As soon as the women were certain that the guard was out of hearing range, many of them leapt to their feet and clustered about Waerburh, Aeffe and Frithuswith. Murmuring fretful reassurances, solicitous friends led them to a blanket spread before a cheerfully crackling fire. Both Aeffe and Frithuswith stumbled slightly as they walked, causing some to fear that they had been beaten.
"Will you tell us what happened... we can understand if you are unable to speak of the horrors..." Serious concern mingled with a perverse curiosity as the three women were bombarded with questions. Their eyes downcast, Waerburh and the two others were hesitant to begin speaking, for their minds were left bewildered by the barrage of desperate inquiries.
Her back towards the fire, Goldwyn stood and faced the women. "Tell us what these barbarian fiends did to you! We are your friends and can commiserate with you, for undeniably we will face the same as did you!" She looked to Aeffe and Frithuswith. "Why do you limp? Did they hurt you?"
"No," both women shook their heads.
"Did they--" Goldwyn began, but was interrupted.
"They did odious things to me!" Waerburh cried as she clenched her fist into a ball.
"What! What!" cried the small crowd of captives who had gathered around the three women. They were wild for news and gossip, for they wanted to learn all they could about the Southron slave trader, what sort of man he was and what they might expect should he summon one of their number to his tent. From listening to Esarhaddon uHuzziya’s speech earlier that day, the women deemed that the man followed his own set of rules when it came to dealing with captives, which made him far more threatening than the Khandian cavalrymen who guarded the women and children for part of the journey to Minas Tirith. Some women were also looking for more excuses to rebel against their captors, for they wished to bolster up their courage and alleviate any doubts concerning this foolhardy escape attempt. Many were hesitant and fearful of risking their lives in a mad flight and then embarking on a journey into a blighted wasteland. There was nothing like an outrage to give them courage and spur them on to action. It was the stiff drink of mead that a timid rider drank in the early morning hours ere charging off into battle.
"Did they touch you?" one of the listeners asked.
"I do not want to talk about it!” Waerburh lashed out angrily, surprising the other women, for she had always seemed a very calm, quiet sort of lady.
"Let us be calm," Goldwyn advised, though she felt far from serene herself. Shaken by the vehemence in the other woman's voice, she forced herself to remain composed.
Aeffe, the youngest, spoke up excitedly. A bubbly girl of fifteen summers, she was eager to be the center of attention. "I do not know what happened to Waerburh, but I can tell you my story!" she exclaimed, her words running together. "When the guards first took us to the pavilion, the slave trader and his men were not there, and we were met by one of his servants. This was a young man with skin as dark as the night. There was not a sign of a beard upon his face, and he had a waist and hips like a woman... I think he is what they call a ‘eunuch.’ He instructed us to bow low to the ground when the slaver arrived - as we were told to do yesterday. Then he directed us to keep our eyes downcast when the slaver and his men were present; not to smile or laugh, for that would be considered forward; not to speak unless we were addressed, for that would be considered most discourteous; and how to serve the men their favored draughts.”
"All that Aeffe has said is true," Frithuswith concurred when the excited girl paused to catch her breath. "The eunuch was polite, almost formal with us, and kept his distance. I could tell you he was a monster - which might make my story more exciting - but would be untrue." The young, unmarried daughter of a nobleman, Frithuswith possessed a graceful, dignified manner, and prided herself on her honesty and objectivity. Unlike many of the women, she had been educated by tutors and could read and write. She had always enjoyed reading histories which told of dealings with folk in faraway lands. Now here she was, telling about the unique customs of a strange and alien people. Aside from the alarming circumstances, she felt as though she were some great explorer who was regaling an eager crowd with fascinating tales of his journey.
"Then after the eunuch had told you these things, what happened?" a puzzled Goldwyn asked. Although Waerburh had hinted of terrible things occurring in the slaver’s tent, the accounts of the other two women seemed innocuous enough.
"The men were served their supper by their servants," Frithuswith explained. "Unlike our people, who sit at tables and chairs or benches to eat, the Southrons gather around low tables when they take their meals. They sit upon cushions on the floor or ground, often reclining as they eat. Their table manners are impeccable, far more genteel than the habits of some buffoons I have seen in our own land. When they had finished their meal, the Southrons dipped their fingers in bowls of perfumed water held by the servants and waited as their fingers were dried. These Haradrim take great pride in their cleanliness." She paused, observing the small audience's reaction, and then continued when she deemed they were showing her the respect she deserved.
"After the meal, servants carried in large trays of desserts. There were confections of the lightest consistencies, as delicate as the down from a thistle; others, thin and crisp and covered with the seeds of poppies and other seeds with which I am unfamiliar; I believe they called them sesame. Some were covered in sticky icing and filled with the most delicious flavors of fruits. There were wafers that melted in the mouth, and some sort of cracker that when, first tasted, was overwhelmingly salty, but, after being swallowed, left a taste of honey in the mouth. When the men had eaten all they wanted, the master slaver bade us to take what we wished while they drank a strange black frothy liquid in tiny cups. The draught - which they said was called 'coffee' - was much too potent for any of us, so they allowed us to drink tea or water instead." Frithuswith surveyed the throng of women, her haughty eyes narrowed somewhat, challenging anyone to gainsay her.
"Were you not afraid of being poisoned?" a young maid, who was enraptured by her story, spoke up hesitantly.
An indignant snort from Waerburh drew all eyes to where she sat. "No, my dear child!" she interjected, her face twisted in a wry smile. "Why would they wish to do that? Our bodies are worth far more to them alive than they are dead." The woman looked towards the fire. "Go on, Frithuswith. I did not mean to interrupt."
A hush fell over the crowd as Frithuswith resumed her tale. "A strange thing happened after that. At the conclusion of the meal, the men rose to their feet, and the servants rearranged the cushions around a table at one side of the tent. The master slaver commanded all of us to take a seat on the pillows beside each one of the men. Then they brought in these… strange devices… vessels of some sort, from which coiled out long cords." She wondered how she would ever explain this to these superstitious, ignorant peasant women. She did not even understand it herself.
"What were these things?" an incredulous cry rose up.
"They reminded me of dragons,” Aeffe explained exuberantly. "Most unusual dragons, not those you hear about in stories. You could see right through them to their bowels, and there was nothing there, save for churning liquid that bubbled and hissed like the brew in a cauldron. The beasts were long and thin and smoke puffed out through their nostrils, which were located on top of their heads. Each one had a long, twisting tail, like a serpent." She stretched her hands wide, illustrating the length of the strange appendages. "The men grasped the beasts by the tails as the monsters twisted and writhed and spat smoke into the men's mouths." Aeffe heard several of the women muttering in low tones, but she ignored the old busybodies.
"I was frightened of the little yet ferocious looking wyrm, for its smoke made me cough and choke. The man beside me, who is named Inbir, offered me a goblet of wine to soothe my throat. He encouraged me that the strange object would bring me no harm, and that I should inhale the smoke from the creature’s tail, for it offered many benefits to the health. I did as Inbir instructed, and when I inhaled, the smoke escaped from my mouth in a great cloud."
The women looked to each other in amazement, unable to comprehend anything of what Aeffe had spoken. "Is the girl drunk?" a formidable buxom matron whispered to the woman beside her, who shook her head and whispered back, "That I do not know, but something has certainly affected her reason!"
If Aeffe heard them, she gave no indication, for she was reliving the evening in the slaver's tent as though it were happening at that moment. Shaking her head to clear it, her sweet, young voice continued. "A strange feeling came over me after that, one of bliss and languor." Closing her eyes, she sighed at the memory. "All fear of the dragon and the slavers left me, and I enjoyed being in their presence and listening to their tales. I enjoyed the company of Inbir most of all. He is so handsome..." She smiled in the darkness, dreaming of the young Southron who was in Esarhaddon's employ. “But then the smoke overcame me and I fell asleep, and remember no more.”
"Scandalous, brazen hussy!" many of the women condemned her in their minds, but not to her face. "The little wanton, she has become a common whore, allowing them to corrupt her virtue! What would her kin think of their pampered darling now?" The captives could scarcely account that they had heard her words correctly, and all began wondering whether Aeffe had fallen under the influence and control of a great sorcerer who had charmed her out of her wits, or if she had merely been seduced.
"Aeffe!" Goldwyn exclaimed as she bent down and took the girl's hands in her own. "Please, dear, I think you should rest now! You are quite distraught!"
"Yes, perhaps that would be best." Aeffe looked up into the face of Goldwyn and giggled softly. "I would like to think more about the dragon... and Inbir."
"Here, child, let me help you," Leofgifu volunteered, her heart aching with sympathy for the poor girl. She knew that many of the women would think ill of Aeffe's infatuation with a man of Harad. How could the girl have been so foolish as to admit such a thing before all the other women?
"Poor, poor Aeffe!" Goldwyn lamented as she watched the motherly Leofgifu lead the girl away.
Frithuswith huffed, "I scarcely see why all of you are so bewildered, for Aeffe spoke truly. I, too, breathed in the smoke from the device which smoked and fumed like a dragon. I felt no fear of it, for no harm had come to Aeffe by handling the creature. I felt the most wondrous sensations of peace after that, Like Aeffee, I, too, soon succumbed to the spell of sleep." Her voice trailed off as she stared wistfully into space.
Goldwyn was both furious and disgusted. "Frithuswith, there was no dragon! Can you not see what these men have done to you?" she exclaimed angrily. "The two of you were bewitched by spells and potions! They are all sorcerers and skilled in administering the most baleful poisons! Please, Frithuswith, you must rest, for you are surely babbling nonsense!"
"Back in the Mark, none of you would have dared talk to me like this, for I am the daughter of a lord!" With a disdainful "hmph," Frithuswith reproachfully looked down her long, slender nose at the other woman. "I am not babbling nonsense, but I will take my leave of you now and catch such sleep as I can before dawn. Good night to you all." Rising to her feet, she stalked away.
"Waerburh!" Goldwyn clenched her hands in anger and frustration. "What madness is this? What has befallen them? Have these despicable Southrons bemused them with spells or potions? Everyone knows that they all are sorcerers, evil men of the cruelest and basest of intents!"
"Goldwyn, take no thought that this thing Aeffe and Frithuswith have described is a dragon; it is some device of the cruelest and most devilish of cunning," Waerburh announced gravely as she looked around at the circle of women. "The chamber - which the Southrons call its 'bowels' - dispenses some rank poison that makes the mind murky and lays a cloud of darkness over the powers of reasoning. That is my only explanation for the power of this fiendish apparatus."
Looking at one another, the women slowly nodded their heads up and down, murmuring their agreement. More than one of them concluded, "Poor Aeffe and Frithuswith! They have allowed themselves to be deceived!"
"I almost wish now that I had been intoxicated by the vapors, for perhaps this would have blunted the pain," Waerburh stated quietly. "I can claim neither bewitchment nor drunkenness as my excuse, but rather fear." Her bluish gray eyes clouded over with shame and anger.
The other women murmured in sympathy, and wondered what dreadful tale Waerburh had to tell.
Her eyes glittering with suppressed fury, Waerburh spoke in a cold monotone. "While Aeffe and Frithuswith lay in a drugged slumber, the master slaver commanded me to sit by his side. As soon as I had sat down, he began to take liberties with me. The accursed smoke billowed all around us, perfumed with the scent of flowers.” Tears sprang to her eyes, and she tried to push them aside with her knuckles. Looking away briefly, she was silent, trying to find the strength to continue. "I pled with him to spare me this humiliation, but he only laughed and told me that if I did not obey him, that he would beat me. The slaver used me in debauched ways which are quite opposite to the natural way between a man and a woman! He called this manner of fornication the 'Merchant's Way,' for a man could work his will with a woman with little likelihood that his seed would be planted within her belly. He explained to me, though, that virgins are most usually the victims of such loathsome debasement, for if a maiden is deflowered, she will not be worth as much at the slave market." An anguished wail tore from Waerburh’s lips. "Never have I hated anyone so much as I hate this man! Oh, I am so ashamed!" She bent over, clutching her head in her hands, as sobs wracked her body.
Her mind reeling from Waerburh’s account of violence and rape, Goldwyn pressed a hand to her pounding heart. "None are safe from this horrible man’s mad fancies!" she spat out the words through clenched teeth. "We must escape these barbarians!"
"Aye, and quickly!" Waerburh nodded tearfully. "For if we do not, all of us will be forced to suffer this humiliation over and over!"