One ferocious growl after another rolling from his throat, Haun bounded to the front door and thrust his massive paws high upon the center brace. Tarlanc snatched up the hammer and was quickly beside the giant mastiff. "Shhh, noble heart," he whispered, bending down to lay his hand on the dog's head. "We can both be certain that our visitor is a villain who means us no good. Still we do not have to let him know our opinions."
The dog's angry barking quieted to low snarls. Dropping down to all fours, Haun gazed up questioningly at his master. They listened as the sound of hoof beats drew closer to the cottage, becoming louder and louder until the horsemen halted in front of the house. His hackles bristling, his short ears alert, Haun kept up a low, rumbling growl as he scented the horses and their riders. The master and his dog listened to the horses snort and blow, the animals' bit chains jangling as they shook their heads. Saddle leather creaked as the riders dismounted.
A few moments later, there was a firm knock at the door, the sound resonating in the stillness of the night like the heavy thud of a hammer driving a nail into a wooden coffin. Unmoving, Tarlanc stood by the door, his breath coming in measured exhalations as he considered who – or what - might be lurking outside. Old legend stated that one always had to wait for a nighttime visitor to knock thrice, for a single, solitary knock upon your door in the night was a fell omen. Cold beads of sweat popped up on Tarlanc's forehead. In these dark days, one never knew what sort of fiend might turn up on your doorstep at such an unholy hour, a bloodthirsty robber who would beat you to a pulp and steal everything you owned, or an undead wight who had crawled out of some darkened tomb to feast on the flesh of the living.
Another knock, short and quick, fell upon his door. Still Tarlanc did not answer. The thick, suffocating silence was broken only by the deep growls of Haun. Swallowing a gulp of air down his parched throat, Tarlanc reached down to the mastiff. He put a shaky hand upon Haun's collar, more for the sense of comfort that it gave him than with any idea to restrain the dog. There was another pause, and then came the third knock. Tarlanc's legs shook and he sagged against the door post. "We are safe, sir! Safe anyway in the sense that our caller is not some fell shade or accursed wight," he whispered to Haun as he patted his head. "But the living can be just as dangerous as preternatural beings, often times even more."
"Open this door!" a stern voice called from outside. "Open this door!"
"Who is there?" Tarlanc called sharply. "What do you want at this time of night?"
"Agents of the House of Huzziya, here upon official business," the man replied gruffly. "Now let us in!"
"I have never heard of the House of Huzziya," Tarlanc lied, for he had seen the name of Esarhaddon uHuzziya on the girls' collars. Desperately trying to think of some plan which would save the sisters, he stalled for time. "If you be some of those vagabonds who parade around from village to village selling worthless gewgaws and trinkets, you can leave right now, for I will have no truck with you!"
"Sir," the man exclaimed irritably, "we are men of good reputation, authorized by the lawful rulers of this land to conduct commerce in this district! If you would want to see our official papers, we are prepared to offer them to you for your inspection."
"I am not in the habit of letting strangers in my house late at night. For all I know, you could be lying robbers who would cut my throat for a pittance. Until I have some reason to believe you are men of good conscience, we shall conduct whatever business we have through this door." As each moment passed, Tarlanc became more and more uncertain about his ability to forestall his unwelcome visitors.
"Sir, we are seeking Tarlanc, the Miller of Ivrenlaer, who is said to be the only person still residing in this village. Can you tell us where to find him?"
"I am he," Tarlanc admitted, making his voice sound as cold as he could.
"Then you are the man for whom we seek! We have been told that you are a man who knows which way the winds blow." The man had a sarcastic, supercilious tone to his voice that infuriated Tarlanc. "If you can provide us with certain information, I promise that we can make it well worth your while." The man spoke with a slight accent that was unmistakably Haradric. Tarlanc had heard enough of those rascals of late to be able to identify one when he heard him. "If you would just open this door," the Southron went on, "we might converse face to face and discuss an important matter with you."
"You are close enough now, sir. In spite of your high sounding words, you might be meaning to do me ill." Nearby a horse whinnied shrilly, causing Tarlanc to jump and sending Haun into another fit of barking. "Shhh," Tarlanc whispered as he nervously raked his fingers through his long gray hair.
"Your accusations are ridiculous, sir," the Southron replied adamantly. "We are honest men of good repute. There are no brigands among us. Simply open the door and let us in. It will save us all much trouble."
"You are fine where you are, sir. We can talk perfectly well from here. Now you say you have business with me. If you are wanting me to grind your grain, I cannot do that, for it is late. Come back tomorrow, and leave me in peace tonight. Can a poor old man not get his rest without being awakened at all hours of the night by strangers?" Tarlanc's voice was pleading.
"We seek information," the man replied stiffly.
"What sort of information are you seeking?" Tarlanc answered him circumspectly, having concluded that for his own safety he had best be cordial to the men. He would give them some innocuous bit of information which would appease them and lead them away from the two lasses who hid in his house.
"Old man, at last you are showing a better attitude and asking the right sort of questions!" the Southron announced patronizingly. "We have come looking for runaway slaves who have escaped from our master, Esarhaddon uHuzziya of the slave house of the same name. He has a commission from the Lord of Mordor that allows him to deal in slaves in these newly claimed territories."
"Slavers, damn it, Haun! Now they admit it!" Tarlanc hissed and clenched the hammer tighter. Haun barred his teeth, his throat vibrating with deep growls in agreement with his master's tone. "They are looking for the lasses, but we will not let them take the poor girls! Haun, what should we do?" The mastiff looked up at him quizzically and wagged his tail. "Stalwart lad! You would drive the men away, for you are a brave young fellow and always take the most direct course. I am old, and find it easier to take the more circuitous route."
"There are no slaves in this house," Tarlanc proclaimed loudly, trying to hide the shakiness in his voice. "Be gone with you, sir, and let an honest man sleep!"
"You have avowed that you are Tarlanc the Miller." The Southron once again was losing patience with the old man, and his displeasure was evident in his surly tone. "You are said to be one who has shown himself friendly to us and are favored by General Qarräd of Ninwi, commander of this division of the army. Your star can shine brighter in the lord's eyes if you cooperate and reassure us of your good faith and loyalty. There will be a generous reward if you can give us any information that would lead to the capture of the slaves." The intruder chuckled sarcastically, and his snickering was picked up and amplified by his comrades. Gritting his teeth and shaking the hammer at the door, Tarlanc held his tongue, for he was too angry to reply.
"Why do you not answer me, old man?" The voice was menacing. "Do you have something to hide? Answer me quickly, or I will be forced to break down your door!"
"No, no, please, sir! Do not do such a thing! I am a cautious old man, much given to fears." Tarlanc's voice trembled. "Now that I know that you are friends of General Qarräd, I feel much more confident of you, and we can be friends. While you know my name, I do not know yours. Speak now, stranger, and let there be no secrets between us," he hedged, still unable to think of some plausible story that would satisfy these men.
"I am Captain Ubri uMandum, first in command of the bodyguards of the illustrious Shakh uHuzziya - may his house endure forever! I speak for the men with me - Ganbar, second in command, and Inbir, third. Now that you know our names, old man, you should be content. Now open this door!" The impatience in his voice was growing.
Ubri had been told by scouts from Cair Andros that though the old man was completely insane, he was harmless and far too fearful of soldiers to try anything foolish. The Southron had also been informed that the old man had done his best to ingratiate himself with General Qarräd. The old Anórian was reputed to be little more than a boot-licking toady who would debase himself for a piece of bread or a cup of wine. However, Tarlanc was not living up to his reputation, and was proving to be quite difficult. The old man's stalling and whining had become exceedingly vexing to Ubri. Any more of his long-winded mumbling, and Ubri and his men would rush the door.
"Good sirs, you must be patient with me, for I am only an old man and age weighs heavily upon me. My strength is not what it once was," Tarlanc wheedled, his voice cracking and cowering. "I cannot allow you into my cottage for your own safety. My dog is a vicious beast, as feral as a wolf in his ferocity. He would surely tear you limb from limb! While I would do my best to prevent him, I am an old man and sick of the ague, and unable to control him. Please understand why I cannot open my door to you!"
Silence met his words, and then Tarlanc heard the angry murmuring of voices. He knew that the slavers were conferring amongst themselves. A few minutes passed, and then he heard the sound of more heavy boots approaching his door.
"Tarlanc, we do not want to be compelled to slay your dog. Perhaps if you would be more willing to cooperate, it will not be necessary for us to come inside." The Southron had an almost inborn dislike of dogs, considering them foul, dirty creatures, little better than jackals. While he hated them, he also feared the beasts, and was not eager to risk being mauled.
Tarlanc noted that the man's voice had tensed. Chuckling to himself, he thought, "Their fear has made them cautious, as I had hoped it would. They do not know that Haun will obey my every word. Better they believe I am a useless old man in my dotage who cannot even handle his own dog. Anything to keep them from forcing my door open and finding the lasses!" he told himself. "Now I must tell them something which will satisfy them."
"Describe to me the ones for whom you seek," he urged. "Mayhap I have seen some of them. You must realize, though, that age has rendered me unable to remember as well as I once could. My hearing is also failing me. Speak up, good sir, so that I can hear you!" For his own survival among the conquering Easterlings, Tarlanc had found that if he pretended to be senile or mad, that most of them would have pity upon him and leave him be. This deception had proved invaluable, once even saving his life.
Ubri sighed heavily, and when he spoke again, it was in a loud, unpleasant, droning monotone. By the tone of the man's voice, Tarlanc suspected that he was reading from a parchment. "There are seven slaves for whom we search. Three are handsome young blond boys by the names of Fródwine, Frumgár and Fritha. The eldest is Fródwine, who is reported to be a bold and impertinent youth of eleven or twelve, cocky and given to a quick temper and aggressive behavior. Frumgár, the middle boy, is eight or so, reputedly a quiet, mild-mannered lad, causing little trouble. Fritha, the youngest, is five, a polite and respectful boy who has only a limited knowledge of Westron, or so I have been told." He paused for breath and then continued.
"Two are women in their early thirties, one Waerburh, a tall woman with hair of burnished gold, and Ascwyn, a petite wench who possesses a pale flaxen mane. Of course, we do not expect them to give you their real names. It would be foolish to think they would tell the truth! The one known as Waerburh has a high-handed and arrogant manner, her femininity oft concealed by a mannish air. On the other hand, Ascwyn is a gentle and submissive female whose voice is as soft and meek as the cooing of a dove." Ubri wondered if the man could even hear him or possessed the ability to comprehend what he was saying, but since it was his duty, he continued his description of the slaves.
"There are also two lovely maidens, twins Elfhild and Elffled. These are damsels of incomparable beauty, whose faces are as lovely as the moon in its fullness and whose long tresses are like strands of spun gold. Their breasts," Ubri licked his lips, "are like lush pomegranates, their waists like the stems of wine goblets. Though they are petite, their legs are long and well-proportioned, their feet small and quite pretty." Warming to his memories of the twins' bountiful attributes, Ubri's voice was thick with lust. "The elder girl, the one named Elfhild, is the leader of the pair. She is said to be spirited and saucy, while her twin is demure and yielding." His throat dry from his long dissertation, Ubri took a drink from his waterskin.
"There, Tarlanc, you have a description for all the slaves still at large. We do not have any reason to believe that these slaves are traveling together, but rather alone or with their kin. Your purse will be considerably heavier if you can tell us anything that will aid us in finding them. Now tell me and tell me truthfully," Ubri's voice was filled with warning, "have you seen any of these runaways?"
"Good gentleman," Tarlanc took his time in answering the man, "you must forgive an old man his infirmities. Being hard of hearing, I first misunderstood a good part of what you had said, but now I understand, and I have good news for you. There were two girls - much like the twins whom you described - at my doorstep early this morning, begging for bread. When I opened my door and saw the collars on their necks, I knew they were escaped slaves. I gave them nothing and drove them away from my door with a broom!"
"Ah, good, good!" Ubri exclaimed, and the other men murmured in agreement. "You acted wisely! Under the recent edict of General Qarräd, military commander for this district of Gondor, it is a crime punishable by death to give aid to an escaped slave. All may not yet be lost, however." Ubri's voice was excited. "Tarlanc, do you know which way they went?
"Aye, yes, sir, as fortune would have it, I do. Last I saw of them, they were crossing the meadow beside my house, heading west." The old miller applauded himself on his brilliance. The twins would sojourn in his cottage for a few days while the slavers searched futilely for them towards the west. Soon enough the Southrons would give up their search and then it would be safe for the twins to journey back to Rohan. This way, there would be time for both girls to rest from their harrowing experiences and put on some weight, for both of them were terribly thin. Having fallen ill with heat sickness just that very day, Elfhild did not need to be traveling. Then there was the matter of the lice which infested the girls' hair... "I might be just an old dotard, but my plan is flawless!"
"How I wish that you could have inveigled the pair into staying!" Ubri's tone was resentful, his previous exuberance turning into disappointment. "Could you not have persuaded them to stay by promising them food and gifts?" Ubri asked angrily. "That failing, you could have seized them and held them captive, and when one of the regular patrols passed by, you could have turned them over to them! If you had only detained the maids, that would have made our task much easier and proved your loyalty beyond any doubt. As I said before, your star would have risen even brighter with the General." Frustrated that the sisters had slipped out of their hands once again, Ubri fought to control his anger.
"Sir, I should have thought of that, but I just wanted to be rid of them. I do not want riffraff such as those two anywhere near my cottage. Alas, I now realize my mistake! Age has made me a regular blockhead. My lord, forgive a doddering old man!" Tarlanc simpered, then glanced down to Haun. "Shhh, stout heart, do not look at me that way. I am only saying this for their benefit!" The dog wagged his tail sympathetically. His master was never wrong.
"That is unfortunate, for if you had held them for us, I would have been willing to give you a magnificent reward. Still, I will be generous and give you a few coins for your aid," Ubri replied condescendingly.
"My lord, thank you for your beneficence! I pray that you find them quickly!" Tarlanc hoped that his false humility sounded believable.
"Old man, fear not," Ubri remarked reassuringly. "It is only a matter of time until we find the slaves. Later tonight, we expect to meet with a party of our orc trackers not far from here. We should return to your mill within a few hours, and I will have the orcs on the trail of the wenches! Even though the escapees have a head start upon us, they are only women and cannot hope to match our pace. Their natural weakness and frailty will hamper them, and they will be forced to rest often. With the aid of the orcs, we should catch up to them long before the sun has reached her zenith!" The Southron's voice had grown louder in his growing exuberance for the chase.
"May the Powers smile favorably upon your quest." The excitement and tension had been almost too much for old Tarlanc. Although his teeth had ceased their chattering, still his knees occasionally knocked together. He put his hand upon the door to steady his shaking. "Now, if you require no more of me, please allow a poor old man to rest his weary bones."
"Aye, we will be leaving now. When you open your door, you will find a bag of fifty copper rims upon your door stoop, which is generous by anyone's account. May peace be upon you and your house. Farewell."
Tarlanc waited at the door until the sounds of hoof beats faded away on the road towards the mill. Then he relaxed his rigid, tense body, his shoulders sagging in weariness. "What a confounded fool I am! I should have known when to stop talking! When that arrogant scoundrel threatened to break in my door, I was so frightened that sense fled my mind, and I said the first thing that came to me. I should have told him I never saw anyone and taken my chances! Instead of helping the maidens, I have brought more doom to them and to myself! In just a few hours, the slavers will be right back here at my cottage with their trackers!" Letting the hammer slide from his grip and fall to the floor, he clasped his head in his hands. "Haun, what shall I do? What shall I do?" The mastiff whined sympathetically and licked his hand, but could give him no answers to his dilemma.
When Tarlanc stumbled to the water pail, his hand on the dipper gourd shook so fiercely that he spilled most of the water. Draining the remainder of the liquid, he slumped down on the bench in defeat. "Lasses!" he croaked out in a loud whisper. "Come quickly! I have done you a terrible disservice!"