The Circles - Book Seven - Chapter 34

The Circles - Book Seven - Land of Treachery
Chapter Thirty-four
A Tribal Initiation
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

Esarhaddon had risen early that morning, for the day was to be a momentous one, perhaps even more so than the extravagant wedding which was held the day before. Now that the House of Huzziya and the Dolrujâtar had finalized their alliance, Shakh Najor wanted to honor the merchant lord in a ceremony before all his clan, making Esarhaddon an honorary son and a member of the tribe. The chieftain had discussed this matter with Esarhaddon during the wedding feast, and the slaver had been pleasantly surprised by these tidings. The Dolrujâtar were usually an aloof and distrustful people, so this was the first time in many long years that such a tremendous honor would be bestowed upon an outsider.

After a quick bath, Esarhaddon dressed in the best garments that he had brought with him on the journey. It was always wise to pack a worthy ensemble when traveling, for a man never knew when he might have a chance meeting with some important personage, or even be initiated into a tribe of nomads. Next to his body was his undertunic, made long ago by his mother and embroidered with esoteric signs warding all his organs against injury. He had almost foregone wearing the garment, for he disliked anything connected with magic and superstition, but reconsidered on the basis that it did no harm to be careful. Over the apotropaic shirt went a dark green tunic and contrasting buff pantaloons. He wound his own turban about his head, pleased that he wrapped it himself without calling upon a servant. His fine leather boots were polished by his slaves, however, for it would be beneath his dignity ever to do such a menial task. With a fine green burnoose draped over his shoulders, he thought he looked splendid.

"Gentlemen, what do you think of my clothing this morning?" Turning away from the looking glass, he searched the faces of his inner circle – Ganbar, Inbir, Khaldun, and Tushratta.

"If you want my honest opinion, Shakh, I do not see much difference in what you are wearing now than what you wear every day, except the materials are finer," Inbir confessed, uncertain what to say.

"Is that a diamond you are wearing?" Ganbar asked, peering more closely at his employer. "I do not believe I have ever seen that ring before." He considered such a ring as far too pretentious, and an open invitation to thieves. He supposed that was the way of the rich, flaunting their wealth at any opportunity.

"Yes, Ganbar, it is a diamond, and you are correct. I seldom wear it. Today is a special occasion," Esarhaddon answered, disappointed that none of his men seemed overly impressed with his fine garments and costly ring.

"The shakh is also much cleaner than usual." Khaldun looked the slaver over from head to toe. "And what is that perfume I smell? Roses? I thought so! A welcome change, my lord, over your usual scent." All of the men laughed at Khaldun's good-natured jesting.

"And what about you, Tushratta? What say you?"

"You look magnificent, my lord, with your fine garments fit for the wardrobe of a king, but I feel that you are attempting to do too much before your body has finished healing," Tushratta replied in his usual reserved manner, but his voice betrayed the sincere concern that he felt for his employer. "After all, it has been one day short of three weeks since the attempt upon your life."

"You worry too much, Tushratta," Esarhaddon assured him. "Besides, I doubt that this initiation ceremony will involve anything strenuous. Most likely I will be required to listen to a lot of long-winded speeches filled with fancy-sounding words."

"For your sake, I hope so," came the physician's dire warning.

Ignoring Tushratta's solemn words, Esarhaddon turned back to his bodyguards. "Gentlemen, we need to be leaving for the celebraitons. We surely do not wish to be late."

The five men were soon in the saddle and cantering their mounts towards the north shore of the lake. When they arrived at their destination, Shakh Najor and his sons rode forward to greet them. Hailing them with many friendly salutations, the chieftain beckoned Esarhaddon and his men to follow. A line of horsemen formed on either side of their path, and the men raised their swords high in the air in tribute to their leader and his sons. The high-spirited horses, resplendent with colorful caparisons and long tassels dangling from their bridles and reins, snorted and tossed their heads, sensing the excitement of the riders. As Esarhaddon passed between the lines of horses, he found the noise of the shouting and cheering almost deafening, and he was impressed by the warriors' devotion to their leader.

Each individual clan making up the tribe had been designated areas for their families and servants, all distinguished from each other by their own distinctive banners. Since the celebrations were to be an all-day affair, tents and pavilions had been erected to provide shelter from the sun and relief from the blistering desert heat. The largest pavilion, which was situated upon the crest of a small hill, was reserved for Shakh Najor and his household. This was the destination to which Esarhaddon and his men were led with much pomp and ceremony. Servants strode forward to tend to their horses, and soon the men were seated upon a thick carpet beneath the shade of a goat hair canopy.

As Esarhaddon's party watched from their lofty vantagepoint, the desert warriors put on displays of horsemanship, each man vying for the attention of their beloved leader. They staged mock cavalry battles, and though they avoided the blood and carnage of the real thing, the skirmishes were almost as exciting as actual combat. Several horses fell, tumbling the riders to the ground, but even accidents did not dim the mood of jubilation. Blushing in embarrassment at the cheers and taunts of their fellows, the unhorsed riders managed to smile in spite of their pain as they waited until their servants or families caught their horses. Then the men were quickly back in the saddle, again lifting their scimitars high in the air as they raced wildly across the plain.

"Shakh Najor, I have not seen such a splendid demonstration of horsemanship since I left my native land of Harad," Esarhaddon praised him.

"Shakh Esarhaddon, you honor me," the old man beamed at the compliment, and then his face grew serious. "It is a matter of necessity that the people of my tribe learn the art of war at a young age. The children are taught to ride when they are very young, some even able to ride before they can walk. The boys, and even some of the girls, learn the use of the bow and sword so they will be able to protect the weaker members of the people in case of attack." He turned to look as one young warrior's blade caught the slashing strike of his opponent. The crowd shouted and pointed as the man fell to the ground. "The Sand Orcs are a constant threat to my people, and we must always be ready for the next attack." Najor frowned as the young man tried to rise but his leg buckled under him. He lay there until he was helped to his feet, and then he limped painfully to the side of the field where the shaman waited.

"He will not be riding again for a long time," Esarhaddon thought to himself as he accepted a cup of water from a slave. Even though the canopy protected him from the fullness of the sun's fury, Esarhaddon felt sweat running under his arms and down his back. He did not like to admit to himself that the journey had been hard on him, his many injuries sapping his strength. When he motioned for a servant to refill his cup, he did not miss Tushratta's furrowed brow.

The feats of horsemanship lasted for most of the morning, with the winners of each event awarded prizes of saddlery, weapons, and new clothing. Shakh Najor made a short speech praising all the riders, and then called a brief halt to the festivities. It was the custom of the Dolrujâtar to rest in the shade of their tents during the hottest part of the afternoon, and the chieftain was not one to break with custom. The old man was weary, and after a light repast and his fill of water, he lay upon his bed, fanned by servants.

Shakh Najor had allotted a large tent to Esarhaddon and his companions, and after cleaning the dust and sweat from their faces, hands and arms, they met there to rest and talk about the solemn proceedings which were to occur later that day. Najor had explained to Esarhaddon what would happen during the induction ritual, and though the men had heard of such customs, none of them had ever seen one. The initiation ceremony itself was a rarity among these people, for they seldom welcomed outsiders into their tribe, and few even of the eldest were able to remember the last time anyone had ever attained such a high honor. Only those men who had proved themselves as true friends of the Dolrujâtar were ever considered as worthy, which was an almost impossible accomplishment since the tribe considered all strangers as enemies.

The sun that late afternoon was a bright glowing shield in the sky as the warriors of the tribe once again assembled on the plain in preparation for the ritual which would follow. Shakh Najor, his sons, the elders and nobles of the tribe, and Esarhaddon and his small staff watched the beginning ceremony. The great crowd of mounted warriors parted, admitting Shaman Zhargal and a procession of lesser shamans, many of whom pounded out a steady rhythm on their drums. Wearing head dresses of animal skulls, the holy men were naked, save for skins about their waists and necklaces of bead and bone which hung to their navels. Zhargal looked in the direction of the Dark Tower, raised his arms, and invoked the blessings of the Lord of Gifts upon the proceedings. He then turned towards the pavilion of Shakh Najor, and when the old man gave a slight nod, Zhargal signaled to one of his assistants to lead a struggling male goat to a spot in front of Najor's pavilion. While the assistant held the goat, the shaman took the ceremonial knife and quickly slit the animal's throat before gutting it and spreading the entrails on a piece of leather. With a great cry, he held the bloody liver high in the air for all to see and excitedly proclaimed that the omens revealed there boded well for the acceptance of Esarhaddon into the tribe. Bleating loudly, the other terrified goats were sacrificed, their blood draining into a large bowl.

Chanting spells in a mystic language known only to the adept, Zhargal poured the contents of a greenish colored vial into the blood and stirred it with his ceremonial knife. The crowd gasped and drew back as an explosion of reddish smoke rolled from the vessel of blood. The shaman held up his hand, the frown on his face warning the crowd that the next one who disturbed the ceremony would surely be cursed in this life and doomed to darkness in the next. Even the bravest warrior among them was cowed into silence and hung his head in respectful obeisance.

To the beat of the devotees' drums, the holy men took turns lifting the bowl, drinking the gory concoction before coating their faces and arms with the blood. Then, intoning chants and reciting long spells, Zhargal joined with the lesser shamans in invoking the blessings of both the Lord of Gifts and the spirits of the ancestors upon the ceremonies. With increased fervor, the holy men danced and sang, circling round and round until some staggered and collapsed in ecstasy.

When the chanting and dancing had at last ended, and all those who had fallen senselessly to the ground had revived, Zhargal bowed his head. Esarhaddon, who had been observing the proceedings with interest, watched as an ancient woman leaning on a staff of gnarled wood hobbled onto the field. The skin of her deeply lined face was thin as old parchment, but her jet black eyes were younger than tomorrow, and when she looked at Esarhaddon directly in the eyes, he could not help but feel a chill run down his spine. She pointed her staff at him and chanted in some incomprehensible tongue, her voice as shrill as a caterwauling cat. She fell suddenly still and smiled at Esarhaddon, revealing a set of teeth as perfect as the fairest maiden's. For a strange, brief instant, he felt a stirring in his loins, but shook the feeling off as just part of the ancient's spell-making. She turned to the crowd, invoking a blessing upon all of them, and then walked off the field with a step as sprightly as a young child. Still beating drums, the shamans followed her, leaving behind them a group of servants who scrambled to gather up the goat meat, clean up the mess, and rake the ground where the sacrifices were performed.

Shakh Najor leaned towards Esarhaddon. "The Most Esteemed Ancient One knows the heart and soul and can look through the portal that divides the Seen and Unseen. She has found that the ancestors have deemed you worthy to be accounted a member of this tribe. Without her approval, you would have been denied acceptance. Consider yourself very fortunate, my lord Esarhaddon."

"I do, Shakh Najor. I do," Esarhaddon replied, bowing his head humbly.

Shakh Najor signed to the grooms holding his horse, and they led that noble animal to the large open space in front of the pavilion. To the cheers of the men, the old chieftain rode the snowy white mare back and forth in front of the assembled mounted warriors. The cry of hundreds of voices was almost deafening as the men cheered their leader, raising their swords and lances in honor of the old shakh. Finally, Najor halted the mare in front of the pavilion and after raising his hand to silence the men, he called out in a voice surprisingly strong for a man of his age.

"Esarhaddon uHuzziya, custom demands that a new member of the tribe must race against the chieftain and prove himself to be a skilled horseman. Now come forth from your silken cushions and let us see who has the better mount!" Najor challenged.

"Gladly, my lord," Esarhaddon answered, handing his cup to one of the many servants. "Call a groom to fetch my Ka'adara, and we will see whose horse is faster."

"A moment, my lord," Najor replied. "My son has signed to me that he wishes an audience."

Shakh Zarkfir, who by now was mounted on his own horse, rode over to his father, and the two men put their heads together, conferring in the dialect of the Dolrujâtar and looking back and forth towards Esarhaddon.

"Ah, my good friend, unfortunately the race cannot be run." Najor shook his head sadly. "My son has brought me sorrowful news. He tells me that your mare has wandered away. It appears now that you will have to race me on foot."

"On foot, my lord?" Esarhaddon's gaze shifted briefly to Khaldun. The lieutenant looked just as confused. "Over how long a course?"

"A mile and two furlongs, an easy distance for a good horse," the shakh replied, "but a difficult one for a man. Are you game for such a challenge?"

"If this is required that an initiate to the tribe must accomplish such a feat, then let it be so." Esarhaddon walked out of the pavilion to stand before the old shakh.

Najor bellowed out a laugh, and his men added theirs to his, until the sound was a great roar. These desert men always enjoyed a joke at another's expense, and they had been looking forward to the sight of the thickset merchant trailing in the dust of their chieftain's racer. "Perhaps another mount can be found for you, Shakh Esarhaddon. We do not want your delicate feet to blister." This brought another burst of laughter from the men, many of whom were hoping that Esarhaddon's new mount would be a donkey. His face solemn, Najor signed to one of the nearby grooms and motioned for the horsemen to let the boy pass.

All eyes were on Esarhaddon, and the warriors did little to hide their amusement at his chagrin. The boy seemed to take an impossibly long time to return with Esarhaddon's new mount, whatever it might be. The slaver wondered if he might be forced to ride a goat as part of the initiation, and hoped that his weight would not crush the beast. Waiting in the hot sunshine, he felt the sweat pouring from his body, and though he was smiling, he cursed under his breath.

When the boy at last returned, the men were disappointed, for he was leading a magnificent dappled gray mare. The lovely creature snorted and tossed her head, the tassels on her reins bobbing up and down. Her saddle was of the finest leather with an elaborately embroidered covering of black and gold adorned with long tassels, and a caparison and chest collar of matching design.

"This humble mount is all that could be found. Do you think you can best me on this woeful creature, Shakh Esarhaddon?" the old man asked apologetically, but he could not hide the pride on his face. When a man of the Dolrujâtar was selling a horse, he wanted the best price he could get, and so he extolled its virtues as though the animal were a gift from the Gods. However, when he was giving a beast as a present, he always deprecated it for the sake of humility. To do otherwise would be a display of too much pride, a fault frowned upon by the Dolrujâtar.

"If you will allow me, my lord, I will make my best attempt," Esarhaddon answered, his eyes running over the graceful lines of the young mare. He had seen few horses with such perfect confirmation, and he knew the great value of the animal before him, probably one of the best in Shakh Najor's herd.

"If you will accept the animal and her accouterments, she is yours, Shakh Esarhaddon uHuzziya. Her name is Zûbardniz, for her coat resembles a gleaming silver coin in the Sun. Now mount her, and we will see which one can race the fastest." Shakh Najor beamed as the merchant bent his head low and then climbed up into the saddle. The old man had enjoyed his little joke, but now the time for jesting was over, and he was eager to exhibit his horsemanship in front of his people.

The tribesmen had been busy that morning laying out a challenging course through the desert. The meandering track had been sectioned off at regular intervals by small, colorful flags which snapped merrily in the breeze, and a wide banner suspended between two poles marked the location of both the starting and finishing line. A large crowd of nomads and caravanners had gathered to watch the race and make wagers upon whom they thought would win the competition.

A high, shrill blast from a reed pipe announced the start of the race, and the two riders surged forward as though they were arrows launched from an archer's bow. The sounds of the cheering crowd soon faded into the distance behind them, and all they could hear was the pounding of their horse's hooves and the roar of the wind as it rushed past them. Great clouds of dust were stirred up by the galloping steeds, rolling out over the desert plain like billowing smoke.

About halfway through the course, Esarhaddon began to feel the pain of his many injuries. It had been a long time since he had ridden at a gallop, and his side was starting to ache, and his loins were burning. Though he was loath to admit it, perhaps Tushratta had been right in his warnings. Still he pressed on, urging his mount to run faster.

As the gray mare passed over the finish line just inches from Shakh Najor's steed, it was all that Esarhaddon could do to sit up straight in the saddle. He was not sure if he won the race by the merit of the horse he had been given, or if the wily old chieftain had allowed him to win. Whichever the case, he was just glad that the competition was over.

As the cheering crowd rushed forward to meet the two challengers, Esarhaddon clumsily dismounted his horse and stood there panting, clutching his side.

"Congratulations upon besting me, my son!" Handing his reins to a waiting groom, Shakh Najor maneuvered around the horses to offer up his commendations to the winner. When he saw the pained expression upon the merchant lord's face, he instantly became concerned. "What is wrong, my friend?"

"I fear that I have aggravated my old battle wounds," Esarhaddon sheepishly admitted.

"You should have warned me beforehand!" Najor laid a gentle hand upon the other man's shoulder. "I would have shown you more mercy upon the track."

"That would not have been necessary, Shakh," Esarhaddon assured him. "I am not so weak and sickly that I cannot handle a bit of spirited racing!"

"What about a bit of spirited eating?" Najor laughed. "Now that you are officially part of the tribe, I have organized a feast in your honor. Come, my friend, and we shall celebrate this momentous occasion!" Slinging his arm around Esarhaddon's neck, the chieftain walked with him towards the tents of the Dagrî Clan.


Esarhaddon had hardly sat down at the great feasting table in Shakh Najor's enormous pavilion when a servant came by with a bowl of scented water and towels for him to use in cleaning his hands. In addition to the slaver's party, a large crowd of tribal elders and other important personages were assembled in the tent, discussing the events of the day while they waited for the feast to begin. Moving quietly around the table, servants poured water into bowls and then dried the men's hands, while other servants brought jugs of wine and platters heavily laden with food.

After welcoming Esarhaddon and his men, Shakh Najor looked down the long table at his guests and a smile crinkled his weathered face. "When my sons found two women lost and forlorn in the desert, I did not realize the great importance they would hold for our tribe. But then my eldest son fell in love with one of them." He turned his gaze upon Zarkfir, who looked uncomfortable at being made the center of attention. Still, the prince nodded, and, smiling, the chieftain continued his speech.

"When Zarkfir announced that he wished to make Özlem his wife, Lady Shabimi and I were greatly surprised, for seldom do chieftain's sons take foreign brides. However, we soon fell in love with Özlem, just as Zarkfir had." Looking away from his son, Najor focused his attention upon Esarhaddon. "Upon learning of Zarkfir's desire to marry his slave girl, Shakh Esarhaddon uHuzziya, in his great generosity, gave Özlem to him as a bride. This marriage has united the Dolrujâtar with the House of Huzziya, and with a sense of brotherhood and mutual respect, our treaty will go unbroken for a hundred years and a day."

The chieftain beamed proudly, giving a beneficent smile to Esarhaddon and his men as he looked into their faces. "Both sadness and joy fill my heart this day – sadness that we are soon to part for a time, and joy that my tribe has welcomed a new son, my dear friend Esarhaddon uHuzziya."

"Shakh Najor, my friend," Esarhaddon spoke up respectfully, "a few days ago, we were strangers, and now we are friends. It is a great honor to have met you."

At these sincere words, Shakh Najor began to weep, for the men of the Dolrujâtar seldom hid their emotions. Drawing a fine linen handkerchief from the sleeve of his robe, he wiped the tears from his eyes and resumed speaking. "I have but one regret, and that is that your sojourn at the Oasis of the Solitary Cedar has been so brief. Would that you and your men could have stayed longer, but I know that you are quite desirous to return to Nurn. Still, though, Fate brought us together, and if it is our destiny, we shall meet again." The chieftain lifted his goblet into the air in a toast. "To Fate!"

"To Fate… and the future," Esarhaddon proclaimed, raising his goblet high as the cheers of the crowd echoed in his ears.

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