The Circles - Book Eight - A Mordorian Bestiary
Chapter Thirty
The Riders From Rohan
Written by Elfhild

They were going to die.

Elfhild and Elffled knew that beyond all doubt, as certainly as they knew that the sun would rise in the east and set in the west. An all-consuming terror filled them, numbing their minds and senses. Their eyes squeezed shut, they groped witlessly upon the ground, their fingers tearing at grass and dirt as though they were trying to dig their own graves. Above them stood the Nazgûl, a pillar of shadow blocking out the light of the sun.

"Stand up, both of you. I would have a word with you."

At the Nazgûl's words, the fear that clenched the girls' hearts became less oppressive, and they found that they were able to move again. Forcing their trembling legs to bear their weight, they struggled to their feet and followed the wraith away from the crowd of angry tribesmen. They walked for some distance until at last they reached the banks of the River Mormilom. Their captor halted at the water's edge, his hooded head moving from side to side as he loudly sniffed at the air. The twins found this strange behavior quite disconcerting, for it made him seem more like an animal than a man, and they wondered if his hidden face bore long fangs and a snout.

With a sweep of his tattered cloak, Lord Skri whirled around to face them. The sudden sight of the ominous looking figure berobed and cloaked in darkness made their hearts lurch within their chest, and all thoughts of the peculiar sniffing were forgotten. This was it. This was the end. Tears streaming down their faces, the girls bowed their heads and waited silently to hear the Nazgûl's judgment — and their doom.

"The two of you have certainly gotten yourselves in quite a bit of trouble," Skri remarked drolly. "The Shatrogar were very disappointed that I did not allow them to execute you. The bloodlust runs strong in that tribe, and they are fierce protectors of the noble steeds that are under their care." He paused, and the twins sensed that he was scrutinizing them intently. "Tell me, what possessed you to take a ride upon one of the Mordorian horses? And why, of all the horses in the herd, did you choose the steed of the Lord of the Nazgûl?"

Summoning what little courage she still possessed, Elfhild blinked away the tears in her eyes and cautiously lifted her gaze to the man's chest. She dared not look any higher, both because it was considered the height of disrespect for a slave to gaze into the master's eyes without permission, and also because she was terrified to stare into the umbral void that lay within the dark hood.

"Master, we regret very much our foolish actions, and lament that we caused so much trouble. What my sister and I did was unforgivable, and I am immensely grateful that you have shown us mercy." She dropped to her knees and pressed her forehead into the ground before the high lord's feet.

"Please forgive us, O Great Master," Elffled wailed as she fell upon her face and groveled before the Nazgûl. "The horse bewitched us! Our will was not our own!"

"My sister speaks the truth, Master," Elfhild remarked, confirming Elffled's story. "The horse, he… he spoke to us, and bade us climb upon his back. I… I am not sure we could have resisted him, even if we tried." A sense of unreality washed over her when she thought about the absurdity of what she was saying. A talking horse! What nonsense! But somehow she sensed that this man would believe her, and that he was quite familiar with the fantastic beasts of Mordor.

"Ah, the riddle unravels itself at last," Lord Skri remarked, unspoken laughter in his voice. "I fear that my lord's stallion has played a cruel jest upon the two of you. Tinnuroch has quite the penchant for mischief, you see. When next we meet, I shall have to tell the King to keep a tighter rein upon his naughty steed." He tsked and shook his head in amusement. "To your feet, the both of you."

"We… we did not even know that Tinnuroch was the King's Steed," Elfhild remarked as she rose unsteadily and forced her trembling legs to bear her weight. "At least not at first. He – he later told us that his master was the King."

"It is not every day that one encounters a talking horse, and we felt that it was best to obey his wishes," Elffled added innocently, her voice filled with humble earnestness.

"Ah, a true thrall of Mordor, I see, who bestows respect even to the creatures who dwell within." The Nazgûl nodded approvingly. "What is your name?"

"Elffled, Master."

"And you, the one who smells of figs." He pointed a long, gloved finger at Elfhild. "What are you called?"

"I am Elfhild," she replied, her cheeks feeling uncomfortably warm. How did this man know what she had for breakfast? Once again, she was reminded of the strange snuffling, and a chill went down her spine.

"Well, Elffled and Elfhild, while it has indeed been pleasant speaking with you, I did not bring you here merely for conversation." Skri turned to face the River Mormilom. "Look over yonder to that large branch jutting up out of the water." He gestured towards a piece of driftwood caught in the middle of the river. "Do you see the satchel that is caught upon it?" When the girls had nodded their affirmation, he continued. "I want you to swim across and retrieve it for me." He tilted his head inquisitively, the long tippet on the back of his hood swaying with the motion like the tail of a curious cat. "You do know how to swim, do you not?"

"Yes, Master," Elfhild replied, glancing towards the muddy waters of the river.

"Ah, good," the wraith replied cheerfully. "'Twould be a shame if you were to drown, but know that your sacrifice would be for the glory of Mordor."

"We would rather live, Master," Elfhild remarked, feeling a grim determination rise up inside her in challenge to the words of the Nazgûl.

"Then make haste, and go with the blessings of the Lord of Gifts." With a wide, swooping motion of his arm, Skri gestured towards the river. "The quest awaits!"

Resigning themselves to their fate, the twins bent down and began unlacing their boots. The Nazgûl lord turned his back to them, allowing them privacy to undress. "At least he has some honor," Elfhild thought resentfully to herself, remembering all the times that the rude, uncouth guards stared at her and the other women while they were bathing. After divesting themselves of their garments, the girls cautiously made their way down the muddy, rock-strewn riverbank, paying great heed to where they placed their feet lest they stumble or slip. They waded out into the water until the riverbed dropped out from beneath their feet and they were forced to swim. The rain-swollen river was still moving swiftly, and they had to fight against the current.

If it were not for the black cloaked figure standing motionless upon the shore like the looming spectre of Death come to collect a soul, Elfhild and Elffled would have enjoyed their swim in the cool, brisk waters of the Mormilom. Even though the sun was not yet at the height of her zenith, the morning was a sweltering one, and with the heat growing hotter by the moment, the day was shaping up to be one best spent splashing about in the water or lazing under the shade of a tree. When the girls reached the driftwood that held the mail satchel captive in its branches, they spent a few moments untangling the strap, and then proceeded to swim back to the shore with the bag in tow. The return journey was far more difficult. Not because of the current, but because every foot they swam took them closer to the waiting Nazgûl. A fell miasma of shadow clung to him, almost tangible in the heaviness of its despair, and it grew stronger the closer one came. For a moment, the twins had considered turning around and swimming as fast as they could to the other side of the river, but they were terrified of incurring the wrath of one of the high lords of Mordor.

Once again, Skri turned his back to the girls as they clambered out of the river and up the muddy bank. As silently and patiently as the slow, withering blight of incurable disease, he waited while they donned their garments. When they had finished dressing, he turned around to face them. The sudden sight of the black hood with a shadowy void where a face should be caused the twins' courage to fail, and it was all they could do to keep from sinking to their hands and knees in terror and submission.

"Your – your satchel, Master," Elfhild stammered, her tongue feeling thick and clumsy in her mouth. She forced her trembling hands to push the mailbag closer to the Nazgûl. "We got it back for you." Even though the sun was blistering hot, it felt as though the droplets of water which beaded up upon her skin had turned to ice crystals, and she found herself shivering from the cold.

"I – I pray that you are pleased with us," Elffled added nervously, quaking from the chill in the air. She kept her gaze fixed upon the ground, not daring to look up at the imposing figure that loomed over her.

"Very pleased," spoke the wraith as he slung the satchel over his shoulder. "The contents of this bag are vitally important to the smooth ordering of the realm. Because of your deed, the gears and cogs of the great machine of Mordor shall continue to turn unimpeded. The two of you have provided much assistance to the Lord of the Tower this day, and have proven yourselves as worthy servants."

Elfhild felt her heart sink, and she swallowed hard. "That is… that is good to know." What had she done?! She did not want to do anything that would benefit Mordor! Had she inadvertently committed some treachery which would cause her homeland further loss? Just what was in that bag, anyway?

"Anything to be of service, Master," Elffled simpered.

"As a reward, I will introduce you to the instigator of all my troubles. Though there is no pillory that would hold him, he deserves to be publicly shamed for his transgressions."

The Nazgûl suddenly threw back his head and let loose a ghastly shriek that seemed to split the ears asunder and cause the heart to falter and the blood to curdle. Their minds going black with terror, the twins fell upon their faces and covered their ears with their trembling hands. Several times in the past, they had heard the calls of the riders of the sky, but they had never heard them this close before.

The breeze began to pick up, and upon it was a foul stench. A shadow obscured the sun, and for a moment it became as dark as evening. But this was no eclipse, but rather the arrival of an enormous monster which seemed to be some unholy chimera of bird, bat, and dragon. The creature folded its great leathery wings upon landing, flicked out its forked tongue, and lumbered over to stand by the Nazgul's side.

"This is Loikhâl, my beast," Skri jovially explained. "Although he does enjoy dining upon the flesh of men, he is under my control and you have little to fear. Come hither and meet my traveling companion, in whose company I spend the lonely hours."

Elfhild and Elffled were not certain how they mustered up the will to rise, but somehow they found themselves once again upon their feet. The minds of the girls were addled with terror, and they both desperately wished that this was all just a horrible nightmare from which they would soon awaken. They were uncertain which was more frightening: the bizarre hell-hawk or its dreadful master.

"Is… is that a dragon?" Elfhild asked timidly. She ventured a cautious glance at the creature, taking care to avoid staring into its eyes. In all the tales she had ever heard, if one were to gaze into the eyes of a dragon, he would fall under a terrible spell and become powerless to resist the evil will of the worm.

The Nazgûl chuckled. "Many assume that these creatures are dragons upon first glance, but they are a different beast entirely, far less noble and intelligent. They do have their uses, however."

"I have seen them flying overhead," Elffled spoke up in a shy voice.

"If you had turned your eyes to the heavens late last night, you would have witnessed quite a spectacle." The Nazgûl snorted with knowing derision. "I fear that Loikhâl is an even greater troublemaker than Tinnuroch. It is because of his shenanigans that my satchel ended up stuck in the middle of the River Mormilom. He was more interested in impressing his lady friend than he was in flying me to my destination." He turned towards the fell beast and stroked under its chin. "Were you not, my fine friend?" he asked, his voice taking on a scolding tone. "Your romantic adventures caused me much inconvenience, and I was fortunate that I did not land in the river along with my bag."

The twins sensed amusement in the man's voice, but they were uncertain how to conduct themselves around this intimidating lord of Mordor. They smiled politely, hoping that this would be a satisfactory response. Perhaps if he were not surrounded by an invisible cloak of shadows they would feel more at ease, and the humor be genuine.

"My former beast was much better behaved, but sadly he was shot out from under me back in February near Sarn Gebir," the wraith continued, seemingly unaware of the girls' distress. "I tried my best to heal him, but I fear that my skills are not in the healing arts, and so I had to put him out of his misery." He shook his head sadly. "A shame – he was a good beast."

"Ah, I am sorry for your loss," Elfhild stammered.

Skri shrugged his shoulders. "Casualties are to be expected in a time of war. One never knows when he shall hear the House of Spirits' call… I have been waiting a very long time for mine, but still Mandos has not yet summoned me." He threw back his head and howled with wild, shrieking peals of deranged mirth, causing the twins to cower and cringe against each other.

A fey mood seemed to seize the wraith, and he grabbed his beast's reins and took a step towards the twins. "Maidens of Rohan, you were so bold as to leap upon the back of the Morgul Lord's stallion and take him for a merry little ride. Perhaps you will find my beast more of a challenge! What say you? Do the Riders of Rohan have the courage to take to the skies?"

"No!" Elfhild cried, her face blanching as she stared at the fell beast with slack-jawed horror.

"I – I would not mind taking a ride upon Loikhâl, Master," Elffled spoke up shyly.

Forgetting her fear of the Nazgûl and his beast, Elfhild whipped her head around to gape with astonishment at her sister. "No, Elffled, it is too dangerous! This creature is nothing like the horses of the Mark! And we would be flying through the air, not riding upon the ground!"

"It is not every day that one gets the chance to take a ride through the heavens." A look of mischief flashed in Elffled's eyes. "Just think of the stories you can write in your book about this day!"

"If we live to tell the tale," Elfhild muttered. She had always been afraid of heights, and she thought that she would rather be shot full of arrows than mount up this dragon-like creature and take to the skies.

"Have no fears, Elfhild," Skri told her. "I have not lost a passenger yet… although for some reason, I never get too many of those." He sighed heavily, his voice filled with disappointment. "I have not the faintest reason why. I feel that I am pleasant enough company, and I am always generous with my wine!"

Elffled clasped her hands before her heart and looked imploringly at her sister. "Oh, please, Elfhild, can we not have one more adventure ere we are locked back in chains? You do not have to accompany me, if you do not want to!"

Elfhild looked between the fell beast and her twin. She did not trust this Nazgûl at all, but whatever fate lay in store for her sister, she wanted to be a part of it, for good or for ill. She sighed heavily in defeat. "Very well. You shall lead, and I will follow." Under her breath, she added, "But next time, I will do the leading!"

"Well, then, Riders of Rohan, your mount awaits!" With a slight bow and a grand roll of his hand, Skri gestured to Loikhâl, who shook his long neck and burbled expectantly.


Neither Elfhild nor Elffled would ever forget their first time riding upon one of the fell beasts of Mordor.

Over the years, the Nazgûl had developed a special saddle for riding the winged beasts. It featured a high, curved cantle to support the rider's back and a tall, rectangular pommel to keep him from sliding off when buffeted by the stiff winds of the upper ethers. Flying was a dangerous business, and safety was of utmost importance. Depending upon the rider's preference and needs, saddlebags of varying sizes could be attached to the front or back of the saddle. Prior to setting off, Skri had removed his saddlebags so that his passengers could ride comfortably. It was decided that Elfhild would sit behind the Nazgûl, and Elffled would sit in front. To keep the girls from taking a tumble, Skri wrapped a short length of rope around each girl's middle to secure them to the pommel and cantle.

Rocking back on his mighty haunches and branching his folded wings against the ground, Loikhâl launched forward with a mighty leap, flinging wide his powerful wings and flapping furiously as he rose into the heavens. Elfhild squeezed her eyes shut and held on tightly around the Nazgûl's chest. Not daring to look down, she kept her face buried deep in the folds of his cloak, the smell of mildew and grave dirt filling her nostrils. As the beast rose and fell in flight, Elfhild felt her stomach rising and falling as well, and she moaned as a wave of nausea washed over her. She prayed to all the Gods that she would not vomit upon the high lord. She could not believe that she had allowed Elffled to talk her into this insane stunt!

Seeking the currents of the air, Loikhâl ceased his flapping as he effortlessly glided through the heavens. Below them the landscape of Nurn passed by in a dizzying rush of greens and browns. The wind whipped Elffled's hair around her face and stole her breath away, but the Nazgûl's hood seemed immune to the laws of nature. An ordinary hood would have been caught by the current and blown away from the rider's face, but the wraith's hood never once budged, even though the long liripipe attached to the back streamed out behind him like a tail. Elffled barely noticed this oddity as she stared with wonder at all she beheld. When she was a child, she often had dreams in which she possessed the ability to fly, to will her feet to leave the ground and ascend into the heavens like a bird. She had always liked those dreams, for they made her feel weightless and carefree. For a brief moment, she was able to throw off the shackles of gravity and behold a view of the world denied to those without wings. Now she was living out her wildest fantasies. Laughing, she held out her hand, letting it ride the currents of the wind.

Skri circled around the city of Rul, the townspeople cheering as he passed by. Elffled looked down at the world below her feet, amazed by the sight of the city from the air. She felt as though she were gazing upon an enormous map. After completing his lap around Rul, Skri directed Loikhâl to return to the place where he had first taken to the skies. Soon the fell beast was kneeling upon the ground, allowing his master to dismount and untie the ropes which bound his passengers to the saddle. Elffled swung her leg over the fell beast's back and carefully jumped down, while Elfhild promptly fell upon the ground in a quivering mass of suppressed terror and began kissing the earth as though it were a lover from whom she had been separated for many years.

"Surely it cannot have been that bad," Elffled whispered as she knelt beside her sister and stroked her back comfortingly.

"It was worse," Elfhild moaned. "If men were meant to fly, the Gods would have given them wings!"

"I see that neither of you are familiar with the Tale of Elwing the White," Skri remarked drolly, chuckling when the twins looked at him in bewilderment. "I would tell you the tale, but it is very long, and I must return to my duties. Before I depart, though, I wish to reward Loikhâl with a treat, for he is not used to carrying so many passengers."

Understanding his master's words, Loikhâl burbled excitedly and swished his spiked tail back and forth in anticipation. Skri gave his beast a scratch on the head and then walked over to his saddlebags, where he retrieved several strips of dried meat. His forked tongue flicking in and out of his mouth, Loikhâl stamped his enormous feet impatiently and craned his neck around to take a closer look at what his master was doing. By the time that Skri returned with the meat, the beast was shaking with excitement, great strings of foul-smelling drool dripping from his mouth. The twins were amazed at how delicately Loikhâl took the meat from his master's hand, gently clamping his teeth down upon the treat and carefully tugging it away from Skri's fingers before downing it in one swallow.

"Would you like to give him the next piece?" Skri asked, extending a piece of jerky towards Elfhild and Elffled. When he sensed the girls' uncertainty, he added, "You have little to fear. These creatures are trained from a young age not to eat those who feed them."

"That is a relief," Elfhild remarked, staring fearfully at the hungry beast. Loikhâl stared back at her, his bright yellow eyes gleaming. She had difficulty believing that this creature was not some sort of dragon, and she wondered if looking into his eyes was a grave mistake.

"Well, it is only fair that we give Loikhâl a treat for being such a good sport." Elffled took a stick of meat and hesitantly extended it towards the fell beast, jumping backwards when he snatched the jerky from her hand.

"Loikhâl can be exuberant at times," Skri chuckled. "But he seldom bites the hands which feed him. A little nip now and then, but so far none of the rookery attendants have ever lost more than a finger."

"There is a first time for everything," Elfhild muttered as she held a piece of meat out at arm's length. The beast gobbled it up and then gave her a mighty lick in the face. Letting out a terrible shriek, Elfhild stumbled backwards and landed hard upon her backside, causing the wraith to howl with laughter and Elffled to snicker into her hand. She frantically wiped her face with the hem of her tunic, almost gagging at the putrid stench of the creature's saliva.

"He likes you," Skri remarked, catching Loikhâl's reins and scratching his forehead affectionately.

"As long as he does not like the taste of me too much," Elfhild grumbled.

Next Chapter

Previous Chapter
Main Index