were so against him?

"You could take the matter to the Mordorian authorities," Tushratta suggested. "Although the Dolrujâtar are allowed to govern their people as they see fit, their laws cannot supersede those of Mordor. If you refuse to sell Özlem to Shakh Zarkfir, and he refuses to return her to you, then he is little more than a thief. As we all know, the Lord of the Tower takes a dim view towards thieves, and the penalty for stealing another man's slave is death."

"I do not have time to take my complaint to the Tower," Esarhaddon growled, waving his hand in disgust. "While I have no doubt that the Lord of Mordor would rule in my favor, I would be forced to travel to Barad-dûr to state my case, and then wait while the Mordorian Inquisitors brought Shakh Zarkfir before the dark throne; that is, if he did not manage to flee the country with Özlem first. The whole unpleasant affair would cause me to lose much valuable time, and time is money. I would rather give Özlem away than endure such hardship."

"My lord," Khaldun spoke up, "perhaps you should go to the Oasis of the Solitary Cedar and speak with Shakh Zarkfir himself. After all, it was Shakh Najor's preference that this matter be handled in person rather than through messengers."

Esarhaddon's gaze shifted to the captain. "That would be yet another delay," he sighed, drumming his fingers against the table. "The caravan has been delayed enough as it is, and with all the calamities that have plagued this journey, I have oft wondered if we will ever reach our destination." 

"Talking to the Dolrujâtar chieftain and his son could have merit," Ganbar proposed, nodding to Khaldun. "A direct course of action might be the best one to take. When Shakh Zarkfir sees your determination and resolve as a merchant, he might become so intimidated that he agrees to your terms upon the spot."

"Traveling to the Oasis would also save time, for you could collect the Rohirric girl while settling the matter of Özlem," Khaldun suggested, grateful for the first lieutenant's support. "It is possible that this matter could be resolved in a manner agreeable to all."

Esarhaddon stroked his beard thoughtfully, considering the advice of his men. "Perhaps I will take the Shakh up upon his invitation and travel to the Oasis of the Solitary Cedar. However, it is not Shakh Najor with whom I have a grievance, but his son, who wishes to steal from me."

"From what I have observed, Shakh Zarkfir seems to be a man of honor, even if he is tight with his purse strings," Khaldun stated tactfully, feeling quite relieved that the slaver had calmed down from his earlier tirade. "After all, he could have claimed that he had not seen the women and let my men and I leave his village believing a falsehood, but instead he offered to purchase Özlem. Since he has his heart set on marrying her, perhaps he could be persuaded to pay a much higher price."

Esarhaddon stroked his beard thoughtfully, the gears of his calculating mind beginning to turn. "It is true that a man in love thinks with his heart instead of his brain… If he is so determined to be with his beloved, mayhap I could wring the coins from him like water being squeezed from a rag."

"And if he is not willing to meet your demands, you could threaten him with the law of Mordor, as Tushratta suggested," Khaldun remarked, glancing towards the physician, who nodded in agreement.

"Captain Khaldun, you have had dealings with both Shakh Zarkfir and his father, and perhaps have gained some understanding of the Dolrujâtar in your brief meeting. Do you have any insights which might lead to a resolution of this dilemma?" Esarhaddon studied the captain's face intently.

Khaldun thought for a moment before replying. "Rather than antagonizing the Dolrujâtar, I believe that we should try to make them our allies rather than our enemies." While the captain was a simple man who knew little of diplomacy and politics, he knew that it was far better to have friends than foes, and that taking a more moderate stance was usually a wise decision.

"What do you suggest, Captain? I am willing to consider any plan that will avert bloodshed, fetch back the Rohirric slave girl, and bring me a coffer of silver for Özlem." Esarhaddon eyed him calculatingly.

"My lord, I fear that my plan – while it should avert bloodshed – will not fill your pockets with coin, although you will still greatly benefit." He looked at Esarhaddon, but the Shakh's expression was inscrutable, his eyes partly covered by heavy lids. "My opinion is that you should present Özlem to Shakh Zarkfir as a gift."

"Captain, do you realize what you are asking of me?" His eyes narrowing, Esarhaddon scowled at him. "When a man gives one of his valued slaves to another man, it is as though he has given him a daughter. Such a thing would be tantamount to forging an alliance with Shakh Zarkfir."

Khaldun smiled. "That is exactly the idea, my lord. The greater the gift, the more indebted the receiver is to the giver."

"Such is the custom in Mordor," Esarhaddon nodded. Gifts were often manacles in disguise, with a chain that was attached to the hand of the giver. 

Feeling encouraged, Khaldun went on. "If you consider the benefits of my proposal, they far outweigh any drawbacks. The Dolrujâtar have the largest force of warriors in all of Southern Gorgoroth who are not directly under the control of the Tower, and we need all the allies we can get in these treacherous lands." He waited while Esarhaddon thought about his proposition.

"What you mean, Captain, is that you wish to hire the Dolrujâtar as mercenaries, and use Özlem to secure the deal?" Esarhaddon asked.

"Yes, my lord, that is what I suggest," Khaldun replied, looking the slaver directly in the eyes. "They could be employed as guards to defend the caravan, not just on this journey, but on all journeys to come. While the alliance would result in the loss of a valuable slave, the House of Huzziya would greatly benefit in the long run."

Esarhaddon looked towards the other men in attendance. "What do you think of Captain Khaldun's proposal?"

"Given our losses, we could certainly do with more guards," Ganbar concurred. "The Dolrujâtar have lived in Southern Gorgoroth for untold generations, so they would know this land better than anyone, and their aid, should they be agreeable in giving it, could be invaluable."

"Ganbar has a good point," Inbir agreed. "There are no better people to engage in desert warfare than those who make the desert their home." These tribesmen would make far better warriors than some of the Nurnian farm boys who had sought work with the caravan, he reflected.

"Well, then, I believe that this discussion has been settled," Esarhaddon announced. "Captain Ganbar, you will gather a party of men to accompany me to the Oasis of the Solitary Cedar. Inbir and Khaldun, you will be accompanying me as well."

"My lord, I will remind you again that you are still healing from your many wounds and injuries," Tushratta spoke up dutifully. "You must not exert yourself too much, lest your condition worsen." 

"I will ride in a wain, but only to silence your endless protestations about my health," Esarhaddon growled.

"You shall hear more of my protestations, as you call them, for I intend to travel with you to the village."

"That is hardly necessary, Tushratta," Esarhaddon remarked sternly. 

"I insist, and there is nothing you can do to change my mind." 

Esarhaddon glowered at Tushratta, but did not protest.

The other men kept a respectful silence, but it was sometimes difficult not to chuckle at the slaver's chagrin over the ministrations of his overly concerned physician.


Before leaving the caravan camp, Khaldun returned to his tent to fetch a fresh change of clothing and other supplies for the journey. Although the caravan was less than a day's ride from the Oasis, he was not sure how long that Esarhaddon would be staying with the Dolrujâtar. Since Shakh Zarkfir intended to marry Özlem, most likely the merchant lord would be invited to attend the marriage celebration… that is, if the two men were able to come to an agreement over the bride's price. Depending upon the customs of the tribe, the festivities involving the wedding could turn into a lengthy affair which was stretched out over several days, possibly even a week long or even longer. Khaldun knew that Esarhaddon was in a hurry to get to Nurn, but convention would demand the slaver's presence for at least some of the celebration. 

"Will I be accompanying you and the Shakh's men on this visit to the Oasis?"

Khaldun looked up from his pack to see Ulimaghûlb's gleaming yellow eyes on him. "No, I am afraid you have not been invited."

"Any reason why I was not?" the goblin asked indignantly.

"We might not be so lucky this time around."

"I do not know why you are so edgy," Ulimaghûlb muttered. "Everything went fine."

"You are just thinking about getting another chance to see Shakh Najor's wife and slave girls," Khaldun replied good-naturedly, hoping he would forestall a tense situation. He would like to maintain peace with his friend if possible.

"That thought had entered my mind," Ulimaghûlb admitted with a sly grin. "Whenever I remember all those voluptuous slave girls, I want to run back to the oasis and take them all for myself!"

"My friend, you cannot go with me; it is that simple," Khaldun advised him. 

"You need my help, Captain."

"For what?" Khaldun lifted an eyebrow.

"I can do many things... interpret, fight, find water, track stray horses... I will still be on my feet when your kind have fallen in the dust."

"No," Khaldun shook his head as he strapped on his sword belt. "Not this time."

"You are making a mistake, Captain." The goblin placed a hand on Khaldun's forearm and looked up pleadingly into his eyes. He was met by Khaldun's stony gaze.


It was late in the afternoon when Esarhaddon and his escort arrived at the Oasis of the Solitary Cedar. The reception that the party was given was far better than the one Khaldun and his men received, for Shakh Najor had been expecting the slave trader to make an appearance sometime during that week. Esarhaddon's arrival came far sooner than the chieftain had expected, however, but perhaps that bode well, for it most likely meant that the merchant was eager to begin negotiations. The horns of the sentinels watching from the walls blared out the announcement that strangers were approaching the village, and a welcoming party led by Shakh Zarkfir rode out to meet them.

Their cloaks swirling out behind them, Ganbar, Inbir and Khaldun rode forward to meet the tribesmen. "May peace and good health be with you." Ganbar touched his hand to his heart. "Permit me to introduce myself. I am Ganbar, First Lieutenant to Shakh Esarhaddon uHuzziya, and these two men with me are Inbir and Khaldun, Second Lieutenant and Captain." He gestured towards the men, who inclined their heads respectfully. 

"May the Eye look upon you with favor." Zarkfir smiled, his gaze falling upon each of the men. "I am Shakh Zarkfir, son of Shakh Najor, and these are my brothers, Husu and Kangtar. You are all welcome in the village of the Solitary Cedar." He pressed his hand to his heart and bowed his head slightly. 

"Shakh Esarhaddon will be arriving shortly. He must travel by wain, for he was severely wounded by treacherous uruks," Ganbar explained. "That is his wain that is now approaching."

The wagon rolled to a stop in front of the waiting tribesmen. A guard held the door open as Esarhaddon gingerly stepped to the ground. His eyes went to the welcoming party as he sized them up, trying to determine which one was Shakh Zarkfir. His guess was the eldest of the three. The man's robes were much richer than the others', and his horse's saddle blanket was brilliantly embroidered and tasseled.

"Shakh Esarhaddon uHuzziya, I am Shakh Zarkfir, son of Shakh Najor. Much have I heard about you over the years. Now that my eyes actually behold you, I feel greatly honored." Zarkfir smiled broadly. 

"Shakh Zarkfir, I have heard much about you." And not all of it good, Esarhaddon mused to himself. "So you are the man who has won the heart of my servant girl." 

"Yes, Shakh, I hope to make Özlem my bride," Zarkfir replied. "But, come, let us not stand here; there will be time enough to discuss these matters later. Now my men and I will be honored to escort you to the village." 

Esarhaddon returned to his wain, settling himself as comfortably as he could, considering his injuries. He had not had time to form any firm opinion about Shakh Zarkfir, but during their brief meeting he had noted that the young shakh had the lean look of a predator about him. He did not have to like the man, though, to engage in negotiations and bargaining; all he had to determine was how he could exploit him and his tribe for his own means.

Shakh Zarkfir led the merchant's entourage to the tent of his father, who was waiting to greet the newcomers and welcome them to the village. After uttering many extravagant salutations and performing all the customary displays of hospitality, the chieftain ushered Esarhaddon and his men into the shade under the awning, where he bade them sit and rest from their travels.

Shakh Najor was eager to hear of Esarhaddon's journey and news from the outside world. It would be impolite to discuss the real reason for their meeting too quickly, and so over tea, Shakh Najor and his three sons listened to Esarhaddon's account of his travels. When that topic had been thoroughly exhausted, the conversation waned, and the men began to talk of the war in the West. There had been rumors that there were widespread defeats in Rohan and western Gondor, but those rumors had been quickly hushed by Sauron's agents. Then it was time for dinner, and as it was never good for digestion to discuss unpleasantries, the discussion turned to far more enjoyable topics such as hunting, falconing, and horse racing, with Shakh Najor and his sons querying Esarhaddon about his opinion of the price of wool, sheep, goats, and horses on the market in Nurn. 

"While I have greatly enjoyed the company of you and your men, I know that you came here to discuss more than the latest tidings of the world," Shakh Najor stated at last. "As you know, my son wishes to marry your slave Özlem, and has made a generous offer for her hand."

Zarkfir nodded. "In the brief time that I have known her, I have become quite fond of Özlem, and I desire to make her my bride."   

Esarhaddon felt a sense of relief; finally they were getting down to business. "Captain Khaldun told me of your intentions. It is little wonder that Shakh Zarkfir is enamored of Özlem. She is lovely beyond compare, with an intelligence to match her beauty. She is a highly skilled dulcimer player, a natural prodigy from a young age. Not only can she play the santur, but she has experience in teaching others the art as well, having served as an assistant to the music teacher at the School of Industry, the academy which the House of Huzziya operates to train servants for the Mordorian elite. She is fluent in Westron, Haradric, and Black Speech; has a knowledge of history and mathematics; and possesses skill in needlecraft and weaving. She has been trained in decorum and the social graces; her manners are flawless, and her bearing is that of one born to the nobility." 

"These are indeed impressive claims, Shakh." There was a note of awe in Najor's voice.

"The House of Huzziya specializes in highly skilled slaves, jewels to enhance the coffers of the Mordorian nobility." Esarhaddon did not boast of Özlem's talents purely out of pride; he wanted the chieftain to recognize her value, and be greatly appreciative when he presented her to his son as a gift of friendship between the House of Huzziya and the Dolrujâtar. 

"You should be pleased to know that both Özlem and Elfhild have been a joy to have here at the village," Najor remarked. "During their sojourn here, they have acted as servants for my first wife, assisting her handmaidens in their labors. They have also provided my men and me with valuable intelligence concerning our enemies, for few who are taken to Kafakudraûg Cavern ever escape to tell the tale."

"Elfhild is certainly good at escaping." Esarhaddon recalled the merry chase that she and her sister had led him through Anórien.

"She was able to explore more of the cavern than Özlem, and she took notice of many of the passages and ventilation shafts in her wanderings," Najor continued. "As one who has ventured deep into the heart of the enemy's lair, Elfhild has much valuable knowledge which will be of use to the Dolrujâtar. During her stay at the village, she has been busy creating a map of the cavern and providing detailed accounts of all that she saw within that accursed hole." 

Esarhaddon had never considered that Elfhild might have the makings of a cartographer… or a spy. "Truth be told, I know little about the Rohirric girl, other than the fact that she has a penchant for getting into trouble," he admitted. "How are her cartography skills?"

"I would imagine they are adequate for someone who has never made a map before, or had use of parchment and ink," Najor replied. 

"At least she possesses a sense of direction," Esarhaddon mused.

"If it is acceptable to you, Shakh, I would like to settle the matter of Elfhild first, and then we shall discuss a brideprice for Özlem." Turning to a waiting servant, Najor instructed the man to fetch Elfhild and bring her to the council. Soon the servant returned with the Rohirric girl in tow. Rising to his feet, the chieftain gestured for her to stand before him. "Alas, daughter of the North, you must soon leave our village, for your master, the noble Shakh Esarhaddon uHuzziya, has come to claim you. For your aid to the Dolrujâtar, I present you with this reward." He nodded to the servant, who handed Elfhild a small sack of coins. 

Elfhild timidly pulled on the drawstring which held the bag closed. Her eyes widened when she saw the flash of silver within. It seemed the image of the Great Eye upon the coins was winking at her.

"You will find ten zûbardh there," Najor told her.

"Thank you, Master!" Elfhild exclaimed, bowing low in gratitude. "I am honored by your esteem."

Shakh Najor turned back to Esarhaddon. "As you can see, your slave has been well cared for by my people."

"You have my gratitude, Shakh." Esarhaddon retrieved a bag of coins from the pouch at his belt. "In accordance with the laws of Mordor, here are twenty-five zûbardh as recompense for her safe keeping and return."

Shakh Najor weighed the bag in his hand. "I give you my thanks, Shakh Esarhaddon. As we speak, the servants are preparing guest tents for you and your men. If it pleases you, I will have your slave girl sent to your tent to await you there."

The merchant nodded. "That would be greatly appreciated." 

"It will be as you command." Najor nodded to the servant, who escorted Elfhild from the tent. "Now we come to the matter of Özlem. My son has offered as trade ten sheep, ten goats, a silver ewer, and a keg of the Oasis' finest date beer. This offer is not given lightly! For the Dolrujâtar, our flocks are as precious to us as our own life's blood, for they provide us with milk, meat, and wool, and allow us to survive in the wastes. The tribe's silversmiths are among the most skilled in the land, having learned many secrets of the craft from the Lord of Gifts Himself, and the ewer that I gift to you is a family heirloom of the Dagrî Clan. The sweetness of the date palms which flourish around the oasis temper the bitterness of the desert, and when fermented, make a beer beyond compare."

"Although I would be purchasing a slave, I intend to free Özlem and make her my wife; thus, the price I pay for her I consider to be her brideprice," Zarkfir spoke up. "I pray that you will consider my offer."

"I have an even better offer for you to consider," Esarhaddon announced. "I propose an alliance between the Dolrujâtar and the House of Huzziya."

"An alliance?" Shakh Najor leaned towards him.

"Yes, an alliance, one that benefits both your people and my trading company." Esarhaddon gestured towards the chieftain and then himself. "After a series of misfortunes, my caravan is in great need of guards. While we are less than a week away from the border of Gorgoroth and Nurn, given the ill luck we have had so far, I would not be at all surprised if the caravan were assailed by Sand Orcs, brigands, or even crazed fell beasts. The warriors of your people know these lands and the dangers that dwell within, and are better suited to serve as guards and guides through the wastes than men who hail from afar."

Shakh Najor stroked his beard thoughtfully. "How would my people benefit from this alliance?"

"The House of Huzziya will hire Dolrujâtar warriors as mercenaries to protect the caravan, not just on this journey, but upon future ventures as well."

"And in exchange for the services of my tribe's warriors, you would give Özlem as wife to my son?"

Esarhaddon nodded. "Zarkfir's marriage to Özlem would seal the deal."

Shakh Najor turned to Zarkfir. "What do you think of this proposal, my son?"

"The House of Huzziya is well respected in Mordor; our tribe would benefit from such an alliance." The look of the zealot came over Zarkfir's face, and he pressed his fist to his heart. "The Dolrujâtar revere the Lord of Gifts, and if His servants are in need of assistance, it is our duty to come to their aid." 

"Then it is settled. I give my approval to this alliance, and to my son's marriage to Özlem." Shakh Najor held up his hand, signaling for Udahok, his chief servant. "Tell my wives and their handmaidens to prepare an abundance of food for our guests. Tonight we shall feast to celebrate this momentous occasion!"

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