The Circles - Book Eight - Chapter 11

The Circles - Book Eight - A Mordorian Bestiary
Chapter Eleven
Mountain of the Setting Sun
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

The entire caravan camp was in an uproar the morning after Inbir, Aeffe, and Saqr had stolen away into the dark desert night. Esarhaddon had swiftly dispatched search parties to capture the runaways; whether they would be successful in finding their quarry would remain to be seen. The younger, more romantic girls were enchanted by Inbir and Aeffe's love, and prayed that the two lovers would manage to escape their pursuers and flee to some sanctuary where they could live in perpetual bliss. Their scandalized elders, though, were horrified that Aeffe could reject everything she had been taught and run away with one of the wicked heathens from the South. Their tongues clacked continuously as they all agreed that there could be only one ending for this ill-conceived match, and that would be tragedy. Perhaps the girl deserved such a fate for doing something so outrageous as running off with a foreigner.

Elfhild and Elffled tried to close their ears to the scurrilous remarks about their friend, but the harsh words were a burden to their tender hearts. They prayed that Aeffe, Inbir, and Saqr would somehow escape despite all the dangers that they were sure to face on their perilous journey. If the trio were captured, Inbir and his servant would be executed by impalement, and Aeffe would be given a severe whipping as an example to the other slaves. Public announcements to this effect had been read during the morning roll call as a warning to others who might harbor the same ideas. Since the Rohirric captives had already tried to escape once before, the overseers were concerned that the more rebellious ones, heartened by the escape of Aeffe, might be foolish enough to try again.

Elfhild thought it was so romantic that Inbir was risking his life for Aeffe, and she prayed that the two lovers would be able to dwell in happiness for the rest of their days in Harad. It brought happiness to her heart to imagine Inbir and Aeffe starting a new life together and raising a family in some exotic city in the South. Since Elfhild had never seen a Haradric city, she could not even begin to imagine how one might look, but she was sure that it would be quite different from any settlement found in Rohan. Perhaps one day fate might take her southward, and she would see the cities of Harad with her own eyes.

Elfhild sighed wistfully. Oh, if only she would meet a man whose love for her was so great that he would be willing to go to such lengths just to be with her! Though she did harbor a fondness for Esarhaddon, she knew the only value she had to him was the casket of coins which her future master would present to him upon the day of her sale. She highly doubted that a man like Esarhaddon was even capable of the devotion Inbir felt for Aeffe. No, he cared too much about himself and his money ever to risk his life for the sake of love. After all, he was in the business of selling slaves, and anyone who made their coin in such an abhorrent way obviously possessed a heart of stone fortified by iron spikes. Perhaps someday she would meet a man who truly loved her, she thought longingly…

During the journey to Gorgoroth, Elffled had entertained a brief infatuation with Inbir, for she found him the most agreeable and handsome of all Esarhaddon's bodyguards, and his beautiful music made her soul sing. However, while it was enjoyable to fantasize about the soulful young musician, she knew that any romantic feelings she harbored for him were doomed from the start, as he only had eyes for Aeffe. When Elffled had learned of Aeffe's plan to escape with Inbir, she was astonished by such audacity. The thought of defying the might of Mordor, even if it was for love, terrified her, and it filled her with dread to think of all the horrible things which might potentially happen to her friend on her desperate journey. She hoped that the two lovers would be able to escape the snares of Mordor and find sanctuary in Harad! Her mind was tormented by thoughts of the pair meeting their deaths in various gruesome ways. She wondered what she would have done if she were in Aeffe's place. "Probably break Inbir's heart by refusing to leave," she reflected grimly. "A broken heart can heal, but from death there is no return."

Over the next three days, the caravan continued to travel southward over the rolling russet plain. As part of the alliance between the House of Huzziya and the Dolrujâtar, a party of nomad warriors from the Dagrî Clan traveled along beside the caravan as protection from any Sand Orc raiders and lawless brigands who might be lying in wait. The elevation gradually dropped as the plateau of Gorgoroth descended into the northern plains of Nurn. All around them were long lines of buttes and mesas, their sheer sides scored by deep, jagged cliffs too steep even for the most sturdy of mountain goats to climb. The vague gray line of the Mountains of Shadow began to curve eastward, the gray formless mass slowly transforming into rocky peaks as the travelers drew closer.

An enormous mountain, larger than all of the others around it, was the easternmost peak of the chain; jagged foothills and mesas rose like a crumbled, broken staircase about its slopes. The Rohirric captives wondered if this great prominence, which rose up like the gatepost of a giant's fence, marked the end of Mordor's encircling wall of mountains. In truth, though, this was just a subrange which branched off the Ephel Duath. Far in the distance, across a broad expanse of desert which stretched for miles and miles, rose the tiny, dim shapes of more mountains: the southernmost range of the Ered Lithui.

Branching many miles from their parent chains, the two minor ranges reached out like protective arms to encircle the heart of Mordor. Guarding the fifty-mile gap between the two mountain chains were two mighty fortresses: Lug Aanzaabr, the Fortress of the Setting Sun, to the west, and Lug Aanash, Fortress of the Rising Sun, to the east. The gap itself was called the Gate to the Land of Many Blessings, and beyond it lay the land of Nurn. A deep chasm ran down the middle of the gap, as though a great knife had rent the sunbaked earth, and an intermittent wadi flowed through the narrow canyon during the rainy season. In ancient days, the canyon had been the home of several villages which had been built within caves or carved out niches in the rock. Now all that was left of these settlements were dark doorways in sides of cliffs, a few paintings upon the rock that had stood the sands of time, and an occasional shard of broken pottery. Little was known about these ancient dwellers of cliff and cave, or what ultimately became of them. However, local legends claimed that a dreadful evil lurked at the canyon's head, and all those who ventured there never came back again. For this reason, the place had been given the ominous name of Baur Tîmursham, the Dreadful Gorge.

The caravan reached the Mountain of the Setting Sun upon the second day of August. Ahead of them, the captives could see the fortress of Lug Aanzaabr perched high atop the eastern spur, brooding moodily over the sloping plateau that it guarded. Instead of ornate turrets rising high into the sky to catch the rays of the sun, there were flat-topped towers, their archer's slits peering out like angry eyes from the rock-laid walls. The castle, a dark, square-shaped fortress of gray stone, hunkered in its lofty position like a malformed dwarf guarding his horde. Up the rugged slope snaked a narrow winding trail, zigzagging across the face of the mountain. As though the steep trail with its dizzying sheer drops were not enough of a deterrent, thick oaken doors set upon iron posts blocked the bends in the trail. An attacking force would quickly be cut down by a hail of arrows from above as they tried to advance up the steep slope.

At the base of the great mountain lay the village of Ordthul, which was little more than a collection of grim looking buildings. All the structures were well built, but whatever their size or shape, each one possessed the monotonous sameness of appearance and color, as though they were identical gray hatchlings from the same misbegotten bird. Some were stations for the guards who collected the tariffs, while others served the fat merchants who were authorized to sell supplies to travelers. The better-looking buildings served as transient housing for the officers' families. One fairly large structure served as a brothel for men who had been too long without a woman. Most of the whores had seen better days in the establishments to the south, and though they tried to conceal age with heavy layers of paints and powders, they could not disguise the hard use they had seen through the years. Their appeal now was only to men who were desperate after long days of travel. Theirs was a cruel, harsh life, and when they were finally too old for service or were found too scourged with the pox, they were driven into the desert. Mercy was a rare commodity in Mordor.

Having safely escorted their charges to the Gap of Nurn, the Dolrujâtar warriors who had traveled with the caravan for the past four days took their leave. With many grandiose exclamations of gratitude, Esarhaddon had thanked the tribesmen for their aid, informing them that he would send messengers to their chieftain when the next caravan from the West was due to pass through Gorgoroth. After all the disasters that had happened on the trail, the slaver was glad to be working with men instead of uruks. That entire accursed race was far too barbaric and unpredictable to be trusted. Of course, he wryly mused, men were much the same way, but at least they did not look like hideous, slavering beasts, and were much less likely to eat you alive.

Riding ahead of the caravan, Esarhaddon and his escort halted at the guard station by the road, where they were met by a group of horsemen. Their leader, a pleasant young Khandian named Apinla, informed him that General Favarti was expecting him, but unfortunately the General was occupied in a meeting with his officers. Profusely apologizing for the delay, which he assured would be only a short one, Apinla informed the slave trader that all the amenities of the fortress awaited him as an honored guest. While their master conferred with the General, his escort would be well provided for with hot baths, food and drink, and the services of the fortress' slave wenches.

"Now, Shakh Esarhaddon, if you and your escort will follow us, we will show you the hospitality of Lug Aanzaabr."

"No need to put yourself out. I think I know the way myself," Esarhaddon replied brusquely.

"No, my lord, I would never think of allowing that." Apinla shook his head. "As you know, the trail is treacherous, and during the tremors back in July, a section of the road collapsed. For days it was impassable until the workmen made the necessary repairs. If anything jeopardizes your safety, General Favarti would have my head for it."

Esarhaddon did not doubt that one bit. The General could sometimes be... extreme in his measures. Though Apinla would never know it from the slaver's veiled expression, Esarhaddon felt a slight hint of apprehension. He attributed the feeling to exhaustion and turned his horse to follow the officer and his men. The feeling came back when he noted that the rest of the Mordorian soldiers had wheeled their horses around so that they were riding behind Esarhaddon and his escort. There was no time to question, though, for Apinla and several of his men had started up the road.

The trail rose gently at first in a long, sloping plane that tightly hugged the rough face of a sheer gray cliff on the right. They came to a narrow turn and then the winding way slanted upward, the grade steepening slightly. As they came out of the bend, they saw a heavy iron gate, its hinges set into the living rock. Even though they recognized Apinla, the guards at the gate demanded the password, and after the officer had produced it, they waved the party ahead. When they had passed the gate, Esarhaddon looked down at the dizzying drop below them, which promised sudden terrifying death to any who stumbled there. The trail rose steadily higher and higher, curling like a snake up the mountain. At the end of the next long, steep grade and turn, there was another thick door, which was barred to them until Apinla had given the password, different from the first. Beyond the gate, there was a narrow, rocky shelf, the grade slightly less steep than the previous section.

"My lord Esarhaddon," Apinla explained, "we are now past the halfway mark of the mountain. Unfortunately, after we pass this point, the trail grows more difficult for a while. I am always glad for this spot after the long, hard climb below. We will rest the horses here for a few moments."

Esarhaddon muttered to himself, but said nothing. Had no one told the man that he was no stranger to the mountain, having traveled up it in the spring? Then he considered that the officer was new. "Just an overzealous fool who wants to impress me," he thought to himself.

Apinla had not exaggerated about the trail, for after the second gate, the way grew even more strenuous, and Esarhaddon's heavily lathered mare stumbled under him. His heart seemed to stop in his chest as the straining mare struggled to regain her footing. For a few gut-wrenching moments, Esarhaddon was sure that both of them would plunge to their deaths, but the brave, sure-footed Red Fox righted herself. "My beloved Ka'adara, you are favored by Fate! A lesser beast would have killed us both," Esarhaddon murmured as he patted the animal's neck.

"Shakh Esarhaddon!" Apinla exclaimed, turning his head to look back at the Haradric slave trader, whose face had gone pale. "Is all well?"

"Yes, nothing more than a stumble," he reassured the concerned officer. "My little mare takes care of me."

"Be careful, my lord," Apinla warned nervously. "This trail taxes even the best horses." He envied the Southron's strong, sure-footed little mare that could carry him through the day and into the night. His own mount, a strapping bay gelding, was breathing heavily, its sides dripping with lather. Only the week before, a rider and his horse had plunged to their deaths over the cliff. "The trail gets somewhat easier after this stretch, my lord," the guard promised.

"Thank you for reminding me, Apinla," Esarhaddon remarked, his voice tinged with sarcasm. "I had almost forgotten."

"I apologize, my lord," Apinla replied. "I was only recently assigned to this duty, and was not here during the spring." The arrogant Southron! Apinla thought to himself, but he restrained the impulse to put him in his place, and concentrated on getting his mount up the steep grade.

The remainder of the climb continued up a long, relentless slope, which was somewhat less steep than the previous grade. All the mounts were showing the strain of the long climb, breathing heavily, their bodies froth-white with lather. To the amazement of the Mordorian cavalrymen, little Ka'adara boldly tossed her head, her eyes sparkling, as if to show the powerful geldings who was the best horse.

At last the trail took them to the top of the mountain, and as the weary horses struggled up the last slope, the land leveled out. There before them rose the squat, brooding fortress of Lug Aanzaabr. Situated on its lofty prominence, the high citadel warned all below of the dangers which faced an unwelcomed stranger into the land of Nurn. Black pennants emblazoned with a blood red eye – the standard of Mordor – and green banners bearing an iron fist and a sheaf of wheat – the standard of Nurn – fluttered in a gentle breeze above the battlements and towers.

Ahead of the riders loomed the sheer outer wall, thick and high, its foundations sunk deep into the earth and protected from undermining by stone skirts. As the riders approached the thick iron gate, they were hailed by the guards on duty, who quickly granted them admittance once Captain Apinla had given them the password. Separating the outer fortifications from the inner wall was an open space of land as dry and barren as the desert which they had just left. A deep, dry moat embedded with cruel, deadly spikes encircled the inner walls of the fortress. The drawbridge had been let down, its heavy chains holding it securely over the pit. The sturdy wooden bridge led to the barbican, the guardhouse through which people and animals could come and go. Raised far above the yawning entrance were the spikes of the suspended portcullis, which could be lowered at any time, either to imprison or to protect.

Two guards stood at either side of the gate house, their faces as stony as the rocks of the fortress. Beneath their gray helms, their dark eyes surveyed the newcomers suspiciously.

"Captain Apinla, we have orders for you and Shakh Esarhaddon to pass through immediately." One of the guards motioned them forward with a wave of his hand. The horses clattered across the drawbridge, their hooves sounding hollow as they trotted across the expanse of boards. Passing beneath the toothed gate, the party found themselves in a wide tunnel of stone, the walls closing about them like the jaws of a trap.

Soon they had entered into the fortress' bailey. Those who had never been up the mountain before could barely believe their senses when they were greeted by the gentle splashing of water. There, before them like a vision of paradise, were the Fountains of Favarti. Enclosed in the great open courtyard, a magnificent fountain sprayed a tall, silvery plume into the air. After sinking down to a mere trickle for a few moments, the sparkling showers rose up again, the waters cascading into a trough which ran almost the length of the courtyard. Clustered around the great fountain, smaller fountains were timed to coincide with the larger fountain's watery sequence.

The center of the courtyard had been laid out in formal gardens, with the trees, bushes and flowers planted in orderly patterns and designs. A few pieces of statuary, tastefully rendered in the Gondorian fashion, had been placed to the best advantage in sunlit bowers. Cobblestone paths intersected at points across the lawn, the green grass flourishing alongside bordered beds of flowers. Nothing in the garden was left to chance, the plantings and statuary reflecting the methodical mind of its designer. Some might say that the gardens lacked the unique individuality found in a natural setting, but others would say that the orderly form reflected the highest degree of perfection, emulating the mind of the Dark Lord who sat far away in Barad-dûr. Such deep thoughts did not occupy the minds of those who had just arrived, for after traveling for long miles in the desert, the scene seemed almost an illusion, like walking in a slumbering half dream.

Esarhaddon had always been impressed with the gardens, but he had little time to admire them as he followed Apinla and his troopers along a cobblestone roadway across the bailey to the main hall. This imposing great gray stone structure housed the armory, storerooms, the garrison rooms, the General's quarters, and that most dreaded series of rooms and chambers comprising the dungeon. Other buildings contained the kitchens, servants' quarters, stables, barns, blacksmiths' shops, and storerooms. As Esarhaddon looked around his surroundings, he saw a scene of great activity. By a roaring hot forge, a farrier was hammering out a horseshoe, while at a distance away, a group of soldiers was drilling under the watchful eyes of their officer. Laborers were busily occupied repairing a section of a shed roof that had been torn away by a recent wind storm. Their faces expressionless, slaves drew water from the public fountain and lugged it back to the castle. A groom led an unruly horse by them, the animal fighting the halter. Everywhere Esarhaddon looked, the fortress operated under vigorous military efficiency. This was the way he remembered Lug Aanzaabr.

Captain Apinla drew up to the great hall, where a small party was waiting for them. "Here is where we part, Shakh Esarhaddon. I entrust you to the care of the servants of the fortress, who will take you to your chambers and assure that your needs are attended." After exchanging a brief, polite farewell, Captain Apinla and his men rode away to the stables.

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