The Circles - Book Eight - Chapter 7

The Circles - Book Eight - A Mordorian Bestiary
Chapter Seven
The Hermit of Ephel Dúath
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

"A creature of an older world maybe it was, whose kind, lingering in forgotten mountains cold beneath the Moon, outstayed their day..."
—The Battle of the Pelennor Fields, The Return of the King

"Old man, anyone could tell that you were a fool just by looking at you!" Saqr jeered as he eyed the stranger with disdain. When he realized that his potential adversary was an emaciated graybeard, he calmed somewhat from his initial fright, although he still remained wary and on guard, his dagger held tightly in hand. He had seen beggars like this before, their nude, sore-ridden bodies barely covered by rags as they begged for alms, but they usually stayed in populated areas, not the wilderness. He wondered what the man was doing here in the mountains. Perhaps at one time he was a traveler and had gotten lost in the trackless wilderness, finally driven mad by the loneliness and isolation. The sooner they could get away from this strange man, the better off they would be!

Keeping watch on the stranger out of the corner of his eye, Saqr took a step backward and turned to Aeffe. "Come, mistress, let us leave this wretched dotard to his misery."

"Wait!" the man shouted and waved his gnarled walking stick, which was carved to resemble a dragon.

"Wait for what?" Saqr asked irritably.

"Wait for me!" he answered, jumping down from the escarpment as nimbly as a young mountain goat leaping from crag to crag. "You will need me to get you out of the predicament in which you find yourselves!"

"Why should we want to be bothered with an outcast whose reek makes the air of a garbage heap seem sweet?" Saqr growled, his hand clenching around the hilt of his dagger. This eccentric stranger frightened him, and he tried to hide his growing unease beneath a gruff demeanor.

"Because you do not know the way!" he explained, staring at the boy as though he thought he was feeble-minded.

With all the bravado he could muster, Saqr looked the stranger up and down, from the top of his shaggy head to his bare feet, and laughed with derision. "Be gone, old fool, and leave us be!" He brandished the dagger in the graybeard's face. "One wrong move out of you, and I will cut out your liver and stuff it down your scrawny throat!"

"Put your knife down, boy. You will not need it." Suddenly the man raised his staff and brought it down upon the boy's hand, knocking the knife from his fingers. The weapon went spinning along the rocky trail with a metallic clang. "Even an old dog knows more than a pup!" he sang out exultantly.

"Why, you devil! You ought to learn some manners!" Snarling, Saqr made a lunge for the knife. The aged one's staff shot out, catching Saqr on the backside and sending him plummeting to the ground. His dignity in tatters, the boy stumbled to his feet, glaring at the old hermit.

"Saqr, please! Do as he says!" Aeffe implored, shooting him a pleading look. "Both of you are behaving like unruly children! If this man wishes to help us, I think we should at least hear what he has to say. But first we must get Inbir off this trail and to a place of safety. We have wasted too much time already!"

"A wise woman, although her tongue is as sharp as the blade of a well-honed knife." The old graybeard gave her an admiring glance while ignoring a muttering Saqr, who stood in the middle of the trail, rubbing his aching behind. "Fetch your dagger, boy," he nodded towards the weapon, "but keep it sheathed and out of trouble!"

Inbir, who had been hovering between sleep and wakefulness, gradually became aware of the commotion going on around him, and rallied to attention as best he could. He looked around in confusion at his surroundings, his eyes coming to rest on the emaciated hermit. "Aeffe, who is this man? Is he friend or foe?"

Aeffe leaned towards Inbir, her voice a low whisper. "I do not know, but perhaps he could help us." Turning back to the hermit, she asked, "Who are you, sir?" In spite of his woebegone appearance and quarrelsome temperament, she sensed that the hermit did not mean them harm. Perhaps he might even be able to assist them in their plight, if Saqr had not offended him beyond repair.

"I might ask the same question of you," he replied, eying the small party.

"I am Aeffe of Rohan." She gave a small, polite bow in salutation. "The wounded man is my betrothed, Inbir, and this impudent boy is his servant, Saqr. Now will you tell us who you are?"

"I am... I am..." The old man raised his head, and beneath his shaggy brows, his gray eyes were sad. "That is a question I cannot answer. I have been here so long that I forgot who I was, and I have been trying to find out ever since."

"Sir, I certainly hope that you can remember your name, but in the meantime, what can we call you?" Aeffe asked, feeling sorry for the ancient vagabond, who was obviously in his dotage.

"The Hermit of Ephel Dúath will do. I am told that is what others call me." He stared intently at his dragon-headed staff as he leaned lightly upon it.

"Not much of a name," she laughed softly. "Or perhaps too much of a name."

"It will do until I remember my own," he cackled. "Now do you two have any idea where you are? No, I see by your eyes that you do not. You are in a very dangerous situation. Somehow, you have blundered deep into the territory of the Nine Lords, and take it from me, they do not like intruders. You are in luck, though. I was looking for birds' nests when I happened by and heard screaming... I suppose that was you? Yes, I can see it was. Now to get you out of this mess... that might be a difficult proposition, but possibly I can point you in the right direction."

"Sir, that is very generous of you," Aeffe told him, "but why do you want to help us?"

"I would like to say, my dear girl, that I do it out of the generosity of my heart. I am sure I would derive many good feelings from helping lamentable wretches such as you three, but really that is not the reason at all," he chuckled good-naturedly. "I was feeling quite a bit put out because I could not find any nests, which means my belly must remain empty for a while longer. I help you only because I want to hear the sound of another voice besides my own. It gets lonely up here sometimes." He looked at Aeffe intently, his thick brows furrowed. "Do you want me to be your guide?"

Aeffe hesitated, wondering if trusting this strange man was a wise decision. What choice did they have, though? They were in unfamiliar territory, and their map had failed them. Since the hermit called this land his home, he would know better than anyone the secret paths which ran through the mountains. True, his real intention might be to deliver them into the hands of their enemies for a reward, but given the hermit's ragged appearance, Aeffe doubted he put much importance upon coin. Though she could not explain it, there was just something about the man that felt trustworthy and good.

"I suppose your reasons are as good as any, and certainly we could not be in any worse shape than we are now with you leading us," Aeffe replied after debating the matter a few moments in her mind. "Inbir, my love, what do you think?"

"Just so you take us away from Mordor," Inbir replied through clenched teeth. Closing his eyes, he bowed his head, trying to endure the agony of his many wounds.

"That I cannot do," the hermit shook his head sadly. "But do not look so glum, my young friends. I can show you the way out, but I can never leave. Do you still want to follow me?"

"Lead us as far as you can, Master Hermit," Aeffe told him. "I will trust you unless you prove false." She met his eyes and saw that they were smiling.

"So it is, 'Master Hermit,' is it now? Well, that suits me as well as anything." He looked down the trail for a moment. "What about the boy? Do I have to worry about finding a knife between my shoulder blades some night?"

"No, I will vouch for him," she replied. "Saqr is very brave, and he has done his best to protect Inbir and me."

"Well, he failed there, did he not?" the hermit snorted as he cast a glance towards the barely conscious man who was slumped over his horse. "But never mind, he will learn. Now why are we standing here?" He strode forward, the head of his staff bobbing up and down as he walked down the trail. "What brought you here in the first place?" he asked, turning back to look at Aeffe. "Sensible people shun Dor-en-Úlaer, and it is well for them that they do."

Aeffe was uncertain how much she should say about their reasons for being in the Mountains of Shadow. She would rather Inbir do the talking, but he was in no condition to do much of that. She questioned the wisdom of trusting strange men in even stranger lands, but when she looked into the hermit's clear gray eyes, she felt in her heart that her secrets would be safe with him. Besides, the man could not even remember his own name; there was a good chance he would soon forget any tales that were related to him.

"The love that Inbir and I have for each other is a forbidden one, and there are those who would tear us apart. For this reason, we were forced to flee. We had hoped to escape into Ithilien, and there find the road to the South." Aeffe thought back to when she and Inbir had discussed their plans in secret. After the horrible events of this day, those nights seemed so long ago. She felt tears stinging her eyes, but she blinked them away and continued speaking. "Had we known we had been traveling to Dor-en-Úlaer, we never would have come here, but we were led astray by a worthless map that brought us into this peril."

"Aha! I was right!" the hermit exclaimed. "I knew you were too bumbling to be spies for Gondor. Members of that rogue faction of rangers who operate independently of the Steward, perhaps, but none of you possess the zeal of revolutionaries. You did not look like treasure hunters, either." He eyed them speculatively.

"Treasure?" Saqr snorted. "What could this wretched wasteland hold in the way of treasure? There is nothing here but snakes, scorpions, and vicious animals."

"You would be surprised," the hermit remarked enigmatically, a sly look flickering for a moment in his deep-set eyes.


The dragon-headed staff bobbing along with the far-reaching strides of his long legs, the hermit took them back towards the direction which Inbir, Aeffe and Saqr had come. Though the old man's appearance was shabby and derelict, he possessed a strength which was deceiving to the eye, and the walking stick he carried was more like the staff of a wizard than it was the crutch of a man weak in body. Aeffe wondered how the hermit had come to live in such a desolate wilderness, or why he could never leave. Perhaps he was bound to the Dark Lord's domain by some spell? Aeffe shivered as a dour thought slithered through her skull. What if they, too, were also trapped in this horrible place by the unbreakable chains of evil enchantment? Aeffe had noticed that the deeper into Mordor she went, the more faded her memories of the Mark became, and at times she felt that her entire life had been spent trudging through the bitter wastes. Perhaps the Dark Land was permeated by some fell magic which crushed the spirit and subjugated the minds of all those who dwelt within.

Retracing their trail, they had journeyed down the mountain a fair distance when they rounded a bend in the path. They could scarcely believe their eyes, for there were Aeffe's mare, Saqr's bay gelding, and the pack horses which had bolted away when the scimitar cat had attacked Inbir. The animals skittered and snorted, wary of the stench of blood oozing from Saqr's ghastly trophy, but they showed no fear of Aeffe.

"I never thought we would see them again," she remarked in awe, stroking the muzzle of her mare.

"Young man, if you had any sense," the hermit pronounced dourly as he stared at Saqr, "you would toss the beast's head over the cliff. The blood is frightening your horses!"

"I cannot do that, old meddler!" Saqr bristled. He was having a difficult enough time convincing the horses that the bloody head would do them no harm without having to contend with the inane comments of their unwelcome companion. Finally, taking a rope, Saqr ran it through the loops on the three horse's halters, securing them all together. "What you do not understand, Master Hermit," he remarked sneeringly, "is that I do not care what you think. I fought for the right to claim this monster's head, and neither you nor anyone else will convince me that I should just throw it away!"

"If you have some misguided notion that you can prove your manhood by hauling a bloody head around with you, you have much to learn." He gave the boy a pitying look before setting off down the trail again.

Not another argument! Aeffe wondered if she would have to listen to the continual carping of Saqr and the hermit all the way to Gondor. She could not understand why Saqr had taken an immediate dislike to the old fellow. The hermit was certainly odd – eccentric was more the word for it – with his wild hair and beard, filthy loincloth, and bare feet. Yet he seemed harmless, just some poor old man whom fate had chosen for a sorry existence. All she wanted was for him to help her beloved.

"Ah, here we are at last," the hermit smiled as he motioned with his staff to the faint outline of a trail which cut sharply down the side of the cliff. The path looked too steep for anything other than mountain goats, and Aeffe felt her stomach contract with fear as she stared into the abyss. Following that trail was sheer madness, and she worried that Inbir's horse would slip on the treacherous trail and injure him even more.

As though he were reading her mind, the hermit lay his hand on the horse's headstall. "You are frightening the horse," he told her gruffly. "The animal can smell your fear." Before she could argue with him, he had grasped the bridle and was leading the horse down the trail. For a few moments, Aeffe stood rooted to the spot before forcing her legs to move. Once again, she prayed that they were not making a horrible mistake to let this stranger lead them. The trail was worse by far than any over which they had journeyed, steeper and more perilous, with a false step threatening certain death. She kept her eyes on Inbir's horse as she cautiously hugged the side of the cliff with her trembling fingers.

When at last they reached the bottom of the chasm, Aeffe looked up at the sheer gorge and wondered how any of them had ever survived the horrifying descent. As she gazed at the trail over which they had passed, she felt an ice-cold shudder of fear race down her spine. There, on the rim far above them, looking no larger than a crawling mass of ants at that distance, marched a large party of orcs, their dark livery identifying them as soldiers of Minas Morgul. Aeffe expected at any moment that the soldiers would swarm down the trail in fevered pursuit, but apparently they had seen nothing, for they marched past, their faces straight ahead. Closing her eyes, she breathed an audible sigh of relief, and when she opened them again, she saw the hermit beckoning her on with his staff.

At first Aeffe had been too terrified to take notice of her surroundings, but when she did, she noticed that the bottom of the canyon was swathed in the shadow of the mountains. They were in a grove of trees, lush and green in contrast to the stark landscape above them. Beneath the branches grew ferns unlike any she had ever seen before, some reaching heights of almost ten feet. Thinking that they were some illusion that might disappear before her eyes, Aeffe reached out and touched one frond and found that it was indeed real. Perched on a limb above her head, a grayish green beast peered down at her, its eyes unblinking. At first, she thought it was a bird, but then she noticed that instead of feathers, its body was covered with leathery scales. Was it a bird, a lizard, or some kind of reptile? Before she could decide, the creature thrust its long neck forward and hissed at her. Then with a squawk, it flapped its small wings and flew away. Almost immediately, the birds, which had been silenced by its malevolent presence, broke out in melodious song.

"Mistress, we cannot tarry here. The old man is almost out of sight in the trees up ahead of us," Saqr gently reminded her, but she could see that the boy's eyes were large and round as he gazed around, awed by their bizarre surroundings.

The hermit led them to a small stream nestled beneath the boughs of a large tree which looked much like some sort of palm, except its fronds were far longer than any she had ever seen before. The water was cool and refreshing, and gratefully they all drank their fill. After they had watered the horses, the hermit turned the reins of Inbir's horse over to Aeffe. "We do not have far to go, dear lady," he told her reassuringly, "before we come to a place of safety. While it seems pleasant in this vale, you two must learn that it is not wise to stand around here and dawdle."

The old man's pace was brisk as he led them along the eastern slope of the sheer cliff face. Here, in the deep shadows of the surrounding mountains, the air was much cooler than the surface above them. The floor of the canyon was covered by trees, shrubs and vines, the verdant growth broken in many places by stretches of open grassland dotted with silvery white flowers. Though sweet smelling and well formed, many of the flowers and plants grew in bizarre shapes, resembling nothing Aeffe and Saqr had ever seen before. Suddenly an antelope bounded across their path, and Aeffe stifled a scream as it disappeared into a copse of trees.

"A fine-looking buck," the hermit remarked appreciatively. "There would be excellent hunting here if anyone dared take this path."

"What do you mean?" Aeffe asked, unable to imagine why anyone would reject what seemed to be an outstanding place to hunt.

"This is the southern border of—"

The old man's words were chipped off in mid-sentence when a dark shadow dove silently from the sky. They heard a triumphant shriek as the giant leathery skinned beast closed its talons around the hapless antelope. A scream tore from Aeffe's mouth and she leaned against Inbir's horse for support. Lifting its monstrous wings, the fell beast flew out of the trees with the antelope held tightly in its talons, red blood dripping from the animal's still struggling body.

"Oh, by all the Gods, what was that?" Aeffe cried, clutching her throat.

"One of the flying beasts of Mordor," Saqr muttered, trying not to show his fear. "We have seen them before, but none so large as this vile creature."

"Now perhaps you understand why the orcs do not hunt here," the hermit chortled. "This is the private game preserve of the Nazgûl. They allow no one, not even the orcs, to harvest the profusion of wildlife that inhabits this gorge. As a matter of fact," he remarked thoughtfully, "I understand that the fell beasts have a taste for orc meat, but how they tolerate it is more than I can guess. If any orc is foolish enough to poach in these lands, he will find himself a meal for the monsters. The hunter can well become the hunted in Dor-en-Úlaer."

"Then, Master Hermit, why is it that you were not eaten by the fell beasts long ago?" Saqr challenged, irritated by the man's supercilious attitude.

"Foolish boy, you do not recognize the obvious! I do not eat the flesh of any living thing and I kill nothing. The beasts and I have achieved an understanding."

Not willing to let the subject drop, Saqr demanded, "Why do the Nazgûl let you exist, living as you do in their private hunting preserve?"

"Perhaps it is because I am no threat to them, or maybe it is because I am not worth the bother," the old man laughed.

"But, Master Hermit," Aeffe asked, finally recovering her composure after being nearly frightened out of her wits by the fell beast, "from whence do these monsters come? Is this their abode?"

"It is said that the Lord of Mordor found the last survivors of an ancient breed and nurtured them until they became large and strong. Then he gave these beasts as mounts to His nine vassal lords, and the beasts will obey no other. They raise them high in mountain lairs, always seeking the best specimens to use for breeding. The rest range wild over Mordor, dwelling in the mountains."

"Master Hermit," Aeffe's voice was hushed and frightened, "will these creatures make a meal of us next?"

"While it is not unknown for them to eat humans, I doubt that any will choose us for their next meal," the hermit returned thoughtfully. "Their masters have trained them to eschew human flesh unless given the command to feed. It would not do at all for one of the flying lizards to eat some general of the Mordorian army." He laughed as though enjoying a private joke. "Now if you are through asking questions, I will take you three to my abode."

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