The Circles - Book Seven - Chapter 7

The Circles - Book Seven - Land of Treachery
Chapter Seven
Follow the Stars
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

Two days had passed since the secret meeting between Durraiz and the goblin prince. Eager to wrest control from his father, King Thaguzgoth, and gain the throne for himself, Prince Ashpar had taken Durraiz into his confidence and offered to reward her handsomely for her aid in assassinating his father. She had accepted, although she harbored misgivings and doubts which she confided to no one. After they had discussed the details of the murder, the Prince lived up to his promise and saw that the she-orc was safely escorted back to her billet in the underground city. Now it was the 11th day of July, the day of the King's feast.

While dark deeds of murder and assassination conspiracies were being plotted, the underground city was astir with preparations for King Thaguzgoth's great feast. Chief Cook Thrul had devised a menu of extravagant proportions, consisting primarily of the flesh of every animal and bird common to the area. Hunters had been dispatched to harvest not only wild game, but also to raid the flocks of the scattered nomad tribes who inhabited the few oases in that part of Southern Gorgoroth. Directed by their guards, thralls had been taken out to scour the countryside for firewood to feed the hearths and ovens of the Desert King, and amidst all the hustle and bustle of preparation, Thrul was worried. So worried, in fact, that he had called the Chief Overseer of Slaves to the small room where he retired when he wanted to think, have a goblet of draught, and consult his many cooking scrolls.

"I don't care what you say, Kopan; I need more firewood!" Thrul growled as he eyed the overseer, who gave him a sour look.

"Then why didn't you tell me sooner?" Kopan answered irritably. He had just belted down a tankard of strident orc draught and was in no mood to listen to the mutterings of the cantankerous cook.

"I thought there would be enough, but now I learn that the King has invited more guests, and he didn't bother to inform me about them until a few hours ago. As you know, King Thaguzgoth seeks an alliance with some of the other tribal leaders, and if the meal does not go well, he will probably boil me alive in one of my own cooking pots! The meal must be perfect!" Thrul nervously toyed with his leather apron. "He's also invited the top chieftains of those hobgoblin runts from below! They might be small, but those mangy little bastards can eat like a herd of wild hogs!"

"Thrul, I think you're getting upset over nothing. There's plenty of wood, and I would be the one to know. After all, I supervise the wood gatherers." Kopan was tired of hearing the whining complaints of the cook. Thrul always exaggerated.

"Doesn't matter what you say; you're just going to have to send them out again," Thrul growled, rubbing his thumb over a grease stain on his apron. "We have two hearths going now, and if I had a third, I'd fire it up!"

"It's not so simple finding brushwood as it used to be," Kopan retorted. "But how would you know? You seldom go out of the caverns! You just sit here, stuffing that fat face of yours with dainties! But me, I'm having to take the slaves farther and farther all the time to gather wood because there isn't much left near the caverns. Besides, I'm under quota on workers. Since this feast was announced, a lot of them have been delegated to other tasks."

"Don't argue with me! In this case, the feast takes precedence over the slaves' other duties." Walking up to the overseer, Thrul blew his hot, foul breath, thick with the stench of decaying teeth, into the other orc's face.

"All right, have it as you will," Kopal spat out, not caring if some of his spittle spewed out onto Thrul's face. "But I need more workers!" He looked around the kitchen. "How about letting me have some of your scullions to aid in this project? We'll get done a lot quicker!"

"My scullions!" Thrul exclaimed, wiping off the spittle with the back of his hand. "They are trained as cooks, not field drudges! Besides, they are busy cooking. No!" He shook his head adamantly. "You can't have any of them, unless you want to be responsible for the King's displeasure when the meal ain't cooked right!"

"What about those wenches?" Kopan pointed to Elfhild, who was drawing flowers on the wall with charcoal, and Özlem, who was scouring out dirty pans. "That loony girl and the wench who serves as one of the King's food and wine tasters? Doesn't look to me like they're doing anything useful, and they both look strong enough to carry wood. They must be good for something besides spreading their legs."

"I don't know, Kopal." The cook looked worried. "Of course, the King has the other taster in his chambers right now, so I suppose he'll be occupied with tasting that juicy morsel." Proud of his mildly ribald innuendo, Thrul gave Kopan a knowing look that said that the attractive females who tasted King Thaguzgoth's food and drink also served the King in more pleasurable ways. "I guess you can take her with you, but you must get her back in plenty of time for the feast. Now the Rohirric girl... I suppose she has sense enough to carry wood, but you have to promise no harm will come to her, or the Shaman will have my head."

"Your ugly head's safe, Thrul. I'll get them both back in plenty of time." Kopan poured himself another tankard from the crockery vessel. "Now you tend to your cooking and I'll bring back enough wood to keep your hearths and ovens going for the next few days." The draught had a fiery kick that burned as it went down his gullet, and made him feel invincible. He was beginning to anticipate this wood gathering expedition. While he would not touch the Rohirric girl for fear of the Shaman's curse, the Haradric girl presented some interesting possibilities. He would take a couple of his most trusted men with him, and while they guarded the slaves, he would have his fun.

***

Guards armed with spears herded the five stocky goblin thralls as they marched through one of the caves' many passages. Shackled by the ankle to a coffle line, the slaves marched along in silence, their hardened faces resentful and surly. When the slaves stumbled or faltered, their progress was hurried along by the sting of the flail on their skinny, scarred legs. As the girls walked behind them, Elfhild stared at their scrawny bodies, which were clad only in ragged loincloths and sandals. The goblins were filthy, reeking of the stench of orc and sweat. She tried to hold her breath, but could not prevent the stench from assaulting her nostrils. Revolted, she wondered how many savage brutes had assaulted poor, miserable Özlem. She shivered in disgust.

The passage opened up into a large chamber which Elfhild had never seen during her explorations of the cave. In places, great stalactites hung from the ceiling, descending downward to gnash against the stalagmites rising up from the floor, resembling the fangs of some monster. Other more delicate projections hung from the roof of the cavern like lace. "How beautiful," Elfhild thought, wondering if any of the orcs appreciated such loveliness, or were their minds so base that they were insensitive to all beauty?

Soon after leaving the great chamber, they passed by the guards stationed at the entrance, and then they were out into the sullen darkness of the night. Even though the guards carried torches, the night seemed scarcely bothered by the smoking flames. The sable canopy of the heavens was studded with untold numbers of stars which looked down dispassionately upon the figures winding their way through the rugged desert hills. The landscape before them was bleak, the terrain devoid of vegetation except for a few coarse clumps of desert grass. They walked on for a long way until they came to a section of scrubby trees and bushes which had not yet known the swing of the axe.

"All right, you stinking maggots! Time to quit your loafing and get to work!" Kopan bellowed as he turned to face the thralls. "Did I hear some of you bellyaching?" he challenged them. "Aye, I know I did! You know I will not put up with that! Here's a taste of what you'll get if I hear another peep!" He signaled to one of the guards, who lashed his cat-o-nine across the bare back of one of the thralls, who took the punishment without a whimper. As Kopan watched in amusement, the guards prodded the slaves into action with the points of their spears. Elfhild and Özlem started to follow the other thralls, but Kopan barred their path with his outstretched spear.

"Where are you two going?" He grinned menacingly at them.

"To fetch wood. Is that not our purpose for being here?" Özlem retorted, her dark eyes flashing. "Now get out of the way!" She noted that Elfhild was playing her part well; the supposedly mad girl had reached out, touching the smooth haft of the spear and smiling as though it were a toy.

"Oh, a feisty one, eh?" Impatiently shooing Elfhild away, the orc gripped Özlem by the shoulder, but she defiantly shrugged his hand aside. "Haughty, too, ain't you?" He glared at her. "I know how to take that out of a wench!"

"Keep away from me, you detestable slug!" Özlem spat out, her fist clenching at her side. "I am one of the King's wine testers!"

"I know what you are, so don't get all uppity on me." Kopan laughed menacingly. "You're nothing but one of the whores His Majesty generously makes available to his men for their sport! I just never got around to you. I'm going to change that now!"

Growling, he lunged for the girl's long hair, wrenching it savagely. A scream tore itself from Özlem's throat, and her hands shot up to her head to try to relieve the unbearable pain that ripped through her scalp. She kicked at the orc's shins and tried to pry his fingers away, but a harsh slap to her face left her reeling and seeing stars. Pulling her by the hair, he dragged her off the path and behind a rock outcropping.

"Oh, Béma," Elfhild moaned as she found herself alone in the middle of the path. "He is going to rape her, and there is nothing I can do!"

A sense of urgency compelled Elfhild to action, but she could not move; it was as though her feet had been bolted to the ground, her ankles enclosed by shackles of fear. Was this even happening, or was it part of some nightmare, one of the endless night terrors which haunted her sleep? Nothing felt real. Her heart thundered wildly in her chest, and her vision swam from side to side. She looked up at the stars, almost ethereal in their pure shimmering glory, so immune to the sufferings of man. Through the rushing hum in her ears, she was dimly aware of the harsh curses of the slave masters as they used their whips to drive the goblin thralls further up the path. Then she heard Kopal's grunts and Özlem's low moans of pain, and her heart lurched as a sickening sense of clarity assaulted her senses like the sudden strike of lightning. The trance broken, she no longer stood there as though bespelled by a dragon and turned into a living statue, sentient of all that transpired around her yet unable to stop it.

But what could she do to stop it? How could she fend off Özlem's attacker and help her friend? She had no weapons, and even if she did, she was sorely outnumbered by goblins. Sick with despair, she felt her vision start to shimmer and shake again. She closed her eyes for a few moments to halt the disconcerting sensation. Mustering up her faltering courage, she looked around desperately for something to use as a weapon. Espying a large stone alongside the path, she grasped it in her hands and silently crept towards the rocky outcropping where the orc had taken her friend.

As Elfhild edged around the shaley embankment, her hands trembling from the weight of the stone, she saw the naked, straining hips of Kopan thrusting as he savagely drove into Özlem. Rage surged within her, darkening her senses and painting her thoughts crimson with blood. She would make this orc pay for his cruel deeds! In her mind's eye, she had already slain the bastard, and for a brief moment, she was surprised that he was still alive. Her entire body was shaking now, and it was all she could do to keep from dropping the stone as she inched closer.

A sudden shriek of pain like the cry of an injured animal caused her to freeze in her tracks. "Oh no!" her frantic mind told her. "He has killed Özlem!"

But it was not the Haradric girl who had shrieked.

Before they left the cavern, Özlem had stolen a small cooking knife, concealing it in her boot. She had not really expected to use it, but it was there in case need arose. When Kopan dragged her behind the rock, his yellow eyes gleaming with lust, he threw her to the ground, hiking up her skirt and drawing down his breeches. As he shoved his repulsive member inside her, she had bitten her lip, not a whimper escaping from her mouth. She saw the future unfold before her; this would be the rest of her short, miserable life, constantly being ravished by orcs and then giving birth to their bastard spawn.

Something inside her snapped like a dry twig, and a savage little smile played over the corners of her lips. She drew her spread legs up to her chest and ran her hands over Kopan's buttocks.

"I thought you'd like it," Kopan murmured huskily as he looked into her eyes.

"Ohhh," she moaned, her voice velvety, "I shall like this even more." She reached for the knife in her boot and gripped it in her hand. As Kopan's thick, fleshy mouth covered her lips, she raised the blade up above his back and then drove it deep between the ribs. "Now go to hell, you pig!" she hissed triumphantly in his ear. As the orc screamed in pain, a torrent of blood spewed from his mouth and sprayed her face with reeking black droplets. Laughing, Özlem tugged on the knife, twisting the weapon as she pulled it from the resisting flesh. Her wild laughter echoed as she stabbed the writhing orc over and over until at last with a shuddering twitch he lay still.

Elfhild stood frozen in a state of astonished bewilderment, the rock, now forgotten, still clutched in her quivering hands. She was unable to take her eyes from the gristly scene before her. For a moment, she was back in her home in Rohan, straddling a screaming uruk as she stabbed him repeatedly in the face, and then, just as quickly, her mind returned her to the present day. Still reeling from the memories that tormented her and the dangers which currently threatened her safety, she struggled to comprehend what her friend had just done, and the dire consequences which would surely follow.

"Özlem!" she finally managed to squeak. "Are... are you hurt?"

"Sore, maybe... he was a big one." With a grunt, she pulled out the knife and wiped it upon the back of Kopan's tunic. "But I have seen larger. Now be quiet," she hissed, "or you will alert the rest of the bastards that something is wrong. Help get this brute off me!"

"Oh! Yes, of course!" Elfhild sputtered, awed at Özlem's calmness. Tossing the rock aside, she bent down to help the other girl. As Özlem shoved at the chest of her dead attacker, Elfhild tugged at the heavy corpse until together they had rolled him off. Though Kopan was just a goblin and not one of the mighty uruks, he had been brawny and muscular. Now he was just another corpse whose vacant eyes stared sightlessly up at the heavens.

Özlem rolled to her knees and reached for the dead orc's waterskin. Tearing off a strip of material from her ragged hem, she soaked it with water and then squatted to clean between her legs. "Orc filth!" she exclaimed in disgust. "I do not want his foul seed staining my body!" When she was through cleansing herself, she turned to rifle through Kopan's clothes. "Do not just stand there, gaping like a fool! Look to his haversack; see what you can find that might be of use!"

Kneeling down, Elfhild unstrapped the haversack, lifting out the contents and listing them one by one. It was somewhat difficult to determine what each item was in the darkness, but it was far brighter out here in the open than it was back in the cave. "A knife... a small whetstone... steel and flint... a small pouch of coins... a little book... a kit of small personal items... flat bread and dried meat... and two skins of draught."

"Here, let me smell that meat!" Özlem demanded as she reached out her hand. "Oh, good!" she exclaimed, sounding relieved. "It smells like dried goat! Maybe stringy and tough, but edible. At least it is not man flesh; you never know what these devils eat. Now help me strip him!"

As they tugged off Kopan's boots and clothes, the sight of the sickening gashes in the orc's back caused Elfhild's stomach to spasm, and she had to turn away before it betrayed her. Troubling images of the mutilated face of her mother's killer flooded her mind, and she fought to keep herself in the present and out of the spiraling vortex of the past.

"Nothing on him of any value except his scimitar and this small dagger, but we can use some of his clothes and his boots. You take the knife; I already have one of my own," Özlem laughed softly. "Now while his tunic reeks of blood and has more than its share of holes, it is still serviceable if you want it." She smiled as Elfhild shook her head. "Well, I will take it. We will need all the coverings we can get when the sun comes up." Worrying her lower lip, she cast a furtive glance in the direction that the other orcs had gone. "Hurry! We do not know when they will come back!"

The girls divided up the orc's possessions, with Elfhild taking the haversack and Özlem carrying the draught and waterskins. Since Kopan had removed his burnoose before his final debauched tryst, the garment was virtually untouched, and Özlem offered it to Elfhild. Demurring, she insisted that Özlem take the cloak, but she courteously refused. Finally she persuaded Elfhild to accept the garment, saying that she was content with the orc's blood-stained tunic and breeches. Rising to her feet, Özlem strapped the orc's sword belt around her slender middle and returned her own dagger to her boot.

"Considering it all, we are well equipped; you have the orc's two daggers, and I have his scimitar. I am not quite sure if I can wield the weapon," Özlem laughed, "but it feels impressive here by my side." Smiling, she patted the hilt.

"Where are we going?" Elfhild asked, her brow puckering. "We were hooded when we were brought here, and know nothing about the terrain."

"One direction is as good as any," she shrugged, "when you do not know where you are. I do know that if we go east, away from the mountains, sooner or later we should hit the caravan route to Nurn. We will follow the stars and let them be our guides." When Elfhild looked unconvinced, Özlem squeezed her shoulder. "Now do not look so glum! I truly believe that somehow we will escape and get through this."

They trudged on in silence for a while until Elfhild spoke up, no longer able to contain her curiosity. "How can you act so calm after what... after what happened to you?"

"After being raped, you mean? Or killing the orc?" She turned to look over at Elfhild, who walked beside her.

"Well -- both," Elfhild stammered, a rosy flush spreading over her cheeks.

"I was not very calm when I killed the orc. I was scared, really," Özlem replied, pausing on the path. "But then anger and hate took over, I guess. The knife seemed to have a will of its own, fairly springing into my hand. I was almost joyful as I plunged it into his back. I could have killed him a thousand times and not felt a single pang of guilt."

"You are very brave; not many would have the courage to do what you did." Elfhild felt an intense admiration for the other girl.

"There is nothing brave about me," she laughed. "I just did what I had to do."

"But that monster raped you!" Elfhild blurted out, and then wondered if she had said the wrong thing. She did not want to remind the girl of her pain.

"Raped?" Özlem laughed bitterly. "You are still such an innocent, Elfhild. I was born to a whore in a brothel, and innocence left me at an early age. When my woman's blood first came upon me, my master told me that he had a great surprise for me. He was certainly telling the truth there." A grim, humorless chuckle, more like a cough than a laugh, escaped from her throat. "That night, he had me gowned in silk brocade and even gave me a choice of jewelry I could wear. Foolish child that I was, I was delighted at being the center of attention." She paused, as though remembering that night. "All these shakhs were there, sitting on cushions, drinking wine or smoking waterpipes, as I was led into the chamber. I could feel their hot eyes on me, and I was frightened. They bid on me as though I were a horse or camel, for they all wished to be the first man to claim my virginity." Her voice trembled at the memory.

Elfhild reached out to touch Özlem's shoulder, and saw that there were tears in her friend's eyes. "Oh, Özlem, I am sorry!"

"I am sorry, too, but that was a long time ago, and I do not think about it very much." She reached her fingers up to brush away the tears. "The man who bought me for the night told me that he was a great lover, and that while he had known many women in his life, his true passion was for deflowering virgins, both male and female... the bastard." Her voice was filled with unresolved anger, a silent fury that had simmered for many years deep down inside her soul. "Being rich, he had plenty of gold to spend on his depraved fancy. He tore my fine gown from my body, and when I protested, he beat me savagely until I was almost unconscious. I learned a lot that night, a lot I wish I had not. The next morning, he paid my master extra gold to compensate for the time I could not work."

"That is horrible!" Though her heart was aching for the sufferings her friend had endured, Elfhild was uncertain what to say. She wanted to tell her something comforting, but she knew that there were no words that could take away all of Özlem's pain and sorrow.

"That night was the worst. After that, I was not treated so badly. I learned to submit, and I was seldom beaten. Really, I am lucky." Özlem laughed sarcastically. "Besides being trained in all the erotic arts, my master had me trained to play the santur. When my teacher, one of the brothel musicians, discovered that I had a talent for the instrument, my value increased, and my master seldom forced me to sleep with the patrons." She wiped at her eyes again and then paused, staring at the dark, gloomy shapes of the rocky terrain in front of them.

"Though he was not an old man, my master died suddenly one night." Özlem resumed her story, this time with a note of triumph in her voice. "Some said that he was poisoned by one of the girls, who was insanely jealous of his favorite whore. I do not know." She shrugged. "I prefer to think that there is always recompense for evil, and he was fated to die before his time. Well, anyway, all his possessions had to be sold to pay for his debts, which were considerable." Her voice softened, and a slight smile turned up her lips. "Then Fortune truly favored me, and I was bought by an agent of Shakh Esarhaddon. The slave trader regarded me as a talented musician instead of another lowly whore, and graciously allowed me to entertain his men with my music instead of my body."

Özlem took the stopper out of one of the waterskins and offered it to Elfhild, who sipped at the water, not really feeling thirsty. After the girls had finished drinking, they set out again, walking side by side. The stars slowly faded with the coming of dawn, and the rocky terrain was painted in muted shades of amber, gray, mauve and purple as the blazing orb of the Sun began to rise in the east. They climbed to the top of a stony ridge and stood there together. Before them, there was nothing but the sweep of the rocky waste. Had the stars betrayed them?


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