The Circles - Book Seven - Chapter 9

The Circles - Book Seven - Land of Treachery
Chapter Nine
Severing of Acquaintances
Written by Angmar

Propped up on pillows, King Thaguzgoth lounged in his private audience chamber, lying upon a divan pilfered from the nearby nomadic tribesmen. The King was bare chested, his hairy gut bulging repulsively over his breeches. His wounded shoulder was swathed in bandages, slightly bloody from the still oozing wound. His jowls seemed to sag even more than usual, and his heavily creased face was pallid, causing him to look older and more haggard. However, the King threw back his head, baring his teeth in a wide grin when the door warden announced that his eldest son was begging an audience with him.

The King turned to Shaman Dûshatâr, who was hovering behind him, a grave expression on his face. "O Seer of the Future, you told me that the young scoundrel would be showing up."

"Aye, Your Majesty," the Shaman replied. "Everything we do is written in the stars. He was fated to come here this morning."

"Dûshatâr, I think the Prince is more eager to make his peace with me and lay his claim once more to my throne than he is in answering the dictates of fate," the King remarked smugly. The door to the audience chamber was opened, and the door warden announced the crown prince's arrival. Prince Ashpar stood, framed in the doorway, a stricken expression upon his face.

"Your Majesty," he gasped, falling at his father's feet. "I was so horrified when I received news of the attempted assassination on your precious life..." His voice choked with pain. "Then my poor brother... dead! My grief is overwhelming!"

"My son, do not grovel like a beggar!" the King remarked with some distaste. "I am relieved that my eldest son still lives. Rise and sit beside me." He gestured towards the cushioned stool before his couch.

Prince Ashpar rose, his head bowed humbly. "Sire, I deserve only your ire, but I crave your mercy. When I shamelessly insulted you the other day, you were correct to banish me, for my actions were insufferable." His voice broke with unshed tears. "Since then, I have seen the error of my ways and I do not want this breach to remain between us. Can you ever forgive me?" He looked at his father sadly.

"Prince Ashpar, perhaps it took this tragedy to bring you to your senses," King Thaguzgoth replied patronizingly. "When a stubborn one admits his mistakes, it shows that he is attaining maturity, and thus there is still hope for him. Aye, I forgive you, and will reinstate you as my heir apparent when I assemble my nobles tomorrow."

"Your Majesty, thank you for your undeserved mercy." Tears glistening in his eyes, the Prince bent down to kiss the King's hand.

"Now, my son, you and I will mourn your brother together." King Thaguzgoth's gaze shifted to the center of the chamber, where a stone slab served as a bier for the dead prince. "My son, my son, my strong, brave son lies dead, the victim of merciless killers! At least he died quickly and did not suffer." With a sob, the King gripped his head in his hands.

"Aye, Your Majesty, and his killers go unpunished." Prince Ashpar's face contorted in grief and rage. With a visible effort, he regained his composure. "Now, my lord, if you would permit me, I would see my brother."

"Certainly, my son." King Thaguzgoth did not lift his grief-stricken gaze. "Mourn your brother."

With great dignity, Prince Ashpar rose and walked to the slab, where he stood for a few minutes, looking down in silence at the dead. "Rest in peace, my little brother," he murmured, his voice restrained but loud enough for those in the chamber to hear. Bending down, he lightly grazed his lips over his brother's pallid mouth. "At last the little bastard is dead," he thought smugly. Continuing his role as the grieving brother, the Prince was weeping audibly when he returned to the stool at his father's feet.

"I will not rest until the killers are found and brought to justice!" the King rasped out in anger. Raising his shaggy head, he shook his fist. He was about to stand, but a spasm of pain ripped through his shoulder, and with a gasp, he sank back down to the cushions.

"My lord, you will have your vengeance. That I promise you!" The Prince squared his shoulders, a look of determination in his eyes.

"We must capture them first, and I despair ever apprehending them. While I have dispatched couriers to the other tribes, seeking their aid in apprehending the killers, I cannot send warriors out searching in this wretched sunlight. The search will begin at dark," the King remarked sadly.

"My father, I have something to tell you, something of great import that will change everything." The Prince touched his father's forearm, his eyes looking to him imploringly.

Thaguzgoth raised his eyebrows questioningly. "Prince Ashpar, I cannot possibly divine what could be so important."

"My lord, knowing of the recent difficulties between us, the villains paid me a visit. They thought I would be grateful that they had slain Prince Shakop and begged my protection. Of course, I could never be part of such treachery, and so I refused," Prince Ashpar explained.

"Well, I am grateful for that." His face livid with rage, the King sat up straighter on his couch and gripped his goblet tightly.

"They became angry and threatened me, swearing that if I did not help them, they would kill me. I pretended to pledge them my aid if they would only spare my life." The Prince looked down, a troubled expression on his face. "I gave them some gold and promised them that Mazauk would lead them from the cavern by a secret passage known only to a few."

"What!" King Thaguzgoth bellowed. "You have helped my son's killers escape!"

"No, my lord!" Ashpar assured him, waving his hands emphatically. "That is my news. They did not escape! Mazauk led them into an ambush. The assassins have been captured!" He beamed triumphantly.

"Where are they?" the King demanded, still too stunned by the sudden news to comprehend it.

"My lord, Mazauk and my personal bodyguard will deliver them to you whenever you are ready to see them, and then you can execute your judgment."

"These villains... who are they? Who wishes to kill the king of Kafakudraûg Clan?" Thaguzgoth's hand shook with anger as he clenched his goblet.

"The mercenary Durraiz and her band of outlaws, sire."

"I knew it!" The King slammed his goblet down on the low table before his divan. "They were sent by a rival chieftain who wishes to kill me! Probably one of the Pauzul or Zaboth, no doubt. Curse those little bastards! We should drive them from these caves and let them fry in the wicked sun!"

"No, my lord. The attempt on your life was a crime of passion, and no politics were involved," the Prince replied. "Durraiz was furious that you took away her slave girls, and was determined to kill you. Instead she slew my poor, unfortunate brother."

"The criminals must pay!" The King's anger was so great that he was almost beyond coherent speech. "Bring these murderers before me!"

"Aye, Your Majesty, with your leave," Prince Asphar told him as he stood up and bowed. "I will have them back in short order." He walked to the doorway, bowed again, and strode through the opening.

Some minutes later, Durraiz and her band were escorted into the chamber, bound in chains and guarded at spear point by the Prince's bodyguard. Most showed the signs of recent beatings, their faces mottled with bruises, their eyes almost swollen shut. All were silent and grim-faced as they awaited their fate.

"Down on your knees, you sewer filth!" Mazauk commanded harshly as he prodded Nurzûm in the back with his spear. The other prisoners were quick to fall to their knees before the King.

"Durraiz, I gave you sanctuary in my hall, and you and your scum have betrayed me. Still, I give you the opportunity to say something in your behalf." King Thaguzgoth looked at her sternly.

The she-orc thought a while and then spoke. "Your Majesty, this is difficult for me to say, but I will reply to you in all honesty, even though you probably will not believe me. We never would have become involved in the affairs of this kingdom had not Your Majesty's son, Prince Ashpar, offered us great rewards to assassinate both you and your second son," Durraiz mumbled from between swollen lips, inwardly preparing herself for the barrage of hatred she knew would follow.

"That is a complete lie!" Prince Ashpar exclaimed, rising from his stool and facing his father. "After the attempt on Your Majesty's life, this villain came to me. She had the effrontery to suggest that I should be grateful to her for killing my brother and attempting to assassinate you! Her audacity knowing no limits, she demanded that I reward her with great stacks of gold and help her escape!"

"What!" Durraiz cried, shocked at the Prince's smooth, effortless betrayal. "You're the one who came to me, offering me great sums to kill your father and brother! When we came to Kafakudraûg cave, my fellows and I were vagabonds, seeking for shelter and the opportunity to serve under a liege lord. None of us were ever assassins for hire!"

"Sire," Nurzûm spoke up, "Durraiz speaks the truth! Your eldest son is trying to blame us for an assassination conspiracy of his own making! Please, Your Majesty, consider our plight! What cause would we have to murder the king of a kingdom of which we know little?"

"Father, they lie between their teeth! Perpetrators of great iniquity, they use deceit to try to turn you against your eldest son!" His eyes blazing with righteous indignation, Prince Ashpar turned a stern face on the hapless assassins. "This villain became enraged when you took the two slave girls from her, and plotted your downfall. Her mistake was to come to me, your loyal son, for help. Had she any sense at all, she would have known that my deep feelings of love and devotion for my father and brother would preclude me from raising a hand against either of you." A twisted smile curled across Prince Ashpar's lips, but it changed into one of filial adoration as he turned to his father.

Durraiz drew in a sharp breath. "Your Majesty, your son means you no good! After we were ambushed by Prince Ashpar's bodyguard, he told me of his plan to claim that I sought revenge upon you because you took the girls. He is lying to you, my lord! Those slave girls meant nothing to me! I had planned on selling them both! Coin was the reason we made the attempt on your life, Your Majesty. Coin offered to us by your son!"

"Silence!" King Thaguzgoth bellowed, his head ringing with the harsh voices that swirled around him. "I will hear no more slander against the crown prince!" He looked to his guards. "Take these miscreants to my dungeon and lock them away! I will deliver my judgment at twilight!"

***

"Death! Death!" shouted the angry crowd which had gathered in the great hall of King Thaguzgoth. "Death to the murderers of Prince Shakop!" Their voices combined into a mighty roar of bloodlust. Upraised fists thrust towards the gloomy ceiling of the cave, the goblins cried for the blood of the assassins. As the prisoners were led out in chains, drums began to throb with the primal song of death, tolling out the final march of the condemned. The enraged throng went berserk, shrieking and howling like a coven of demons.

The executioner, his face hidden behind a mask of black, stepped forward, a mighty axe held in his meaty hands. Wielding fierce-tipped spears, the guards forced the prisoners to kneel in a row upon the hastily built platform before the royal dais. As Shaman Dûshatâr emerged from the shadows behind the King's throne, the crowd fell silent almost instantly. Though the hall was eerily quiet, the air almost hummed with tension as though a bolt of lightning were about to strike. The Shaman lifted his spindly arms high and held up a scroll which was written in the rude, primitive pictogram language of the Sand Orcs. Unrolling the parchment, he began to read the charges against the prisoners and then returned to his place near King Thaguzgoth's throne. Softly at first, then growing in intensity, the crowd began chanting "Death! Death!" until they had worked themselves up into a frenzy, their violent incantations turning into crazed gibbering which descended into animalistic shrieks, yips and barks.

King Thaguzgoth rose to his feet, silencing the bloodthirsty throng with an upraised hand. "Let justice be done," he pronounced gravely and gave the order for the axe to fall upon the first prisoner in the row.

"My lady, I love you--" Sulmûrz's anguished cry was silenced as the axe cleaved her head from her body. The crowd howled as the blood splattered over them. Dodging the stomping feet of their elders, goblin imps screamed in delight and waved their chubby hands in the air, trying to catch the shower of ebony droplets.

Methodically the axe rose and fell until only one of the assassins remained. Durraiz regarded the bloodstained platform with its gristly collection of severed heads and crumpled bodies with detachment. She glanced over at the decapitated body of Sulmûrz, and remembered her companion's loyalty and their short-lived romance, but she was too numb to feel sorrow. She began to wonder why the axeman delayed his fatal stroke. She was soon to find out.

The crowd hushed as King Thaguzgoth rose to his feet and looked to the slab which held his murdered son. "I would be the one to claim this felon's life," his voice boomed throughout the hall. Walking up the stairs to the execution platform, he stood at the top and surveyed the assembled goblins. "The spirit of my son cries out for vengeance! Only when his murderer is dead will he know peace!" A faint smile appeared upon his haggard features as the executioner stepped aside and with a bow presented him with the bloody axe.

As the King touched the blade to her neck, lining it up for the lethal blow, Durraiz screamed, "Prince Ashpar is the real murderer of his brother! May he be cursed for eternity!" Then the axe fell, silencing her voice forever.

"Thus is the fate of all who would conspire to kill the king," Thaguzgoth proclaimed gravely, handing the bloodied axe back to the executioner. Cheering in elation and beating their fists upon their chests, the goblins rejoiced that justice had been served, but most of all that blood had been shed and that their King had provided them with much sport that evening.

Later, after the hall had emptied, the heads of the assassins joined the collection of skulls which was displayed in niches cut out from the sides of the cave in the great hall. Their bodies were fed to the howling pack of royal hounds, which snarled and fought over the gory remains. When the dogs had devoured all the flesh, the bones would be given to the Shaman, who would use them for his dark spells and incantations.

Now the great hall was empty, all save for the guards on duty and King Thaguzgoth, who sat brooding upon his rock throne. In spite of all his plans and aspirations, his long life now lay in shambles. Since the death of Prince Shakop, nothing had gone the way it should. He realized now that it had been a mistake ever to have taken the slave women from Durraiz. Because of his lust, she had harbored a grudge against him, and her hatred and thirst for vengeance had festered in her wicked mind until she decided to murder him.

Then that evening before the execution, King Thaguzgoth had received a disturbing report that Kopan, one of his most valued overseers, had been murdered, presumably at the hands of the assassins, and the two slave girls in his charge had disappeared. These tidings had been slow in reaching him because the body of Kopan had not been discovered until some hours after the killing. No sign of the girls had been found, and it was assumed that Durraiz' scouts had spirited them away in the night. Since the uruks could travel by day, the girls were probably miles away by now. Still he was certain that his soldiers would find them eventually.

King Thaguzgoth had plans for Özlem. He would kill her, and that satisfaction would help purge himself of some of the memories of the hated Durraiz! But what about the Rohirric girl, who was demented? The Shaman had warned him never to harm her, but everything had gone wrong since the two women had come into his fortress. He would have his men drive her further into the desert, and thus he would not be responsible for her fate. Let the spirits of the ancestors deal with her!

The death of Prince Shakop had devastated the King. True, he had other sons by his slave women, but there would never be another one to compare with the strong, brave Prince Shakop. His eldest son still lived, though, and though the youth had made mistakes, he had restored himself once again into favor by capturing the assassins. How he had wronged Ashpar by proclaiming his brother as crown prince and heir! He must make amends. Only then would his honor be satisfied!


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