Sand Circle, The
1. The Sand Circle
Thank you to Amy (Praetorian Guard), my indefatigable beta reader, Kissaki, for generously giving me my very own web-space and Hydy for illustrating my previous story. Speaking of which, thank you to the people who reviewed it and encouraged me to keep writing in this fandom: alawa, Altariel, CloudsofViolet, Eledwhen, Ellipsis, Firerose, Harriet Vane, Jules, Klose, Lyllyn, Marion, Rosemary and Thalia Weaver. And big thanks to the people who commented on the beta version of this story: Acacea, Altariel, Dwimordene, shadow975, Starchild and Starlight. Some explanatory comments on elephants and other matters can be found at the end of the story - let me just say that it’s all accurate even if incredible!
I get up before dawn, just before Kuon starts stirring in her pen. She is past her prime, though still strong, and so sleeps as she wills, or for as long as she can allow herself. She is proud, after all, as proud as I was, and the dowan master paired me with her when I wore the red sash of a first-rider for that very reason. She is as stubborn as I was, and with double the impetuousness, and in those days of the flower of her strength powerful enough to shake the pillars of heaven, may the Jade Seat preserve them for ten thousand generations. I quickly learned that I would lose any outright battle with her. I could not force her, but maybe I could convince her, and for that I needed quick wits and patience, which I hope I have since learned. I would like to say that she has learned obedience, but although she follows the commands, she always makes sure she casts a bright eye towards me to remind me that she is too superior to be ordered about, and that, by coincidence, her proposed course of action coincided with mine.
When I exit the dowanin’s house the morning sun is just beginning to gild the treetops. Of all the dowanin places in the province, with their crop of buildings and the sand circle and the river and the trees, this one is the best, maybe even the best in the whole Land, or at least that was dowan Master Kamar’s opinion, and I can’t say I judge him wrong. My lady, after all, was deemed good enough to hunt the great striped cat, and more, when I took her to the Veiled City and beyond.
“Greetings this dawn, Kuon,” I hail her as I approach her great pen. The stables are like immense caves, full of the comforting smell of the oliphaunts. All around me, the young first-riders are starting to attend to their chores, all clumsy arms and legs. They bow as I walk through them, like ferns in an oliphaunt’s path, for I wear the white sash of a dowan Master. “I am unworthy of your honour, Master Anguo,” they say, half self-consciously and half flippantly, and I smile to myself and wonder if I looked like them when I wore the red sash, foolishly young and fearful and cocky.
Kuon, just awoken, is stirring in her pen, carefully so as not to undo the white cord that binds one of her forelegs to an iron ring. She is a meriaj, finest of the fine, and needs not the harsh binding of ropes or chains. She allows herself to be bound to me, and were she to escape and I unable to find her, my life would pay for the loss of her. The ends of the handful of dowan masters whose charges vanished are one of the first lessons learned in our long training, and one of those less easily forgotten.
But there is no cause to think of that. I unbind her and she flattens her ears in arrogant anticipation of my caress. As a master, I do not have to cart straw, for which I am grateful, for I am past my prime as much as she. I feel her rumbling, that low, soundless purr all dowanin come to feel and know in their dreams. As I lay my hands on her rough skin, I feel the motion, like a beehive, humming. She prods me provocatively with her trunk, and I wonder, as always, about how something that can bend a single blade of grass can also tear a mighty tree straight from the ground.
“Come,” I ask her, and she accompanies me, huge and graceful, outside through rows of her fellows, the soil almost shaking beneath her heavy footsteps, the first-riders standing aside, eyes raised to her in awe. I wish they could have seen her when her tusks were covered with gold and her head crowned with silk, a great seat balanced upon her and her legs moving briskly. I take her outside to the sand circle where the second-riders earn their green sashes with their tricks. There are already some outside, working with their charges, making them tie tail to trunk.
“Master Anguo!” a voice pipes up behind me, and I turn. Kuon turns her head also, haughtily.
The small red-sashed figure kowtows to me, turbaned head lowered.
“What is it, Zobeyde?” The girl is Wind Treader, one of that rogue people, but I tell myself not to think like that, because so is the Jade Throne, may she endure for ten thousand generations. I saw her when I was young, and that makes me doubly revered, because I saw a Celestial Power incarnate.
“Dowan Master Lady Luin sends her greetings,” she says shrilly, “and asks humbly if you could deign yourself to teach me of the first dowanin, Master Anguo, though I am not deserving of such an honour.”
She manages to get through her little speech without stumbling too badly, and after consulting Kuon, whose eyes tell of her indifferent agreement, I bow my head and gesture for the girl to follow me. She is small and quick like a mouse, and is indeed almost the size of one as she trots along in Kuon’s shadow. We go towards the river where the oliphaunts bathe, green waters snaking around the woods like a dark serpent.
“Do you know what you have to do afterwards?” I ask.
She nods shyly. “Scrape your lady’s feet.”
“Well then,” I say as we reach the muddy margins. The new sun falls through the deep green eaves and the dampness rises to us in a mist. Kuon approaches the water stately, squelching through the mud, pretending I do not know her eagerness. The girl and I draw back as my lady dips her trunk in the water and then sprays herself in a great glittering rain. “The first dowanin - they did not use that name - were of the Jorpal people, who came out of the land they call Urdar. They learned the craft of the riding, for they had oliphaunts there, though they were not so fine as they are now.” Kuon starts grooming herself even more proudly at these words, and I carry on. “A long time ago, some of that people came out of their land and placed themselves under the command of the Jade Throne, and as full members of the Empire they then showed the Kan-Shao how to capture and train the great wild oliphaunts roaming the high, wooded lands. Those animals were finer than those they had in their old land, the ones they call asalah, and much finer than the ones up in the Northern provinces which the Wind Treaders call mumâkil. Ours are meriajn, mount of powers, hunters of the striped cat, finest of all oliphaunts.”
Kuon raises her head proudly, ears flapping, and her trunk sounds a bellow that is like a mountain rumbling, so powerful it seems the trees shake upon their roots. The girl blanches a little.
“She is very fine,” she whispers, eyes fixed on my lady.
“Yes, she rather is. Do you know the story of the first dowan?”
She shakes her head.
“He was called Jamil, and he lived in the time when the Celestial Powers still walked abroad, shaping the world. One day, when he was young, he strayed from his village. This was in the very dawn of the Jorpal people, when they lived in little villages of no more than a dozen houses, and feared the roar of the Wind Lady at night, and the mist that came with the warring of the fire dragons and the water dragons. He strayed into the jungle, chasing a bird for supper, and he was lost as the Sun Lord locked his golden fruit once more, and the Moon Lady turned her silver mirror. It was night, and the jungle around him was full of noises. He was frightened, and could not find his way out, and wandered deeper and deeper into the jungle in his terror, until he fell on the ground and slept.
“What he did not know was that he was that he was in the clearing where the Spirit of Beasts came to change his shape. The Spirit had been prowling the woods in his favourite shape, a great, tusked beast with haunches the size of mountains and a head that touched the dome of stars, and now he went to his magical clearing to change again into his spirit shape. But he could do nothing while the human lay there - the space had to be empty, clean. He could not understand how anything could have entered his clearing, woven from his spirit powers. Then Jamil woke up, and drew himself up as he saw the Spirit, but did not show or feel fear. So the Spirit understood what he must do, and he took Jamil on his back, and rode with him far up into the celestial orb, and showed him the world, and Jamil saw that it was encircled by water, and held up by four beasts like the one he was riding, each so big that it would take countless days just to measure one. They flew high above the world, and Jamil saw the whole of the Land and was filled with awe and wonder, and the Spirit spoke to him.
“‘You came into my domain,’ he said, ‘and were the first creature to do so. In the spirit weave we are bound, and so I have shown you the world so that you may understand. As the Land rides the four Bearers, so you and yours will ride a mighty beast that I will make in my image. It will serve you loyally, if you show it reverence.’ And when Jamil woke up, the first oliphaunt was beside him in the morning light, and it led him back to his village. And from that day on the promise has been honoured between all dowanin and the Spirit of Beasts, father of all oliphaunts.”
The girl’s eyes are shimmering with awe.
“Of course,” I add with a smile, “this is a story.” Kuon seems offended at this, shaking water contemptuously in my direction. She does not like people to forget she is a goddess. “It is not true that the Land is encircled by water.” She seems somewhat placated by this. “There are other lands beyond our own, though this was not known for a long time.”
“Really, Master Anguo?” The girl sounds excited. “I was told by the other children when I first came here that the are no lands beyond the Empire, only a world of ghosts, and they made fun of me when I said my father told me there were other countries beyond our own, with people of flesh and blood.”
“Well, I would not say they’re ghosts,” I answer, and Kuon and I exchange an amused look. “Now, Zobeyde,” I say, turning serious once more, “attend to the rest of your lesson…” My lady’s eyes are still shining with merriment as I resume my lecture.
Some Explanatory Notes:
Much is made in this fic of the various cultures of the entity known (erroneously, in my derivative universe) as "Harad." This is written from the perspective of a member of the dominant culture, the Imperial Kan-Shao. As such, the Imperial language is used in this fic much in the same way as Westron is used in canon: it is all represented by its English equivalents with some exceptions. "Dowan" and its plural "dowanin" are left "as is" because there is no English equivalent, much in the same way as there is no English equivalent for mahout (which is, of course, what a "dowan" is); "meriaj" and its plural "meriajn" are also left like that because they are Jorpal words and they refer to oliphaunt types in any case (the same applies to "asalah," which is also a Jorpal word, and to "mumâkil," which is a Wind Treader word). Speaking of the Jorpal (originally from Urdar, i.e., Umbar) and the Wind Treaders, the latter are the "Haradrim" that appear in LotR and are culturally very different from the Kan-Shao; the Wind Treaders live north of the borders of the Kan-Shao Empire. For all these three cultures, I have drawn inspiration from "real life" cultures, although I have not followed them slavishly, and suited them to the purposes of my fiction. As for the oliphaunts, I am a massive elephant lover, so you may like to know that the oliphaunt details mentioned here have their equivalents in our world. I have assumed that the oliphaunts are ridiculously large versions of the Asian elephant, though the oliphaunt females are tusked rather than tushed. The three breeds Anguo mentions also exist in our world, although of course under different names. Likewise with the rumble, which is something that our own elephant trainers come to know very well indeed. The trick of making elephants hold each other’s tails with their trunks is not exclusive of circus performers, and is indeed learned by elephant trainers - in my universe, it serves the purpose of demonstrating the relationship between oliphaunt and "dowan." Zobeyde’s task of scraping Kuon’s feet is due to the fact that elephants do need their feet regularly scraped. Finally, and hoping I haven’t bored you all to death yet, the legend of the flat world supported on the back of four elephants is, like Terry Pratchett himself has stated, something found in virtually all cultures (the legend Anguo tells also includes the turtle, but as this is a story about oliphaunts, I didn’t want to mess with the focus) - it also seemed to fit nicely with the world-vision of the Kan-Shao Empire, which is (at least until recently) obsessively isolationist. I hope you have enjoyed this and find some time to comment upon it.
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.