The Circles - Book Seven - Chapter 4

The Circles - Book Seven - Land of Treachery
Chapter Four
The Holy Disease
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

King Thaguzgoth's hall was in chaos as the assembled orcs gaped and stared at the mystic. Nobles dropped their goblets, spilling wine and draught all over the cavern floor. Trays of goblets and food gripped rigidly in their hands, servants froze in place as they waited to see what would happen next. Several of the goblin wenches demonstrated amazing lung capacity as they shrieked in almost continuous alarm. Some were at the point of fleeing as the Shaman lifted his staff once again. Never before had the mystic seemed so powerful and foreboding as he pronounced his dire proclamation, and the crowd trembled in apprehension.

"Noble Shaman, while I know your words carry the weight of divine jurisdiction, I am a bit puzzled." Wiping off his mouth, Prince Shakop put down the gazelle haunch which he had been eating and placed it upon a silver platter engraved with the white tree of Gondor. "I hear that in the breeding pits of Mordor, insane females are often used to produce a more ferocious offspring. If the Great Eye has no trepidation about utilizing such females, why should we?" The Prince could hardly take his eyes off Elfhild, and he was unwilling to let the foolish old Shaman spoil his plans.

"Great Prince," Shaman Dûshatâr replied, his voice unmoved, "the Holy One blesses all unions which transpire in the pits of Lugbûrz. However, any mating with this girl would be unsanctioned by the God of the Mountain, and the resulting progeny could bring great calamity to our people."

Durraiz gulped. All her schemes for the girls were crumbling. She had originally planned to sell her sword to King Thaguzgoth as a mercenary in return for his patronage and protection. After the danger of pursuit from the Southrons was past, she would break her oath to this scrubby little king and leave for fairer pastures. She had planned to sell the musician, but keep the blonde one to satisfy her own lusty passions. Soon after the slaughter in the slaver's tent, however, the poor, silly fool's mind had broken. Though it would have been easy to take advantage of a girl in such a state, Durraiz was superstitious enough to fear her madness and was unwilling to take the girl to her bed.

The two females had proved to be nothing but inconvenience, and Durraiz had questioned the wisdom in kidnapping them. Besides slowing her band down initially, both girls had become so exhausted by the harsh desert travel that the uruks had been forced to carry both of them. Now she saw all chance of selling the two wenches disappearing like water in the sand, and she cursed her bad luck.

The source of all the commotion seemed completely unaffected by the stir she had created. Her hands bound behind her back, she danced gracefully from side to side, her legs making sweeping circles as she pranced about upon clever feet. Coming to a halt, she looked up at Shaman Dûshatâr and asked in a gentle voice, "Could you please untie my hands, good sir? They have been bound so long that they are almost numb!"

"Certainly, my child," the Shaman told her, signing to a guard to release her.

"Oh, thank you!" she exclaimed, bowing before she began to rub life back into her chafed wrists. "And the noble lady beside me... why have you not freed her, too?" She looked at him accusingly, her blue eyes wide and innocent. "She is the Queen of Harad, you know, and if you do not treat her with respect, she will have your head upon a platter."

"It will be done as you say," the Shaman replied, glancing at the King for confirmation.

"What is this place?" she asked, gazing in wonder at the expansive cave.

"The court of His Majesty King Thaguzgoth," Shaman Dûshatâr replied, noting how the hall had fallen silent at the girl's simple request to be untied. "Now I have answered your question, I claim one of my own," he told her gently.

"What is it?" She smiled at him.

"Tell me your name."

"It is..." She looked puzzled and replied sadly, "I am not sure, but I remember the footmen calling me, 'Lady Leofcwen.'" Looking up at the shadowy cavern roof, she squinted her eyes thoughtfully as she tapped one finger against her lips. "Yes, yes, that is right, my name is Lady Leofcwen of the Enchanted Forest."

"Do you not see?" the Shaman's voice rolled over the hall as he spoke in Black Speech. "The girl has been touched by the holy disease! The Gods have driven her mad!"

"Most astute Shaman," King Thaguzgoth told him, worriedly putting a hand to his forehead, "what should be done with this girl who might bring great harm to my kingdom? Should I order her to be slain now, or take her to the desert and offer her to the Winged Gods? Perhaps cast her in irons?"

"None of those things, Your Majesty." Shaman Dûshatâr looked at him gravely. "You should deal kindly with her and treat her as an honored guest. Then the Gods will bless you." Bowing his head, the Shaman appeared to be in deep meditation.

"What of the other girl, Shaman Dûshatâr?" the king asked, glancing at Özlem, who could not understand anything of the orc language. Sensing that she was the topic of conversation between the grotesque goblin king and the cadaverous shaman, the girl began to tremble and shake from fear.

"She is unimportant," the Shaman replied, shrugging. "Do with her as Your Majesty wills."

The King smiled, relieved at the Shaman's reassurance. "Once again, Shaman, your advice has been invaluable." He acknowledged the Shaman's bow with a nod and watched as the spectral figure stepped back into the shadows behind the throne. "Now, Durraiz," Thagurzgoth leveled his gaze at the she-orc, "you and your men will pledge your loyalty to me, and after that is behind us, we shall feast!"

***

"Thrul," the guard addressed the sharp-eyed goblin cook who was directing two sweating thralls at the huge bake oven. The head cook ignored him as he screamed out a string of curses at one of the thralls, who cringed before him. The poor wretch had been using a wooden-handled metal baking paddle to pull loaves of bread from the oven. Unfortunately for him, the slave was clumsy, tipping the paddle and causing the loaves to fall onto the hot stone. The smell of burning bread spread throughout the kitchen, driving the cook into a fury.

"Thrul," the guard repeated impatiently after he had watched the enraged cook lash the offending thrall across the face with his whip. "A group of mercenaries showed up here tonight, offering their services to His Majesty. As part of the bargain, their leader presented the King with two human slave girls and some booty. You might be pleased at this, Thrul. His Majesty ordered me to send both girls to you." The guard's grin turned to a scowl when the head cook still ignored him, more interested in running his hand lovingly over the tresses of his vicious whip than he was in hearing the news.

"Filth-eating scum," the cook muttered, glaring at the injured slave. "We gets the offal of the earth here! I do my best to turn out meals to please His Majesty's palate, and what do I get? Nothing but criminals! Ought to cook them, but their flesh is too stringy and tough!" His eyes glittering with fiendish delight, the cook was breathing hard in his excitement. "You worm!" Thrul gestured with his whip at the slave, whose face was streaked with sweat and drops of black blood. "Do that again, and I'll see you go to the dungeon, where I will personally cut out your entrails and stuff them down your whining throat! Now get back to work!" His face suffused with fear, the offending orc bowed to the cook, and with shaking hands picked up the dropped paddle. Thrul turned to the guard. "Now what did you say you wanted again, matey?"

"Thrul, you must be getting hard of hearing in your old age. I told you that this girl has been assigned to your care," the guardsman explained irritably as he pointed to Elfhild.

"Ooo, ain't she a fine one!" Thrul whistled through his fangs. "I'd like to take care of her, and a few more just like her!"

"She's not for that, you fool!" the guard growled. "She's mad, stricken with the divine disease, according to the Shaman. Not to be touched. Do I need to explain what will happen to you if you disobey the King's command?"

"No, matey, no!" Thrul's voice had an edge of fear to it. "I'm a loyal follower of His Majesty, and besides that, I wouldn't for the life of me go against one of the Shaman's pronouncements. But what do you want me to do with her, then? We ain't running an asylum here!"

"Well, the way I understand it," the guard replied, warming to his subject and glad for a diversion, "His Majesty wants her safe someplace, but he doesn't dare put her in his harem for fear that his females would be afraid of her, maybe even try to kill the wench. More likely, though," the guard's voice dropped lower, "his concubines might be so upset that they would deny him the pleasure of their charms in his bed." He winked roguishly. "You know how jealous females can be!"

"All too well," the cook grinned.

"All you have to do, Thrul, is give her any simple tasks she might be capable of doing. She won't eat much, and she can sleep on the hearth."

"Does His Majesty want her shackled?" the cook asked, eying the girl as she sucked on her thumb. "She don't look too dangerous to me."

"No, she seems to be harmless. She imagines she is some kind of royalty," the guard explained with a laugh. "The King will be sending the other girl to you later. She is not nearly so pretty as this one, but she's comely enough, and not a lunatic. She is to serve the King's cup to him... and attend to other duties," the guard chuckled obscenely.

"I don't know about this, but if it is what the King wants, I'll follow his orders. They can sleep on the hearth, and I'll see they're both fed." The cook took his eyes away from Elfhild and watched as the injured orc slave began kneading bread on a long table. "What did you say the name of this mad girl is? Oh, that's right, you didn't... So you say it's Lady Leofcwen, is it? And the other girl's name is?"

"Özlem," the guard replied, looking around the kitchen. "I've talked long enough and need to get back to my duties." He walked over to a rack of pies on the table. "By the way, for bringing such lovely creatures to your kitchen, I expect some token of appreciation. How about that pie over there?"

"The tripe pie? Made it myself just tonight, and I don't mean to boast, but it's filled with the tastiest prime sheep guts that you'll ever eat. You should enjoy it."

***

Humming a Rohirric lullaby, Elfhild looked down at the pile of bustard feathers in her lap. After the guard had left, Head Cook Thrul - who could speak only in broken Westron - handed her a broom and told her to sweep the floor. However, when she had started kissing the handle and calling it her "noble steed," the cook came close to cuffing her. Instead, he busied himself about his duties, trying to ignore her. Wandering about the kitchen, Elfhild had found a pile of bustard feathers in a bin where they were stored preparatory to turning them over to Shaman Dûshatâr for rituals. She began naming them, making sure that the cook heard her. When she had tired of that game, she walked along the shelves of herbs and spices, opening up the jars and smelling and tasting everything.

"Worthless baggage!" Thrul fumed, his agitation turning to anger. "I'm taking you to where you can't get into any more trouble!" Grabbing her roughly by the shoulder, he pushed her ahead of him into the corridor. The hallway was dim and dank, lit by smoking torches in sconces along the passage. As they walked, the torches cast flickering figures upon the walls which danced like shadow walkers. "Here we are," the cook told her when they came to a door. As he opened it, he shoved her inside. "Now stay out of trouble!"

The cook stormed out the door, slamming it behind him. Elfhild listened for the sound of the key in the lock. "Good," she thought when she heard nothing but the oppressive silence of the cavern. "At least he did not lock me in here." A sigh of relief rushed from her lips, and she sank down onto the floor in exhaustion. She lay there upon the cold ground for a long while, her eyes involuntarily twitching beneath closed lids as she tried to regain her bearings after spending hours in the presence of fearsome enemies and pretending to be someone she was not.

Putting on a performance for the benefit of the orcs was far more terrifying than actually getting on a stage and performing for a crowd. The summer she turned fourteen, Elfhild, Elffled, and their brother, Eadfrid, had decided to enter a talent contest during the Midsummer Fair which was held in their village. They had created a skit about a devious horse trader who was trying to pass off a broken-down old nag as a prize-winning racehorse. Their mother had spent hours creating a horse costume for Eadfrid to wear, while Elfhild, clad in her father's best tunic and breeches, played the part of the unscrupulous horse trader. Elffled, dressed in her brother's old clothes, pretended to be a potential buyer who was considering purchasing the decrepit nag. The three siblings had practiced their lines for weeks, but when it came to ascending the stage and performing in front of all those people, they soon lost their courage. Elffled, who had always been shy, was affected by stage fright the most, and promptly froze as though she had been turned into a block of stone. Even though she had created most of the script, Elfhild had difficulty remembering her own lines, and Eadfrid kept breaking character. At least no one had thrown rotten fruit at them, but the misfortune-plagued performance was one of the most humiliating experiences of Elfhild's life.

However, the stage fright she felt that day at the Midsummer Fair was nothing compared to the terror which she felt in front of the orcs. It was all Elfhild could do to keep from trembling and whimpering in fear whenever one of the brutes walked by her, but that would be something that a sane person would do. She had to keep up the act that her mind had broken, that she had been driven mad by all the many sorrows which she had experienced. In order to keep up this desperate ruse, she had to behave in ways contrary to what the orcs would expect from a captive. Instead of cringing in fear, she forced herself to laugh and dance; instead of begging for mercy, she made up all sorts of absurd claims and acted like a mischievous but simpleminded child. Apparently she was playing the part well, or these orcs were even more stupid than most of their despicable breed.

The storeroom was quiet, its silence like a leaden, oppressive force that pushed down upon her with such intensity that she thought that her skull might burst. As her mind reeled with the tumultuous events of the past few days, her senses were assaulted with waves of grief. Over and over again, she saw the murder of the servant boy, the disconcerting, phantasmagorical moment when his arm was hewn in twain and fell from his body. "Like a loaf of bread, dropped amid the chaos," were the words that came to her mind, and she chastised herself, for the notion seemed flippant when remembering the sacrifice of such a brave young man. Then her thoughts turned to Esarhaddon, and she felt her heart hitch and plummet to her stomach.

Esarhaddon, dead... The arrogant, glorious man whom she both loved and despised was no more! No, her mind screamed out in disbelief, no! As her master, he had held ultimate power over her very existence; with a single command he could condemn her to death or allow her to live. Now he was just one more dead body to molder beneath the dirt and held no power over anyone, not even the worms that gnawed at his decomposing flesh. Though she had not witnessed his fall, Özlem had told her that she had seen Esarhaddon collapse upon the ground when Durraiz plunged her knife into his side. Elfhild sighed, her heart aching with sadness. It seemed that death and disaster followed her everywhere she went.

Poor Özlem. Elfhild felt her stomach clench up in knots as she worried about her new friend. Would she ever see her again? The orcs had taken her away and were probably brutally raping her right now. Memories of Özlem's torment at the hands of the uruks flooded her mind, and once again her ears were tortured with the sounds of the girl's anguished screaming and the guttural jeers of her abusers. Trying to drive out the horrifying images, Elfhild clenched her fists, her body beginning to rock back and forth of its own accord. She knew this strange new habit must make her look ridiculous, but somehow the repetitious movement felt soothing.

There were torches in various locations along the wall, but Head Cook Thrul had not troubled himself to light any of them. The gloomy darkness was heavy, with a dry coolness that made chills run over Elfhild's skin. The only illumination in the room was a faint glow under the door from the torch down the hall. She rested her face in her hands, and though her eyes smarted and ached, no tears would fall. How she wished that she could cry! Perhaps the tears would wash away some of the sorrow, but her eyes were as dry as the empty sockets of a corpse on a battlefield.

Elfhild watched the light that filtered under the door until she could still see the glow when she closed her eyes. She kept them closed, wishing that she could sink into the shadows, the darkness protecting her like a welcome cloak on a chilly autumn day. She wondered if the head cook remembered where he had left her, but since he, too, thought she was insane, perhaps he would let her stay there undisturbed.

The surly shouts of her name called her out of her reverie, and soon Thrul opened the door and peered inside the storeroom. "If you want anything to eat for supper, you'll have to come into the kitchen and get it yourself. Of course, you're a queen or a princess or some kind of great lady, and far too good to be around the likes of me, aren't you?" He came closer until he stood over her and glared down at her. "Not going to answer me?" He nudged her with his foot.

Elfhild eyed him and then rose to her feet, brushing off the short tunic she was wearing. The garment, which Durraiz had provided for her, hung loosely off her slender frame and reeked with the stench of orc. With her dirty, disheveled hair that tangled in grimy strands, she knew she must look the part of a madwoman. "I am dreadfully sorry, good Alric," she told the goblin cook, "but I was drinking mead with the elves when you found me. They have come all the way from the Enchanted Forest, and it would be so unkind for me to disappoint them after they had journeyed so far." Suddenly she clapped her hand to her mouth. "How very rude of me! I forgot to introduce you!" Turning to her side, she gestured to an invisible host. "Here is Apple-bucket, who is my special friend. Beside him is Butterchurn, his cousin, and then over there is Elfwick of the Shady Mere." She smiled sweetly, her blue eyes wide, innocent, and completely vapid. "They all say they are very happy to meet you, Master Cook. Would you not care to join us? There is plenty of mead for all."

Thrul had listened to this gibberish long enough. Though she was a pretty little trick, the girl was obviously quite mad, and such folk had always given him the creeps. What had possessed the Great Shaman to allow her to live? They should have driven her out into the desert, where either the heat, thirst or the wild animals would finish her off quickly. The Head Cook planned to leave her strictly alone, and maybe when the Shaman and the King came to their senses, they would order her death. Of course, Shaman Dûshatâr was a sly one. Maybe he was really saving her to use in one of his dark rituals. That might be fun to watch, Thul thought to himself, but now he had to get back to his kitchen.

"Well, when the party with your elves is over, there's food waiting for you on the hearth. I advise you not to tarry too long, though, or I might decide to eat it myself." He laughed unpleasantly and then turned and walked out the door, leaving Elfhild alone with her thoughts.

Elfhild sighed in relief. He had seemed to believe her act. Now if she were successful at maintaining her ruse, perhaps the orcs would be so glad to be free of her irritating presence that she could slip away to explore more of the cave. She waited in the storeroom for a half hour or so, deciding what stories she might tell them next. Then she returned to the kitchen, talking to herself in Rohirric. Picking up a piece of bread from the hearth, she giggled as she pointed at the flames and asked the Head Cook and his assistants if they could see the tiny spirits dancing in the fire. Her question was met with a strong curse by Thrul and silence from the orc thralls, who refused to raise their eyes from their work to look at her.

"Do you mind very much if I have a piece of charcoal? The Elf Queen has requested that I fetch five nuggets of charcoal, three wooden thimbles, and a very large turnip." Her eyes were sweetly pleading as she looked at the cook.

Somehow Thrul thought her absurd request was humorous, and he could not help himself from laughing. He laughed so hard that his small belly shook from the effort, and he clasped his long arms over the center of his gut. "And what does she want with them, Lady Leofcwen?" He might as well go along with her foolishness. At least she could make him laugh, and there were few who could do that.

"She needs them for a spell to drive away the evil dragon that is threatening her kingdom," Elfhild explained. "You know treacherous dragons can be, good Alric. This foul creature would destroy the Queen's realm and turn her beautiful forest home into his lair. We cannot let that happen, can we?"

"Oh, no, certainly not! The Elf Queen should devote herself to holding tea parties and not have to worry about dragons." Thrul laughed, which sent his stomach into another spasm of shaking. "But there might be a problem. While I have plenty of charcoal, I do not seem to have any thimbles. Wait, let me make sure." He made a display of lifting up his apron and turning his pockets inside out. "See? No thimbles or turnips."

"But I must have the turnip!" Elfhild pouted. "It is the most important part of the spell."

The cook looked thoughtful for a moment and then replied. "This is not the season for turnips, but if you go to the third storeroom on the right, you might look around and see if there are any left from last winter."

"Oh, thank you, good sir!" she exclaimed, clapping her hands together like a child. "I will go look for them now!" She bowed with a flourish, and then holding up the hem of her tunic as though it were the skirt of an elegant gown, she scampered away.

When she was out of the room, Thrul felt the eyes of the slaves settling on him. "Well, what are you looking at, you damn fools? I know as well as you do that she's mad. I just let her look for that turnip so she'd quit pestering me. Now quit standing around scratching your arses and get back to work!"


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