The Circles - Book Eight - Chapter 5

The Circles - Book Eight - A Mordorian Bestiary
Chapter Five
Escape From Gorgoroth
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

Far to the west, across the desert of Lithlad, Saqr chewed upon a piece of dried meat and contemplated all that had happened that day. The night was chilly and he hunched forward, clutching his burnoose tightly about himself. His master, Inbir, had forbidden a fire, for Esarhaddon's men who were hot on their trail would be sure to notice it. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the shadowy forms of Inbir and Aeffe, who were sound asleep beneath a blanket. As he remembered their soft murmurings of love before slumber had overtaken them, he felt a pang of envy, and longed for a woman of his own. Maybe one day…

Saqr returned his gaze to the dark, jagged silhouette of the western mountains. As he studied them, he worried his tongue over a bothersome piece of meat that had become lodged between his teeth. Traversing those rugged mountains would be difficult enough for two men alone, but with the girl along, he felt that the whole endeavor was destined for ruin. He was not sure if Inbir even had any clear idea of how they were to pass over the formidable barrier that surrounded Mordor like the wall of a fortress. Before they set off on this journey, Inbir had shown him a map which he had bought from a guard who had sworn upon his mother's soul that it was accurate. The guard had a reputation for drinking far too much wine, and Saqr had his doubts of the map's authenticity, but Inbir had refused to listen to him. Ever since his master had fallen in love, he was like a man possessed. Love – more likely lust, he thought to himself – made a man do strange things, and he was sure that he would never risk his life for any woman, no matter how beautiful.

Saqr had been in the service of Inbir's family for eight out of his fourteen summers, over half his young life. His family had been poor herders from Northern Harad who had fallen on hard times after the larger part of their sheep had perished from disease. With more children than coin or material goods, they had been forced been forced to sell off several of their daughters, as well as Saqr, to pay the required tribute to the tribal warlord. Inbir's father had purchased Saqr as a gift for his four sons, and he was tutored alongside the other boys. Growing up, Saqr had always felt a closeness with Inbir, who was the youngest boy in the family. Four years separated them in age, and though Saqr was but a slave, in his heart he regarded Inbir as his big brother.

Possessed of a restless spirit, all four sons decided to leave home when they were old enough, determined to make their own way in the world. Hoping to find a wealthy patron who would support his music, Inbir took his beloved rosewood oud and traveled northward to the land of Nurn. There, he made the acquaintance of Esarhaddon uHuzziya, a distant kinsman, who offered him a position as a caravan guard. Although the desire to be a musician was still in Inbir's heart, it would have been folly to refuse Esarhaddon's generous offer. Not wishing to be parted from his master and desiring to go on an adventure of his own, Saqr had accompanied Inbir on his travels, taking a job with the caravan's waggoners.

When Inbir had revealed his plan to escape with Aeffe, Saqr had been filled with doubts. Stealing a slave of Mordor carried a death penalty, and few were those who escaped the wrath of the Great Eye. "I will not command you to follow me on this path," Inbir had told him, even offering to free him from his servitude. Saqr had refused, however, for he loved Inbir as a brother and refused to let him meet his doom alone. Yes, doom – for Saqr feared that no good would come of this venture. But there was no going back now, for his master had gone too far by stealing the slave girl. There was only one thing left that they could do, and that was to flee Mordor and never come back.

Restless, Saqr rose to his feet and walked over to where the horses were hobbled. He was greeted with a soft "whuff" as he extended his hand to his own mount, a stocky, ruggedly built bay gelding which Inbir had given to him. He listened to the peaceful sounds of the horses as they searched for graze among the tough desert grasses. There was the barest hint of a breeze blowing from the east, and Saqr felt a little less apprehensive. If there had been any men, orcs or wild animals approaching from that direction, the horses would have sensed their presence and whinnied out their fear. At least he did not have to worry that someone or some thing was creeping up on their camp.

As he walked back to the camp, Saqr finally dislodged the piece of stringy meat from his teeth and spat it on the stony ground. There were only a few hours remaining before morning, and soon he would need to wake Inbir so he could take the last watch of the night. Once again, his eyes were drawn to the gloomy, brooding mountains, and he felt his apprehension returning. He wondered if he would be able to sleep when his turn came.

After Inbir took the next watch, Saqr slept the sleep of the exhausted, and it seemed only a few minutes later when he felt his master shake him to wakefulness. "I see that no ghouls feasted upon your skinny carcass last night," Inbir chuckled as the boy rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

"Just as well that none tried that, Master," Saqr beamed, revealing a pearly white smile that caught the flash of the sun as it came over the horizon. "They would have broken their teeth on my tough hide, and then they would have looked to you two for their meal."

"I see you both are in good spirits this morning," Aeffe told them as she rose from the blankets and stretched her arms gracefully to the welcoming sun. "My lord, I am still chilled from the cold night." She turned to Inbir. "Could we have a little fire?"

"No, my love. I am sorry to disappoint you, but a campfire would be too dangerous." Inbir walked over to her and slid his arm around her small waist, pulling her close to him for an affectionate kiss.

Saqr turned his gaze away from them and surveyed the land to the east. "Good," he remarked, "there are no clouds of dust that way to reveal that anyone is following us."

They ate their breakfast quickly and were soon back in the saddle. As they rode, Inbir repeatedly consulted his map. "According to this, we are on the correct course. About three miles to the west, we should strike a dry wash. If we follow that, we should find a trail which leads into the mountains."

"And straight to our deaths," Saqr thought grimly. "My poor master has allowed himself to be deceived by a drunkard who took his silver for a worthless map! I tried with all my might to persuade him that the map was useless, but he is so beguiled by love that he no longer listens to reason."

By mid-afternoon, they were well into the foothills, a vast, desolate wasteland of small hills and knolls scored by dry gullies that promised neither water nor pasturage for their horses. The heat was scorching, the harsh light of the sun reflecting off the dun-colored rocks, bathing their surroundings in a painful glare. The land was a harsh one for men and animals, sapping their strength and muddling their brains. Aeffe was nodding, almost asleep in the saddle, and Inbir looked at her worriedly. They would have to stop soon, before she fell off her horse.

As they rode further up the dry wash, the rocks on either side of the gully closed in, narrowing the pathway, and the horses struggled with the treacherous footing. The sky above them was stark blue with only an occasional drifting, wispy cloud. Lizards basked in the sun, darting out of the way when Saqr tossed a rock at them. When Aeffe almost slid from the saddle, Inbir called a halt in the shade of one of the overhanging rocks. There, they rested until the heat of the day had passed, and then they continued their desperate ride.

Late that afternoon, they found the trail that led up the side of the gully and veered into the mountains. Inbir was exultant. "See! What did I tell you? Just like the map shows. Here is that pass!"

They rode until darkness had almost overtaken them, and then Inbir called a halt for the night. That evening, they dined on short rations, and though their stomachs were not so full as they would have liked, at least they had enough, for Inbir had planned the journey well. There was still a goodly amount of food in the pack saddles, and if all went as Inbir had planned, they would have enough to last them until they crossed the mountains. Inbir hoped that they could augment their supplies with wild game from Ithilien, for before the Great Darkness, the land to the west had been well known for its abundance of hare, squirrel, deer, pheasants and grouse. Perhaps they would camp there for a few days before heading south on the Harad Road.

All of them were weary from their travels and looked forward to the blankets. Sinking gratefully down upon the ground, Aeffe felt Inbir's strong arms surround her. "My darling, soon we will be free," he murmured against her ear, but she had already fallen asleep. Love would have to wait until they had reached Ithilien, he told himself as he tried to put aside his disappointment.

Saqr had drawn the first watch of the night, and he did not resent the duty; in fact, he liked this time of night better than he did the day. The cool desert evening was refreshing after the scorching daylight hours. He wished that they would travel by night, but Inbir had decided that riding the horses over such treacherous ground would be far too dangerous in the darkness. Inbir worried too much about Aeffe to take chances.

Saqr looked up at the vastness of the star-studded heavens, picking out the constellations that he knew. Reaching into the pouch at his belt, he pulled out a mass of sticky raisins, plopping them into his mouth. He felt a thrill of excitement as he watched the unexpected bright flash of a meteor as it raced across the sky, its fiery trail streaking behind it. This was the time of night he enjoyed, when the world was hushed and most creatures were asleep.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a dark shape swoop to the ground, and then he heard the shrill cry of some small creature which had been snatched up in the talons of a bird of prey. "An owl," he shivered, remembering the legends of his people which said that it was a bird of evil tidings. He did not believe such things, but just in case there was any validity to them, he quickly made a sign against evil.

After the agonized creature's last shrieks had suddenly subsided, the night grew quiet once again, and Saqr relaxed. It would soon be time for Inbir's watch to begin, and Saqr could get some sleep. In the meantime, he walked around the small camp, his senses on the alert for anything unusual. As he patrolled, he remembered a pretty slave girl whom he had once met in Nurn. He was smiling pleasantly at the memory when he heard a blood curdling howl far up in the mountains. He froze in place, his heart thumping in fear. He had never heard a wolf's nocturnal singing before, but from the terrifying shrieks and howls, he could not believe any wolf ever born could produce such a hideous noise. Perhaps it had been a warg…? He waited, hardly daring to breathe, but nothing else disturbed the tranquility of the night.

When he woke Inbir up to stand watch an hour later, Saqr excitedly told him about hearing the warg. His master had merely laughed. "Your ears are playing tricks on you. The night does that to your mind sometimes. Now get some sleep," Inbir told him as he clapped him on the shoulders. "We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow."

Whatever the noise had been, Saqr was unable to sleep. Clutching his dagger in his hand, he waited for the light of morning to drive away the ghostly shadows of the night.

They made good time the next morning, in spite of the steepness of the trail. After riding up a sheer rise, they came upon a wide place in the trail. There they halted their heavily lathered horses and let the winded creatures catch their breath. The panorama was spectacular, a broad, sweeping vista of the foothills below them. All were relieved that they still could not see any billowing clouds of dust, churned up by the pounding hooves of their enemies' horses.

"Look at that, Aeffe," Inbir exclaimed. "You can see all the land about us for miles." He turned in his saddle and pointed at the mountains around them. "Across these rugged peaks lies Ithilien and freedom."

"Yes, Inbir, it is indeed beautiful," Aeffe agreed. "Yet I wonder if we are being watched even as we gaze upon this spectacular beauty."

"Who would be watching us, my love?" he asked indulgently. "There are no people who inhabit these lands, no mountain farms, no villages. And if you are worried about the watch towers which crown the tops of the mountains and serve as Mordor's defense, let me allay your fears. While a few miles further ahead we will be passing below such a tower, the map shows that we will be using a narrow trail shielded from sight by rocks. No one from above can see us."

"Still, Inbir, are you sure that you can trust that map?" Aeffe asked, her brow puckering in consternation. Her love had a tendency to be a dreamer, allowing his hopes to overcome his common sense. While Inbir might be able to put his confidence in the piece of parchment, Aeffe had reservations.

"The man who sold it to me swears that it is accurate. We have little to worry about." Smiling, Inbir leaned over the saddle to give Aeffe a reassuring squeeze upon her shoulder. Women were always worrying about something, but Aeffe was a sensible girl and would soon learn to trust her husband's decisions.

After the horses had rested, the three riders pressed on with the path taking them ever higher. As the narrow trail hugged the side of the mountain, Aeffe felt her stomach clench in fear, and she tried to avoid looking over to the right, where a gaping chasm fell almost straight down to dizzying depths. She was glad for her nimble footed mount, who picked her way carefully, avoiding a sickening plunge to the bottom. For a few moments, Aeffe let doubts edge their way into her mind. What if the map had been incorrect, and they were being led to their doom in these lonely mountains? Inbir's confident voice interrupted her gloomy thoughts.

"Behold, my beloved! See that trail over there?" He pointed out a narrow defile where a rain-swollen stream would have plunged, rumbling and thundering as it raced to the lowlands far below. "Do not be alarmed, my darling. While this trail appears almost impassible now, it will soon converge with the path that will lead us below the guard tower. How fortunate I was to be able to buy this marvelous map! It will lead us to freedom!"

Aeffe gazed skeptically at the trail, which had become so narrow that a skinny, slat-sided nag could barely pass through it without scraping the sides. After they had ridden for some time, they found that the path dipped, just as the map had shown, and Aeffe began to feel a little more confident. Their route took them along a path cut into the side of the mountain. Upon their left side was the towering cliff wall, and to the right was a sheer precipice which dropped into oblivion. The trail curved around the bulging, rocky sides of the mountain and then dropped down, the incline before them much more gradual. Across the immense chasm to their right, the three riders could see the broken face of an enormous cliff, deeply pitted with the jagged openings of caves. The portals were dark and shadowy inside, resembling the vacant eye sockets of corpses.

Holding the reins in his left hand, Inbir studied the map, a puzzled expression on his face. There was nothing on his map which resembled the cave pocked escarpment. Perhaps he had misread the map, or made a wrong calculation? Rather than divulging his fears to the others, though, he decided to keep following the trail on which they were headed.

Just as they had rounded a wide curve, they froze when they heard a growl, low and menacing.

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