The Circles - Book Eight - Chapter 9

The Circles - Book Eight - A Mordorian Bestiary
Chapter Nine
Valley of the Fell Beasts
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

Three days after being attacked by the scimitar cat, Inbir succumbed to a dreadful fever, his body drenched in sweat and burning up with heat. As he tossed and turned on his makeshift bed, he mumbled senseless gibberish, severed as he was from his reasoning mind by a raging delirium. He could not recognize anyone, and sometimes in his worst moments, he babbled in Haradric, a language neither Aeffe nor the hermit could understand. When she asked Saqr to translate, he explained, "Mistress, he calls for his oud. He imagines he is back in his old home on the day when his father first gave him the instrument. Occasionally he believes that I have stolen it from him." Saqr's eyes misted with tears, and he turned away, unable to look at anyone, for he was saddened that his master was dying.

Aeffe felt totally helpless, unable to do anything more than bathe her beloved's face and body with cool water. When Inbir raised his eyes to hers, he seemed to be gazing straight through her, as though she were made of clear glass. The sensation was a highly disturbing one; he was there in the cave with her, but yet he was not. Often she would bring the oud to him and lay the musical instrument in his lap, hoping that the familiar sight would summon him back from the faraway place to which his mind had retreated. Yet he only stared at her, his eyes blank spots in a pale, hollowed out face.

Still Aeffe stayed by his side, watching over him night and day. "The bedside vigil," she thought grimly to herself, remembering how as a child she had sat by her parents' beds as they languished from a terrible fever. There was no experience so excruciatingly heartbreaking as to watch as a loved one died, to listen to their last rattling breaths and wait patiently for Death to claim them.

One afternoon as she wiped the sweat from Inbir's forehead, she felt the old hermit's hand upon her shoulder. Tears running down her cheeks, she looked up at him, her eyes pleading that he would do something to help her lover. She feared, though, that he had already done everything that he could with his herbs and remedies, and that Inbir's life was ebbing away.

"Master Hermit—" she began, but he interrupted her.

"The deepest wound on his leg has gone bad, my child. Can you not smell the sickening sweet stench?" Aeffe recoiled with dread as the old man pulled back the dressing, and she saw the blackness creeping around the wound. "I do not want to have to do this, my child," he sighed wearily. "I must cut out the poisoned flesh to save that which is still healthy. It is either that or saw off his leg."

"Do what must be done," Aeffe whispered, bowing her head. "I trust your judgment." She had spent endless hours worrying that something like this might happen. Though she had never seen injuries so dreadful, she had heard about injured warriors whose wounds putrefied, forcing the healers to remove the diseased limbs in order to save their lives.

The hermit went about the cave, gathering up the supplies he would need for surgery. Taking a vessel of fresh spring water, he filled up several pots and hung them from the cooking stand situated over the fire. As he stared into the churning depths of the water as it began to boil, a trance seemed to come over him, and his lips began uttering a softly spoken chant.

A Îdh i-Vail, Híril Ethiad, natho i-nîr hen!

Though nothing happened, the atmosphere of the cave seemed to undergo a subtle change. The flames of the little campfire seemed to burn more brightly, and the shadows beneath the rock ceiling seemed a little less dreary.

"What did you say, Master Hermit?" asked Aeffe.

"I am not sure," the old man shook his head sadly. "The words came to my mind, though I know not what they mean. There are so many things I do not remember." He paused for a moment, deep in thought. "Perhaps it was a prayer that the clerics taught me… a prayer to Lady Îdh, the Healer of Hurts."

"Hopefully it was not a curse," Saqr muttered under his breath. The old man's mumblings sounded far too much like elf-speech for his liking.

As the hermit purified the knife in the scalding water, Aeffe stroked Inbir's hand, dreading the moment when the old man returned. "You two must hold him, for even though he is grievously ill, when he feels the pain, his strength will return," he admonished them.

Aeffe and Saqr tried to keep Inbir down on the blanket while the old man began cutting into the wound. Inbir screamed and struggled with the strength of a wild beast until the pain overcame him and he fainted. The hermit worked in silence, his brow furrowed with grim solemnity as the knife sliced through the blackened flesh. Aeffe averted her gaze from the gruesome procedure, resting her chin upon her shoulder as she took in shallow breaths to avoid breathing in the fetid stink of the festering wound. She tried not to think about what was happening to her beloved, instead diverting all the concentration she possessed into surviving this ordeal.

"There," the hermit announced at last, "I have done the best I can." There was a look of sympathy mingled with amusement in the old man's eyes as he watched Saqr jump to his feet, take a few steps, and then vomit out the contents of his stomach.

"Your young man is strong, my dear child, and with luck, he will recover, though he will bear the dreadful scars the rest of his life." The hermit's eyes were sad as they met Aeffe's. "The cat gave him a ghastly wound which went bad quickly. Perhaps I did not clean the injuries well enough, my lady, but I am not a healer, only an old man who does not even know who he is."

"Master Hermit," she looked at him, not caring if the tears were flowing freely down her cheeks, "I doubt that even the best healer could have done any better than you did. In Rohan, there are few of your equal."

Though the treatment had been brutal and dangerous, Inbir steadily began to improve over the next few days, much to Aeffe's great relief. She offered up silent prayers to the Gods, thanking them for sparing her beloved and asking them to heal him completely. While Inbir was recuperating, the old man kept his silence when Saqr brought in game which he had caught in his traps. Aeffe made broth from the meat, and the porridge seemed to strengthen Inbir far more than did the hermit's strange and bizarrely shaped fruits. She did not care what food or potion contributed to Inbir's recovery; so long as he was getting better, she was content.

The weeks passed, and soon it was early September. In Rohan, the wheat would have been harvested and the threshing would be well underway. In this strange valley, though, there were none of the cool breezes of early autumn. Instead, the temperatures remained pleasantly moderate, neither being too hot nor too cold. The old hermit told her that most of the trees in the warm valley remained green all year long, many blossoming as though it were early spring and bearing abundant harvests year-round. The laws of nature, the hermit explained, did not always apply to the lands beneath the dominion of the Nazgûl. It was as though time stood still within the sphere of their influence.

Inbir slowly regained his ability to walk, although he had to lean heavily upon a stout stave to support his weight. His wounds had left extensive scars, which were raised, tight, drawn and puckered, and needed frequent applications of unguents. He constantly muttered about how long it was taking him to recover, and when Aeffe or Saqr offered to help him, he motioned them away with a dismissive wave of his hand. Those times that Aeffe brought his oud to him, he scowled, refusing even to pick up the instrument. "He is acting like a pouting child," Aeffe thought to herself. "He seems to think that he is less of a man now, for the wounds dealt to him have weakened his body. What nonsense! Beneath all the scars he is still the same man as he always was."

But yet Inbir was not. He was exhausted all the time, and his many hurts still pained him. Though he was a young man in his prime, he felt even more aged and decrepit than the ancient hermit looked. He had spent what seemed like ages lying abed, his only window upon the outside world the mouth of the cave. It was through this portal that he watched the plants and trees beyond gradually come into view as the sun rose, only to be claimed by shadow once more when the sun set in the west. A pervasive delirium crept over his senses, and he often found it difficult to tell if it was evening or morning, or if he was awake or dreaming, or if he was alive or dead.

He had lost so much weight that he imagined that he must look like one of the wraiths which inhabited Minas Morgul. Whenever he tried to ponder all that had befallen him, his memory seemed full of holes, as though his mind were a piece of fabric that had been picked over by moths. The fight with the scimitar cat had been so sudden and brutal, and he remembered little more than flashes of violence and the terrifying feeling of fighting for his life. The days that followed were a phantasmagoria of pain and darkness, and he had difficulty recalling just how much time had passed since his maiming by the devil beast. Aeffe and Saqr had told him everything that had transpired on the days that he had lost – several times, in fact – but still he felt that his mind was a tangled jumble of thoughts and memories that made little sense.

The first time that Inbir tried to mount his horse, the pain in his injured leg was too great, and the limb buckled underneath him. With a curse, he hobbled back into the cave. The rest of the night, he barely spoke to anyone, brooding silently on his misfortunes. Still to his credit, he refused to give up, and so the next day, he tried again with Saqr's help. Clenching his teeth against the pain in his leg, he managed to clamber upon his horse's back and ride a short distance before he had to rest. With each day, he could stay in the saddle for greater periods of time, but his staff was strapped onto the saddle, close by in case he had to dismount and limp back to the cave.

"Master, you continue to amaze me with your recuperative powers; you improve daily," Saqr told him encouragingly. "Soon we can escape this damn place and be on our way to Harad." His master never replied, but Saqr could tell by his expression that Inbir was pleased by the optimistic words.

To Aeffe, it seemed that leaving was all Inbir and Saqr ever talked about. Though they were eager to depart, Aeffe was beguiled by the valley's pristine charm and primordial beauty, and she dreaded when the day of the departure would finally come. She knew that Inbir wanted to return to the land of his birth, but she was intimidated by the prospect of dwelling in an unfamiliar city where the people spoke a different language. Inbir had assured her that it was not uncommon for those dwelling in northwestern Harad to have a basic knowledge of Westron, due to the proximity to Umbar and Mordor. "And I am sure that you will learn Haradric in no time, with me as your teacher," he had told her with a grin.

Still, though, Aeffe had begun to dwell upon doubts long suppressed. In the long hours of bedside vigils, she had little to distract herself from fretful ruminations. When fate itself seemed to conspire to separate her and Inbir, did they have any hope at all of finding happiness together? At least while they remained in this valley forsaken by time and change, they could forget about the uncertainties of tomorrow.

Though Aeffe had become quite familiar with the territory around the cave, she had not explored much of the valley itself. One day the hermit offered to show Aeffe some of the nearby ruins. Inbir had grudgingly given his permission, watching from the cave entrance as his beloved made off with the cadaverous old man. At least he would have some peace for a while, for she would not be fussing over him as she constantly did. While he knew that she was only trying to be helpful, her pity made him feel all the more like an invalid, and though he was loath to admit it to himself, he had begun to resent her compassion.

In the days that followed, Aeffe frequently accompanied the hermit on explorations of the valley and the surrounding mountains. Inbir did not trust the old man, and so he sent Saqr out to follow them in secret. The hermit was as peculiar as the valley in which he dwelt, and Inbir often found himself wondering if the man could be a wizard or sorcerer of some sort. He both feared and resented the affection that Aeffe showed towards the hermit, for he felt that such behavior was unbefitting of a betrothed woman. "Her interest in the old graybeard is probably harmless," he tried to reassure himself. "He probably reminds her of her grandfather, for whom she grieves." However, there was a part of him that still wondered if the hermit was indeed a nefarious sorcerer who had woven a spell of enchantment over his beloved. Perhaps he was not an old man after all, but one who possessed the ability to alter his form, whether through deceptive illusions or some innate power. Those thoughts chilled Inbir to the core, for he knew that he was no match for such a being, especially not in his weakened state.

After Saqr returned time and again with nothing but reports of harmless explorations in the ruins, Inbir told the boy his time would be better spent hunting the abundant game. Saqr smiled at that, for he found spying on the pair tedious. Master Inbir knew what things were really important.

The unique creatures in the valley no longer frightened Aeffe as much, and she listened to the hermit as he told her the names and uses of many of the native plants. Sometimes she would pick a particularly appealing flower and braid it through her strawberry tresses. She found herself attracted to the strange white poppies that grew in the northern reaches of the valley, those ethereal blossoms which shimmered in the dimness of the night. The hermit had warned her never to touch them, or even breathe their fragrance, for they possessed a strange magic that could be deadly. She could not understand why such lovely blossoms had such a horrible reputation, when they were beautiful beyond belief. Charnel flowers – what fool had first called them that? She longed to fill her arms with an enormous bouquet of the bewitching blooms and delight her nostrils with their fragrance. She never picked any, though, for she trusted the old man's judgment since he was amazingly wise and knew much about all things.

One afternoon, the hermit led Aeffe into the mountains which surrounded the secluded vale and brought her to a little stream which bubbled out from beneath a small ledge. "Behold, my child," he exclaimed, "these waters which you see issuing forth from the depths of the earth are always pleasantly warm. I doubt that you have ever encountered their like in Rohan."

"A warm spring!" she cried out in delight. "They are known in Rohan, but this is the first one I have ever seen!" Kneeling before the spring, she tentatively tested the waters with her hand. "The water is as delightfully warm as though it had been heated for a bath!"

"My dear child," he explained, sounding much like a patronizing teacher instructing his favorite student on a subject dear to his heart, "the fire rivers which course beneath the mountains provide the warmth which heat the waters. There are many such springs in the Dark Land. Many of them stain the bleak desert with brilliant hues of red, yellow, green, and blue, their bright colors owing to the dissolved minerals contained within the water. Some springs are boiling hot or reek of brimstone, while others, such as this one, are mild and soothing. After leaving this basin, the waters meander and twist through the canyon before they sink into the ground, burrowing into the earth like a sand viper, and disappear... as if by magic."

"Disappear?" Aeffe looked at him incredulously. "Does the stream reappear again?"

"Who knows?" The old man shrugged. "Does it really matter?"

"No, I suppose not," Aeffe murmured. She was fascinated by the spring, and as she walked along the bank below it, she listened to the merry babbling of the waters. The stream seemed to sing as it splashed and tumbled down a gentle grade until it came to a wide pool. Sunlight filtered down through the swaying palms, dancing in golden beams upon the crystal surface.

"Is it safe to wade in the waters?" Aeffe turned and looked at the hermit.

"Safe both to wade and to drink," the old man smiled. "Although you might not believe it," he looked down at his filthy body, "it has been known upon occasion that I have bathed in the salubrious waters, purely for the sake of my health. I believe the beneficial minerals keep my joints and sinews as supple as a youth's." He cackled happily as he stuck a grubby toe into the tepid water.

In the time that he had known her, the old hermit had never seen Aeffe so happy and content. He sensed that a rift had developed between Inbir and her, but he neither knew the cause, nor was he overly concerned about it. He knew that the presence of his three guests represented only a small disturbance in the course of his life. His true destiny lay in his finding the Spear of Gil-galad, which was the only thing which would show him his life's true purpose. Still, he liked the girl; she was far more sincere than either of her two companions. He hoped that they would soon be gone, although he would miss the gentle Aeffe.

From the excited expression on her face and her delight with the stream, he knew that she wanted to immerse herself in the water and for a while wash away the cares of her life. "If you wish to bathe, I will come back when the sun dips down below that jagged rock on yonder mountain." He motioned with his staff at a huge rock outcropping on the western face of the gorge.

"How did you know that I had been hoping to do that very thing?" Aeffe smiled at him in gratitude, but he was already gone, slipping away like a will-o-the-wisp into the shadows of the trees.

Shedding her clothing, Aeffe lowered herself into the soothing waters. As she basked luxuriantly in the comforting warmth, she kept her eyes upon the rock outcropping. When the shadows neared the brow of the cliff, she reluctantly climbed up the bank. She was dressed when the old man, true to his word, reappeared when the rock face was fully engulfed in shadow.

As they walked through a sunlit meadow back to the hermit's cave, Aeffe felt refreshed, invigorated both in body and in spirit. All her aches and pains had dissipated, and her weariness had vanished. Her skin had never felt so clean before, and it seemed to glow with health. She had given herself over to these tranquil thoughts when she saw a huge shadow swoop down over the trees and blot out the sun. "Master Hermit!" she cried out. "A fell beast! A fell beast! We are doomed!"

The fearsome creature dropped gracefully to the earth and folded its great wings over its back. Dread swept over Aeffe, knotting up her stomach, but the hermit, who was walking slightly ahead of her, seemed unperturbed. The beast loomed about ten feet in front of them, scrutinizing them as possibilities for its next meal. The stench of the monster was nearly overpowering, and frantically Aeffe looked to the old hermit for protection.

"As foul as it is, my child, it means you no harm," the hermit told her reassuringly.

"Then why is it here?" Aeffe replied, her voice trembling.

"He probably wonders the same thing about us," the old man chuckled. "Remember this is his domain, not ours. Here, we are the intruders." Boldly he stepped forward, almost closing the gap between the beast and himself. He gazed up at the brute, which towered over his head. "I wonder what name you might possess, you stupendous marvel of nature?" The yellow reptilian eyes glittered in their sockets, but the creature was silent except for an occasional low, murmuring noise which seemed to be some form of greeting. "Is it Lightning Bolt?" he asked. "No? Storm Rider? No," the old hermit shook his head, "the name does not fit you. What could it be? Shall I guess again?" The creature burbled, the look in its fierce eyes seeming to glow in approval. "Ah, I have it!" the old man exclaimed. "Scourge of the Skies!" The fell beast chirped excitedly, swinging its monstrous tail like a huge pendulum. "I must apologize, Great Beast, for my brain is not as it once was. I should have guessed your name immediately, for none other could fit you. Do you forgive me?" The creature opened the great maw of its fanged mouth as though it were smiling.

The hermit turned and looked back at Aeffe. "See? There is nothing to fear. Not when they have been trained so well as this one. I suppose he just wanted to visit." He threw back his head and howled with laughter.

Aeffe closed her eyes, praying that this was all just a dream from which she would soon awaken. She was too frightened even to move, and stood there trembling as the beast, apparently satisfied that the pair did not have the smell of enemies, burbled amiably. Cocking his reptilian head, Scourge of the Skies scented the air with his forked tongue. Then with a loud squawk, the creature rose into the heavens and flapped away.

"My child," the hermit laughed as he turned around and walked back to her, "I think you have just made a friend."

"Master Hermit," she replied, "one that I never would have wished!"

"Take friends where you can make them." The old man watched the beast disappear from sight, and then added, "It could have been very interesting if the creature's rider had been with it."

With those words, Aeffe fainted dead away.


A Îdh i-Vail, Híril Ethiad, natho i-nîr hen!
O Îdh the Gentle, Lady of Healing, save this man!

Îdh is the Sindarin name of Estë, the Valië of healing and rest.

Next Chapter

Previous Chapter
Main Index