The Circles - Book Eight - Chapter 1

The Circles - Book Eight - A Mordorian Bestiary
Chapter One
The Lovers' Tryst
Written by Elfhild

Region of Lithlad, Southern Gorgoroth, July 30, 3019

The Oasis of the Solitary Cedar was a day's journey behind the caravan, which was now traveling upon the road which would eventually lead to the Sea of Núrnen and the great city of Turkûrzgoi. Flanking the long column of Rohirric captives and supply wagons were parties of Dolrujâtar warriors who had been employed by the House of Huzziya as mercenaries and guards. Because of the orc mutiny and the attempt upon the chief slaver's life earlier that month, it was deemed that additional security was needed to ensure the safety of the caravan and its cargo. Scouting parties ventured out along the sides of the procession, raising the alert whenever they spied the tiniest cloud of dust on the horizon or witnessed the least suspicious occurrence. The vanguard, composed of some of the most experienced warriors of Nurn, Harad, and Lithlad, rode in advance of the main body, ready to engage any possible enemies in fierce combat. Behind this elite group were the standard bearers, trumpeters and drummers, followed by Shakh Esarhaddon and his personal guards.

The pale line of the road stretched into the distance, as straight as an arrow driving a trough through the heart of the desert. After going on for what seemed like leagues upon leagues across the tan and brown landscape, the thoroughfare faded into a hazy horizon marked by the dark shadows of distant mountains. Heat danced off the paving stones, causing the air to shimmer and undulate. In the crystalline blue heavens, nary a cloud could be seen, and the sun was a ball of white-hot fire.

Aeffe walked along beside the rows of captives, the water sloshing in the leather water bag which was slung over her shoulder. Because she was one of the caravan's water bearers, she was allowed to walk unhindered by shackles and chains. She had been given a leather vest with a high collar to protect her neck and shoulders from being rubbed raw by the heavy water bladders that she carried, but it was still arduous work. Despite the physical hardship of her duties, there were things about her position that she enjoyed. Trudging for miles beneath the scalding desert sun was a feat of great endurance for those who were strong and hale, and there were many among the captives who were of a frail constitution. The very young and the very old suffered greatly, as well as women who were with child. As Aeffe made her rounds, she brought relief to the thirsty, soothing parched throats with blessed water. It always brought a smile to her face and a warmth to her heart when she helped those in need. However, there were those who were aggressive, who demanded that they receive water before everyone else, and took far more than they should. These captives intimidated Aeffe, and she found herself glad that they were bound by chains, lest they leap upon her and attempt to wrest the water bag away.

Why she had been given the position of water bearer, Aeffe knew not, but she suspected that the slave trader was watching her to see if she had any potential as an investment. Though she knew little about the man, she had heard rumors that he planned on purchasing a certain number of slaves to train and then sell in the future at a much higher price. Esarhaddon had shown an interest in her in the past, and she wondered if she might be one of those whom he was considering purchasing. For a month and a fortnight she had traveled with the slaver's caravan, and in that time she had learned that slaves could rise up the ranks of the chain of command. Those with exceptional talent, charm, or beauty often found favor in the eyes of the higher ups, and these fortunate ones might find themselves elevated to positions of privilege and power. Treachery, betrayal, and backstabbing were also common ways of advancing oneself in Mordorian society, and those with few scruples and an abundance of ambition could rise to the top upon the downfall of others. Upon this journey to Mordor, however, there were few opportunities for permanent advancement, for all of the captives would be sold upon their arrival in Nurn. A few, though, had been chosen to fulfill certain tasks, such as kitchen laborers and water bearers.

Aeffe prayed that the reason she was chosen was because the caravan needed more workers, and the Rohirric captives were a convenient labor force. The more valuable she was to Esarhaddon, the less likely he was to come to an agreement with Inbir concerning her fate. It would be far better for the slave trader to consider her as worthless baggage, for then he would be more willing to part with her for a modest sum. Inbir could not afford to pay a king's ransom for a slave, no matter how desperately he desired her. As it stood now, he was planning to offer himself up as a slave just so he could be with her.

Poor Inbir! He would sacrifice his freedom for her sake. She felt her heart swell with adoration for her brave, selfless love. They had met in secret early that morning, when darkness still lay over the land and most of the camp remained abed. These trysts always filled her with fear, for she was terrified of the consequences of being caught, but, oh, how romantic it all was! She felt like a heroine in a story about forbidden lovers, and this appealed to her most sentimental flights of fancy. If she were the heroine, then Inbir was the hero, although she worried that their story might not have a happy ending. She prayed that their tale would be one of those that ended well for all those involved, and not the sort that ended in tragedy and sorrow.

What a strange turn her life had taken! Never had she imagined that she would be kidnapped by orcs and then fall in love with a man from an enemy land. She wondered what her grandfather would have thought of her romance with Inbir. Probably not much, she mused, recalling her grandfather's gruff, critical manner. Alas, he was no longer alive either to approve or disapprove, for the uruk raiders had murdered him when he had tried to defend his home. Her mother and father had died when she was a child, and now she had no one. Many of the people of her village had fled to the mountains at the first stirrings of war, and thus were they able to escape the chains of slavery. Though she missed her friends, Aeffe was glad that they were free and far away from the Land of Shadow. Elfhild and Elffled were her closest companions among the captives, and she shared many secrets with them.

During their all too brief meeting that morning, Inbir had told her that he would speak with Esarhaddon after the evening meal. Though the caravan had been camped at Dâltgund Cistern for the better part of July, there had not really been an appropriate time for Inbir to make his entreaty known. The slave trader had been grievously wounded when Durraiz and her band of rebel uruks had attempted to assassinate him, and he had languished for weeks from his many hurts. Then, when at last he began to recover, all his attentions were set upon negotiating an alliance between the House of Huzziya and the Dolrujâtar. Inbir knew that it would be ill-advised to appeal to his employer at that time, for when Esarhaddon had his mind set upon a single purpose, it was near impossible to divert his attention elsewhere, and he would be enraged by any attempts to do so. Then there had been the three-day celebration to commemorate the marriage of Shakh Zarkfir and Özlem, and it would have been inappropriate to bring up the matter to Esarhaddon in the midst of all the festivities. Now, though, that life in the caravan had resumed its usual pace, Inbir would have ample opportunity to negotiate with his employer. Although the past few weeks had been indeed fraught with danger and blessed with curious fortune, Aeffe suspected that Inbir hesitated to speak with Esarhaddon not out of lack of opportunity, but rather out of fear. The slave trader was an imposing man, and it was no wonder that Inbir was secretly terrified of him.

So great was Inbir's hesitance and uncertainty that he planned to seek the advice of Laskohki the fortuneteller when the caravan halted for the noonday meal. Perhaps her mystical scrying stone held the answers. Aeffe prayed that Laskohki's visions would be auspicious ones which showed Esarhaddon accepting Inbir's offer of servitude. For if the slaver refused, Inbir planned to take her and flee over the Mountains of Shadow to Ithilien, and then make their way southward to Harad. This journey would be a perilous one, fraught with hardship and danger. If they were caught, Aeffe would be severely punished and Inbir would be executed. If they made it safely to their destination, what fate lay in store for them there? It was uncertainties such as these which caused Aeffe to choose to remain with the slavers while Goldwyn plotted to escape. Aeffe had never been very brave, and the thought of incurring the wrath of her captors frightened her to the bone. How ironic it was that her beloved was speaking of escape, should Esarhaddon be unreasonable in his demands. She had called Goldwyn's daring plan a glorious folly, and now it seemed that she might soon be committing a folly of her own.


As Inbir walked to the slaver's tent that evening, he thought about his visit to the fortuneteller's wain earlier that day. Now that had certainly been a waste of time and coin. The witch from Far Harad had made a dramatic production of looking into her seeing stone, claiming that she was summoning forth the spirits to give her visions of the future. Then she had gone into a trance and started mumbling gibberish.

"Time stands still within the golden circle… but the wheel of fortune keeps turning… Beware the cat!"

How could a circle stop time? That was absurd even to consider. He could understand the concept of the wheel of fortune, an ever-turning wheel symbolizing change, either for good or ill, or perhaps both. Unfortunately, the fortuneteller had never specified what sort of changes might be coming to his life, so her prediction was of little help. As for the cat? That one puzzled him. Some of the waggoneers had brought cats along with them as company for the journey. Did he have to fear for his safety whenever he passed by the supply wains? What nonsense! Clearly Laskohki had been in her cups, or smoking the hash again.

Resentful of being parted with both his time and money, Inbir announced his business to the guard posted outside of Shakh Esarhaddon's tent. As he was ushered inside, he feared that he was about to be cheated once again, this time out of the woman whom he loved.

"What business do you wish to discuss, Captain Inbir?" Esarhaddon asked after the two men had gotten all proper formalities out of the way and were seated around the low table in the center of the curtained chamber.

"My lord, you know that I am greatly enamored of Aeffe, the slave girl with the beautiful hair that shines like copper in the sun…" As Inbir spoke, he studied his employer's face, hoping to gage what reaction he might have when at last he brought up his proposal, but as usual the slave trader was inscrutable. "Mordorian law states that all slaves captured during the war must be sold at public auction upon their arrival in Nurn, but, alas, I am a poor man, and do not possess the coin to bid for her."

"I am well aware of both the laws and your financial situation," Esarhaddon remarked, his heavy eyelids lowering halfway in a calculating gaze.

Inbir felt his heart sinking, but still he summoned up his courage. "I have a proposal to make, my lord."

Esarhaddon leaned forward slightly. "And what is that?"

Inbir caught the gleam in the slaver's eyes. He was at Esarhaddon's mercy; both he and Esarhaddon knew it, and the slave trader would lord it over him. Inbir would not allow himself to become intimidated.

"While I cannot afford to buy Aeffe, it would be an easy matter for you to purchase her at the auction." Inbir tried to carry himself with an air of confidence, for he did not want his employer to think he was begging… although it would probably come to that. "I know that it is frowned upon for the owner of an auction house to purchase too many of the spoils of war for himself, for the nobility is meant to have first choice of the booty, but Aeffe is just one slave out of many. I would be willing to indebt myself to you for a period of seven years so that I might reimburse you for the gold that she cost you. With the completion of my contract, Aeffe would officially become my property. Would you consider this offer, my lord?" Inbir studied the slaver's face, hoping, praying, that the man would be willing to negotiate. He could not stand the thought of being parted from his beloved!

"You must greatly desire the slave girl if you would beg your employer to purchase her and then so willingly forfeit your freedom in the hopes of possessing her one day," Esarhaddon remarked, studying the younger man.

"Yes, my lord," Inbir replied, his voice earnest.

"We have discussed this matter in the past, Captain." Esarhaddon took a sip from his goblet of wine. "A month ago, when I rewarded the valor of all those who had helped suppress the uruk rebellion, you initially rejected the fine sword and casket of coins which I presented to you, saying that the only reward you wanted was the slave girl. I told you that I would consider the matter, but to take the treasures which I offered you as payment for coming to my defense."

"Yes, my lord." Inbir remembered the skirmish with the uruks. After the Mountain of Fire erupted upon the last day of June, the beasts became convinced that the Dark Lord was displeased with them, and decided to start sacrificing the Rohirric slaves in an attempt to appease the wrath of Sauron. Aeffe would have been one of the sacrifices, had not Khaldun shot the uruk priest with his bow. In the skirmish that ensued, Esarhaddon was assailed by a huge brute of a uruk who would have gotten the better of him had not Inbir come to his employer's aid.

"I have thought long upon this matter, considering your request. If Aeffe were an ordinary slave, perhaps I could afford to be more lenient, but as a slave newly brought from the West, she is far too valuable to gift to a mere guard, no matter how loyal he might be." Esarhaddon saw how the younger man visibly tensed at his words, and felt a smug sense of satisfaction at the power he held over him. "I have even considered purchasing the girl myself, so that I might bring her to my villa, where she would be trained and educated in the ways of Mordor, and thus her value would be increased. There are several promising Rohirric slaves whom I feel would be a worthy investment, and Aeffe is one of them."

Inbir felt his heart sink. Understanding was slowly dawning upon him. The slaver obviously desired Aeffe for himself! After all, she had been one of the first women who had caught his attention when the Rohirric captives had come into Esarhaddon's keeping. Perhaps Esarhaddon even meant to make her his concubine!

"Please reconsider, my lord!" Inbir cried out in desperation. "I have fallen deeply in love with Aeffe, and I cannot bear to think of her as the slave of another man! I will do anything, anything!" Rolling to his knees, he assumed the posture of a supplicant, with pleading hands clasped before him. "I will even surrender my freedom and remain your slave for the rest of my life!"

"Unfortunately, it is not in my best interests to give you what you desire." Esarhaddon's voice was stern as he looked upon Inbir's slavish groveling with disapproval. Poets and musicians were always temperamental sorts, given to passionate displays of emotion which bordered on the theatrical. He had always heard that one had to be a bit mad to be an artist, and observing Inbir in this moment, he knew that it was true. "The House of Huzziya has suffered tremendous losses on this slave buying venture, and I simply cannot afford to be generous, even if it is to one as brave and loyal as you." He gave Inbir a consoling smile, but the Captain noted that the sympathy expressed within the gesture did not quite meet the slaver's eyes. "Now quit that insufferable groveling! You have a promising future as a bodyguard with the House of Huzziya, and I have no doubt that one day you will be able to afford a harem of beautiful women of your own. There will be others just as lovely and charming as Aeffe, if not more so."

"But they will not be Aeffe," Inbir thought dismally as his audience with Esarhaddon drew to a close.


As the night deepened, the noises of the camp faded into a low din, the fires a soft ruddy glow in the desert night. His footfalls soft upon the sandy ground, the guard silently escorted the girl to a rock outcropping on the periphery of the encampment. There Inbir awaited, a smile upon his face for his beloved and a few coins of bribery in his hand for the guard, who was willing to keep his silence about Inbir and Aeffe's trysts for a price.

"Oh, my love," Aeffe whispered, rushing into Inbir's arms after the guard had departed. "I am so happy to see you again!"

"My heart sings in your presence, my beloved, and I long to play its melodies upon the oud so that you might hear them." Holding the beautiful Rohirric girl close to his body, Inbir bent down and kissed her, enjoying the feeling of her soft, plump lips against his and the sweet taste of her mouth. Suddenly he withdrew, thinking for a moment that he heard a sound nearby. He cast a furtive glance around at his surroundings for interlopers, but saw no one. Perhaps it had been a desert mouse which had been scurrying around nearby in search of food. He turned his attention back to Aeffe. "No one knows of these meetings, do they?"

"Only my friends Elfhild and Elffled, and they would never betray me."

Inbir nodded, relaxing somewhat. "I am well acquainted with the twins, and they both seem trustworthy." Although Aeffe was his first love, he also possessed affectionate feelings towards Elffled. If he could have his way, he would take both of them to be his wives, but, alas, that was not to be. It would be dangerous enough smuggling one slave girl out of Mordor; stealing two would be almost impossible, and he suspected Elffled would refuse to go unless she could bring her sister along as well.

"The women in my troop suspect that I am having nightly trysts with one of the guards, but they know not who," Aeffe told him with a mischievous grin. "They are all older women, prudes and busybodies the lot of them, and they think I have loose morals. However, I do not believe that any of them would betray me, for they fear the slavers and want nothing to do with them. They would rather shame me themselves than get a foreigner involved."

Inbir gave Aeffe an apologetic look. "I am sorry that you have to endure their scorn, but you need not suffer it much longer, for I intend to take you far away from here and make you my wife."

Aeffe's eyes widened, and her hands flew up to her mouth. Though his words filled her with joy, worry quickly supplanted that feeling, for the expression on Inbir's face had turned to one of solemn brooding. "What… what happened? What did Lord Esarhaddon say? Did he agree to your proposal?"

"Alas, no," Inbir told her, his voice tortured. "The man cares more about his accursed wealth than he does his own kinsmen!" He sighed heavily and sat down upon a large boulder. "A stranger's gold is more valuable to him than the humble request of a man of his own tribe!"

Aeffe sat down beside Inbir and took his hands in hers. "We had both feared that he might refuse, although we hoped beyond hope that he might show mercy to our plight."

Inbir shook his head. "I even saved Esarhaddon's life! If it had not been for me, he would have perished the night of the uruk rebellion."

"I know you have been very loyal to Lord Esarhaddon, and this situation grieves you greatly." Aeffe gently squeezed his hand.

"My own kinsman has betrayed me," Inbir spat out bitterly. "With his immense wealth, Esarhaddon could easily afford to outbid all the other buyers when you are sold on the auction block, and then I could enter into a contract with him which would allow me to purchase you and work off my debt over time. But he refuses, because coin is far more precious to him than awarding one who has always been steadfast and faithful."

Aeffe looked to Inbir with concern. "What do we do now?"

"I fear that Esarhaddon has given us no other choice." Inbir smiled sadly as he reached up to caress Aeffe's cheek. "If we are to stay together, we must flee Mordor, and never come back."

At his grim proclamation, Aeffe felt her heart shudder within her chest, an unpleasant sensation which left her feeling queasy. "But such a journey will be filled with danger! If we are caught, I would be given a sound whipping, but they will execute you, for the penalty for stealing a Mordorian slave is death." Tears welled up in her eyes, and she trembled beneath his touch. "Oh, my love, I could not bear it if I lost you!"

Inbir pulled Aeffe close, holding her against him in a protective embrace. "Fate has played a cruel jest upon us both, for escape gives us the only chance to be together, and yet if we fail, doom will befall us both. Our only hope lies in the South, far from the reach of Mordor."

Sighing, Aeffe nestled against his body and leaned her cheek against his shoulder. "I know so little of the world outside of the Mark."

"Most of my journeys have been on well-traveled roads and in the company of the caravan, but I will obtain a map ere we steal away into the night. I will make certain my beloved is safe." He caressed her soft, coppery hair and kissed her forehead gently. "My servant, Saqr, will be going along with us. Though he is only fourteen, he is strong and brave."

Aeffe smiled up into Inbir's face. "You have told me much about Saqr, and I look forward to meeting him."

"Back in the spring, Saqr insisted upon coming with me on this slave buying venture for the House of Huzziya. Although he claims it was out of loyalty, I think the lad was simply looking to have an adventure. Well, perhaps he will be getting more than he bargained for." Inbir chuckled grimly. "When I told him of my plan to escape with you, I told him that I would release him and give him leave to stay with the caravan where he would be safe and provided for, but he insisted on coming along."

"What a brave young man!" Aeffe exclaimed, clasping her hands to her heart. "You have a good friend in this boy."

Inbir thought it was best not to tell Aeffe that he had considered selling Saqr to Esarhaddon so that he might have more means to purchase his beloved. The boy had lived with Inbir's family for most of his life, though, and Inbir thought it would be too cruel to sell him and betray his trust in such a callous fashion. Saqr had been but a scrawny child, the youngest of ten children, when his family was forced to sell him and several of his sisters to pay their debts. Inbir's father had purchased the boy so that his sons might have a companion and servant. Like Saqr, Inbir was also the youngest child in his family, and the boy had always felt a closeness for his young master. When Inbir's older brothers left home in pursuit of their own fortunes, Saqr had remained behind as Inbir's body servant.

"Both Saqr and I will protect you with our lives," Inbir vowed, his voice filled with sincerity. "The lands through which we pass are wild and dangerous, and we must be on guard at all times."

"How fortunate I am to have two courageous warriors defending me." Aeffe leaned over and kissed Inbir's cheek, her hand stroking over his strong arm. "When shall we steal away into the night and leave this place far behind us?"

"The sooner, the better." Inbir grinned roguishly, causing Aeffe to giggle. "After spending a week idling about at the Oasis, the guards and caravan laborers will be weary and sore for the next few days. I know I certainly am." Bringing his elbows back, he flexed his shoulder blades and shifted his torso from side to side, stretching out the aches of the trail. "Although we shall be just as stiff and sore as the rest, I deem that we should set out tomorrow so as to take advantage of their sluggishness whilst it lasts."

"Where shall we go?" Aeffe asked, her eyes filled with wonder.

"Harad, eventually, although the journey will be long and tortuous." Inbir stared off into the distance, as though imagining the many leagues which lay between them and their destination. "We will travel across the desert on horseback and then pass over the Mountains of Shadow until we come to Ithilien. After that, we will take the Harad Road to the Crossings of Poros. Once we cross the River Poros, we will be in Harondor, a region which has oft been contested by Gondor and Harad. There is a city near the river crossing where we can rest from the journey and get provisions. Because of the Gondorian influence, many people here speak Westron as well as Haradric, so you will be able to communicate with those whom you meet. We shall stay in Harondor for a while, then keep journeying south and then east until we reach the River Harnen and finally pass into Harad. South of the Harnen Pass that connects southern Nurn with northern Harad lies the city of Kaskal, of which I am well acquainted. My family lives further to the southeast, but I do not feel it is wise for me to return there, for my presence would endanger them, if they even accepted me back into their home. After all, I will be considered a wanted man, a fugitive of Mordor."

Pulling away from Inbir, Aeffe straightened herself and studied the young Southron's face for a long moment. "You are giving up so much just to be with me. Your livelihood, your reputation, your family, possibly your life. Are… are you sure you really want to do this?" Tucking a lock of hair behind her ear, she dropped her gaze to study a rock embedded in the sandy ground. Although she had fallen in love with Inbir the moment that she had first laid eyes upon him, they really had not known each other very long. Was it foolish for him to throw his future away for a girl whom he had so recently met? Should she discourage him from taking this desperate course? Though it would cause her heart much pain, surely this was the right thing to do, for she could not bear the thought of her beloved dying for her sake.

Leaning forward and cupping Aeffe's chin in his hand, Inbir lifted her face to meet his gaze. "I am more sure about this than anything I have ever done in my life," he told her, his eyes blazing with an intensity that infused her cheeks with warmth and caused her to look away bashfully.

"I love you and I do not wish to be parted from you, but perhaps this escape attempt is folly," she whispered, her voice struggling to form the words. "We have only known each other a month and a half, and though we have oft met in secret trysts, the time we have had together has been brief and fraught with fear of discovery. Perhaps…" She swallowed hard against the lump in her throat. "Perhaps it would be best if we end this. It is too dangerous for you to try to wrench me away from the clutches of Mordor… to snatch me from out of the hands of the Lord of Darkness Himself… And even if you are successful, what then? You might grow to resent me for making the sacrifices that you did, for forfeiting your life to become a wanted fugitive, condemned to living on the run..." Tears began to well up in Aeffe's eyes, and her lower lip quivered with emotion. "Perhaps instead of being lovers, we shall become enemies… After all, we are from enemy lands, and our worlds are so different from each other… Many would say that this is madness, a rash decision made by two young lovers who know little of life."

"Yes, there are some who would say this is madness, but I am madly in love with you, Aeffe of Rohan!" Inbir cried out in anguish, so caught up in the moment that he cared not if anyone overheard. His arms pulling her to his chest in a desperate embrace, he kissed over her tear-streaked face before whispering in her ear, "You are the one who brings music to my soul, who inspires me to write poetry praising your name, as though you were the incarnation of the Goddess of Love! I would gladly give up everything just to be with you. Though it is indeed true that we have not known each other very long, once we escape, we shall have time to discover each other and grow closer as man and wife. Though your land and mine are enemies, I cannot imagine ever considering you as an enemy, for you are my beloved, and I love you more than life itself!"

"Oh, Inbir!" Tears streaming down her face, Aeffe threw her arms around Inbir's shoulders and pressed her lips to his, pouring all the passion and sorrow of her tormented heart into the kiss. "No matter where you go, I will follow; only death can separate us. I love you with all of my heart and soul!"

She clung to him as though being parted would mean her sudden and untimely death, and he held her with the same fervent desperation, his hands clutching her body like a dying man futilely clinging to life. Though their love was probably doomed, at least they would have this night together.

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