As Inbir led the twins back towards the colorful pavilions of the slave traders, they asked him questions about the sights which they saw. Although they were both frightened of these strange, foreign men, Elfhild and Elffled were also curious about their ways and customs. There was little time for Inbir to speak with the girls, though, for they were soon at the tent of Esarhaddion uHuzziya. Inbir turned the twins over to the two swarthy eunuch guards at the entrance. After a few brief words with the eunuch in charge - a heavily-built black man named Alad - Inbir bid them farewell and departed.
His face set in an impassive mask, the eunuch's probing dark eyes critically inspected the twins for flaws. Elfhild and Elffled concluded that he was displeased with what he saw, for his thick, black eyebrows drew together, his nose wrinkling as though he had smelt something disgusting. With no other comment than the injunction, "Take off your shoes and leave them beside the entryway," the eunuch drew open the goat hair curtain and pointed inside.
Stepping into the tent, the girls found themselves in a spacious chamber lit by metal lanterns which were hung from the roof supports. The lanterns, whose sides were perforated by an intricate grid of triangular holes, cast lacy patterns of light and shadow over the floor and walls. Other lanterns with panels of clear and stained glass in shades of yellow, amber, and green bathed the chamber in a soft golden light. The floor was covered with thick carpets woven with bright colors in elaborate floral and geometric designs. Off to one side was a large round table which sat low to the ground. A ring of cozy-looking pillows surrounded it. In a small brazier set at the side of the tent, a cube of incense burned, the heat releasing a deep, musky scent which perfumed the whole chamber.
Born in modest circumstances, the sisters were accustomed to sleeping on straw-filled mats upon a straw-covered dirt floor. Their home had only two rooms, one with stalls for the animals and a loft for supplies, and the other where the family lived, cooked, ate, and slept. Though this tent was sparsely furnished, it was far grander than anything the sisters had ever seen. They could scarcely take in such finery, and they marveled at the splendor of this lavish display of wealth and comfort. Never before had they realized just how richly the lords of the South lived, and indeed how poor their beloved old home was in comparison.
"Oh, Hild, did you ever see anything like this!" a bedazzled Elffled exclaimed, clasping her hands together as she turned around in circles, surveying the chamber. "I feel like a princess in the hall of a king!"
"I doubt that Esarhaddon uHuzziya is royalty, unless he were a prince of thieves!" Elfhild laughed sardonically. "Still, I am almost afraid to walk over these floor coverings, for fear of getting them dirty and facing the wrath of the Southrons." She looked down and saw that the tip of her fetid stocking, stiff with days of dried sweat, was defiling a cheery yellow flowering vine which wound its way around lacy blue octagons in a field of crimson.
Stepping gingerly over the carpet, the sisters came to a long stretch of curtain which divided the tent into two sections. Taking a deep breath, Elfhild led the way through the opening in the curtain. They saw another chamber, appointed similarly to the first, except here the carpets had been pulled away and a tub of steaming water sat in the center of the room. Two slender young black women, beauties from Far Harad, sat on the floor, engrossed in their own conversation. Seeing the sisters, they rose to their feet, gracefully bowing from the middle as they touched their hearts, lips and forehead in a formal greeting.
"Welcome, Mistresses," the taller of the pair greeted them. "I am Su-a, and this is Su-din. We have been sent to treat your hair and help you bathe."
Both women were naked from the waist up in preparation for the bath. Colorful striped towels were wrapped around their waists like narrowly cut skirts. On their heads were petite orange turbans which kept their hair away from their faces. Long golden earrings hung from pierced lobes and swung when they moved their heads. Although both women were dressed identically, Su-a had refined, angular features, her face almost aristocratic in appearance, while Su-din was shorter in stature, with a round face and bright eyes that sparkled above a broad nose and full, plum-colored lips.
"I am Elfhild, and this is my sister, Elffled." Elfhild smiled at the two women and gestured towards her twin.
Elffled bowed politely to Su-a and Su-din. "I am pleased to meet you." She had not had a real bath since she had been stolen from her home back in May, and she looked forward to removing a month's worth of grime and stench from her body.
After expressing their horrified shock at the rampant infestation of vermin in the Rohirric slaves' hair, Su-a and Su-din soon had the twins' long tresses soaking in olive oil and spices. When the servant girls had completed the lice treatment, they wrapped the twins' oil-saturated hair in towels to help smother the lice and protect the rich furnishings of the tent from the oil. The twins were next bathed in the tub of perfumed water, dried off, and given simple, unadorned robes to wear for the remainder of the evening. Both Elfhild and Elffled were exceedingly grateful for the bath, for now they felt more like civilized humans and less like a pair of foul-smelling orcs who reveled in their overpowering stench.
Assuring the twins that the oil would be washed from their hair the next morning and their filthy, trail worn clothing would be replaced, Su-a and Su-din wished them a pleasant evening. Bowing their way out of the tent, they left Elfhild and Elffled to wait for their supper. Although the bath had done much to relax their bodies and restore their sense of pride, it had done little to alleviate the girls' troubled minds. They were uncertain why they had been brought to Esarhaddon's tent and given the freedom to move freely about their surroundings. Their eyes were drawn to the low couch near the back of the inner chamber. A crimson coverlet shot with golden threads was turned back to reveal deep maroon silken sheets which glistened with a subtle luster in the light of the overhead brass lanterns. Perhaps it was the slaver's intent to lie with them that night. That thought terrified the sisters.
Elfhild and Elffled were brought up to be chaste young women, and had always believed that the act of lovemaking was reserved for the marriage bed. To lie with a man outside of marriage and become with big with his child would bring shame to their families, and that was something that neither girl had ever wanted to do. However, now they were homeless orphans at the mercy of a powerful man who held the power of life and death over them. If they tried to refuse his demands, he might beat them or even kill them. He had already threatened them with death if they did not accept slavery. Could such a man possess mercy and prove to be a tender lover? Or would he take them with violence and force?
The twins' apprehensive thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of their supper. The meal was a simple one by the standards of the Southrons - an earthenware pot of stewed beef and vegetables, a loaf of flatbread to sop up the soup, some cheese, and dried fruit. There was no carafe of water left on the table for them to drink, but after the supper was completed, the servants brought them each a goblet of wine red as blood, sweetened with honey. The delicious concoction was so heady - and they were unused to drinking fine wines - that the sisters drank the vessels dry and asked for more. The polite servant boy quickly complied with their request, and with a grin assured them that they could have even a third if they wished. After they had completed only half of the second draught, the girls both felt more than a little tipsy and turned down the boy's offer. His luminous black eyes smiled gently at them from beneath long, thick lashes as he bowed courteously, murmuring softly, "As you wish."
Scarcely before the slave boys had cleared away the dirty dishes and the uneaten portions of the meal, the sisters began to feel incredibly drowsy. The comforting bath had relaxed their aching muscles, and the treatment for lice had stilled the tormenting itch. They had enjoyed a good supper, their stomachs were full, and nothing terrible had happened to them so far. Feeling the exhaustion from the long day's journey rolling over them, they settled comfortably against the thick cushions at their backs. As they gave in to their bodies' gentle urgings to rest, the twins felt their sorrows washing away like words written into the shifting sands of a beach. Elfhild yawned and then took in a deep breath, expanding her lungs as far as they could go. Holding her breath, she was captivated by the sensation that she was so light and buoyant that the air might lift her up and carry her along like a bit of feather down floating on a gentle breeze. Contented, lethargic, at blissful peace for a change, Elffled felt a peaceful tranquility washing over her like gentle waves. Neither sister spoke. There was no need; the feeling of euphoria seemed contagious.
Deciding that it was time to go to bed for the night, the twins stumbled wearily to the woven mats that Su-a and Su-din had told them were theirs. "I think we imbibed too much of that delicious wine," Elfhild giggled as she staggered, her feet seeming to float along the carpet. As she lowered herself to her sleeping pallet, she was certain that a gentle zephyr had caught her, supporting her as she descended. Settling their heads on the pillows, both girls were asleep almost instantly.
When Elfhild finally floated back to consciousness, she was uncertain of how long she had slept. She did not think it had been long, for the lamps in the tent were still burning. On the pallet near her, Elffled did not stir. She was still sound asleep, one arm flung over her pillow, her right leg bare to the knee from where she had restlessly kicked aside the blanket. The tent was very still, except for their quiet, rhythmic breathing. Elfhild looked up, entranced by the myriad of colors which seemed to be dancing over her. Fascinated, she watched as the light in the overhead brass lanterns shone through the intricate glass patterns on the sides, sending splashes of amber, green and gold light flowing over the chamber. The heavy scent of perfume was thick in the air, delightful and mysterious, the fragrance intoxicating. She inhaled deeply, soothed by the delicious scents which filled her nostrils.
Elfhild dreamily traced a pattern on the carpet, entranced with the feel of the thick wool. She heard a dog bark somewhere in the camp, its cry joined by another, and then another, the sounds amplifying until there was a whole chorus of canine yelping and howling. The sounds seemed incredibly wondrous to her ears, and she sighed at the sheer aural delight of their splendor. She attempted to sit up, but it was as though her body had fallen into a deep featherbed which was far too comfortable to leave. She reached her hands up to capture the cascading amber, green and golden light which fell over her arms and hands like moonbeams shining upon colorful jewels. Oh, she could stay here forever! She fell back limply upon the mat, her mind fading into nothingness.
When she awakened again some time later, Elfhild noticed that the dogs had stopped barking. Glancing at Elffled, she heard her gentle breathing and saw that her sister had turned to face her. There was a blissful expression upon Elffled's face, and she hugged her pillow, clinging to it as though it were a lover. Struggling to force her sluggish body to move, Elfhild rolled over on her side. She shook her head to clear her befuddled senses, and, yawning, she ground her fingers into her closed eyelids, attempting to banish the languor that she felt. The wine which she and her sister had drunk certainly was potent! Of course, neither of them was used to wine so rich and heady. A twinge of apprehension fluttered through her mind like a moth; she dreaded to think of how she would feel in the morning. But why think of unpleasantness when she felt so happy?
She heard voices and laughter coming from the outer chamber of the tent, and smiling foolishly, she looked towards a thin crack in the tapestry covering which was hung between the two chambers. She could not seem to focus her eyes, and the approaching figures appeared to her as blurry images. In spite of the thick mists which caressed her mind like a ghostly lover, she sensed that she should not let anyone know that she was awake. She eased over on her back, gasping softly as she watched the tent spin around her, the colored reflections of the lamp light swirling, sometimes separating and then merging once again. She was not certain whether her eyes were closed or open, and wondered if anyone would notice and give her the answer to her quandary. The concept struck her as amusing, and she could not help but giggle.
The arras parted and the blurry figures came into the room, but their laughter had grown so loud that it covered up her silly tittering. Finally Elfhild's eyelids closed and she lay there, listening to the soft sounds of slippered feet as they crossed the carpet near her pallet and moved on towards the master's couch.
She heard a woman laugh, a lilting, pleasant sound that rang out across the chamber. When the woman spoke, her Westron was tinged with a Gondorian accent. "My lord! What about those two girls over there? Will you allow them to stay here? Would you have us corrupt them?"
Another woman tittered. "I know you would love to corrupt them, Lothwen! Do not pretend that you would not!"
"Lothwen and Meril, take no concern." The man's voice was gruff, slurred slightly as though he had imbibed too much wine. "The draught which they drank will keep them asleep for hours yet. The only thing the two of you have to worry about tonight is giving me pleasure."
The first woman laughed again, a higher pitch this time, and Elfhild heard the swish of cloth brushing over skin. There was a slap, followed by heavy breathing - a struggle, perhaps? Elfhild was sure of it when a woman moaned, and in the background, the man spoke sharply, his voice trailing off to a low grunt. Once there was the ripping sound of cloth being torn, and then a loud gasp. The man's husky voice murmured, "Your breasts are like firm Khandian melons, sweet and succulent!"
"My lord!" a female voice exclaimed petulantly. "Did you have to rip my gown from me just to see them? It was my best!"
"Meril, I will order old Awidan to buy you a new one," the same masculine voice growled.
There was a squeak as though someone had sat or fallen down heavily on the couch. Elfhild smiled foolishly, reaching out to touch the many-colored gossamer curtain of oblivion that had begun to drape its translucent folds over her supine form. Running her fingers over the descending material, she reached up and drew it to her bosom as she tumbled down into a dark cave of joyful tranquility.
Wakefulness came quicker to her the next time. When she awoke, she discovered that she had not only rolled to her side, her pillow clutched to her chest, but that her vision had cleared. Her eyes were drawn to the couch, where an erotic drama was transpiring, illuminated by the faint light of the brass lanterns.
The rich cover of the low couch lay tangled and forgotten on the floor, the maroon sheets despoiled and rumpled. Near the middle of the low couch lay a voluptuous raven-haired beauty whose shapely legs were spread wide apart, bent at the knees and raised up into the air. The slaver knelt between those ivory legs, his hands braced in the crook of her knees as she rested her feet upon his forearms. Her body raised slightly at the waist, she leaned her head back between the breasts of another woman who equaled, if not exceeded, her beauty. The reclining woman's unbound hair spilled like streams of ink over the lap of the other woman, who was leaning forward slightly, caressing the reclining beauty's rosy nipples with her fingers.
Her besotted mind not fully comprehending what was occurring on the couch, Elfhild stared blankly as she witnessed the woman thrust her lower body up, meeting the violent slam of Esarhaddon's hips. Elfhild watched with astonishment as the two bodies became one strange, obscene creature that was the very incarnation of lust. Howling like an enraged djinn, the slaver shuddered, his body gripped with paroxysms of unbridled pleasure. The reclining woman shrieked, digging her fingers deep into the couch, as her body contorted, writhing and arching as though a demon had possessed her. The woman behind her bent down, gripping her face in her hands, and kissed her full on the lips, her mouth moving over hers in a long and lingering kiss.
Never in Elfhild's life had she seen anything like this scene of wild debauchery. She closed her eyes tightly, refusing to watch any more. At least the noisy lovemaking of the amorous trio had quieted down to gentle moaning and sighing. A little later, she heard someone rising from the bed and the whispery brush of bare feet padding across the carpet, moving towards the small table at the side of the tent. Water splashed into a basin, and then the soft footfalls returned to the bed. Hushed feminine voices spoke quietly as they bent over the slave trader, cleaning his body as he moaned softly. Once again, the footsteps padded across the carpet and returned. Then all was silent, except for Esarhaddon's soft snoring.
Elfhild listened, hoping that there would be no more of the trio's lascivious activities that night. In the quiet of the tent, she wondered if anything she had seen had really happened. Perhaps she had been dreaming with her eyelids open, besotted to the point of insensibility. Too much drink ruined the mind and body, she had been told. If her mother could see her and Elffled now, drunken like slatterns, unable even to rise from their beds, how disappointed and ashamed she would be of them!
Then, suddenly, Elfhild experienced a moment of clarity, and Esarhaddon's words echoed through her mind. "The draught... will keep them asleep for hours..." She and her sister had been drugged, drugged with some foul Southern potion! She dared not even imagine what bizarre ingredients had gone into the evil draught. Even now the witch's brew was having its effect. Sensations of serenity and peace blew over her like a cool breeze. Her eyes fluttering closed, she sighed languidly. What did it matter if he had drugged them? They were guiltless in the matter. Freed of shame, she gave in to the blissful feelings which caressed her senses, surrendering to a tranquility that she had not felt in months, perhaps not ever.