Growing at the top of the bank was an ancient oak, its enormous bole a marvel to be seen. A grand tree it was, and it would have looked quite majestic and kingly had a mantle of leaves adorned its naked branches. Now it resembled more the shape of a weeping old man, a veteran of a silent battle in the midst of a dreadful war, mourning for better days and a noble past.
Perched in a high branch, a young male song thrush had only one thought upon his mind - courtship. He had chosen a section of the river bank which he would defend against any rival male. He had begun singing before dawn, but he had been met with nothing but silence. Now he cocked his head from side to side, singing his grandest song, which he hoped would attract a female. Though his flute-like voice trilled the most beautiful melodies that he knew, no female answered him, and, frustrated, he despaired that there were no more of his own kind still alive.
Far below on the forest floor, Elffled knew naught of the thrush's plight, and if she had, she probably would not have been overly sympathetic to the romantic longings of a silly bird. Her mind was upon far more important matters, which happened to be her stomach and how miserably empty it felt. She had refrained from gobbling down the stale trail bread, instead eating it tiny crumb by crumb in a pathetic attempt to convince her stomach that there was more of it. Now that piece of bread was gone, and she grieved its loss. There were a few more pieces of bread left, but she knew that they had to make their food last for as long as they could. Her mood began to grow bitter and resentful once again, and though she had enjoyed hearing about Elfhild's dream, now she like cursing her sister for existing.
"What a satisfying meal," Elffled remarked sarcastically. "Why, if I ate another bite, I do believe I would pop!" With a dramatic groan, she rubbed her stomach. "Now that we have finished that sumptuous breakfast, we should be going to the river to drink of the elixir of life."
"What is an 'elixir?'" Elfhild asked, raising an eyebrow. "The Anduin is composed of ordinary water." She pretended she had not heard the blatant sarcasm in Elffled's voice.
Elffled shrugged. "An ‘elixir’ is a word that the Southrons use to refer to water and other liquids." She really did not know what the word meant either, but she used it anyway because she thought it sounded pretentious.
"That is certainly a fancy way of saying that you are thirsty," Elfhild replied dryly, rising to her feet. "Come on then, follow me and let us go down and get our 'elixirs.'"
Dispiritedly, the thrush surveyed the two girls as they passed down the slope under his branch. Though it was not in his soul to do so, he had almost given up hope. Despair was not the way of the wise creatures of nature, whose very endurance was a sign of hope. He breathed in deeply, puffing out his buff breast speckled with brown, and sang again his clear, flute-like melody. His head cocked, he listened for a reply, and then he saw her, her form silhouetted against the sky.
The bride had come! Now there was nothing else of importance in his world. Spring had been delayed, and there was much to plan. They would build a cup-shaped nest lined with clay in a hedge or bush. His mate would lay four or five bright glossy blue eggs with black spots. These would hatch in about a fortnight, and then there would be young ones to feed and protect. In spite of the grim spring, they could still raise one or two broods that year. He puffed out his chest and sang out a song of joy and triumph. Once again, winter's chill death had been defeated, and the world was bright with reborn promise.
In faraway Aman, the Blessed Realm, Yavanna, patroness of nature, thought of the small pair and gave them her richest blessings. Then she smiled, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that she smirked sweetly, for indeed that was a smirk upon her lovely green face. Victory was always to be relished, and the powers of benevolent creation had triumphed. Once again, the upstart Sauron had been put in his place. "Let him hear the whole chorus of creation, all the way to his dark and dismal Tower!" A pixyish grin curled her sweet lips as she purred, "And may he go deaf on hearing!"
But far away from gods and goddesses and mighty Powers - and not being greatly aware or caring of their existences - two young girls knelt by the waters of the Anduin. Scooping their hands into the water, they washed their faces and cooled their parched throats. Though the warm sunshine felt good upon their skin, their spirits were saddened by the desolation which lay all around them. Last year at this time, the riverbank would have been a verdant swath of green. Many of the birds would have already reared one hatching of young and be well on their way to starting another. But now, save for the solitary pair of song thrushes above them, the sisters were alone.
Perched in the leafless bower, the male thrush sensed an approaching danger. All wooing stopped. A loud, frantic "Tchuck-tchuck-tchuck!" alerted his bride, and quickly he flew with her away to safety. A delicate buff feather floated slowly to the ground, the only proof that the pair had ever been there. Idly Elffled picked it up and then let it slip from her fingers.
There, high upon the bank above the sisters, a horse snorted softly.
"Did you hear that?" Elffled whispered, her eyes wide and her hushed voice filled with alarm.
"The slavers!" Elfhild gasped. "They have found us!"
Silently sinking to their hands and knees, the sisters stealthily crept into a shallow trench formed by the oak's massive roots. There they lay, neither one daring to move, struggling to restrain their heavy panting breaths. Their wide, straining eyes watched with silent dread, but they could see nothing, for the great tree blocked their view. Elffled reached out for Elfhild's hand, and when their fingers interlaced together, she clung to it desperately.
The horse snorted loudly, unleashing a gusty spew of irritating dust from its nostrils. A deep, masculine voice murmured softly, "Ka'adara, lal-gu Ka'adara!" as he stroked his mount's arched neck. The horse tossed its head, sending the long, dangling yellow tassels on its head stall bobbing merrily. The girls heard the creak of leather as the rider shifted his position in the saddle.
Eager to find his prey, Esarhaddon, slave trader, purveyor of human flesh, had galloped his horse away, outdistancing his bodyguards and leaving them far behind in his dust. Halting his heavily lathered chestnut mare on top of the riverbank, he studied the slope below him. His eyes slowly followed the course of the Anduin northward and then southward. The mare was fidgety, flicking her ears forward and backward. Such behavior was unlike the steady mare, and Esarhaddon wondered at the cause of her agitation. Below them was nothing but more blighted vegetation.
"Nothing you need to be alarmed about, my beauty," he reassured her with soft, low words.
Gazing up into the branches, he marveled at the bizarre growth, so much like the tortured scrub and thorns that grew in the empty places of the desert. A fly landed on the right side of the mare's neck, and her skin rippled in irritation. She snorted when the pest, thirsty for a taste of her blood, sank its stinger into her delicate flesh. "Ka'adara," the deep voice soothed her as his hand smashed the insect into bloody oblivion. The mare was still nervous, flicking her ears back and forth, listening to some sound unheard by the slaver. She looked back at him and pawed her hoof restlessly, waiting for some signal from her master.
Perhaps he should dismount and investigate the riverbank. His eyes darted down, judging the steepness of the grade, and he determined that there would be nothing down there that was worth the climb. The sun glistened upon the face of the river, turning the waters into a gray glittering shield. "My Fox," Esarhaddon spoke in the language of the Haradrim, "I know your thirst is great, but you must wait a while longer." Perhaps farther up the river he could find a gentler slope that would not pose such an obstacle.
"My splendid Red Fox, do you not agree that the view here would be greatly improved if that damn tree in front of us were cut down?" Lulled to a semblance of placidity by his reassuring tone and the rhythmic stroking of his hand, the chestnut wuffled a reply. "Certainly you do!" He idly continued caressing her neck as he rested his gaze upon the river.
"We are seeing only a second in time, my beauty, but we should look into the future. There, behind us, across the plain, can you not imagine the tents of my people, endless and without number, spread across that lush valley? I can, my lovely! I can!" he cried out passionately. "Water in abundance, and how blessed is that word among the people of the South and East! Soon we will turn the enemy's lands into pasturage for our flocks and herds. We will plant vineyards of grapes and orchards of apples, peaches, pomegranates, pistachios, and almonds, all the fruits that delight both our eyes and our stomachs.
"Look with me into the future, my love." He sat up straighter in the saddle, his eyes those of a visionary. "In time, the camps will give way to farms and villages. Eventually the villages will give way to the domed cities of my people, filled with splashing fountains and pools and lofty towers that will touch the heavens. Where once the heathen cursed and raged, civilization will flourish! Our fingers shall drip with bounty. Our flocks and herds will multiply upon the land, and our women will be fruitful, bearing us sons without number."
Sighing in rapture, Esarhaddon affectionately patted the horse's neck. "Ka'adara, I see it all now unfolding as though a vision had passed before my eyes! The Haradrim shall establish great trade routes which will reach across the earth. As far away as the land of the Golden Lords, we will send caravans laden with slaves, ebony, ivory, gems, and skins of zebra, leopard, cheetah, and other exotic animals. There, we will trade those goods for spices, silks, and porcelain! We will grow strong, powerful, and rich, and the fame of the Haradrim shall be voiced upon every lip throughout all of Middle-earth. We will conquer by the sword, and then when we have won peace, we shall rule in sublime felicity and tranquility. And then someday, when our power has waxed even greater - I swear it upon the names of my ancestors! - my people will spread across the face of the earth and claim it all in the name of our kings and our gods!"
Hearing the passion in his voice, the mare turned large dark eyes back to look at him. Still thirsty and restless, she was unimpressed by his speech and shook her head, tossing her tasseled reins and jingling the chains on her bit.
"But, my observant mare, there is yet a problem." His eyelids drooping until they were half closed, Esarhaddon scowled over the mare's head and viewed the farther bank. "Little Fox, across this river beyond the loathly valley and the stony plain, dwells the Dark Wizard. He sits in His tower, drunk upon His own noxious fumes, croaking and peeping like some hideous, bloated frog, and claiming the credit for our victory. It is the men of Harad who have won this triumph - not the Impostor!"
The mare stamped her hoof impatiently. "Yes, my lovely mare, you do not need to remind me - the wretched men of Khand did have some part, but only a small one! You did not need to bring this trifling matter to my attention. But we do not need to think about the accursed Khandians now. There are affairs far closer to home that demand our attention - those blasted slaves who have outwitted my men and made them look like fools!"
Where were those wily slave wenches anyway? They were only weak, silly women, and yet they had eluded his men. They had stymied his plans, costing him both time and money. He clenched his fist in frustration. When he found them, he would make an example of them. What satisfaction he would find in teaching them the lessons of obedience! He could almost feel the whip in his hands. After their backs, buttocks, and thighs had been caressed with the sting of the lash, they would melt at his touch. He would make these proud blonde Northern women into willing slaves who begged to be allowed to press their lips against his feet!
Esarhaddon gave himself and his mare a few more minutes to rest. Then, gathering up the reins, he clicked softly to her and touched his heels to her sides. He rode a little further north along the riverbank, where he found a small stream. After he and his horse had quenched their thirst from the cool, clear waters, he refilled his water skin, remounted, and rode away toward the west.
He would find them! And when he did, he would bend their wills to his. He would train them himself to be the most exquisite pleasure slaves for whom any man would ever ask... that is, if he did not decide to keep them for himself! The thought of their naked bodies lying spread and open before him brought him to instant throbbing arousal. Perhaps he would find them that afternoon, and when he did...
NOTES "Ka'adara, lal-gu Ka'adara!" - Sumerian for "Red Fox, my sweet Red Fox!"
Painting "Riverbank" by Maxfield Parrish.