The Circles - Book Eight - Chapter 4

The Circles - Book Eight - A Mordorian Bestiary
Chapter Four
On the Run
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

Abseda had never liked sentry duty; in fact, he hated it. It had been his bad luck to draw the third watch, and there was no avoiding the unpleasant assignment as much as he would like to have. "The darkest part of the night, and I must remain awake when I want to be sleeping, and then it will be another day of marching tomorrow," he grumbled to himself. "An imposition if there ever was one!"

The night air was chilly in the desert, and he pulled the hood of his cloak over his head. "Let me see now," he considered. "What could I be doing right now if I were back in camp? There are many things – enjoying a willing, beautiful woman... sharing a wineskin with my friends... maybe doing a little wagering... or just sleeping." He was glad that he had never taken up the life of a soldier, a terribly dangerous one, although it could bring a man considerable booty. "Women and gold," he thought as he rubbed his bearded chin reflectively. He had never had to go to war, though. The shakh whom he served in Harad had pledged to send cavalry to Sauron's wars, and since he had never had the money to purchase a horse and equip himself with armor, his lot had been to stay at home. "Just a peasant, with no worries except attending the lord's flocks and herds."

When he was fully grown, though, the life of a shepherd became increasingly monotonous, centering around the annual cycle of the flock – helping ewes birth their lambs; shearing their wool; and keeping them safe from predators. Abseda had grown to hate the excessive bleating and smell of the sheep. He had spent many months brooding upon his life and future until finally one day he made his decision. That night after the sheep and goats were bedded down, he simply walked away and never returned. He made his way to the Nurnian city of Turkûrzgoi, where he had been able to find employment as a guard of the House of Huzziya. He wondered if his family ever thought of him as he sometimes did of them. Such thoughts always made him melancholy, and so he concentrated on what he would do when his watch was over.

Just one more hour left until his replacement came to relieve him and he could finally go to his tent, which he shared with three others. Oh, he was so sleepy that he could barely keep his eyes open. He wondered if a djinn might be lurking out there somewhere in the darkness, just waiting to play some chicanery on him. He had heard about them since he was a small boy. They were always up to something, their devilment knowing no limits. They made a man see great pools of cool water when there was nothing but burning sand. He had even heard that they could deceive the traveler, making him believe that a jackal was a beautiful woman. Yes, the djinns could do strange things to a man's mind. He vowed to stay awake as he studied the western horizon.

Was that a noise he heard? He cocked his head sideways and listened, his fatigue evaporating. Aye, something large was moving towards him. A horse perhaps. He was sure he caught the jingle of bridles and bits. "Well, at least it is not an orc." Drawing an arrow from his quiver, he quickly notched it to the string. He pulled the string back and waited. He did not need to see the strangers, only hear them, and his arrow would fly true.

"There is someone skulking out there in the darkness! I know you are there. You make as much noise as a group of mating camels!" His voice seemed to echo in the chilly night. "I have an arrow trained in your direction, and if you do not think the barb will find you, just try me! Now stop and make your name and business known!"

"Inbir, Second Captain of Esarhaddon's bodyguards."

"Captain, I did not know who you were," Abseda replied, lowering the bow. "I see now that you have your servant Saqr with you, but who is your other companion?"

"One of the Dolrujâtar warriors," Inbir explained. "I am escorting him back to their camp."

"It is rather late to be abroad," Abseda stated hesitantly, reluctant to question his superiors.

"He and I and some of the other guards got into a lively game of bones after the evening meal, and we lost track of the time," Inbir explained with a casual chuckle. "He did not want to quit playing, but his purse said otherwise." He looked back over his shoulder at the other man, who remained silent.

"I have had nights like those," Abseda laughed good naturedly. "I fear that luck is often a fickle mistress, but still we worship at her feet. Well, I will not keep you any longer. You and your party may pass." The sentry inclined his head as the riders trotted their horses past him.

Inbir had no intention of leading this party to the encampment of the Dolrujâtar warriors, however. Instead, the three riders kept their distance and made a wide circle around the sleeping camp. He had been concerned that they might be detected by the Dolrujâtar scouts, who made their nightly rounds in a sweeping perimeter around the camp. He breathed more freely when he felt sure that they had passed the range of the scouts. If everything went according to plan, Tushratta and Hibiz would not be discovered before dawn. Then the hunt for them would begin. At least they had one thing in their favor; most of the orc trackers in Esarhaddon's employ had either been killed or had deserted. Inbir did not like to think of those devils searching for them. The three riders now had to make as much time as they possibly could before the day dawned and the desert heat slowed their progress and Esarhaddon's men came galloping hot on their trail.

They rode west across uninhabited wasteland, the Mountains of Shadow looming far in the distance. They drove their horses hard, not sparing the whip or spurs, demanding all the stamina and endurance that the desert bred beasts possessed. Aeffe, though not an accomplished rider, managed to stay upon her swift little mare's back. As the mare raced along, Aeffe exulted in the power and strength of the galloping mount beneath her. She looked over at Inbir, a swift moving shadow beside her, and longed to shout out in the night air that she was free at last.

The sun was just touching the tops of the mountains when Inbir took them up a narrow trail at the foot of a large plateau. Their passage was marked only by a silver-gray desert fox which turned its head in their direction, eying them curiously before trotting away. Clumps of coarse, dry desert grasses grew here and there in the rocky soil along the path. Though their mounts had been born in the desert far to the south, they were spent from the grueling journey. Their bodies covered with sweaty foam which ran down their bellies and legs, the horses breathed heavily, sucking in deep gasps of air, glad that they had at last stopped. With the sun pounding down upon them, the exhausted beasts needed rest and water before they could continue the desperate trek.

Inbir drew his lather-drenched mount up to a great thorny acacia which rose from the desert landscape like a verdant cloud suspended upon a narrow trunk. He watched as a few complaining birds fled the shaded sanctuary of the gnarled branches and burst into the air, wheeling around them before flying away into the distance. Beneath the tree, tethered to scrubby bushes which had sunk their roots into the stony ground, stood four horses waiting for them. Pricking their ears forward, the animals lifted their heads and whinnied out a greeting. Dismounting, the three riders walked to the beasts, overjoyed that the horses had not been stolen or managed to escape.

"Right where I said they would be, Master, and considering the inhospitality of this bleak land, this was the best place to be chosen," Saqr beamed proudly at Inbir. Taking his waterskin, he poured a handful of water into an earthen bowl and let each horse drink in its turn.

"Poor beasts! They have eaten what little grass was here!" Inbir shook his head as he spared a little water for a dark gray mare, who greedily drank the few precious drops.

"They are stout-hearted, Master, and clean of limb, well-muscled and strong. They will last us well past the mountains," Saqr exclaimed as he rubbed the neck of a bay mare with a star on her forehead. He moved to the mare's hindquarters and reached his hand between her legs. "This one at least still has milk, Master, so we can draw sustenance from her generosity."

"They will have to last us, lest we want to walk all the way back to Harad," Inbir remarked solemnly, his brow furrowing at the unpleasant thought.

"Did the guards not question you when you led these horses into the desert yestereve?" Aeffe looked doubtfully at Saqr. Though she came from a horse culture, she was still trying to become accustomed to the idea of drinking mare's milk. She had been told that the Haradrim preferred mares for their milk. Some tribes even opened the animal's veins and drank of the blood from necessity. With a sense of distaste, she tried to fathom how anyone could drink such a foul liquid for pleasure.

"I told them that Captain Inbir had ordered me to deliver the horses to the Dolrujâtar camp," Saqr explained. "There are few who would question the authority of Shakh Esarhaddon's Second Lieutenant."

Inbir turned his head to study the eastern horizon. "By now, Esarhaddon should be aware of our escape. We must ride as fast as we can, for his men will be upon us!"

"But we will have fresh horses, Master," Saqr told him, "and they do not. We will be as the wind across the desert!"

"I hope you are right, Saqr," Inbir muttered.

Unsaddling their exhausted mounts, the two young men placed the saddles and saddle blankets on the backs of three of the fresh horses. Then smiling, they slapped the rumps of their jaded mounts, and watched as they bolted away.

"Freedom! Oh, Inbir, my love, how it makes my soul soar to see these poor beasts go free!" Aeffe exclaimed, clapping her hands together as the horses seemed to take on new energy as they raced across the desert. "Free of bit, bridle and saddle, free to live their own lives as they wish, but most of all, free of the dominion of man. Perhaps they will multiply into great herds and populate the desert with their offspring, which will run forever, proud, strong and free."

"Until someone catches them," Saqr put in, a gentle reminder of the harsh realities of their existence.

"Oh, Saqr, do not be so gloomy!" Aeffe protested as Inbir helped her onto the dainty gray mare's back. Even though the boy was only fourteen, he seemed as dreary as an old man at times.

"Saqr is a pragmatist, my beloved Aeffe." Inbir looked at her after taking the reins and mounting his own beast. "While you were dreaming of great herds of magnificent horses racing across the desert, Saqr noticed that there was not a stallion in the bunch." While Aeffe's eyes blazed with surprise and indignation, the two young men enjoyed a laugh at her expense.


"How could they have the audacity to do such a thing?" Esarhaddon railed, slamming his fist down on the low table, startling Ganbar and Khaldun, who sat to either side of him. The slave dealer was in a foul mood that morning, for he had just learned of Inbir's treachery and the theft of Aeffe.

Tushratta waited until his employer had paused to catch his breath before speaking. "It was a very simple ploy, my lord, but one that I never would have expected. Inbir gained admission to my tent by saying that he was ill and needed medicine. As I was inquiring about the nature of this malady, he put a knife to the throat of one of my slave boys and threatened to kill him if I did not cooperate. As you know, I cooperated." The physician's unapologetic gaze never wavered from Esarhaddon's angry eyes.

"I cannot believe the depths of such perfidy." Esarhaddon shook his head. "Inbir is from my tribe, distantly related, but of the same blood and heritage!" He scarcely bothered to control the anger in his voice, and his rage boiled over like the raging sirocco winds which sweep across the desert. "He has betrayed not only my house and me, but our entire tribe! How could he do this!"

"I expect that he did it, my lord, because he is a man in love," Tushratta offered what he considered a very plausible explanation. "Love can drive men insane."

"Love!" Esarhaddon bellowed, his face dark with rage. "What has love to do with this? He has stolen one of my most exquisite slave girls! Who knows how much gold I will have lost on her if she is not retrieved!"

"My lord, if I might be so bold as to say, I think the young man sincerely loves her." Locking his fingers together, Tushratta folded his hands across his middle and wondered how long Esarhaddon would continue his diatribe. He had been going at it for some minutes, and he never seemed to run out of words to convey his sense of betrayal and broken trust.

"Love?" Esarhaddon snorted. "Lust, you mean! Inbir is no different from any young man of my tribe; the blood runs hot in his veins, and he was burning with desire for the girl. Love!" He laughed harshly. "What an empty, hollow word! After he has ravished my slave girl, he will sell her on the market and laugh at me as he counts his money."

"Of course, the only thing that the slaver understands is greed," Tushratta mused to himself, his expression betraying nothing of his thoughts. "Inbir's desire for the girl is understandable, Shakh," he patiently explained. "She is one of the most beauteous maidens who was brought from Rohan. I think, though, that his feelings go deeper. Beneath his quiet manner, he is a hopeless romantic and poet at heart."

"The depth of his feelings matter not to me," Esarhaddon growled, dismissing Tushratta's absurd statement from his mind. "When my scouts find him, he is a dead man!" Though the slaver no longer dwelt amidst the tents of his people in Harad, he still upheld the honor of the tribe, which Inbir had so grossly defiled.

"Shakh, in spite of everything he has done, Inbir is a good man." Tushratta looked down at his folded hands and then back at the slaver. "Can you not consider his past loyalty and service and let him off with a severe whipping?" The physician recoiled at such violence, but it was far better than execution.

"His crimes against my tribe and me have blotted out any good that he has ever done. After his offenses, he is no better than any desert bandit." Glaring at the slave who offered him a goblet of wine, Esarhaddon dismissed the boy with a curt wave of his hand. "He has violated the honor of my people, and I will show him no mercy, only vengeance!"

"My lord, I ask you to temper your wrath with wisdom and pity," Tushratta implored. Though there was nothing about his calm, detached manner to reveal his feelings, he was becoming angry himself, revolted at the ease at which his employer could sentence a man to death.

"You waste your words, physician. My mind is set." Esarhaddon raised his clenched fist. "I will have his head!"

"Then, my lord, we have nothing further to discuss," Tushratta put in quietly, frustrated that he had failed to convince Esarhaddon to take pity on the young man. "May I go to my tent, where I am sure that by now there are patients waiting for me?"

"Let Aziru deal with them! He does little enough to earn the outlandish sums that I pay him." Esarhaddon waved his hand as though Tushratta's request was an irritating fly. "He continually uses the kitchen stores to stuff his ponderous belly, while he lounges around delving into his accursed books of alchemy. Aye, let him take care of the patients until I am finished with you."

"As you wish, my lord." Tushratta bowed his head deferentially.

"Sit down, Tushratta, and have a glass of wine. You look like the walking dead this morning." Esarhaddon signed to the offended servant boy, who had retreated to the side of the tent after the slaver's snarling dismissal. The boy's downcast dark eyes pouted as he poured fresh goblets of wine.

"Ganbar," Esarhaddon turned to the man by his side, "you shall take ten men and ride after this thief. Bring his head back to me, but the girl is to be returned alive. Since she did not protest her abduction, I want to make an example of her; she will be stripped and beaten before the entire camp." Taking the goblet that the boy offered, Esarhaddon inhaled a deep draught to soothe his wrath. "I am told that Inbir took his servant Saqr with him." He looked to Ganbar, who nodded. "Slay the slave boy, too, and bring me his head."

"It will be as you wish, my lord," Ganbar returned gravely. "Aeffe is as good as recaptured." He rose to his feet, his lips set in a tight line. "I will alert the men as soon as I leave your tent, and the men and I will ride within the hour." Bowing, he turned and walked from the tent.

Esarhaddon turned to Khaldun, who had listened to all the proceedings with interest. "Tonight you are named second in command to replace the thief Inbir." He laid his hand on the other man's shoulder and looked into his honest brown eyes. "I lay this charge upon you: to guard my property and person from all enemies, no matter the personal peril and danger this might bring you. The amount of gold that you are paid will be increased to that of your predecessor. I have watched your progress since you have come into my service, and I feel that you are mature and responsible enough to handle the task. My confidence rests upon your shoulders."

"I hardly know what to say, my lord. This comes as a great surprise to me." Despite the unsettling circumstances, Khaldun was in awe of the trust which Esarhaddon placed in him. Being a taciturn man, he groped for the right words. "I pledge my sword to you, my lord, to defend you and all that you own. I pray that I do not disappoint you." He bowed his head respectfully.

"Well spoken, Khaldun. I have every confidence that you will serve me well," Esarhaddon told him. "Now you are dismissed. You have many things to do and not much time to do it. In spite of this unexpected delay, the caravan will resume the journey as scheduled. We have lost so much time as it is."

After Khaldun had gone, Esarhaddon leaned forward, studying Tushratta from across the table. "You do not approve, do you?"

"My lord, I think you know the answer to that question," Tushratta returned. "I have never liked violence. Long ago I vowed to the Goddess of Healing that I would use my skills to treat the afflicted, bind up the wounds of the injured, bring comfort to the dying and hopeless, always showing mercy and compassion. I have always taken my vow seriously, and, no, I can never condone taking another's life, especially that of a good man like Inbir."

"Physician," the slaver's voice grated, "I am in no mood for trite cliches and platitudes. If I do not conduct my affairs with a firm and steady hand, soon I will see everything I have destroyed." Esarhaddon's cold eyes bore into Tushratta's. "But keep your convictions. Maybe they make you a better healer." His eyes moved towards the entryway to the tent. "You are dismissed. There are other matters on my mind, and I wish to consider them in privacy."

The tall physician left the tent, praying to every god and goddess he knew that they would look down and spare the young lovers. He feared, though, that both of them were destined for some terrible doom.

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