The Circles - Book Two - Chapter 3 - An Inspection

The Circles - Book Two - Journey of Sorrow
Chapter Three
An Inspection
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

Standing to the side, Sergeant Glokal oversaw the guards as they paraded the column of women and children before Shakh Awidan. The wily old slave trader looked the lot over carefully, his shifty eyes roving over their bodies, weighing their assets against their flaws. When he had established a rough estimate of value, he filed their approximate market prices in his brain. Occasionally, he commented to Captain Zgurpu, who usually made an obscene remark in Black Speech. Now and then, Awidan had the guards bring a slave before him for closer scrutiny. Catching sight of Elfhild and Elffled, the Shakh's eyes narrowed speculatively. He was obviously pleased and impressed with what he had seen, and all traces of frailty left him. His animated voice exclaimed, "Blonde twins with skin like flawless alabaster! Seldom are such pale, golden beauties seen in my land! Sergeant Glokal, halt the line! Bring the twin wenches over to me. I would examine them more closely."

"Aye, shakh." Sergeant Glokal motioned to one of the orc guards. "You heard him, private! Get those little beauties out of the column and over to his Excellency!" Soon the frightened girls were pushed forward by the guard. The Sergeant's rough voice barked out a stream of short, quick commands. "Smile for the shakh! Show him what fetching slave girls you are! Look pretty now!" No matter how much the orc cajoled, the sisters' expressions remained fearful. Almost daunted by the sisters' apprehensive faces, Sergeant Glokal muttered a low curse in Black Speech. This pair was fighting him, but he was determined to display them to their best and show off their ample endowments. The better they looked to the Shakh, the higher the price that he and his comrades would receive for them.

"By my grandsire's hairy balls, do you call those trembling lips appealing?" Sergeant Glokal bellowed. "Curl up the corners of your mouths! Good! Good! You are trying at least! That's much better!" When the sisters forced wooden smiles, the Sergeant grinned to Shakh Awidan and Captain Zgurpu. Encouraged, he decided to push them further. "Now wiggle your arses! Swing 'em back and forth! Get some life in your movements! I'd frigging think you were dead! Come on now! Thrust up your proud knobs!" When neither obeyed the Sergeant's latter commands, he barked out to the guard, "Private, get those lazy wenches moving!"

The guard nodded and moved closer to Elfhild. "Want to smell my crotch?" he whispered as he pinched her rump. Elfhild gasped in pain. She was about to whirl around and spit in his face, but the orc pushed both her and her sister forward before she had a chance. With a cruel laugh, he stepped back to guard the sisters and prevent them from bolting.

Roughly thrust in front of the slaver, the twins felt disoriented and glanced around in confusion. Who was this man and why were they being presented to him? Did he wish to purchase them? Was he to be their master? They did not even know his name! Shifting nervously, they averted their eyes under the intensity of the Shakh's gaze and stared down at the ground.

Rising from his chair, Shakh Awidan stepped towards Elffled and looked her up and down. "Open your mouth, wench," he told her in a soothing tone that was as slick and greasy as oil. "Let me see your pearls."

"W-w-what?" she stammered. Utterly bewildered, her brain froze, and she could not think. She shot a sideways glance at Elfhild, who looked back at her with eyes wide with worry.

"You do not understand Westron?" he asked, scowling at her.

"Your Excellency," Captain Zgurpu interjected, "many times these peasants are too backward to understand any language other than their own." If he had his way, Zgurpu would test her knowledge of Westron with some salty words that would make her blush with shame. This was neither the time nor the place for that, however. The shakh would be far too offended with him if he did.

"I – I –" Elffled tried to force the words from her lips, but her teeth were chattering too much, and her tongue did not want to obey.

"Glokal!" Shakh Awidan's voice grew more excited, rising in pitch as though his scrawny neck were being squeezed. "Hold her!" Clearing his throat, he tried to control his enthusiasm. If the uruks knew how pleased he was with the twins, they would demand a higher price.

"Aye, shakh," Glokal responded as he lumbered forward. When he reached Elffled, she looked at him in stunned disbelief and babbled like a frightened child, "I will be good! I will be good! Please do not hurt me!" He laughed as he wrapped a thick arm around her middle, the other hand grabbing her hair and yanking her head back. The pain was so intense that she was sure he would pull her hair out by the roots.

"I am going to die," Elffled thought wildly. She stared at Awidan, her terror rising as she felt the heat of his wine-soaked breath catch her full in the face. Her heart hammering in her chest, she wanted to move, to run away, to escape, but she was frozen in terror. The orc squeezed her waist tighter, relishing the scent of the fear which he smelled in her sweat. Whimpering, she closed her eyes and tried to pretend that this was not really happening.

"Foolish girl, why do you quake in fear? I will not harm you," Awidan murmured softly as he suddenly grasped her jaw and squeezed her mouth open with his thumb and fingers. Trapped in the orc's grasp with her hair twisted painfully around his thick hand, Elffled could barely move. Tears sprang to her eyes as she realized that all she could do was acquiesce to their demands. Perhaps if she remained very still, they would not hurt her. Sweat beaded up on her forehead and trickled between her breasts. She dug her knuckles into her back and clenched and unclenched her fingers fretfully.

Squinting, Awidan leaned over and peered into her mouth as he murmured soft words in an unknown language. She wondered what he had said, but then he returned to Westron. "Stop twitching! I only want to look at your teeth." Elffled shut her eyes tightly and opened her mouth wide, drawing her tongue back as far as it could go. Maybe this would be over soon, and they would let her return to her aunt and cousin.

"Watch her," Captain Zgurpu interrupted. "These Rohirric wenches can be unpredictable."

"No, Captain Zgurpu, I think this one is learning to be a very well-mannered slave girl. Are you not, my sweet flower?" he asked as he looked back into the girl's mouth. Elffled mumbled plaintively and gazed into Awidan's dark eyes, which seemed to have softened. He ran his right forefinger over her lower teeth and then rubbed her upper set. "Given the condition of your teeth, I would wager that you are around seventeen or eighteen years of age." Completing his inspection, he smiled at her and gently caressed her cheeks with the pads of his soft, thin fingers. Elffled hoped that he would not try to kiss her. With a shudder, she remembered that horrible Sergeant Daungha. Surely the kiss of an aging man would not be so forceful as the probing tongue of the filthy Sergeant! "There, there, little trinket, everything is fine," Awidan assured her. "You can go back to the other captives." He looked at Glokal. "Sergeant, you may release her."

Elffled could not believe that the inspection was actually over! There must be more to it than this! The detestable Glokal had been loathsome and crude as he always was, but save for pulling her hair, he had not really hurt her. Even though the enemy noble had insisted upon looking at her teeth, he had not been unkind. Relief washed over her in surging waves, and she felt immensely grateful.

"Thank you, sir, thank you!" she squeaked out, and then felt stupid for having said that. Should she have said more... or would it have been better if she had said nothing at all? She was not sure. She was just a peasant and did not know how to behave before the wealthy and powerful. Only on the few occasions when some great lord of Rohan had passed through her village had she been so vividly aware of her insignificance and humble rank. Now as a slave, she was even more lowly than she had been as the daughter of a simple peasant.

Shakh Awidan patted her cheek and beamed at her. "Go in peace, little lily." Blushing in embarrassment, she bowed hastily. Then with a sideways glance to her sister, Elffled retreated back to the anonymity of the line, where she would be just another faceless prisoner.

"Do you want to look at the biters of the other one, Excellency?" Sergeant Glokal asked in a weary monotone, impatient to be paid and done with the business. Maybe the whining old prick had been so pleased with the other girl that he would not dicker too much over her price, but you never knew when it came to these Southern shakhs. The sleepy-eyed bastards could talk a good one all day, but when it came to paying up, they would try to cheat the poor uruks every time.

"Yes," Shakh Awidan replied, tugging the end of his beard thoughtfully. For a brief moment, he had a dreamy expression on his face, but he quickly banished his thoughts, returning to his usual businesslike mien. Beside him, Captain Zgurpu had grown more restless. To relieve the monotony, he stamped his feet and scratched his belly as he prepared to wait for the shakh to inspect the other wench.

The sergeant pushed Elfhild forward. "No pussy-footing now. You be good to me and I'll be good to you. Open your mouth for the Shakh, wench, or I might make this unpleasant for you!"

"You hairy brute, you have never been good to anyone in your life, and I do not think you will start now!" Elfhild twisted her head around to glare at Sergeant Glokal and then turned her hate-filled eyes to both Shakh Awidan and Captain Zgurpu. "You have no reason to look into my mouth! There is nothing wrong with my teeth!" She would never give into them as her timid sister had! The sight of Elffled cringing and cowering like a terrified rabbit had filled her with rage. If only she had been untied and had a knife, she would have... she would have... What? Felt the bones in her wrist crack like twigs when the uruks wrestled the dagger out of her hand? She could hear the cruel sting of their mocking laughter as they forced her to the ground. What was the use of struggling? She was just one captive among many and there was no one here who could or would help her. She must not allow herself to think this way, or she would become just like Elffled! She would give them some fight! That would show them!

"A little spitfire, eh?" Captain Zgurpu shared a knowing look with Awidan. "With a temper like that, she'll be hot in bed, I'll wager, squalling and scratching like a she-cat in heat! She needs a strong man to swive her good, tame her down and make her all sweet and docile!" He laughed to himself as he imagined the carping old man trying to ride her. If Awidan could manage to get a stiff enough one on, he would probably have to order those two Gondorian pretty boys to hold her down while he tried to shove his ancient, shriveled prick inside her. Maybe they'd even have to help him put it in! By Grond, the Old Dark One's mighty maiden-crusher! That was funny!

"She ain't so sweet and docile now!" Glokal hissed after Elfhild kicked him in the shin. Angrily, he pushed the points of his talons against her skinny ribs until she cried out in pain.

"You are hurting me!" Elfhild exclaimed as she tried to thrust herself away from the uruk. His grip around her was like a mighty chain of iron! Frustrated, she clenched her bound fists and found the ropes just as unforgiving as ever. There was no use fighting them. She heaved a resentful sigh of protest and glared through the disheveled hair which hung over her face. "Please, if you stop trying to break my ribs, I will hold still!"

"Not so feisty now, are you, little snaga?" Laughing, he clamped his fangs around her earlobe, letting her feel the sharp edges against her tender flesh. Waiting for the pain to strike her, she closed her eyes and held her breath. Slowly the jagged fangs pulled away from her ear, leaving her skin dripping with foul saliva. A shudder of revolt rocked her body from head to toe, and she longed to wash her flesh free of the uruk's abominable spittle. Oh, how she hoped that the lice which had infested her hair on the march would hop off and plague him!

"Sergeant Glokal, that will be enough," the shakh exclaimed irritably. "There is no need to crush this tender bud." Sighed, he closed his eyes and touched his hand to his temple. "You are frightening her and causing my bowels to cramp! You know my health is not good, and discord causes the contents of my stomach to churn and my intestines to constrict." His expression was one of intense pain as he put a quavering hand on his abdomen and bent forward slightly, muttering and groaning.

"Aye, shakh, anything you say, but she is a fiery one!" Grunting, the Sergeant loosened his hold on Elfhild's middle. Damn him! Glokal thought. It would be just like the old fox to claim that the merchandise had been damaged and insist that they receive less for the consignment.

"Now just hold still," Awidan told her, his voice as calmly soothing as a farmer trying to calm a jittery mare. Elfhild opened her mouth wide, submitting to this degrading inspection. She felt like a filly on sale at a fair. A pensive expression on his face, the slave trader ran his forefinger over the edges of her teeth, top and bottom. "Unfortunately, several of your teeth are quite sharp. If you were my slave, I would have them filed, for I do not tolerate such imperfections in any of my women."

Elfhild paled and looked up at him anxiously. File their teeth? She had never heard of such a thing, and the very idea frightened her. Images of the rough metal files which the blacksmith had used to sharpen saws or smooth the hooves of her father's horse flashed through her mind. How could such harsh instruments be used on anyone's mouth?

"What, you afraid she might chomp down in the midst of sporting?" Captain Zgurpu remarked with a chuckle. "We orcs do not mind good, sharp bites from our females. In fact, we find their nips more than stimulating." When he saw the brief flash of anger in the Shakh's eyes, he knew that he had overstepped his bounds, but it was too late to correct his mistake.

Offended at the uruk's casual attitude and assumed familiarity with one so far above him in rank and importance, Shakh Awidan furrowed his eyebrows in a deep scowl. "People of my land prefer not to discuss such matters in public, Sergeant." Such filth as the orcs were not fit to touch the toe of his shoe. Though even a whiff of the brutes made his weak stomach knot up in agony, Awidan knew that he must be patient and bear this insufferable situation. Business always had to come above personal feelings.

"Excellency, my humble pardon." Captain Zgurpu bowed his head as though ashamed. He tried not to laugh as he looked repentant. "The old bastard!" he thought to himself. "When he is together with his friends and surrounded by his dancing girls – or boys, if he has a taste for the same gender – I'll wager their tongues are not so pure! They probably say more obscenities than my kind do! All he wants is to make Glokal and me feel less than dung! We only put up with their arrogance for the coin we can make off them!"

"Now, Captain, let us get back to business." He turned from the Captain and smiled benevolently at Elfhild as he tickled her under her chin. "Run along now, little flower. I have learned all I need to know." Giving her bottom a quick squeeze, Sergeant Glokal released her from his powerful grasp.

It was over! Not looking back or offering any thanks, Elfhild turned and ran towards the other captives. The shakh's eyes followed her until she had disappeared amongst the prisoners.

With a regretful sigh, Awidan sank down into his chair. He motioned for the two Gondorian eunuchs to bring chairs for the uruks and goblets of wine for all three of them. Soon Captain Zgurpu and Sergeant Glokal were seated on either side of him, goblets in their hands. Wordlessly, the three watched as the last slaves in the line passed by them. While Awidan was pleased with the merchandise, he was determined to pay as little for the slaves as he possibly could. What folly it would be to throw money away to these animals! He might as well toss good coin to pigs!

The shakh put on his most doleful face and shook his head sadly. "Captain Zgurpu and Sergeant Glokal, I want to give you a fair price for these slaves, but unfortunately many of them are woefully flawed."

"What!" Captain Zgurpu's mouth dropped open and his brutish face registered disbelief. "Excellency, perhaps I am not hearing you correctly..."

Coughing, Shakh Awidan fumbled with the embossed leather pouch at his belt. Finally he drew out a fine linen handkerchief, embroidered with his monogram at the corner, and held it up to his mouth. Taking in a deep wheezing breath, he held his throat and coughed into the handkerchief. Dubiously the two uruks watched him as he returned the cloth to his pouch and rested a trembling hand to his lap. Finally he spoke. "Gentlemen, you have heard me correctly. While many of the women and children are satisfactory, I fear there are far more thorns and weeds than flowers. Very few of them fit the standards of beauty that are held in the South and East. Their hands and feet are far too large! Their ankles resemble the trunks of trees! And there are others whose skins are wrinkled and leathery from being in the sun for too many years. Then there are the matrons who are old and homely. No, no, this lot has far too many flaws."

"This is impossible!" Captain Zgurpu bellowed as he gripped the arm of his chair. "This is the best lot of slaves which I have seen in years!" Not a word of what the bloody cheat had said was true! It was all the two uruks could do to hold their tempers and keep from reverting to their bestial natures.

"My good lads, I see with the trained eye of a slave trader," Awidan interrupted as he glanced up the road. The guards had turned the line of slaves around and were parading them back towards the shakh's tent. "I am sorely disappointed with these slaves." He shook his head sadly as his gaze fell on Breguswith. The madwoman was jabbering to herself as she cradled a wad of cloth in her arms. Occasionally she kissed the bundle and smiled and cooed, as though there were something alive inside. "What is wrong with that woman?" the shakh demanded. "I noticed her earlier."

"Of course, he would see the mad one," Zgurpu thought, cursing the woman. "Excellency, her brat just died not too long ago, and she is not over it yet," he grumbled. "Give her some time. She'll be good as new." The Captain tried his best to dismiss Breguswith's obvious madness, but he could tell the shakh did not believe him. All it would take would be a few insane prisoners like Breguswith to drive the price down.

"Captain Zgurpu, while the woman might have been sound when she was captured, she certainly is not now. Such merchandise is virtually worthless." Awidan took a sip of wine and let out a sighing breath. "My employers' business establishment has many expenses besides the initial price when we buy slaves captured by the army. Every year, we must pay a heavy tax to the Lord of Mordor for the privilege of selling and buying slaves within His domain. We do not begrudge Him, however; we are very grateful for this opportunity. Then we have to feed and clothe the slaves and tend to any injuries before we sell them. When the slaves are sold on the block or in a private transaction anywhere in the Lord's fiefdoms, we must pay a certain percentage of the selling price to the highly esteemed Lord of Mordor. After all this, it is difficult to make a profit." The shakh hated to pay out one copper coin in expenses, but he would not say that to the uruks, lest they report him. "Then there are the records..."

"Shakh, we want our pay and we want it now!" Captain Zgurpu demanded, interrupting the shakh's lengthy dissertation as both he and Glokal stood up. He had grown weary of the old man's constant hedging. "No more dickering, no more bargaining. We have our orders and we know you have an agreement with the Higher Ups to pay us a fair market price for all that we bring you. Would you pinch pennies and cheat us poor lads?"

"I am a fair man, and I will do the best I can for you. Since all of you brave lads have sacrificed so much, serving heroically courageously on so many fields for the honor and glory of Mordor, I will be generous with you and give you more than these slaves are worth." Exhaling heavily, Shakh Awidan mopped his forehead with his handkerchief and handed his now empty goblet to one of the Gondorian slaves. "Bring me my coin chest!" he ordered the two young men, and soon they had returned with a large, ornately decorated casket carried between them. After they had placed the chest on the ground before the shakh, they lifted the lid, bowed, and stepped back.

"I deeply regret that this is all that I can give you." Shakh Awidan pulled out two small bags of silver coins from the chest and handed them to Captain Zgurpu.

"Is this all?" Captain Zgurpu snarled, testing the weight of the bags in his hands. Glokal growled deep in his throat, his fingertips skimming over the hilt of his sword.

"Ah, my good stout-hearted lads, good fellows both of you, perhaps I can give you a bit more. You drive a hard bargain!" Awidan sighed plaintively as he withdrew another bag of coins from the box. "Now that is my final offer! Take it or leave it!"

"The Shakh is most generous." Captain Zgurpu grinned as he took the bag and put it in his pack. He was convinced that he had intimidated the old cheat into giving them more money.

Though he tried to hide it from the uruks, the slave dealer was quite pleased with himself, for the orcs had settled for far less than he would have paid. He laughed at them in his thoughts. "If they had wished to bargain for the next hour or so, they might have worn even me down, and I would have given them much more than I did! I am most happy. All the women and maids will bring a good price when they are sold. Most will have exquisite appeal to any lord who is in the market for a bed mate. As for the mad one – perhaps she has wit enough to labor in the fields, or in the mines picking stones from coal; one needs little mind for such tasks. Of course, I underrated the slaves' value most drastically. The uruks are ignorant and know little. If only they bring me more slaves as comely as this lot, I will be satisfied!"

Shakh Awidan coughed again and cleared his throat. "Now, Captain Zgurpu and Sergeant Glokal, my men will take these slaves off your hands. My energy is drained, and I must go to my bed. You know my constitution is not stout! It is the climate, I say. Most foul! And the rain has brought swelling and pain to my joints. Foul weather, foul weather, no good for any! But what am I to do? A merchant must do as best he can. I must rest and have these two excuses for slaves prepare hot cloths and place hot poultices upon my poor bones. Only then can I have some relief!"

"Aye, Shakh," nodded the Captain, glad that at last the deal had been concluded. "Now we must be about making camp for the night now, for we will be marching out before dawn. Farewell until we meet again." After saluting, Captain Zgurpu and the Sergeant turned to lead their column away.

When the uruks had gone, a party of large, swarthy men came to herd the captives to their shelter for the night. "Move along, move along!" the men urged. "If you quicken your pace, maybe there shall be treats for you tonight."

Ahead in the distance, the captives could see the outlines of pens, which were nothing more than rough wooden boards firmly nailed to stout posts driven into the ground. Swaggering guards in mail and boiled leather, their metal shod feet grinding on the dusty ground, patrolled among the pens. They occasionally looked between the slatted boards to jeer and gawk at the prisoners inside. After the great battles in the South, prisoners had been taken here and then housed in these pens before they were sent East to labor and die in the mines of the Mountains of Shadow and Ash. Those fortunate ones, and they were few, had been employed on the great slave farms in Nurn, where some survivors even yet were moved in great gangs to tend the gardens of Sauron. Now the slave pens waited for a different crop of captives: men, women and children captured in the war in the North.

Untied at last, the captives were given their evening meal. After so many days of dry orc bread and stringy meat, they were amazed as they were handed fresh bread and bowls of soup. The treats, too, were there as promised: candied fruits of strange and unknown kinds. After the captives had finished eating, the guards herded them inside the constraining slats of the pens.

So began the first and only night that most of the captives would ever spend in Minas Tirith, and the iron grip of slavery slowly continued to tighten its fingers over their bodies and souls.