The Circles - Book One - Seventeen - Sweet Temptations

The Circles - Book One - The Triumph of the Shadow
Chapter Seventeen
Sweet Temptations
Written by Elfhild

The morning after Sergeant Daungha's breach of directives, a troop of Easterlings under Sergeant Utana was dispatched to guard the prisoners. Yet though the soldiers had been sent there to protect them, many of the women felt little comfort from their presence. What assurance did they have that the men would not prove as foul as the orcs, or even moreso? After almost two weeks of marching, the captives knew full well that the only thing that saved them from the direst of misfortunes was the strict orders issued by the mysterious hierarchy within the army of Mordor. The orcish captains were not as faithful as the men to keep the rules, for their kind was given to unruliness and savagery, and the lads had come close to breaking the directives many a time with dagger sport, mean threats and cruel torment.

Now, with the close of the second day after the arrival of the Easterling troop, the captives had even more to fret about than just orcs. It seemed that quite a few of their number had taken an interest in the strange, foreign men, and oft would a disapproving mother catch her daughter casting furtive glances towards the Easterlings. When the first day's march had at last come to an end, the men had invited the fair-haired captives to share their rations, to taste the wonders of spicy tea, jars of honey, and strange dried fruits called figs, apricots, and dates. The women had been hesitant to allow their daughters to become friendly with the barbarous folk of the East, for they distrusted and despised any man allied with Mordor. Yet the temptations of food, drink and handsome warriors were hard to resist, and the women had watched helplessly as the Easterlings ensnared their daughters with sweet words and sweet food.

This evening was no different. As she ate her miserable little supper, Elfhild sat upon her travel-worn brown cloak and observed from afar the cavalrymen and their new admirers. A small following of young women from one of the nearby troops had gathered about them, just like they had the evening before. Though each troop of ten was not allowed to mingle with the other troops of prisoners, the men did not resent such fair company, and the orcs dared not interfere with the wishes of the Easterlings.

Rising over the quiet hum of fretting captives were the sounds of giggles and titters mingled with those of deep, accented voices. Elfhild wondered what could be found to talk about with these wretched barbarians, but certainly anything was better than another night of listening to the endless woes of her fellow captives.

And if interesting conversation was not temptation enough, there was also music! Even now she could hear the tantalizing sound: strange, exotic melodies played upon curious instruments. The men were singing songs in a guttural yet intricate language, so different from the bawdy songs of orcs, the commanding calls of horns, and the angry beating of war drums. Did their songs speak of love and passion, of battles and war, of great warriors and feats of daring, or were they merely nonsense songs meant to amuse? Perhaps the ways of the two peoples, the Rohirrim and the Easterlings, were not that much different after all.

Elfhild sighed. She both envied the ones who had the courage to approach the cavalrymen and resented them for their audacity. But her thoughts were daring enough as it was, perhaps. For was it not traitorous to hold any feeling other than hatred in her heart for those who were enemies? Her thoughts had become divided. Still, she was curious.

It was not that she was enamored of the Easterling soldiers, although she did admit that many of them were quite handsome. Nay, it was their food which intrigued her. She was sick of bread, meat, and water, and longed for a change. Her chewing became painful as she imagined eating delicious delicacies and delightful sweetmeats from the East. She could almost taste the sweet savor of figs and dates, and nearly gagged on the dry clod of bread which slid down her throat.

Elffled sat beside her sister upon the brown cloak, eating the evening meal in silence. She gave little thought to the tasteless bread, for her mind was not upon the monotony of their rations. Nay, she walked once again beneath shady boughs beside her sister in the Eastfold of the Mark. They would bring with them a small meal wrapped up in a light blanket, and then they would quarrel over who would be the one who would carry the burden. At last, their journey would come to an end when they found a peaceful spot which was pleasing to their senses. Then they would spread the cloth out upon the ground and eat and talk until Eadfrid was sent out to find them. Her stomach rumbled at the fond memories, but she tried to ignore it.

Elffled looked to her sister, studying her features in the subdued light. It had been quite some time since she had said anything; her mood seemed thoughtful and reflective. Maybe her thoughts were upon the past as well.

"Are you thinking about home?" Elffled asked softly.

Elfhild was slightly surprised by her sister's sudden intrusion into her wretched thoughts of hunger. "No," she replied, looking to her sister, "I was really thinking about how delightful the food of the Easterlings must be, compared to this miserable bread."

"Oh." Elffled looked down. Somehow she felt disappointed, though her stomach was sorely tempted.

"I am sick of it," Elfhild continued. "I do not know if I shall ever eat bread again, if by some lucky chance we are given something else. We might as well be eating dirt! That is what this stuff tastes like to me now." She paused, thinking up a witty insult. "Nay, I speak ill of the dirt; I daresay it would be a delicacy compared to our rations."

"I do not like it either, but it is all that the orcs give us," Elffled sighed.

"It seems that the Easterlings are doling out food to all those who approach them." Elfhild waved in the direction of the small group of young women clustered around the soldiers. "I daresay that their fare would be much more palatable than anything the orcs give us."

"The Easterlings are evil and cruel men, and I do not want to be around them, no matter how hungry I am," Elffled retorted, offended by the very suggestion of approaching the enemy soldiers.

"Certainly they are not all foul," Elfhild gestured with her hand, looking from her sister to the cavalrymen. "See? No ill has befallen those maids."

"Yet," remarked Elffled. She thought the girls were either of little virtue, or perilously innocent.

"We can leave if the men say or try anything improper," Elfhild suggested. "By the laws of the Dark Land, they are forbidden to do anything to harm us."

"Laws mean nothing to these savages," Elffled hissed, remembering her unpleasant experience with Daungha. "If you are so weary of bread and dried meat, then go over and beg the Easterlings for their crumbs like a dog. As for me, I would rather eat tasteless bread than subject myself to those vile men."

"I do not beg for food from anyone," Elfhild replied stiffly, her voice filled with offended pride. Stinging from Elffled's stern rebuke, she looked down at her half-eaten bread, which seemed to her more like a piece of granite than it did edible food. She pecked at it with her fingers, moving the unappetizing clod slightly, and then, resigning herself, she tore off a small chunk, sending a spray of crumbs tumbling upon her skirt. With great reluctance, she brought the bread to her lips and began to chew. She could be tasting the fruits of the East right now, feasting upon figs and dates, and all manner of foods of which she could only imagine.

Elfhild considered asking some of her friends if they were interested in accompanying her. After all, there was usually safety in numbers, and she did not trust these Easterlings any more than Elffled. However, all of her friends were in other troops, and she saw little of them. She missed seeing her companions from the village, and wondered how they fared. What hurts had they endured, what tragedies had they witnessed? She had heard a rumor that her closest friend, Swithwyn, had managed to escape the clutches of the uruk raiders. Swithwyn had always been a fast runner, and Elfhild prayed that she had managed to flee to safety.

"Perhaps I spoke too harshly," Elffled spoke up after a short period of silence. "However, you must understand that these men are not like those of the Mark. They take what they want and despoil what they will. I do not want to do anything which would draw their attention to me. If I could make myself unseen to their eyes, I would."

"If we could veil ourselves in invisibility, then we would sneak away and complain never again of bread or of captivity," Elfhild remarked, trying to bring her sister some well-needed cheer. Perhaps she had been selfish before, thinking only of her own belly and neglecting to consider her sister's misgivings, but it was a sore trial for her hungry stomach to be denied.

Elffled smiled against her will. Then, giving into her amusement, she broke out into laughter, feeling her tensions ease somewhat. "Ah, but I daresay that only sorcerers and magicians could do such a trick, and we are not skilled in dwimmer-craft. So why speak of that which shall never happen?" She shrugged, slightly out of breath from laughing. "If an Easterling proves himself as being anything other than a lout and a boor, then mayhap I shall speak with him, but I do not know."

Elfhild nodded. "How I wish the Riders would come and save us and slay all these evil orcs and men!"

"Then we would surely die, for we would be slain if they thought we had any hope of being rescued," Elffled commented quite matter-of-factly.

"Ah, you are most cheerful this eve," Elfhild laughed sarcastically, teasing her sister. Despair was a part of life now, just as commonplace as eyes red and irritating from weeping; a truth which could be neither hidden nor denied.

"I wonder what happened in the South," Elfhild sighed. "We have heard nothing for almost four months."

A thoughtful look crossed Elffled's face. "Things went evil; that much is certain," she murmured, "or else ere long we would be seeing a great host of men thundering towards us to deliver Sunland and the Mark."

"Now that would be a most welcome sight!" remarked Elfhild. "I remember when the Riders of Rohan went by Grenefeld on their way to Gondor. How magnificent they looked upon their fine chargers; how our hearts soared with pride to see the warriors of our land all gathered together in a host most glorious and gallant! We dared the darkness to see their passing, watching with tearful eyes as they sped towards the East."

"Aye," nodded Elffled. "And we were so frightened when we heard that the King had been presented with the Red Arrow, for that meant war was of a surety."

Elfhild sighed. "I suppose that all were worsted in the South, utterly crushed by the might of the Enemy. Even if some managed to escape and cheat the black hand of death, we shall never see them again. Where we are going, there is only despair and the yoke of slavery, I suppose." Her mind seemed to take fiendish delight in recalling the faces of her kinsmen and friends, and they flashed before her, as fleeting ghosts haunting the realm of the living. She saw her father and her brother; her uncle's mirthful face as he laughed at some jest. There was the dark-headed Cuthwine, whose appearance was so different from that of his fellows; Swithulf the Miller's son, the brother of Swithwyn, the maid who escaped the dire fate of thralldom; and many other familiar faces, some more dear than others, but all sadly lamented.

And then there was Osric the Isensmith's son with his merry temperament and knightly manner. He had asked her for a favor which he could take with him to the fields of Gondor far away to bring him good fortune and fond memories. Even now, after so many months of fear, Elfhild could remember that day as if it had been told for many years in one of the beloved songs of the Eorlingas. She had pulled the blue woven ribbon from her braid and given it to him, and he had bent down and kissed her hand in gratitude and farewell. Then he had mounted his horse, a fine steed of dappled gray, and he had gone as quickly as he had come.

Elfhild’s heart ached. Her father would never clasp his strong, warm arms about her, his loving embrace filling her with peace and security. She would never look upon the tall and lanky form of her brother Eadfrid, nor walk beside him as they did their chores or roamed about the countryside. Now she felt guilty about all the many times she had quarreled with her little brother. Sometimes he had been quite vexing and deserved it, but other times she merely had been in a foul mood and resented him for just being alive. If only he stood before her! Then she would rush into his arms, shower him with affection and apologies, and swear never to fight with him again.

But Elfhild would never have that opportunity. She wondered if she had wasted her life in petty squabbles over trifling matters when she could have been kinder and more understanding of her kin. Her heart shattering, Elfhild began to weep.

Then to her mind, which was still reeling from the sudden resurgence of grief, came the seductive thoughts of figs, apricots, dates, and sweet tea. O, a curse be upon her disloyal stomach, which was making her a traitor against her will!