The Circles - Book Eight - Chapter 8

The Circles - Book Eight - A Mordorian Bestiary
Chapter Eight
The Hermit's Tale
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

Still chuckling to himself, the old hermit led Aeffe and Saqr along the feet of the towering eastern cliffs until they came to the mouth of a dark cave. "Here before you is one of my many refuges in these hills." Stepping back, he motioned towards the entrance with his staff. "Wait here while I go inside and tend to the fire. The wounded man will need to be kept warm."

Aeffe and Saqr exchanged an uncertain glance as their guide disappeared inside the shadowy portal. Saqr did not trust the hermit; for all he knew, the old villain could be leading them into a wretched orc den or a mountain troll's lair. While he had not betrayed them to that orc patrol they had seen earlier, the hermit might still be plotting their undoing for his own nefarious purposes. One did not simply find friends unlooked for in the wilds of Mordor, and there was something deeply deranged about anyone who would willingly dwell in this strange valley.

When the hermit emerged from the cave, he strode over to the horse which bore Inbir. After taking a moment to assess the situation, he enlisted the aid of Saqr and Aeffe to lower Inbir down to the ground. Although the three approached their task with the utmost caution, Inbir still cried out in pain as he was moved, his body becoming limp as he once more slipped back into oblivion. Laying Inbir upon a makeshift stretcher created from a sturdy blanket, the hermit and Saqr carried him into the cave. Aeffe made up the rear of the small procession, carrying blankets from the horses' saddlebags. Despite his misgivings, Saqr was somewhat comforted when he saw the low burning campfire positioned in the middle of the shallow cave. The underground chamber was not as deep as it appeared from the outside, and unless there was a secret door somewhere, it was unlikely that this was the home of orcs or trolls.

Aeffe, who was far less suspicious of the hermit, felt immensely relieved to be hidden from the watchful eyes of any patrols that might be scouting the winding mountain pathways. Her eyes adjusting to the dim light, she took stock of her surroundings. She did not know what she had expected to find, but she was pleased to discover that the cave was clean. The large chamber held only a few things – a battered wooden bookcase with some ancient, worn books; a few boxes which had seen better days; and a mound of ferns which she guessed must serve as the old man's bed. Turning away from her study of the cave's interior, she watched with worried eyes as the men gingerly lowered Inbir to the hard packed floor.

"When we get his clothes off, I will see how you have patched up this poor devil." The hermit stared at the two of them, his eyes narrowing speculatively. "Neither of you look as though you have any skills in healing."

"We have little, I am sorry to say," Aeffe admitted, meeting the old hermit's gaze. She would not apologize for being lacking in a skill she had never learned. She and Saqr had done all that they could to tend to Inbir's wounds and bear him away to safety before one of the Mordorian patrols found them.

"So what if we do not? You know nothing about us, old man," Saqr snapped irritably. He was still burning from the hermit's earlier accusation that he had failed to protect his master from his feral attacker. Prior to this ill-advised venture, he had led a life of relative ease, and wrangling with wildcats was a new and terrifying experience for him. He thought he had done well enough in the desperate fight with the ravening beast. He still had his head, after all, while the scimitar cat had lost his.

"I know enough to know that the two of you know little about anything," the hermit stated with a chuckle, his voice mildly mocking.

"Perhaps we are indeed the fools you think we are, for ever accepting your offer of help!" Saqr seethed with barely contained rage. "How do we know we can even trust you? You might betray us to Mordor for coin, or slit our throats for your own amusement!"

"Saqr, please!" Aeffe cried out in alarm and embarrassment.

"If I had wished to betray you, I would have alerted the orc patrol we saw earlier." The old man's steely gray eyes darkened. "But I have no dealings with the servants of the Dark Lord, nor do I have need of coin. As for murdering you – I have no reason to do so. Besides, as I related earlier, it is my practice to harm none, not even beasts or birds. The three of you will come to no ill at my hands."

"Bah!" Saqr spat out in disgust. Perhaps the hermit's words should have imparted a sense of relief, but Saqr found himself feeling even more irritated with the supercilious old fool. He bit his tongue, though, for he could tell that Aeffe was becoming increasingly distressed by their exchange.

After Inbir had been stripped of his garments, the hermit squatted down beside him, examining the many deep cuts and gashes that marred his body. Aeffe and Saqr hovered close by, their faces drawn with worry as they observed in breathless silence. Barely conscious throughout the examination, Inbir looked piteously weak and defenseless, his complexion unnaturally pale and tinged with a sallow hue. The blood had already soaked through the makeshift bandages and now streaked his skin with crimson. Aeffe felt her eyes welling up with tears, and she tried to suppress the paralyzing fear that her beloved might not survive the night. She could not think that way! She had to hold onto the hope that Inbir would live.

"The scimitar cat has done this man a great disservice," the hermit muttered dourly, shaking his head. "There is hardly a place on his body that has not seen some damage! These wounds must be cleaned before I can even see the extent of their severity. Saqr, fill your water bottles at the stream and hurry back with them."

"I will return shortly." Too concerned about his master to quarrel with the old man, Saqr glanced fretfully at Inbir before hastily rising to his feet and departing from the cave.

"I am sorry that we did not do better by him," Aeffe started to say, but the old man cut her off short.

"You did the best you could, stanching the blood with the clean wads of cloth, but some of these wounds need sewing." The hermit peered down at a deep, grievous gash, and then raised his head to look inquisitively at Aeffe. "Ever sew up an injured wretch?"

Aeffe shook her head. "My only experience has been with simple injuries; nothing like this."

"Let me show you how to suture wounds, and should the occasion ever arise again, you will have the skills to handle the matter." The hermit's attention was drawn to Saqr, who had just returned with the waterskins. "Now, boy," he motioned at the small bookshelf, "there you will find a pot and some jars of herbs. No! Not that one!" He scowled at Saqr, who had just picked up a small glazed earthenware jar. "The other one! Yes, that one right beside it. Heat the water on the fire to boiling and then put a pinch or two of those dried herbs in the pot. Swirl it around until the herbs dissolve. They will aid in healing."

After the water had cooled to a bearable temperature, the hermit dipped a clean cloth in the mixture, and with hands as gentle as any healer, he began cleaning Inbir's wounds. "Poor fellow," he murmured as he worked. "The devil cat was surely bent upon killing him!"

After the old man had tended to the lesser cuts and scratches, he took a needle from a small case. Putting it in a needle holder, he thrust the sharp instrument into the flames until the tip glowed a cherry red. "The fire will purify the needle and destroy the unseen ills that vex the body," he explained, his piercing eyes turning to Aeffe. "Never use an impure needle when you rejoin the battered tissue. If you do," he warned, "the wound will surely fester and mortify. Even with our best skills, many wounds often turn bad."

As the hermit sewed up his wounds, Inbir whimpered and groaned in pain. Sweat drenched his brow, and he moaned incoherent words in Haradric as his hands clenched fistfuls of the blanket beneath him. Aeffe and Saqr looked on in concern; Inbir had been through so much this day, and his ordeal was not over yet. At least he was less likely to bleed to death now, although his body had been greatly weakened by loss of blood, and this hardship might yet be his downfall.

The hermit peered intently down at a vicious looking wound before joining the severed edges together with a length of silk. Tying off the thread, he looked up and smiled. "There, that was the last of them!" he congratulated himself. "There is no seamstress in all of Middle-earth who could have done as well as I!"

"That is quite a claim, old man!" Saqr shook his head disbelievingly. "Whether or no your talents as a tailor are as good as you say, you certainly do love to boast. I would wager that we could have done just as well as you had we the materials and time." Though he had been just as impressed as Aeffe with the hermit's skills, he did not wish to say anything good about the old man to his face. "Now that my master's hurts have been tended, I must see to the horses. If they are not hobbled, they will stray, though I have little hope that they will not be carried away by those damnable flying beasts."

"Have no fear there, my lad." The hermit looked at Saqr with amused eyes as he spread a thick woolen blanket over Inbir's still form. "Your mounts have the smell of man upon them, and the creatures have been trained to eschew such animals... Unless, of course, their masters give them permission. And then, my boy, they have voracious appetites! They can tear the flesh off an eighteen-hand horse in a very short time! Men, too, if the beasts are allowed."

After Saqr had passed out of hearing range, Aeffe approached the hermit, who had just lowered his bony body to sit on a mat upon the cave floor. "Sir, I must apologize for Saqr. I fear that he is an impetuous boy who has no control over his foolish tongue. Please forgive him his rude behavior today. Believe me when I tell you how grateful we are for all you have done for Inbir."

"Dear lady, it would be a disservice for me to forgive Saqr, for he might think better of me, and he enjoys disliking me so much," the hermit chuckled good-naturedly. "Now for my skills with the needle, I would ask of you a reward."

"If I should have the power to bestow it, then surely you shall have whatever you ask." Aeffe looked gratefully at him as she lightly touched her hand to Inbir's cheek. Exhausted from his ordeal, Inbir slept fitfully upon the blanket. Aeffe pulled the covers up higher on his body to keep him warm.

"A bit of food is reward enough," the hermit replied. "It has been days since I have eaten. I have been fasting, and had hoped to break the fast with some bird eggs, but alas, I could find none. My body grows weak, and I need nourishment." He had the dazed look of someone who had not eaten for some time.

"Then you shall have it, sir, for there is still some food left in the saddlebags," Aeffe told him with a smile. "Rest here a while, and I will fetch some."

The day was almost gone; the sun had sunk beyond the western mountains, and the shadows of night were creeping over the valley. After both Saqr and Aeffe had returned from their tasks, Aeffe divided the food among the three of them.

"When Inbir comes around, I will boil some water and give him an infusion of healing herbs," the hermit gently told her. "It may be a while before he takes much interest in food, but when he does, he must eat something nourishing. Perhaps on the morrow, Saqr and I will fetch some of the fruit which grows in profusion in this valley. Some is good for food; others for healing; while still others are good for nothing at all, except to poison."

"I would think that the master would fare better if he had meat in his belly," Saqr protested. "It is good red meat that will return life to him, not apples and pears!"

"You forget, boy, that I kill nothing," the old man reminded him. "But I am not master here. While I do not condone killing any creature, I can answer only for myself."

"I will help you gather your fruit tomorrow, but I will also set traps and snares for hares and other small animals," Saqr replied, offering a compromise. He did not want his master wasting away and looking as skeletal as this scrawny old man.

"How did you come to live in these mountains, Master Hermit?" Aeffe inquired, fearing that Saqr and the hermit were on the verge of getting into another argument. She hoped to find some topic which would serve as a distraction, thus saving her ears from the sound of their quarrelling.

The old man regarded her gravely. "I cannot remember when I came to the Dark Land; I only know the reason why I came." Reaching for a pottery cup of the clear stream water, he took a long drink.

"I can think of many reasons why someone would want to leave Mordor, but I can think of few why anyone would want to stay," Aeffe remarked in wonderment. Saqr began to mutter something under his breath, but she shot him a glare that was so intimidating that he shut his mouth as soon as he opened it. Glaring, the boy withdrew to the rear of the cave, where he sulked in silence.

"I remember little of the world beyond these mountains," the old man confessed. "But there is not much of this realm which I have not traversed. Mordor is not just a land of fire and ashes. There is much beauty to be found, if one only looks. But you ask of the reason why I stay here. I cannot leave, you see; I am bound by an oath I made. It is the only thing which I can remember of the life I led before, and I believe that if I fulfill this vow, my memory will be restored to me."

"What was this oath?" Aeffe asked, intrigued by the hermit's tale.

"Years ago – when I was young, I suppose – I embarked upon a quest. My reasons – whether they were to gain fame and fortune, or perhaps at the command of a noble lord, or even as penance for some misdeed – I know not. The reasons why I lost my memory are unknown to me; my mind is like a locked box, and I can only peer inside through the keyhole. Perhaps years of dwelling in Mordor has caused me to forget, or perhaps my forgetfulness was caused by some sorcery. This realm is filled with many perilous enchantments. I remember only my quest – to find Aeglos, the Spear of Gil-galad." The old hermit's face was thoughtful as he gazed into the glowing light of the lantern; perhaps he was trying to remember.

"Are you familiar with the Elven King of Old? No?" He peered at her questioningly. "Then I shall tell you the tale. Thousands of years ago, there was a great battle fought between the forces of Elves and Men and the horde of the Dark Lord. Gil-galad the Elven King was slain on the slopes of the Mountain of Doom by the Dark Lord Himself, and the fabled spear was lost to the sands of time. Some say that it was destroyed by the Evil One's fiery aura, or by the flows of lava which course from the mountain's summit. Others say that the spear was carried off by looters and sold in an antiques stall in a Haradric bazaar. Other stories which favor the latter fate say a religious order obtained the weapon, and it is held as an object of worship by their sect. Yet I believe that Aeglos still resides within the bounds of the Dark Land, though far from the place where its bearer fell, and I cannot leave this realm until I find it."

"If you do find the elf lord's spear, what do you plan to do with it?"

"Being crafted by the Elder Race, the weapon is doubtlessly imbued with magical powers," the hermit explained. "In fact, these powers play a role in many of the legends which have sprung up about Aeglos. Some say that the spells and enchantments laid upon the spear protected both it and its bearer from the Dark Lord's wrath, and it was only until Gil-galad dropped the weapon that he was dealt the mortal blow. Other powers are accredited to Aeglos. Some say that to possess the spear is to possess the strengths and attributes of the Elves – everlasting life, great wisdom, and ethereal beauty. What do I want with the mystical weapon, you wonder? I only wish my memory back so that I might know who I once was and the reasons for which I embarked upon this quest." He paused and then chuckled. "Eternal youth would be a welcome boon as well."

"Well, I certainly wish you success in your quest," Aeffe enthusiastically told him. It would be horrible to lose one's own memories. However, she wondered how much of the man's half-remembered history was true, and how much of it was caused by the delusions of senility. Whatever the cause, Aeffe felt sorry for the hermit.

"Thank you, my child," the old man smiled. "Now perhaps you would like to rest? The hour grows late. I will sit up with the young man."

"No, no, Master Hermit. Sleep is far from my eyes," she replied. "If you wish to take your sleep, you should do so, for I doubt I will close my eyes in rest for many hours."

"No," he shook his head. "I require very little sleep. Over the years, that need has left me, and I can go sometimes for several days without slumber."

"Well, if you do not wish to sleep, perhaps you can tell me more about this land where I find myself." Aeffe looked away from the hermit to stroke Inbir's cheek tenderly, one of the few places on his body which had not been marred by the cat's slashing teeth and raking claws.

"I will do my best to fulfill your request, but I do not know all the history of this land. I do know, however, that this valley was not always home to the huge winged lizards and their foul masters." Absentmindedly the hermit toyed with his long, unkempt beard, flicking out a bit of food from his supper. "In the days when the Dark Lord had abandoned His realm, the men of Gondor settled in this valley. Then the Great Plague came from the East and swept over most of Middle-earth, leaving behind villages of corpses. The few survivors of Gondor's eastern garrisons withdrew to rebuild a realm left blighted by disease, and they never came back. The Mountains of Shadow are dotted with ancient ruins, the memory of the once vast dominion of Gondor. In this secluded little valley, you can see what remains of the old buildings deep in the forest, now overgrown with vines, creepers, and shrubs. What a shame they are in such disrepair, for surely once they were quite magnificent. Now they are the abode of reptiles and wild beasts."

"When we were coming to the cave, I thought I saw someone standing in the shadows beneath the trees," Aeffe remarked, remembering an incident that had happened earlier that afternoon. "For a while, I thought it was a man or a uruk, but then I realized it was the remains of some statue, now nothing but a weathered column of marble, its appearance haggard and formless and covered with vines."

"I know the place you mean," the old man nodded. "Never venture there, my child, unless I am with you, for creatures every bit as terrifying as the scimitar cats make the ruins their home."

Aeffe felt a tingle of fear course down her back. She could not envision anything more fearsome and menacing than the scimitar cats, but she believed the old man told the truth. "And no one lives in this valley now?" she asked, her voice a fearful whisper.

"No one but the winged beasts and me, but at one time, this valley was bustling with people. Nearby there was even a large town, grown up around the mines which once operated here. The fortress up in the mountains surveyed the interior in the days when Gondor was strong. The fortress was so well placed with a view of the surrounding mountains and valleys that later the Nazgûl claimed it for their own and had it rebuilt and improved. The mountain stronghold still retains its original purpose – to observe movement upon the plains of Gorgoroth – but now it also watches Gondor instead of guarding it."

Aeffe was engrossed by the hermit's tale. She tried to imagine when the valley was populated, and she had difficulty picturing how it once might have looked. The forests had long overgrown the town and its surrounding crop lands, and the only evidence to attest that men once dwelt here were the jagged walls of ancient buildings which had crumbled under the heavy weight of time.

"Not only did the land have a prosperous little town, but it was also home to an order where men went to seek solitude. There, they prayed, fasted and meditated, subscribing to the ideals of peace and harmony." A sorrowful expression coming over his face, he looked away for a moment. "Alas, there is little left of the monastery now."

"Was it in the valley, Master Hermit?"

"No, my child. The order made its dwelling in the caves across the valley. There, the acolytes lived in calm tranquility. Perhaps before you leave, I will show you where they met, deep within the bowels of the mountains. Alas, alas," he sighed heavily, "the devotees are all gone now, and none follow the order of peace."

"How do you know so much about this place?" Aeffe asked in wonderment.

"I met the last of the acolytes many years ago in my wanderings. Though the Plague stole the life from the town, still the brotherhood remained, living in peace and harmony with man and nature. Even after Nazgûl took Minas Ithil and claimed the mountains south of the Ithilduin as their territory, still the order remained, and the wise came seeking sanctuary.

"It was not until the Dark Lord returned and declared His presence that seekers ceased their journeys to the monastery. With no more novices taking up the order, the few remaining members of the brotherhood waxed old and passed away like leaves of autumn. It was my good fortune to meet the last remaining cleric before he died. I tended to him as he lay upon his deathbed, and he narrated to me the account of the ancient monastery and the town that once was." The light accentuated the hollows and angles of the old man's face, casting his eyes into shadows as black as the mouths of the surrounding caves, and before Aeffe's eyes, he suddenly appeared far older. "Dear lady, I pray that you tell these stories to your children so that when I pass beyond the circles of the world, someone will remember the history of this valley, and its story will not be lost to the ages."

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