The Circles: Book 3: To Escape a Dark Destiny: 36. Unshackled

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36. Unshackled

Chapter Written by Angmar and Elfhild

"What do you suppose is keeping him, Hild?" Elffled asked anxiously. "How long does it take to go to the barn anyway? He could have been there and back twice by now!"

"Who knows, sister?" Elfhild shrugged her shoulders. "The man is a stranger to us; we only met him a few hours ago. For all we know, right now he is heading to report us to the first enemy patrol he can find."

"Wait -- I heard something!" Elffled's eyes went to the door, where Haun was whining softly and wagging his tail.

"Did not think that I was coming back, did you, lasses?" Tarlanc grinned as he opened the door and reached down to scratch the huge mastiff behind his collar. "Had a little trouble finding the files. They were not where I thought I had left them. While I was out there, I drew a pail of water for the night." After placing the bucket on the table, he turned to look at the sisters. "Now we need to get to the problem of filing those accursed collars from your necks."

A few minutes later, an apprehensive Elfhild sat on a stool near the brazier, the brightest place in the room. Unfortunately, it was also the warmest, which would have been quite pleasant upon a winter day, but made her miserably hot in the sweltering heat of summer. As sweat began to bead up on her forehead, she twiddled her fingers nervously.

The old miller first locked the windows and doors for the night, and then he was ready to begin removing the hated collars. He examined the band around Elfhild's neck, peering at it speculatively. "Here, girl," he looked at Elffled, "fetch the lamp and hold it closer so that I can see better. Too blasted dark in here!" He rubbed his thumb over the collar's hinge and then looked up with a curse. "Damn! This business will not be so easy as I had first thought. I had it all figured out that when I tapped a small pin against the hinge pin, it would unlock the collar, but this one is far too big and I cannot find any smaller." He sighed loudly. "This will not be easy, no, not easy at all." He shook his head. "Now plague take it! Seems like I will have to file it off after all! Is anything ever simple in life?" At the sound of irritation in his master's voice, Haun looked up questioningly, but settled down at his master's words, "Haun, my good sir, do not worry, old fellow. There will just be a little delay. That is all."

"Please be careful," Elfhild implored, quiet urgency in her voice.

"Of course, I am going to be careful! After all, I am not in the habit of killing little girls by stabbing them in the neck with files!" Tarlanc exclaimed irritably, studying her slender neck. "Brace yourself, lass!" He slowly began to file the metal, the noise sounding harsh and rasping in the still evening air. Closing her eyes, Elfhild held her breath as she felt the first of the tiny shavings hit her skin. Elffled cringed as she heard the disconcerting sound, fearing that at any moment the file might slip and drive into her sister's neck.

For the next half hour, Tarlanc worked in silence, the only sounds in the small hut that of the rasping file, Tarlanc's occasional coughing, the girls' breathing, and Haun's rumbling snores. Perspiration streaked his furrowed brow, and he wiped his face off with the back of his sleeve. The skin under his right eye twitched and jerked, and his jaw clenched and then relaxed when he considered that he had made some progress. His nervous mannerisms distracted the twins and caused them to feel even more uneasy.

"Finally, I am making some headway!" he muttered as he paused in his labors and wiped the iron filings off his fingers. "But I must remind you, lass, do not fidget!" He sawed the grooved side of the file into the iron, chewing a little deeper with every stroke. Elfhild had begun to feel like a horseshoe under the blacksmith's unyielding hammer, her skull and spine vibrating with every rasp. Wincing, she gritted her teeth and squeezed her eyes shut. The never-ending noise made her ears hum as though a hive of bees were buzzing inside her brain.

"You might as well relax, my girl. We will be here a while longer, and if you are very lucky, my hand on the file will not falter. You could get a nasty wound on your pretty neck if the file slipped. Tedious work, this, and I would not wish it upon anybody." The old man sniffed loudly, his features drooping into a mournful, much put upon expression, a poorly concealed bid for sympathy.

Thinking it better to be silent, Elfhild concentrated upon getting through this ordeal. She was beginning to gain grudging confidence in the man; at least he had not yet hurt her.

With a sudden surge of energy, Tarlanc briskly moved the file up and down the metal. His eyes sparkling with elation, the old man breathed heavily as his hand trembled upon the file. "Ah, victory at last! I have cut through!" Tarlanc exclaimed as he set the file aside. Gripping both ends of the collar firmly, he pulled it apart and away from Elfhild's neck.

"There you go, lass!" he exulted as he waved the collar in front of her face. "Never thought you would see that, did you? Not bad work for an old fellow, is it?" The elderly miller beamed.

"Oh, it is wonderful! How can I ever thank you, sir?" Elfhild exclaimed as she turned to look at him. She could not resist the impulse to bring both hands up to her neck and feel the skin for the first time in almost a month. Oh, this was so exciting! At last the hateful thing was gone from her neck! She wished she had a looking glass, but she doubted that the old man would have such a thing. Though she knew it was vanity, she wanted to reassure herself that her skin had not suffered too much harm under the relentless band. She only hoped that the pale white ring where the collar had shielded her neck from the sun and the callouses it had rubbed on her skin would not be too obvious. Perhaps there was some way to conceal the telltale marks.

"Oh, are you feeling gratitude now, lass?" Tarlanc chuckled slyly. "After that labor, I need a draught of wine and some time to rest my aching arm and back!" He gave her a broad grin, showing a mouth full of wide-spaced, large yellow teeth. Taking the collar, he walked over to the table and sank down on the bench. He nodded to Elffled, "Over there on that shelf, you will find a bottle of wine. Draw out some water from the pail over there, rinse out our cups, and pour us all a healthy draught of wine. Then we will have a bit of a talk - you must have learned by now how fond I am of a bit of talk - before I do much of anything."

Even though he had removed the collar, Elfhild still did not feel at ease around this formidable old man, and so she took a place on the other side of the table from him. She watched as her sister went about cleaning the cups and pouring the wine. Elffled did not seem at all displeased about carrying out the old man's wishes. In fact, was that the hint of a smile upon her lips?

"Now I would guess that you girls are puzzled about me, who I am, and why I am the only one remaining in Ivrenlaer, which is the name of this town. Knowing the natural curiosity of women, I am sure you must be wondering about what happened to the village. Now that I have a little time, I will relate what transpired." It was obvious that the old man had settled into a round of storytelling, which - judging from the sparkle in his eyes and the excitement which had crept into his voice - he was looking forward to eagerly.

"As I told you before, my forefathers never owned the mill, but were granted the lease by Lord Caun's ancestors. For three generations, my family has ground the flour and meal for the lord and his tenants. Because of my ancestors' work and efforts, they achieved a respectable degree of prosperity. It was a prosperous time, and peace lay upon the land. Although we always knew that there was a chance that war would come someday, we grew complacent with our fertile fields, full barns and well-stocked storehouses. When the war finally came, the Easterlings and orcs swept over us in a bloody tide. Nothing could stand in their way!"

Obviously upset at the memory, Tarlanc looked across the table at the twins. "I see your expressiones, lasses. The very names strike terror in you, and well they should!" His nostrils flaring, his eyes blazing, the old man's voice rose louder. Though the twins were sure that every word that Tarlanc spoke was of the utmost sincerity, still both girls could not help suspecting that not a few of the old man's impassioned mannerisms were performed for dramatic effect. His zest for storytelling was obvious.

As he warmed up to his subject, Tarlanc's facial expressions grew more animated, and often he would gesticulate wildly as he emphasized a point. His spirited delivery woke up Haun, arousing the mastiff to a state of agitated alertness. Though Tarlanc reassured him, still the dog remained fretful and anxiously paced about the room until a sharp word from his master compelled him to lie quietly. Still, the dog would not sleep and lay there in discontentment, whining from time to time as he kept his eyes fixed on his master. Occasionally, he would raise his nose to test the air for some unknown scent.

"Fool dog!" Tarlanc grumbled as he scowled at the mastiff. "Something has put his balls in an uproar! If I did not know better, I would say that he has caught the scent of a female in heat, but there have been few dogs of any kind around since the orcs killed them... and probably ate them."

"Oh, how horrible!" Elfhild shuddered, thinking of the fate of her poor dog at the hands of the orcs.

Turning pale, Elffled put her hand to her mouth. "Those depraved fiends! They ate all of the dogs?" While she knew full well of the cruelty of orcs, she could not believe that any creature, no matter how monstrous, could possibly have eaten every dog in the area.

"Aye, they did! Once I saw an orc bring down one hound with an arrow through its bowels! The brute was on the poor beast while it was still alive and howling! Tore the living flesh from its bones, he did! The orc, a huge, hideous monster, turned to me and growled as though he thought I might challenge him for the carcass." Tarlanc shuddered, his old shoulders quivering, as a look of fear crossed his face. "Snarling and showing his fangs, the orc tore off one of the dog's leg bones and threw it at me! I was not about to argue with him, and so I decided it was time for me to make my retreat."

Sighing wearily, Tarlanc shook his head. "'Twas the most savage thing I have ever seen in my life! The sight unnerved me for many a day after that, and kept my dreams fraught with nightmares. After the orcs came to these parts, the dogs all eventually disappeared. The same thing happened with all the livestock. The orcs hunted them down and ate them. Probably did the same thing with any stragglers they found."

Questions troubled Elfhild's mind, gruesome, morbid questions, but still she had to ask them. "Tarlanc, I know the idea is disgusting, but I must know. What about the orcs' masters, the Easterlings? Do you know if they eat dog meat, too?"

"What a sickening subject!" A queasy look upon her face, Elffled leaned forward and pressed her hand to her stomach.

"Lasses, you do not have to worry any on that score, so cast such thoughts from your minds. There is a lot of evil which has been said about the Easterlings - and I do not doubt that much of it is true - but many of them are as particular about what they eat as you and I are. They would consider it a grave insult to imply that they would ever taste the flesh of dog, or any such beast which would be repugnant to us."

"What about the Haradrim?" Elffled queried timorously, almost dreading to hear the answer. Her curiosity was piqued by the mention of these exotic tawny men. Though she had not found the courage to admit it to herself yet, they were occupying a greater and greater part of her fantasies, and she did not want her illusions to be shattered.

His eyebrows furrowing, Tarlanc rubbed his bearded chin thoughtfully as he considered her question. After looking down at the collar on the table, he rubbed the broken section with his thumb. "You must realize that I know nothing for a certainty, and what I report is merely hearsay. Keeping that in mind, I can tell you this: they are a populous and varied people and make their homes in many different climes. From all I have heard, they eat about the same as we do, except I have heard that some of their holy men and sages forbid the eating of pork and the drinking of fermented spirits, avowing that both are unwholesome for man."

He paused and shifted his position on the bench. "Though the Southrons are civilized enough, there are rumors of other peoples who are so abominable that I shudder to think about them. While I do not want to frighten you," he lowered his voice, "some mariners and explorers have related that far to the south in the farthest reaches of Far Harad, there are tribes of savage men who feed upon other men. They are called the Sarqindi, the cannibal-ogres. These terrifying savages are reputed to be as black as the inside of a cat's belly, with eyes like orbs of pale fire and red tongues long and forked like those of serpents."

A look of skepticism upon his face, Tarlanc chuckled softly. "I will admit I like a good yarn told around the brazier on a cold winter's night as well as any man. However, I cannot say that I put much credit in such outlandish tales." His glance rested on Elffled. "Now, if you want this collar taken off your neck before dawn, I had best be getting at it. Come now, lass, and sit down on the stool by the fire, where I can get a good look at you. You, the other one," he lifted his chin in Elfhild's direction, "bring my wine and give me a draught now and then when I tell you."

After Elffled had taken a seat on the stool, Tarlanc set to work filing off her collar. While his manner had been gruff with her sister, he was much more loquacious with Elffled. Perhaps the old man had taken a fancy to her, or possibly it was the wine that had put him in a more jovial mood. Whichever the case, he kept up a steady stream of lively conversation throughout the interlude until he began to recount the invasion of Gondor, and then his mood changed.

"Back on the 10th day of March, the Easterlings crossed the Anduin at Cair Andros. 'Twas a dreadful battle with the garrison on the island, and though our men put up a brave and noble battle against the invaders, they were overwhelmed. The fortress fell with a great loss of blood..." His voice wavered. "I do not like to think upon it." As a deep look of sadness spread over his face, the old man's voice broke. Tears came to his eyes, and he impatiently wiped them away with his knuckles. "A moment, lasses, a moment while I collect my thoughts." Bending his head, he put his hand to his forehead. When at last he was able to speak, the old miller continued his tale.

"Leaving behind a small force to occupy the island, the enemy commander and the bulk of his troops crossed the river to the west bank," Tarlanc explained. "There, he divided his forces into two bodies, sending one south to Minas Tirith and the other to guard the Great West Road against any incursion by the Rohirrim. This great host swept through the countryside, gobbling up everything as they came to it. This village lay in their path, but I suppose you could say that we were fortunate, for word came to us in time. Everyone fled, although they had to leave most of their possessions behind them... everyone, that is, except Haun and me." The old man paused for breath.

"Tarlanc, sir," Elfhild interjected, "please do not think it presumptuous of me to ask, but why did you stay?"

"Pig-headed cantankerousness, though some might call it stupidity. I prefer to think of it as determination and resolve," he chuckled. "Lass, it is like this." The old man took a sip of wine and rolled it in his mouth before swallowing it. "I was not going to let a bunch of worthless, no good, thieving scoundrels drive me away from the place where I was born or from the care of the lord's mill. Seeing as how I was the oldest man in the village, it just did not seem right to me to run away and leave it all.

"It is not as though I was a young fellow with a wife and family and had someone for whom to fight." The dim light of the lamp cast Tarlanc's deep set eyes into shadow, making him look ancient. "I am an old man, a widower, the father of three sons and one daughter, the last I know all of them living. Except for my youngest son, his wife and two sons who lived here with me, my other children had their own cottages in the village, while my daughter and her husband lived in Minas Tirith. My youngest son would have inherited the right to run the mill and live in the cottage when I was gone. It was not as though I count for much anymore." He gave them a wry grin.

"When we were sure that the enemy was coming, my sons and their families packed up everything. When they begged me to flee south to Minas Tirith with them, I refused. I am a stubborn man, you see. I told all of them to go, but I would remain." He flicked a questioning glance to Elffled, as though seeking approval. "I was just seeing if you were listening." When she nodded, the corners of his eyes crinkled up in a smile.

"Oh, Tarlanc," Elffled exclaimed sympathetically, "you should have gone with the others!"

"I told you I am a stubborn man!" He turned to Elfhild, who was standing beside him. "Lass, bring the cup to my lips. I could use some wine now. Mind you, girl, do not spill any on my beard, or you will have to wash it out!" His eyes crinkled in an impish smile.

"Sir, you were lucky to escape with your life!" Elfhild chided him as she lifted the cup to his lips. Though she found him an ill-tempered curmudgeon, she felt sympathy for him and his village. His story had unnerved her, reminding her of the tragedy of her own village at the hands of the orcs. "We saw where a terrible fire had swept through the village. Did the Easterlings cause that?" she asked softly.

Tarlanc wiped away the wine on his mouth with the back of his hand. "Now that is a story, I would like you to know! When a detachment of the enemy cavalry rode into the village, I was the only one left, and I was there waiting to meet them. What do you think they did when they saw me?" Pausing in his filing of her collar, he waited for what he was certain would be her surprised response. "They laughed at me! Think of that! They laughed at me as though I were the most ridiculous sight that they had ever seen in all their lives! There they were, sitting up there on their fine horses, looking down on me, talking in their own language and laughing their heads off. Then I began laughing, too, right there, in the middle of the main road of Ivrenlaer!

"All of us had a good laugh until another group of cavalry trotted down the street. Their leader, an arrogant little bastard of a popinjay, gestured towards me and barked out some orders to his men. Then three big fellows laid hold of me, bound my hands behind my back, and forced me to my knees. One of them shoved my head down as their leader raised his scimitar, preparing to hack off my head. Just then, the commanding general rode up with his staff and said something to the saucy little fellow who had taken such a fancy to parting my head from my body."

Tarlanc chuckled as he sawed the file up and down. "After the two of them talked a while in their own language, the general looked sympathetically at me. I could tell by the tone of his voice that he had been directing some right sharp remarks at the short man. The sum of it all was that the general proclaimed me mad before all of his men there assembled. He added that if any man harmed me, he would personally see that he was punished severely. He told me that while he was in command, he would see that I was treated kindly and that I did not go hungry. For a barbarian, the general was remarkably civilized." Tarlanc smiled wryly.

Elfhild held the cup up to his lips again. "While I am impressed with your tale, you did not answer my question. Did the Easterlings burn the town?"

"You ask if the Easterlings set fire to the village?" Tarlanc's bushy eyebrows arched. "No, lass, nothing quite so dramatic as that, although the fire was exciting enough. Actually, no one really knows how the blaze started, but some believe that the culprit was a fool who knocked over a candle or lantern in his haste to escape, and the fire smoldered for a long time before it finally erupted into a conflagration. The orcs made no real attempt to quench the fire. The blaze continued until it burnt itself out."

"Ahhh, there it is free!" the old man shouted in triumph. "Here it is, lass." Proud as the cock of the walk, he almost strutted as he moved in front of Elffled and placed the collar in her hands. Clutching the now broken band, she looked up at him through misty eyes.

"Oh, sir!" Elffled exclaimed as she rubbed away the tears. "How can I ever express my gratitude?"

"A simple thank you will do, lass, though it is no thanks I am offering you for the lice that you have brought to my house." A mischievous grin brightened up the old man's face. "That lovely blonde hair is crawling with the vermin! Now, now, do not fret." With the tip of his forefinger, he wiped away a tear which had slid down Elffled's cheek. "We will do something about those pests tomorrow, but I am too exhausted even to think about it tonight. It is way past my bedtime..." Tarlanc attempted to stifle a mighty yawn with his hand. "In case you two are wondering where you will sleep, you will find my bed nothing elaborate, but quite comfortable. There are several sleeping mats that I keep on hand for visitors, and I will sleep on one out here." He smiled benignly. "Come, I will light a candle for you." As Tarlanc motioned for the girls to follow him to the bedroom, Haun suddenly sprang to his feet and growled menacingly.

"Quick, lasses!" Tarlanc exclaimed in a hissing whisper and held up his hand for silence. "Riders! I can hear them now! Haun must have sensed them earlier, and that is why he has been so restless this eve. I do not think you want to meet them, lasses, for no honest man is abroad at this hour of the night! Hide in the bedroom and be quiet, and take these damn collars with you!"

***
NOTES

The Sarqindi were mentioned in an early outline Tolkien created for the story of Eärendil. "Voronwë and Eärendil set sail in Wingilot. Driven south. Dark regions. Fire mountains. Tree-men. Pygmies. Sarqindi or cannibal-ogres." - The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two, p. 254


This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

Story Information

Author: Angmar and Elfhild

Status: General

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - Post-Ring War

Genre: Drama

Rating: Adult

Last Updated: 02/05/11

Original Post: 07/25/09

Go to The Circles: Book 3: To Escape a Dark Destiny overview

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