The Circles - Book Seven - Chapter 33

The Circles - Book Seven - Land of Treachery
Chapter Thirty-three
What Could Have Been
Written by Elfhild and Angmar

The air in the wedding pavilion had grown thick and heavy, and Zarkfir felt as though he were suffocating. His cheeks were hot as embers, and sweat beaded up upon his brow. The heady Nurnian wine with its unfamiliar potency and stupefying effects was wreaking havoc upon his senses, causing his vision to shimmer and swim like sunlight dancing upon the salt lake. He felt his stomach lurch, and a desperate need came over him to quit himself of the party lest he retch upon the guests. Turning to Özlem, he whispered in her ear that he was going outside to stretch his legs. Her lovely brown eyes looked at him with concern, but when he assured her that all was well, she gave him a smile and squeezed his hand. Promising her that he would return soon, he unsteadily rose to his feet and made his way through the crowd with as much caution as he could muster, giving polite nods to everyone who hailed him with cheers of congratulations.

Zarkfir felt better once he was outside. The night air was cool and refreshing, a welcome change from the stuffy interior of the tent. The light of a thousand stars and the waning humpback moon shone down upon him, and a cool breeze stirred under the boughs of the cedars and tamarisks. He wandered over to the bank overlooking the lake and looked up at the night sky, enjoying the view. The lights of the heavens seemed to dance before his besotted vision, and he marveled at the scintillating beauty that he beheld.

Suddenly Zarkfir became aware of another presence in the grove. Instinctively, his hand reached for the dagger at his belt, and he swiftly turned upon his heel to face the intruder. Much to his relief – and great dismay – the intruder was none other than Khaldun.

"Captain, what takes you away from the wedding feast?" Zarkfir asked, calming from his fright. The light of the lanterns and the moon far above glinted softly upon Khaldun's ebony skin, and the desert prince felt his heart skip a beat. Curse this man for resembling so much his faithless former lover!

"I came out here to get a breath of air," he explained. "I will be returning shortly." In some cultures, the dinner guests of a ruler were forbidden to leave until their lord retired for the evening, and Khaldun was loath to make any social blunders which would strain relations between the Dolrujâtar and the House of Huzziya. 

"I needed a reprieve from all the merriment," Zarkfir chuckled, his voice slurring slightly despite his best efforts to appear coherent. 

"There certainly has been a lot of that this evening." Khaldun noted that the other man seemed to be rather inebriated, which was unsurprising, given the sheer number of toasts which had been raised during the wedding feast.

"It is a grand party, is it not?" Zarkfir asked, nodding his head in agreement with himself. "They have come out in droves, excited to see me wed at last... Meddling busybodies, the lot of them." He looked back towards the tent, an expression of disdain upon his face.

Uncertain what to say, Khaldun maintained a respectful silence. 

Zarkfir shook his head in disgust and spat to the side. "I fail to see why my private affairs are so fascinating to everyone in this tribe."

"Well, you are the chieftain's son," Khaldun pointed out deferentially. 

"Sometimes I wish that I had been born a pauper's son." Zarkfir gave a rueful laugh. "But now at least my father and mother can no longer pester me to take a wife."

Khaldun looked at the chieftain's son with confusion. "But I thought that you wanted to marry Özlem." 

Zarkfir sighed heavily and sat down upon a large, flat rock. Emboldened by Khaldun's interest in his plight, he felt compelled to talk about the many woes which troubled him. "It is not that I do not want to marry Özlem. I just prefer to make my own decisions, rather than be pressured into making them." A sheepish expression came over his face. "I fear the wine has loosened my tongue, and perhaps I have said too much."

Khaldun smiled gently. "We all long for the freedom to make our own decisions, but few of us truly have the luxury to do what we desire."

"How true that is!" Zarkfir's features lit up with the thrill of being understood. "Come sit with me, and we shall talk for a while." When Khaldun sat down beside him, the prince continued. "For years, I have been under pressure from my parents to take a wife. I do not know who was more persistent, my father or my mother. Their first attempt was when I was eighteen and they tried to marry me to my uncle's daughter. They were shocked when I refused. My father wanted to beat me, but my mother persuaded him to show me mercy." 

Zarkfir sighed, remembering the rift that the whole accursed mess had caused in the family. Ever since his refusal, his uncle had considered him beneath dung, refusing to speak with him and barely speaking to his father. His mother still made excuses for him to her friends, telling them that times were perilous, and as the shakh's eldest son, he was needed to lead the tribe's warriors against the constant predations by the orcs. That part was true, anyway. Over the years Zarkfir had honed his skills with the sword, bow and spear until he was a lethal adversary against any orc.

"I knew one day that I would wed, but I always wanted it to be to a woman of my choice," Zarkfir continued after reflecting upon the past for a few moments. "However, making such a decision is quite difficult to do for a man who seldom feels desire for the fairer sex." The words came out of his mouth easily, too easily, perhaps, and he felt a sudden sense of trepidation as he waited for Khaldun's response.

Zarkfir's statement caught Khaldun off guard, and he cringed internally. He feared that the conversation might go in this direction; he had sort of a sense about such things. Still, the logical part of his brain was taken aback, and he felt compelled to question the prince further, even though he suspected he knew what the answer would be.

"What do you mean?" Khaldun inquired, feigning innocence.

Zarkfir studied Khaldun's face for a long moment, weighing how much he should share about himself. He knew little about the captain, other than the fact that he hailed from Far Harad and was married to a frail, mute woman whose once lovely features were marred by the red plague. Obviously, the man was a compassionate sort who possessed a heart filled with love and pity. However, it was always risky to reveal too much to a stranger. While most in his tribe grudgingly accepted him, Zarkfir knew that in some cultures, men of his disposition were treated with violence and brutality. He knew he should proceed with caution, but Khaldun looked so much like Jatagan, and it was difficult not to assume a familiarity. Perhaps it was just the wine speaking, but he felt as though he could trust Khaldun with the secrets of his heart. 

"I have been a lover of my own gender since childhood," Zarkfir remarked quietly. 

Khaldun felt an ominous thud inside his chest as his heart seemed to plunge to the bottom of his ribcage. So there it was, the confession that he had been dreading to hear. He had sensed this about the desert prince from the very beginning, but he had hoped that his intuition was wrong. A fool's hope, he knew, for there was no mistaking the bold glances that Zarkfir cast in his direction whenever they were near. Those dark, kohl-lined eyes burnt into him even now, and Khaldun bit down the primal fear that welled up inside his chest as demons from his past clawed and scraped at the doors of memory. Fear mingled with desire, but he knew not how to separate the one from the other.

Zarkfir paused a moment, waiting for Khaldun's response, but the other man held his tongue. Both unnerved and emboldened by the heavy silence, Zarkfir continued, his voice taking on a defensive tone. "Perhaps you now see me in a bad light, and perhaps you are justified in your opinion of me, but I cannot help what I am." At this point, the words were practically falling out of his mouth, and he made little attempt to stop them. "Oh, sometimes I wish it were otherwise, but I know I will never change, so what is the use in trying?" He asked the question rhetorically, not caring if he received an answer. "Oh, yes, I have tried; do not think that I have not. But it is always the same. Whenever I see an attractive man, I begin to burn with desire."

"Why are you telling me this, shakh?" Khaldun tried to hide his discomfort at being the unexpected confidant of a drunken man whom he barely knew. Indeed, strong drink often acted as a truth potion more potent than any elixir that an alchemist could brew in a musty stillroom.

"You remind me of someone else, someone I once loved." A look of pain and longing came over Zarkfir's face, and his eyes took on a faraway look, reliving a memory he could not forget. "I loved him more than I did any other, but he loved another more than he did me. I sent him away for his infidelity, but yet I yearn for his touch, the sound of his voice. I wonder every day what I did wrong, what I could have done to make him stay."

"The pain caused by an unfaithful lover is indeed great," Khaldun remarked consolingly. "But it is better to be free than to wear the horns of the cuckold."

"Your words are wise, my friend." Zarkfir reached over and patted Khaldun on the shoulder. It was a simple gesture of friendship, but he found that he was loath to move his hand away. His heart was pounding in his chest, and both the wine and his desire were telling him to do things that he might regret.

Or would he have any regrets? Life in Lithlad was often perilous, and could be snuffed out at any moment. Why not give into temptation? In the morrow, he could be dead, slain by the arrow of an orc assassin. Bolstered by drunken courage, Zarkfir found himself scheming ways that he might seduce the captain. "You know, I find you a most amazing man," he murmured, the sound like the rumble of a lion's purr. 

"In what way, shakh?" Khaldun asked, genuinely surprised at Zarkfir's comment. He had been called many things in his life, but "amazing" was not one of them.

"For one thing, you are far different from the men around you. You have an inner majesty, like that of a prince." Zarkfir eased a little closer and gazed longingly into Khaldun's eyes. "Perhaps you were royalty in your own land?"

"Hardly," Khaldun laughed sarcastically, uncomfortable at being the center of attention in this conversation. "I was the son of a herdsman on the great plains of Far Harad. My family lived on blood and milk from our animals, and earned what wheat we had by selling cattle and sheep. The son of a king? You surely are mistaken." 

"Your humility makes you noble, and that is truly a kingly quality," Zarkfir murmured softly, his voice filled with awe.

"I fear there is nothing noble about my background," Khaldun confessed. "When I was fourteen, I was captured by raiders from a rival tribe and sold to a slave caravan traveling north. I was a strong, robust youth, able to beat any boy in my village, and with a cocky attitude to match. Because of my strength and ability to fight, the slavers sold me to a gladiator school in Nurn, where I was trained as a pit fighter. I won my freedom eventually, and later sought employment as a caravan guard with the House of Huzziya."

"While you might not be the son of a king, I still find you fascinating." Zarkfir put his hand companionably on Khaldun's arm and smiled, his pearly teeth gleaming. He wondered how the other man's lips would taste if their mouths met in a kiss. The thought sent his blood racing.

"Why have you taken such a great interest in me?" Khaldun asked frankly, trying to ignore Zarkfir's fingers, which had begun to massage the muscles of his upper arm. The firm touches of the other man's hand melted away the tension in his muscles, only to replace it with a different sort of tension lower in his body. He resisted the urge to flee.

"How could I not?" Zarkfir's voice lowered, becoming husky with implication. "You are a brave and stalwart warrior. Handsome, too." He gave him a roguish wink.

"Shakh, not to offend you, but my tastes do not run in that direction," Khaldun remarked, his voice firm but polite. A falsehood, perhaps, but he was not in the habit of discussing such matters with his closest companions, much less a stranger he barely knew. The captain was a man of many secrets… and many sorrows.

"You do not offend me, my friend." Zarkfir smiled. "But perhaps I could change your mind..." He dropped his hand to rest upon Khaldun's thigh, his fingertips lightly stroking the hard muscles.

For a fleeting moment, Khaldun wondered if this handsome desert prince could indeed live up to his proposal, if he could be the one with the power to mend his many wounds and banish the horrors of the past. Although he was reluctant to admit it to himself, Khaldun had been drawn to Zarkfir from the moment they first met, sensing in him a kindred spirit. His eyes met Zarkfir's smoldering gaze, and he imagined what it would feel like to surrender to the fire which simmered deep inside the dungeons of his guarded heart. What would it feel like to crush his full, sensuous lips in a kiss, to run his hands under his tunic and explore the contours of the well-toned muscles which lay beneath?

And then Khaldun was no longer in the present, but in the past: a terrified young boy forced to kneel on the hard-packed floor of a miserable hut as he was taken cruelly by one lust driven monster after another. Before the slave trader sold Khaldun to the gladiator school, he had held a debauched banquet in which Khaldun served as the evening's entertainment. That terrible night still haunted Khaldun's nightmares, and the mere thought of being touched by another man filled him with horror and revulsion, even if it was the one thing he desired most. 

"I do not think so, Zarkfir." Khaldun caught the prince's hand in an iron grip, watching as the pain and fear crossed the other man's face. He knew he was being unnecessarily cruel, but he was stuck in the past, helplessly reliving the horror and agony he had endured in his youth. A wall of defense he put up around his heart; he would never be a victim again.

"Release my hand, Captain." Zarkfir winced at the pain. He was both frightened and disappointed at Khaldun's rejection, but tried to hide his feelings behind an impassive mask. "I will not touch you again."

Khaldun's cold gaze held Zarkfir's eyes until at last the captain released his grip. "If you do, I will break your hand. I told you that my tastes do not run in that direction. I might also remind you that I am married, and that this is your wedding night." The captain felt his soul sting with shame, both for the episode of the warrior's sickness that he had just experienced, as well as entertaining the thought of lying with a married man. The thought of interfering with a marriage was loathsome to Khaldun, and he felt thoroughly disgusted with himself.

Zarkfir sighed with the heavy weight of remembered responsibility. "Must you remind me?" He shook his head in disappointment. "You know, the shaman warned me something like this might happen… that my loyalty to Özlem might be tested. 'Fate has brought you together, but a chance meeting could tear you apart.' Those were his dire words, and I had all but forgotten them. 'Do not let your devotion to the past destroy your hope for the future,' he also told me, and I found myself bewildered by his statement. But I think I understand now." He fell silent for a moment, reflecting upon thoughts ponderous and deep. "Never a day goes by that I do not yearn for Jatagan, my faithless lover. He was also of Far Haradric ancestry, although removed by several generations from the land of his forefathers. You resemble him so closely that the two of you could have been brothers, and I suppose I forgot myself for a moment."

Despite his aversion to Zarkfir's advances, Khaldun felt pity in his heart for this poor drunken, lovesick fool. "I am not this Jatagan for whom you long," he told him in a kind, gentle voice.

"How well I know!" Shaking his head, Zarkfir clicked his tongue in a gesture of regret.

"You should heed the words of your shaman, for he speaks wisdom," Khaldun remarked sagely, trying to draw the prince away from gloomy reflections of Jatagan. "Your life with Özlem has just begun, and you should bid farewell to your unfaithful lover once and for all. Let the past stay in the past, and look to the future instead."

"You give good council, Captain. I do not wish to do anything to hurt Özlem. She has endured more than enough woes for one lifetime, and deserves only happiness." Zarkfir's features suddenly brightened as a wistful smile crossed his face. "You know, since we cannot be lovers, I think we could be friends. You will be leaving the oasis soon, and I would not want us to part as enemies."

"Perhaps, as long as we understand each other, and I think that we do."

Khaldun gazed into Zarkfir's face, once again finding himself entranced by those dark, sultry eyes. His breath caught in his lungs, and his heart thudded heavily in his chest. If he were not constrained by the demons of his past, could he love a man like Zarkfir? When Khaldun was a boy, he secretly fancied one of his friends, a sturdy lad with the muscles of a grown warrior. He never told anyone of his feelings, though, not even his mother, for he had never seen any of the men in his village taking other men as lovers. Perhaps none of the men were inclined in such a way, or perhaps this practice was prohibited by tribal custom; he knew naught, for he was taken from his people far too soon. Then after all the brutality that he endured, he decided to abstain from all affections, eschewing both men and women and remaining celibate. 

If he ever did take a lover, though, he could do far worse than the handsome desert prince, whom he sensed would be both passionate and kind. The two of them might even be good for each other. Zarkfir was, after all, recovering from an unhappy love affair, and Khaldun still bore the deep spiritual scars from his past. But Zarkfir was married, and it would be wrong to do irreparable harm to a marriage that had just gotten started. Besides, Khaldun wanted to live his life unencumbered, with no ties to anyone. Maybe someday he would find a man to be his companion and lover, or take a wife and raise up sons to his name, but for now he was in no hurry to undertake such deep obligations.

Khaldun tore his gaze away from Zarkfir before he, like the prince, would end up saying something he would later regret. "The hour is growing late, and the wedding guests will wonder where the groom has gone." 

Zarkfir sighed. "Yes, I suppose that we should return to the feast." Rising unsteadily to his feet, he stumbled along behind Khaldun as the captain led him back to the wedding pavilion.


The celebration went long into the night, with wine and beer flowing like waterfalls as toast after toast was raised to the newlyweds. The hour was approaching midnight when Shakh Najor rose to his feet, a signal for all the revelers to do the same. 

"My most honored guests, it is time for the groom and his bride to retire for the night!"

With much laughter and cheering, the great procession of partygoers followed Shakh Zarkfir as he led Özlem back through the lantern-lit streets of the tent village. Upon arriving at their destination, the crowd bade the newlyweds farewell and then went their separate ways.

Too inebriated to perform his husbandly duties, the groom promptly collapsed upon his sleeping mat, dead to the world. Özlem did not mind, however. While providing her lord with an heir was vitally important, consummating the marriage could wait until another night. She wanted her alliance with Zarkfir to be a felicitous one. Perhaps it was better to move forward at a leisurely pace, so that they could become better acquainted with each other. Özlem knew that Zarkfir favored the romantic companionship of men over women, and that he still pined for the traitorous Jatagan. She did not feel threatened by the thought of her husband taking other lovers, either male or female, for she would always have superiority as his first wife.

While this was a union of convenience and not of love, Özlem did look forward to growing closer to her new husband over the course of their marriage. The thought of intimacy did concern her, however. It had been only a fortnight since she had escaped from the lair of the Sand Orcs, and the memory of her torment was fresh on her mind. She wondered how she would feel when she and Zarkfir lay together for the first time. Would she see the faces of the uruks of Durraiz' outlaw band, or all the goblins who raped her in Kafakudraûg Cavern? Or would she only see her husband's handsome face? 

Time would bring about healing, or at least a dulling of pain. So it had been in the brothel: after being forced to endure the so-called affections of wicked men who liked their flesh a little too young, she had been left terrified of the intimacy that could be shared between two people. After being elevated to the position of musician, her life became more tolerable, and she tried to bury the memories of her abuse deep in the mausoleum of her thought, like corpses left to molder and turn to dust. As time passed, she began to harbor a fond regard for one of the girls who worked at the brothel. The feeling was mutual, and the two carried on a love affair in secret, seeking each other's company in idle hours and enjoying the sweetest of pleasures. Unfortunately, her friend's stomach began to grow with a patron's child, and the brothelkeeper forced her to drink rue so she could continue working. The potion had not worked as intended, and Özlem's friend became deathly ill, soon perishing from blood poisoning. The perils of the brothel were many, and a woman's years were often few and bitter.

But still Özlem endured, and so she would continue doing so. One came into this cruel world kicking and screaming, and that was how life often had to be lived. But despite all the hardships and heartache that she had suffered over the years, it seemed that she had finally clawed her way to the top. Perhaps her story would have a happy ending yet.

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