The Circles - Book Eight - Chapter 20

The Circles - Book Eight - A Mordorian Bestiary
Chapter Twenty
Murg Brings a Matter to Court
Written by Angmar

The Wraith Lord carefully explained everything the rodent was to do. His courage bolstered by a hefty draught of spilled wine and a large piece of cheese, Murg bowed to the King, who lowered him to the floor. The rat dashed to the crack in the wall and inhaled the distant, comforting scent of rat droppings, nesting litter, and scraps of food. Taking a turn to his left, Murg came to a well-traveled rat path which branched off into many corridors that led from the top of Barad-dûr to its very foundations.

Murg scurried along until he came to a tunnel that led to a deeper level of the vast dungeon. Here the air was musty, and the scent of disuse was heavy. Murg scurried down the steep passage which angled sharply as it descended between floors. At the bottom, the passage branched out in two directions. Murg took the one on the right, which brought him to a neatly chiseled opening in the wall. Cautious as always, he stopped at the entrance, sniffing the air for the odious scent of cat, and when he found none, he started to relax. His keen ears picked up the comforting sound of rats chattering in the distance, and he concluded that all was well.

After Sauron had reclaimed Barad-dûr over seventy years before, the workmen had been hurried when they built this section of the pits on the ancient foundation. Though of minor consequence to the overall structural integrity of the vast fortress, the ceiling of a storage room had become unstable with the constant trembling of the earth. The ceiling had shifted and partially collapsed, blocking the doorway and part of the chamber with debris. Storage bins had been shattered, spilling their contents upon the floor, the scent bringing hordes of rats to descend upon the room.

When the damage had first occurred, the orc supervisor in charge had filed a report, but the parchment had somehow been mislaid in a cubbyhole of the endless bureaucracy composed of clerks, scribes, recorders and secretaries. Sooner or later, the report would be found, but until then, it languished unread in the desk of a minor bureaucrat.

With the entry blocked, only the scrawniest cat could squeeze through the broken, twisted wood and shattered stone. Since there were no cats to threaten them, the rats had thrived in the half-ruined chamber, their numbers swelling in spite of the mustiness, broken mortar and crumbling stone. Any time, day or night, the place was alive with the sound of many rats – fighting, breeding, nesting, feeding, and raising young.

Into this dilapidated warren had come the Great Rat, a monstrous black beast who had mastered all obstacles in his campaign to take over every rat clan in Barad-dûr and unite them into one solid kingdom under his rule. The previous chieftain of the rats had been a hard, merciless fighter, but he proved no match for the great Black Rat, who challenged him to a blood duel. In the ensuing fight, the Black Rat had knocked his opponent to the ground and torn out his throat. Such an outcome could almost have been predicted, for after all, the challenger could trace his ancestry all the way back to the Elder Days, when his powerful bloodline had ruled in Angband. Others with more bravery than sense had subsequently challenged him and all had been defeated. Many resented his rule, but they were too weak and frightened to question his authority. If the idea ever entered their minds, they had only to look at the pathetic pile of bones the king displayed as trophies in one section of his hall.

When the Black Rat had declared himself as "Lord Gjak the First, Supreme King of all the Rats," many of the older rats shook their heads at such doings, but could only watch in silence. Every last tunnel and corridor used by the rats were claimed as his kingdom, and the dilapidated chamber was declared by the Black Rat to be "The Great Hall of the Rat King."

A king needs wealth to show his great power, and the Rat King was not wanting in that area. His thralls were sent out every day to search through the garbage heaps of Barad-dûr for treasures. Though they seldom found gems, gold and silver, they did find items of value. The greatest prize of all was the Rat King's throne, which was constructed from the stemless bowl of an old goblet, the scuffed pewter studded with cloudy glass cabochons which were cracked and chipped with age. The interior of the bowl had been cushioned with bits of chewed up cloth, fur, and parchment, and covered with a scrap of red velvet. Though it was stained in places and had thinned in others, the velvet still retained enough of its old elegance to make it an appropriate cushion for His Majesty.

A lady's stick pin, its tip festooned with a tiny rhinestone, served as the Rat King's scepter, which he held as a symbol of power when he was conducting court. When not in use, the King merely stuck the sharp point down into the lining of his throne. Upon his head sat a bejeweled ring which served as a crown. This emblem of authority had been purloined from a visiting dignitary, who had drunk far too much wine one night and mislaid his ring. There were other treasures displayed in the Great Hall on public occasions - shiny glass beads, small pieces of golden thread, a few slivers of silver, bright bits of metal. These items were always under the watchful eyes of the King's most formidable guards. When he sat upon the throne, his crown upon his head and sceptre in paw, the Black Rat towered above the other rats, and his vanity swelled to limitless proportions as he looked down at his subjects.

Weighted down with a great feeling of urgency, Murg dashed excitedly into the great hall. His courage soon began to falter. There, at the end of the great hall, near the king's throne, were two rats whom he feared almost as much as he did King Gjak. Both of them were members of the King's Guard, and had a reputation for ruthlessness and cruelty. Other guards loitered around the chamber, where they chewed on scraps of food, bickered and argued, or scratched their fleas, still ready at a moment's notice to handle any troublemakers.

One of the guards, a huge black rat named Cobalt, was arguing with a smaller gray rat called Biscuit. The source of their dispute was a small brass button which had come from the uniform of a Mordorian officer. Too busy with their own concerns, at first the two rats did not notice Murg's presence.

"You wormy piece of dung, I don't care where you got it or the danger involved!" Cobalt snarled. "It ain't good enough for the King, and as his first lieutenant, I'm taking it under my protection!"

"But, sir, I went to some trouble to obtain this," Biscuit whined, nervously cleaning his whiskers until he accidentally pulled one out of his muzzle. He winced at the pain as he touched a tiny drop of blood. "I never got it from the garbage heaps; I went right into the officer's room, I did! Right under his nose while he slept! Not so many around brave enough to do that." He should confront the arrogant Cobalt with his cowardice, but he did not dare insult the stronger rat. "And there on the floor, I found it. Such a treasure." The rat closed his eyes dreamily as he thought of the gleaming brass button that shimmered in the light.

"Ha! You blockhead! You think the King would want this tawdry scrap of metal?" Cobalt scoffed. "The King might kill you if you insulted him by presenting him with such a paltry gift." His eyes gleaming slyly, he lay his paw on the smaller one's shoulder. "You really ought to thank me for not mentioning this to the King. Just remember, I'm looking out for your welfare. I won't say a thing about it, if you'll keep mum. I'll just take it to my hole and hide it for safekeeping."

Biscuit sighed in resignation, looking down at his paws. "Thank you, sir, for looking out for my welfare. You can be sure I will not forget this." No, you bastard, I'll never forget your skullduggery! Everyone knows your lair is full of booty you lifted from others! His eyes shot briefly to Cobalt's paw on his shoulder, but he did not dare shrug it off.

"I knew you would listen to reason." Cobalt peeled back his teeth in a scornful grin.

As Murg listened this exchange, he had doubts that he could ever convince such a greedy, querulous group to hear him out. He had to make the attempt, though, for he had promised the Nazgûl Lord. He took a deep breath and then moved deeper into the room. Suddenly he felt the eyes of the other rats on him, and inwardly he cringed.

"Oh, so who's the little eavesdropper?" Cobalt challenged, turning to stare at Murg. "Oh, I should have known who it was right off the start by his stinking scent. If it is not little Bloody Dung who has come to court!"

"Aye, that it is! Who would ever think that the little turd had the courage to come here?" squeaked Biscuit, relieved now to be out from under the hostile scrutiny of the other. Of course, he had relinquished the brass button, but he was lucky that he had not lost an ear, an eye, or a paw to Cobalt. Only a fool would contend with such a rat as that one!

"Aye, it is Bloody Dung," Murg replied, controlling the urge to urinate upon himself. He must not show any fear to these two who had moved to crouch on either side of him, ready to attack at the slightest provocation. "I have business with the king, but it appears that he is not here." Murg let his gaze wander to the Great Rat's throne. A sliver of moonlight from the narrow barred window far above had caught the glass stones on the goblet bowl in its silvery fingers, turning them to gleaming pinpoints of light. Murg's heart had always beaten faster at such beauty, but since he had seen unbelievable treasures in the wraith lord's chambers, the Rat King's salvaged bits of tattered glory no longer seemed quite so impressive as they once had.

"You little pot of pus!" Cobalt moved around until he was right in Murg's face, so close that Murg could smell the rancid scent of meat on his breath. Murg recognized the smell and knew that he must have feasted upon some of the dried meat that the orcs carried with them. "Probably man's flesh," he surmised to himself. "I never really developed a taste for the stuff, but anything can taste good when you are hungry enough!"

"What sort of business do you have with the King?" the rat guard sneered. "He usually tears the guts out of little weaklings like you and has them for breakfast!"

"Sir, my business with the King..." Murg's voice broke in mid-sentence. The other two rats exchanged a mocking look with each other, and Murg's eyes darted here and there, trying to remember the closest escape routes. He felt his chest tighten with fear. He tried to relax and control his breathing, but to no avail. Then he remembered his important mission, and his will stiffened. When next he spoke, his voice was steady.

"If all of us can join together," he explained, "there might be a way to teach the cats a lesson."

"A lesson?" Cobalt stared incredulously at him. "Only a fool would ever try to teach them anything!"

"Oh, yes," Biscuit raised an eyebrow and shook his head, "It will be us learning the lesson, and it will be them teaching it."

"They'll kill us for our efforts, and use our bones to pick their teeth. You are an idiot, Bloody Dung!" Baring his teeth, Cobalt suddenly leaped forward, shoving Murg to the floor. He held the struggling, squirming rodent down with his great weight and stared menacingly into Murg's face.

A sly look in his eyes, Biscuit darted in and sank his teeth into a shrieking Murg's tail. "If you don't want to end up as a toothpick, you'll listen to what our friend here has to say."

"You've been into the wine or poppies, haven't you, you little piss pot?" Cobalt snarled, spraying droplets of foul-smelling spittle into Murg's face. "Or maybe... just maybe... you've been visiting our illustrious Prisoner's chambers too often and picked up a spook! Ha ha ha!" Cobalt laughed unpleasantly.

"All I ask is a few minutes before the King, and then if my words prove to be foolish, I will accept his judgment," Murg whimpered. His tail aching painfully, he could smell the scent of his own blood as it oozed onto the floor.

"Well, then, you can tell him yourself, you little runt!" The rat dropped his voice so low that Murg could barely hear him. "Here he comes now!"

Giving Murg another shove, the two guards leapt to their feet. They quickly straightened to attention, standing on their hind legs with their paws over their hearts. The other rat guards emerged from their dens in the rubble and lined the pathway to the throne. Murg dropped his head to the floor as quickly as he could and dared not look up as King Gjak passed by.

"Make way for His Majesty and his council," a stately elder chamberlain proclaimed pompously as he led the Rat King's procession. From every corner of the chamber, rats dashed from their holes, all of them eager for even a glimpse of the King. Rodents with petitions and grievances lined up to await the king's pleasure. Mothers came out with their children, pushing them forward for the King to bless. When the crowd pressed close to King Gjak's procession route, the line of rat guards snarled and bit, shoving them aside.

The Rat King looked neither to the left nor the right as he made his way to his throne. There was an art in sovereignty, and his father had instructed him in it, reminding him of his ancestor's illustrious line dating back to Angband. Once settled into his lofty position, the King signaled that his council could take their places. With as much dignity as a rat could possess, these august creatures took their seats, which were of broken wood or pottery, cushioned much in the same way as the King's, covered with scraps of once elegant material.

"My loyal subjects and my devoted council, I am delighted to see you all gathered here today." King Gjak scanned the crowd as he lifted his sceptre and tapped it three times upon the rim of the goblet throne.

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