The Circles - Book Eight - Chapter 6

The Circles - Book Eight - A Mordorian Bestiary
Chapter Six
Prince of Cats
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

There, on the ledge above them, crouched a massive cat-beast, its muscular body enveloped in a coat of gray and black mottled fur. Though it was spotted like a leopard, its body was thick and brawny, more like that of a lion, and it had a short, thick striped tail which whipped back and forth angrily. Ready to spring upon its prey, the monster opened its great maw and roared, its elongated fangs slick and gleaming with spittle, its breath rank and fetid.

"Inbir!" Aeffe's scream reverberated through the narrow defile. "Get back! Get back!" she warned, her voice desperate with fear, but it was too late.

Its body arching through the air like the drawn string of a bow, the great tiger-like cat flung itself upon the back of Inbir's horse, pulling Inbir to the ground under its massive body. Before Inbir hit the dirt, he had drawn his knife from its sheath, but he was caught beneath the great cat's immense weight. As he looked up into the gleaming yellow eyes, Inbir knew that fanged death was upon him. Freeing his hand at last, desperately he plunged his knife into the thick fur-covered neck. The creature howled in pain and then clamped fangs as strong as iron spikes into the Southron's shoulder. Inbir prayed that his light mail would deflect the beast's razor-sharp teeth, but he could feel the metal rings tearing, the cat's bite piercing his flesh. The hot rush of blood ran over his chest, soaking his tunic. If the cat relaxed its hold so that it could get a firmer grip on Inbir's shoulder, those monstrous teeth would tear through metal and padding as though they were butter and rip his shoulder to shreds. As it was, he knew he was losing too much blood, and the beleaguered man felt a wave of dizziness sweep over him.

"Master!" Saqr cried as he leapt upon the beast, his dagger raised. Straddling the animal, he drove his knife into its neck. The cat, distracted by this new foe, turned to glare up at the boy and roared out its rage. At that moment, the beast's throat was fully exposed, and Inbir rammed the dagger in deep. Over and over his knife found its mark, and he felt the hot gush of warm blood shooting into his face, almost blinding him. A savage rush of pain tore through Inbir's legs as the cat's powerful hind feet kicked at him, its claws tearing through his pantaloons and boots as though they were made of parchment.

As Saqr's knife plunged into the beast's neck, Inbir caught an occasional glimpse of the boy's desperate face. A fountain of blood gushed from the cat's mouth, covering Inbir with more gore. Inbir could feel the cat's hold weakening, and although the beast was close to death, he and Saqr kept driving their blades into its throat and neck. Finally the creature gave an almost kitten-like whimper, then twitched and was still. Beneath the bloody body of the beast, Inbir felt the world go dark.

"Inbir, Inbir!" Aeffe sobbed, clutching at her breast. "Please, my darling, be alive!" She was terrified to move, her fear addled mind not convinced that the beast was dead.

"Here, lady," Saqr implored her, his voice surprisingly calm after the harrowing experience, "come help me pull the brute's carcass from my master's body."

"Saqr, is my lord dead?" Aeffe asked, fearing that he would tell her the worst. She knelt by her lover's side, almost faint at the sight of the bright red blood which spewed out of the wounds.

"No, no, Mistress," Saqr hastily replied, "but if we do not do something for him quickly, he might as well be dead. Here, help me take off his clothing and armor, so we can see what the devil cat has wrought."

As Saqr and Aeffe heaved the corpse to the side, they were greeted by a loud groan of pain as Inbir awakened from his swoon. Sobbing with joy that her beloved yet lived, Aeffe caressed his face with her trembling hands. The two worked quickly and carefully to remove Inbir's mail shirt and tunic to ascertain the amount of damage that his assailant had dealt him. Much to their horror, they discovered that his chest was a mass of cuts, scratches, and deep punctures where the animal's claws and teeth had penetrated the mail. His legs were scored with deep, bleeding gashes, for the cat's vicious kicks had shredded his boots and pantaloons and dug into muscles and sinews.

"Aeffe, my beautiful Aeffe," Inbir croaked, "I need water... thirsty!" He tried to sit up, but was assailed by a wave of dizziness and fell back on the ground.

"Take care, my beloved," Aeffe told him as she lay her hand gently upon his arm. "You were badly wounded and lost much blood." Cradling his head in her lap, she put the mouth of the waterskin to his lips and breathed a silent prayer to the Gods in gratitude for Inbir's life.

"My love, are… are you all right?" Inbir asked after drinking long and deeply. "Did the scimitar cat harm you in any way?"

"No, my love," Aeffe assured him. "No evil befell me in that dreadful fight, and I bear nary a scratch."

Inbir's gaze turned to his servant. "And what of you, Saqr? Are you injured?"

"Master," Saqr exclaimed, his voice filled with enthusiasm, "I slew the beast that attacked you! I have a few wounds of my own, but none so serious as yours."

"The fortuneteller said… to beware the cat," Inbir gasped out, his breath ragged. "I… I did not understand, but now… now I know…"

A jolt of terror went through Aeffe. This talk of fortunetellers – Inbir must be delirious from blood loss! She turned to the servant boy, her eyes wide with desperation. "Saqr, we must cleanse his wounds and try to stop the bleeding. There is hardly a spot on his body that is not covered with blood!"

"I will get cloth and the waterskin," Saqr assured her as he rushed over to Inbir's skittish mount, the only one of their horses which had not panicked and galloped away. His trembling hands rummaged through the saddle bags, gathering sheets and rags. A hastily wadded bundle of cloth under his arm, he raced back to his master's side. Together, he and Aeffe began to cleanse Inbir's many hurts with water poured from the skin.

"If only we had a needle and thread to sew up these wounds," Aeffe lamented. "I fear that we are poor healers."

"Do not worry yourself, my love." Inbir smiled weakly. "I should have taken more heed to Laskohki's prophesy. But you know how these seers are… nothing they say makes much sense… until their words come true." He licked his parched lips, shivering as though dreadfully cold.

"You will have to tell me about this conversation you had with Laskohki." Aeffe tried to keep her voice calm and steady despite the rising panic that she felt inside. "Maybe if we tear off some clean cloth, roll it up, and stuff the pads into the worst of the wounds, it will stanch the flow of blood."

"You are so good to me, my darling," Inbir sighed, his face pinched and wan.

Feeling sick to his stomach at the sight of the hideous injuries, Saqr had to look away as Aeffe pushed rolled up strips of cotton into the deepest punctures and gashes. "Saqr, this is no time to be sick!" Aeffe chastised him. "Help me bind up his wounds, and we will dress him in clean clothing. Save for his armor, his garments are ruined!"

Pushing his wounded master forward, Saqr held him up as gently as possible. The movement caused the numerous lacerations on his body to scream out in pain, and Inbir could not help the hoarse, guttural cry which tore from his mouth. His heart pounded wildly in his chest, and darkness swam before his eyes. Gritting his teeth, Inbir tried to bear the ordeal with grim resolve, but the effort left him breathless and faint. Aeffe wrapped a wide strip of cloth from an old sheet around his chest, praying that she did not bring him any more pain. She wound thin strips around his chest and up over his shoulder, tying them as best she could with her unskilled hands. After the wounds were plugged and bandaged, the bleeding was greatly reduced, but not entirely dissipated. Aeffe and Saqr watched in apprehension as the red blossoms of blood slowly appeared and spread over the bandages.

"We will have to pray to the Lord of Mordor and all the other gods we know, and make entreaties to the ancestors." Saqr looked down at his master's pallid, sweat-drenched face. "He is dying," he thought despairingly.

"Let us make camp here, Saqr." Her face haggard with worry, Aeffe turned to the boy. "It would be perilous to move him. Let him rest! See how he is shivering? We need to wrap him in blankets to keep him warm!"

"No, Mistress," Saqr shook his head gravely. "I am sorry, but some of the scouts from the tower's garrison might have heard the sounds of the commotion. If we are discovered, they will kill us… or even worse, take us to Minas Morgul! We should try to get the master on his horse and be away from here, even if we have to tie him across the saddle."

"Saqr is right," Inbir grunted. "We cannot risk capture."

"But you are in no condition to ride," Aeffe protested. "I am afraid that the effort will cause your wounds to bleed even more. You have lost too much blood as it is!"

"That… is just a risk… we will have to take." Bracing his hands upon the ground, Inbir attempted to stand. The world spun wildly around him, and he teetered precariously as his legs threatened to give way beneath him. Saqr rushed over to brace his master before he collapsed. Leaning on Saqr for a few moments, Inbir regained his bearings and stood upon shaky legs, looking worn but resolute.

After Aeffe and Saqr had helped Inbir dress, they faced the seemingly insurmountable task of getting him on his horse. Aeffe had always been a strong girl – that was one of the reasons she was chosen as water bearer, after all – but both she and Saqr found their endeavor to be a daunting one, for it required both strength and delicacy. Every movement caused Inbir to sway and groan, and many times they feared that he would collapse ere he ever got atop his horse. By the time that he was mounted, he was nigh unconscious, and they tied his legs to the saddle as best they could to keep him from falling should he faint again. Trying to keep him warm, they wrapped a blanket around him like a cloak. Aeffe held the horse and watched as Saqr grimaced when he tossed Inbir's bloody clothing over the side of the chasm.

Aeffe still had trouble believing that the beast that had attacked her beloved was truly dead. She took a moment to study its carcass, her eyes marveling at the sight. "What sort of creature was this? Never have I seen its like before!"

"Nor have I," Saqr replied. "But I have heard legends of scimitar-toothed cats which roam the wild places of the East and South. It is said that they are relics of another time, come from a race long dead. In ancient days, great cats like these were the servants of the first Dark Lord. At one time, they could talk and hold converse with man, but when their prince lost his magical golden collar, all of the cats lost their powers, and their Master cursed them forever." His mouth quirked up into a smile. "But that is just a children's tale, and there is no truth to the legend of Tevildo, Prince of Cats."

"If the stories are true, Saqr, I think this cruel beast must be descended from this ancient race of cats. It was certainly an evil brute!" Aeffe shivered as she glanced over to the huge carcass with its massive incisors jutting downward from its gaping mouth.

"Mistress, the thing will never have an opportunity to hurt anyone again. Now if you will, go on ahead," Saqr implored her, glancing back over his shoulder. "There is still one thing that I must do, and then I will join you."

Her heart heavy with worry, Aeffe led Inbir's horse down the dusty trail. What would become of them now? From the moment she had first embarked upon this journey, she had worried about being captured by the slaver's men or a party of Mordorian soldiers; never had she dreamed that her beloved would be mauled by a vicious cat. They never should have tried to escape in the first place. It was far too perilous to defy the might of Mordor, and they were now paying the dreadful price of their folly. They should have stayed with the caravan, enjoying the brief days they had with each other before they were separated forever.

After a long silence, Inbir began to speak, his voice raspy and hoarse. "Time stands still within the golden circle… but the wheel of fortune keeps turning… Beware the cat!" He paused for a moment, catching his breath. "These are the words that Laskohki told me. What is the golden circle, I wonder."

"Perhaps the sun," Aeffe mused. "Or maybe some sort of ring. But neither possibility makes much sense."

"Oh, Aeffe, I think that we are doomed," Inbir moaned, his eyes wild as he clutched the blanket around himself. "Laskohki's prophesy was a warning… Alas, I did not have sense enough to heed it!"

"Do not worry yourself, my love." Aeffe tried to make her voice calm and steady, but she knew it wavered. "We must concentrate upon getting to safety so you can rest." Wiping her tears away, she tried to focus on leading Inbir's horse forward. Saqr still had not returned, and she wondered what was keeping the boy. Had he lost his courage, abandoning them to a lonely, cruel fate in these mountains? If he were alone and not encumbered by Inbir and her, he could surely escape into Ithilien. Her fears were soon alleviated, however, when she saw Saqr hurrying to catch up with them.

"What took you, Saqr?"

"Mistress, I wanted a trophy. If I should ever get back alive to Harad, no one would believe me without proof." He held up the severed head of the great cat, which he had wrapped in a piece of tattered sheet, displaying the blood-soaked bundle as proudly as if it had been a priceless treasure.

"What a gruesome prize!" Aeffe exclaimed, turning her head. "Just keep it out of my sight!"

The two walked beside Inbir's horse in silence, each entertaining their own woeful thoughts. Inbir was too delirious to do much thinking, and he sat in the saddle with his shoulders slumped and his head bowed. Mounting his horse had left him exhausted, and he fought against the seductive lure of sleep which compelled him to surrender into its dark embrace. He felt himself drifting in and out of consciousness, lingering in the liminal space between the world of pain and the realm of oblivion.

Aeffe kept glancing worriedly up at Inbir, fretting that the ropes that tied him to the saddle might not be enough to hold him should he collapse. She dreaded to think how much damage a fall would cause his mangled body. It was perilous enough for her beloved to travel after enduring so many terrible wounds. She felt sick to her stomach with dread when she thought how hurt he was. Why had such an evil misfortune befallen them? All they had wanted was to be together.

Saqr considered blaming the Northern girl for this disaster; after all, if Inbir had not been smitten with her, he never would have embarked upon this dangerous journey through the mountains. He would have stayed in the service of the House of Huzziya, perhaps moving up through the ranks of Mordor to bigger and better things. Saqr liked to imagine Inbir as a high-ranking official of the Tower, for as the master's star rose, so would the servant's as well, and he, too, could enjoy a life of privilege. However, Inbir had chosen Aeffe instead, destroying the possibility of advancement in either the House of Huzziya or the vast bureaucracy of the Mordorian government. "What a poor choice," Saqr thought dismally to himself. "My master gave up any chance of greatness to live the life of a fugitive, and now he is in such a horrible shape that he might not even make it across these mountains! Love makes a man a fool!" Saqr did feel guilty for harboring such thoughts, for Aeffe was so pretty and kind, but he still could not help but think that the girl had brought his master nothing but trouble.

All thoughts of worry, guilt, and blame fled from Saqr and Aeffe's minds as they heard a chill, grim voice ahead of them.

"What kind of blundering fools dare trespass the domain of Dor-en-Úlaer?"

"By Béma!" Aeffe hissed through her teeth. "We are caught!" Fearfully she raised her eyes to look above them, and there, standing on a boulder jutting into the trail, was a tall, scrawny old man clad in nothing but a filthy, tattered loincloth. His feet, which seemed too large for his body, were bare, the toenails chipped and filthy. His hoary head was crowned with a long, matted shock of hair which hung down to his waist, and his white-streaked gray beard fell like a mantle down to his bare navel.

As horrifying as the devil cat had been, somehow the incongruity of this cadaverous old man was enough to tear another scream from Aeffe's throat. Alarmed by the commotion, Inbir quickly sat up in the saddle, but the sudden motion was too much for his weakened state, and he slumped forward in a swoon. His eyes blazing defiance, Saqr leapt in front of Inbir and Aeffe, his drawn knife held out in front of him. Upon first impression, Aeffe had thought the young servant was a lazy sort, more interested in gossip and eating ever to prove to be so courageous, but his acts of bravery this day had changed her opinion of him forever. It seemed a shame that they were both about to die...

"Who are you?" Saqr demanded.

"Another fool, but at least I am not lost," the old man cackled contemptuously.

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