The Circles - Book Eight - Chapter 10

The Circles - Book Eight - A Mordorian Bestiary
Chapter Ten
Freedom from Bondage
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

September passed into October, though little in the valley had changed to distinguish the passage of time. After hovering so long between life and death, Inbir had difficulty calculating how many weeks that he had spent in the care of the old hermit. However, even had he been hale and unhurt, he would have experienced the same anomalous perception of time, for the enchantments that lay over the valley went contrary to the laws of nature.

Time stands still within the golden circle.

Indeed, time did seem to stand still in this place, although to what the golden circle of Laskohki's prophesy referred, Inbir knew not. He supposed that it would remain an unsolved mystery, for he had little desire to investigate further. He just wanted to be away from this place as soon as possible. He did not like the effects the valley was having upon Aeffe, or her unseemly infatuation with the hermit. She would spend hours in the company of the foul-smelling old man, exploring the surrounding hills and hollows, or listening to tales of his half-remembered wanderings. Whenever Inbir and Saqr talked about leaving, Aeffe would become sullen and quiet. While the valley's scenery did possess a primeval beauty, and the hermit's stories were usually interesting ones, this place was not that lovely, and the hermit was not that fascinating. There was something unnatural about it all.

Many were the tales that Inbir had heard about Dor-en-Ulaer, dreadful accounts which caused the blood to run cold. He recalled his own terrifying encounter with the Seneschal of Minas Morgul, a man who was rumored to be neither living nor dead, but an unholy ghoul like his dark master. Chafing against the toll that he was required to pay for the right to pass through the valley, Esarhaddon had spoken angry words to the Seneschal. Punishment for this disrespect had been swift and brutal in its intensity. Esarhaddon and his men were incapacitated by the Seneschal's fell sorcery, falling into a nightmare filled slumber from which there seemed no escape. Inbir was still haunted by the lingering shadows of those dark dreams; as he writhed in feverish delirium from the scimitar cat's wounds, he often dreamt that he lay upon a bier in the dungeons of Minas Morgul, trapped in an eternal slumber.

While this hidden mountain valley was far from Minas Morgul, it was still tainted by the shadowy malignance which spread over the realm of the Nazgûl like a cankerous blight. Inbir suspected that Aeffe had fallen prey to the shadow, and this was the reason for her mystifying obsession with the valley. This would explain her shortsighted desire to linger, when she should be just as eager as he to embark upon the next part of the journey. If she were under a spell, her sense of reason would be suppressed, causing her to behave in a way contrary to her own nature. Surely this was why his beloved was acting so strangely.

There was another possibility, but Inbir did not want to consider it. No, no, it was simply too absurd! But yet the seeds of doubt and jealousy had been sown, and though he tried to tear these weeds from his mind, they still flourished and grew. Could it be that Aeffe had fallen in love with the hermit?

After all, Inbir had been poor company these past few weeks, unable to do little more than sleep and accept broth from the patient hands of his nurses. Even now, though new flesh flourished in the gashes left behind by the cat's claws, he still was not the man whom he once was. His strength had been replaced by weakness, and his joints ached as though he bore the toil of years not yet lived. His mind, once sharp as a knife, now felt like a rusty blade, and he had difficulty concentrating and staying focused upon one task for long. He no longer played his oud, not because he had lost interest in it, but because he lacked the motivation to coax melodies from its strings.

Perhaps Aeffe no longer desired him because of these shortcomings, and found the hermit to be better company. What cruel irony! To be rejected for an ancient graybeard who was little more than a walking skeleton clad in rags! Was his weakness that repulsive to her eyes? Did she look upon him now with disgust, when she had once gazed upon him with adoration? Perhaps she cared for him not out of love, but out of guilt, as a form of penance for the resentment she now harbored for him.

No, no, he must not condemn Aeffe without any evidence of guilt! Perhaps he, too, had been afflicted by the shadow, and his ability to discern truth from assumption had been compromised.

They had to get out of this accursed place, before it was too late.


When the day of departure finally arrived, Inbir and Saqr were eager to be away. As the two men gathered up supplies and made preparations to leave, Aeffe watched from her perch on a smooth rock in front of the hermit's cave. The sunlight streamed around her, warming her in a pleasant glow. "I love this valley," she murmured dreamily to the old man, who stood nearby. "Thank you, dear hermit, for all your hospitality. I will never forget you or this place." Indeed, she would not, for she had seen more wonders there than she had ever believed existed in the whole world.

"You are always welcome in the valley... if you can find it." An enigmatic look came over the old man's face. "You must remember that those who venture into the domain of the Nazgûl often leave it forever changed."

A chill raced down Aeffe's spine, for she knew that the hermit's words were true. After the slaver's caravan had left the Morgul Vale behind in the dust of Gorgoroth, she found that she had difficulty remembering the journey through the strange, ethereal valley. It was as though the passage had been some bizarre fantasy from a half-remembered dream, and the further she went from Minas Morgul, the more muddled and confused her memories became. She thought that perhaps it was some fault of her own mind, being bombarded as it was by scenery so alien from that of Rohan, but later she found out that many of the other captives had difficulty recalling that stretch of the eastward journey as well.

What was it about the domain of the Nazgûl that had such an effect upon one's mind? What strange magic permeated the very mountains and streams, bewitching some travelers with a mystical beauty both lovely and perilous, and tormenting others with nightmarish visions of horror and madness? She wondered which was the true representation of the Morgul Vale, but she knew that if anyone ever solved that mystery, it would never be she.

"What nonsense!" Saqr shook his head with disgust. "I am just the same as I was when I first came here."

"Perhaps that is for the better then, or for the worse." The old man thoughtfully stroked his beard.

"I know I will be glad to get out of here," Saqr remarked as he began harnessing the packhorses. "I do not like living in the hunting grounds of fell beasts!"

"And they probably do not like having you here any more than you like being here," the hermit retorted. "Just be glad that your stringy carcass did not appeal to any of them!"

"Bah!" Saqr turned his head and spat to the side. "You can keep your wretched valley, and the creatures that live within. I will be glad to be back in Harad."

"Saqr, we shall never arrive in Harad at the rate you are going with those horses," Inbir spoke up, giving Saqr a warning frown. The boy often did not know when to keep his mouth closed, and the hermit seemed to bring out the worst in him. Now was not the time to antagonize the old graybeard; they still needed him to guide them out of this wretched hole in the ground.

"Forgive me, Master. I will hurry!" Saqr hung his head; the glance from Inbir had been enough to chastise him, for he idolized his master.

Inbir turned from the boy and looked into the old man's gray eyes. "Master Hermit, you have been a generous host. Are you certain that you will not accept payment for showing us the way over the mountains into Ithilien? I have only a small purse of coins, but I can spare a few to repay you for your hospitality."

"I will not take pay for my aid, for coin holds little value to me." The hermit's eyebrows furrowed above his gray eyes. "And it is well that it does not! If all it took to keep me happy was filthy gold or silver, I could have acquired quite a bit by turning you over to the Nazgûl when I first found you."

"We are most grateful that you did not," Inbir replied, lowering his head and pressing his hand to his heart.

After loading the last pack horse, Saqr turned to Inbir. "Master, all is in readiness. We await your word to leave."

"Then we shall set off ere the day grows any later," Inbir remarked, looking around at the small party. "I certainly hope that this next part of the journey is less eventful than the first."

As the small party led their horses up the steep mountain trail, Aeffe could not help repeatedly glancing back over her shoulder at the misty valley. Though she knew that they must leave, her heart felt heavy, as though it were weighted with a large rock. When they reached the midway mark on the path, she thought she saw a dark shape leave the heavens and dive down into the fog-draped valley far below. She wondered if it was Scourge of the Skies, and if she would ever see him again.

In an attempt to distract herself from the sadness which had come over her, Aeffe tried to think about the life she would live in Harad as Inbir's wife. She knew that they would be staying in Harondor for a while before continuing southeastward until they reached the interior of Near Harad. Inbir had rattled off the names of several cities where they might be able to seek their fortune, but it was difficult for Aeffe to assign names to places where she had never been. She wondered if she would be happy dwelling in a land with a language and culture so different from her own. Would the Haradrim welcome her, or would they regard her as a foreigner and an enemy? If she were accepted by the people of the South, perhaps she could find employment as a seamstress. Her sewing and embroidery had always garnered many compliments back in Rohan, and perhaps she could use that skill to help her husband in their new life.

She found it difficult to harbor hope for the days ahead, however, and a part of her wished that they could stay in the valley forever. For the first time in many months, she felt safe, and she was loath to trade security for danger. Would it really be so bad to linger here, at least for a few more weeks? Leaving might be a mistake, for she was uncertain if Inbir was truly well enough to travel. He was weary all the time, no matter how much rest he got, and his eyes no longer possessed the spark that they once did. He seemed distant and withdrawn, as though he had forgotten the things that had once meant so much to him. This concerned Aeffe greatly, for at times she felt as though she were in the presence of a stranger instead of her beloved. She tried to assure herself that Inbir just needed more time to recover; after all, it was impossible to remain unscathed after coming so close to dying.

Aeffe attempted to think about the future with a feeling other than dread, but it was a sore challenge. At least here in the valley, she could forget her woes for a time, escaping into the beauty and tranquility of her surroundings. When one's future is fraught with uncertainty, it is far easier to live in the present and take life day by day, hour by hour. Why give any thought to tomorrow, when one has no control over today? After being trapped for so long in the seemingly unbreakable chains of slavery, any small distraction felt like escape, even if it did not lead to true freedom. It was so easy to embrace complacency and seek escape only in idle daydreams and fleeting moments of happiness; to rise up and break the chains at last – to be truly free – was too terrifying even to consider. But perhaps this was the mentality of a slave, this passive acceptance of suffering and grim resignation to whatever fate may deal. She was a free woman now, no longer the slave of Esarhaddon uHuzziya, or of any other man. Her only master was herself, and the course of her life was hers to command.

During her sojourn in the valley, Aeffe had begun to realize that she was far stronger and more resilient than she had ever known. Never would she have believed that she possessed the fortitude to endure all the perils and sorrows that she had endured since the war began. Seeing her grandfather hacked to pieces by the orcs had almost devastated her, and then she had been taken into slavery and subjected to degradation and abuse by her captors. She had been assaulted upon numerous occasions, brutally whipped, and almost sacrificed to the Dark Lord. She had fallen in love with a man of the enemy, who had promised her freedom and happiness, even if he had to give up the certainty of his own future for her. Then she had watched that man get mauled by a ferocious scimitar cat and almost die from blood loss and infection. After all that she had suffered, it was a wonder that she was still sane. She had emerged from the barrage of woes that fate had hurled at her, perhaps not as a triumphant victor, but as a battle-scarred veteran with a faraway stare and a tremor that comes and goes.

At the top of the steep ascent, they came to the main trail, and the old man hurried the pace. He seemed more tense, as though he sensed that there might be enemies on the path ahead of them. When he stopped and raised his gnarled staff, Aeffe felt the fear roll over her like a cold tide. Motioning them to follow, silently he led them into a narrow, rocky defile and whispered, "Be silent!"

Her mare was nervous, and when Aeffe realized that the horse was about to nicker, she quickly put her hand over the beast's muzzle, stifling the cry. They waited there for some time until the old hermit was satisfied that there was no longer any danger. Motioning to them, he muttered through his teeth, "Orcs!"

When the danger was passed, they pressed on. They made good time the rest of the day and camped on the other side of the divide in a small dell surrounded by scraggly thorns and scrub brush. Aeffe watched the sun go down over the tops of the mountains, thankful that the old man had guided them safely through many dangers. Because of the peril, they lit no fires, and went to their blankets early.

When the soft fingers of early dawn had painted the sky a pale yellow, the hermit found Aeffe standing by a pine tree, a pensive expression on her face. No longer could they see the hidden valley, and Aeffe wondered if it had ever existed at all.

"Do you miss it?" the old man asked, his words interrupting Aeffe's reflections.

"Why, yes, I believe I do, Master Hermit." Aeffe looked at him in surprise. "How did you know what I was thinking?"

"Only a good guesser," he chuckled, his face lighting up in a smile. For a moment, it seemed the years had rolled back, and he looked strangely youthful. Then the creases of worry and care once again furrowed his brow. "If only I could remember who I am."

At that moment, Aeffe's kind heart melted, and she rushed to the hermit. In spite of the dirt and smell, she wrapped her arms around him and hugged him tightly. "You will, dear friend! I am sure you will remember who you are someday."

"I wish I shared your enthusiasm, child." The old man was obviously embarrassed by her show of affection, and a blush colored his filthy cheeks and neck. "You will get dirty," he told her.

"I do not care!" Aeffe brushed a tear away from her cheek. "I will miss you, I will miss this valley. Maybe someday I can return?"

"Dear girl, I doubt you could ever find this vale again. But who knows what fate has planned for our lives? Not I, surely!" He shrugged. "Be satisfied that after wandering a twisting trail, you have at last passed through slavery and into freedom."

They heard a noise and turned to see Saqr watching them. "Mistress, I did not mean to interrupt this tender scene, but breakfast is ready." The boy watched them suspiciously, one eyebrow cocked.

"Saqr!" she exclaimed angrily. "Never creep up on me like that again! Now go away and tell Inbir that we will soon join him!"

"Forgive this lowly servant, Mistress." Saqr lowered his head, a smug look upon his face.

The hermit and Aeffe watched him walk away back towards the cave. "That young fellow really does not like me," the old man muttered sadly, "and I do not understand why. Just poor judgment, I suppose." He shrugged.

"He is a foolish boy," Aeffe snapped. "I care not what he thinks. I like you!" And to prove her point, she planted a gentle kiss on the old man's leathery cheek, which deepened his blush into a vivid red.

"Keep your resolve, my dear," he replied. "Always think for yourself, lest your mind be a slave to others. Now let us see to that breakfast that is waiting for us." Smiling, he stepped away from her and strode back towards the camp, the dragon-headed staff bobbing with his steps.


After their meager breakfast, the hermit of Ephel Dúath guided them down steep, rocky trails that scored the western slopes. Below them they could see the thick forests of Ithilien, still healing from the days of darkness. Finally, just before sunset, they stood poised upon a great cliff that overlooked the surrounding lands.

"Here, my friends, I must leave you." The old man's voice was sad as he gazed out upon the fair realm of Gondor. "My oath prohibits me from journeying down the westward slopes of the Mountains of Shadow, and so I must return to the Dark Land and the search for the Spear of Gil-galad."

"Your kindness will long be remembered, O Wanderer of the Wastes." Inbir touched his hand to his heart and bowed. "May you have peace, and your journeys be safe."

"Blessings upon you, Inbir of Harad, and all of your house. May you prosper in your endeavors and return to your land safely." The old man watched as the travelers mounted their horses and turned their steeds to the rocky trail that led down into Ithilien. Neither Inbir nor Saqr looked back, but Aeffe was weeping as she gazed repeatedly back over her shoulder. The hermit held his hand up, as if in blessing. Then the riders rounded a bend in the trail, and were lost from sight.

They were on their way to freedom, but a part of Aeffe's heart would always remain in the hidden valley of the Ephel Dúath. "Dear old hermit," she thought to herself, "may the Gods guide you upon your quest, and show you the way to your desires!"

As the sinking sun lit up the western sky, somehow she felt that they would.

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