The Circles - Book Five - Chapter 13

The Circles - Book Five - Through the Valley of Death
Chapter Thirteen
Crossing the Anduin
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

The twins had just finished their breakfast when Alad pushed aside the arras and peered into the room. "Your horses are saddled and waiting for you outside. Make haste now," he announced unceremoniously and then quickly withdrew.

The two servant girls helped Elfhild and Elffled don their burnooses, and then brushed their lips over the hems of the twins' sleeves. "Farewell, Mistresses. We will miss you!" Su-a exclaimed, smiling.

"Peace be upon you," Su-din wished them, "and may the Gods bless and protect you on your journey."

"Thank you both." Elffled inclined her head. "You have both been so kind to us, and I wish we could have spent more time together."

"It was a pleasure meeting both of you," Elfhild smiled. "May you have good health and good fortune. Farewell!"

After saying their goodbyes, Elfhild and Elffled walked through the tent and out into the bright sun of early morning. Esarhaddon was nowhere in sight, but his three lieutenants were waiting for them. Once again, the twins' hands were tied in front of them, and they were helped onto their saddles by Ganbar and Ubri. Making sure that the twins had no possibility for escape, Ubri took the lead line attached to the halter of Elffled's horse, while Ganbar took the one for Elfhild's. Barely speaking to the girls, the men mounted their own animals, slouched in their saddles, and waited for the arrival of the slaver. Their casual manner indicated to the twins that the men did not expect Esarhaddon to arrive anytime soon. Looking around, the girls saw that the slave Ásal was strangely missing, and Inbir had assumed charge of the pack horses.

Though Elffled had found Ásal often annoying in his attempts to make himself indispensable to them, still she missed his cheerful presence. The eunuch's good humor might only have been affected for the impression it gave, but still it was a welcome diversion. Perhaps he had fallen ill during the night, and there was no ready replacement for him. That would explain why Inbir was in charge of the pack horses. Elffled sighed as she cast a glance in Inbir's direction, her eyes lingering upon his handsome face. Though Aeffe fancied the young Southron, Elffled was quite taken with him as well.

"Where is Ásal this morning? …Or have you been assigned to be my servant?" As those last words left her lips, she blushed furiously and clasped her bound hands over her mouth to stifle a giggle.

Inbir laughed, his dark, kohl-accentuated eyes flashing in a way which made her heart race even faster. "Though you might like that, Northern slave, you will never see a man of Harad as a servant to a mere woman, even if she were free!" Of course, that statement was hardly a reflection of the truth, for many Southern men gave their women undying, almost slavish, affection, swearing promises of eternal love and lavishing them with costly gifts. Hearts pounding feverously, lips uttering anguished sighs of devotion, lovelorn shakhs often spouted verses of mediocre poetry, swearing that they would die if they did not see a smile upon the lips of a favorite concubine. Many times it was the wives and concubines who really ran the household, not the husband, although he liked to pretend he did. With his romantic poet's soul, Inbir was a fool for love, but he certainly did not want this ignorant foreign girl knowing that!

What little courage Elffled possessed had left her by that point, and she looked away, suddenly feeling awkward and quite embarrassed. Oh, what ever had possessed her to say such a thing? She always tried to avoid the attention of these men, not attract it. She licked her lips nervously, deliberating upon whether to speak or keep her usual silence. Curiosity about the whereabouts of the slave boy got the best of her, however, and, turning back to Inbir, she asked, "Seriously, sir, where is Ásal?"

By that time, Inbir was no longer looking her way. Instead he was watching Shakh Awidan's tent, from which Esarhaddon and Awidan had just emerged. "Shakh uHuzziya no longer owns the boy, for he gave him to Awidan as a gift."

"He gave him away as though he were an unwanted cloak?!" Elffled exclaimed, shocked.

Elfhild gasped softly, her mind recoiling at how quickly a person could be sold or given away by these Haradrim. "So that is why Ásal seemed so moody on the ride yesterday," she realized. "Why did Lord Esarhaddon do that, sir?" she queried, still shaken by the news. "Ásal was always most respectful and polite and seemed sincerely interested in our welfare."

"He had his own reasons." Inbir dismissed their queries with a shrug of his shoulders. "You should not ask so many questions."

Slapping a fly on his horse's neck, Ganbar studied his hand, which held the mangled remains of legs and wings. "If you ask me, Inbir," he yawned, straightening himself up in the saddle, "what these girls are really hoping to hear is that Ásal had gotten himself embroiled in some really salacious activities. You know how women's ears always itch to hear the most scandalous of gossip. Of course, they are certain that Ásal was first tortured and then buried up to his neck in the ground and left to die. Well, these slave girls might be disappointed at what really happened. Maybe that is what he deserved, because he was an arrogant little bastard, but he got off much easier than that!"

"Sirs, if I am permitted to ask, what did the boy do?" Elfhild asked cautiously.

"Questions are permitted if they are asked respectfully," Ubri spoke up, glancing indifferently over towards Elfhild. "The answer is that Shakh uHuzziya does not have to have a reason to do what he wishes with his slaves. How anyone could have kept the boy as long as the shakh did is beyond me, for the little prick was like a groveling dog, licking boots and fawning. Perhaps Esarhaddon had suffered his whining voice too long." He shrugged. "It does not matter why he gave him to Shakh Awidan. A man can get rid of an unworthy slave for any reason, or none at all."

"Thank you, sir, for explaining this to us." Elfhild inclined her head in a respectful bow. Though the news about Ásal was quite alarming, it just went to prove how treacherous and unfeeling these people could be, and how the only one whom she could really trust was her sister.

Time stretched out and still Awidan and Esarhaddon were engaged in a lively discussion. Elfhild began to grow restless and looked around for something, anything, that would hold her attention. When she glanced at Awidan's tent, she saw that finally the old shakh and the slaver were embracing, kissing each other on both cheeks as they gave their elaborate farewells. "They seem to have made their peace since yesterday," she thought. "Perhaps the gift of the slave boy helped smooth the troubled waters."

Leaving the shakh's tent, Esarhaddon walked towards his waiting men, where a servant boy held his mare. After exchanging greetings, the slaver swung his leg over the cantle of his saddle and settled comfortably onto the seat. He pressed his heels to his horse's sides and rode Ka'adara to the head of the entourage, where Ubri and Ganbar filed in behind him with their charges in tow. Making up the rear of the column were Inbir and the string of pack horses. A smile of satisfaction upon his face, his eyes half-hidden by his kohl-rimmed lids, Esarhaddon glanced back at the twins and then gave the command to move forward.

About two miles outside the city, they passed a patrol of cavalrymen. Other than a nod of greeting to Esarhaddon by the officer in charge, the patrol barely took notice of them. Once again Elfhild observed that the shakh was on exceptionally good terms with the military of the conquering force. At one time, that knowledge would have been a cause of great concern to the sisters, for any ally of the Dark Lord was an enemy of theirs. Though the concept still made them feel uncomfortable, they were gradually growing to accept his allegiance to the Dark Land. There was nothing they could do about it anyway. They were subjects of Mordor, after all.

By late afternoon, the party neared the outskirts of Osgiliath, the abandoned city of the Gondorians, with its crumbling walls and memories of past glories that now lay in melancholy shambles. There, the riders met a company of uruks, big, surly creatures who passed by silently, looking neither to the right nor to the left. As the uruks marched by, the twins dropped their gazes, both glad for the concealing hoods of their burnooses.

When the pontoon bridge over the Anduin came into sight, the Sun was a huge smoldering ball of fire hanging low in the sky over the distant mountains. The dipping orb trailed her long fingers of rose and gold across the heavens as though she were painting the sky in splendor before saying goodbye to the dying day. Rising from the foothills of Ithilien, the Mountains of Shadow climbed higher and higher until they towered above them, brooding in their dark majesty. A deep notch ran between the tall peaks and led upward into the folds of shadows. Both mountain and hill bowed to the river which ran through the narrow valley, the sloping landforms from a distance resembling the interlaced fingers of a giant, clasped in supplication before some great deity.

The majestic Anduin, indomitable in its austere strength, lay before the sisters like an endless sea which, once traversed, could never be crossed again. Stony cold it seemed, indifferent to the anguish of mankind, unheeding, unseeing, unsympathetic as it wound its way to the Sea. To the south of the pontoon bridge spread the mouth of a smaller, but no less impressive, river: the Morgulduin. Wisps of fog rose from its dark waters, the misty vapors converging about the confluence of the two rivers like the seething brew in a witch's cauldron. As the twins looked towards the lesser river, they had the peculiar sensation that they were somehow peering into another world, a realm which was removed from time and reality. The ethereal mists shifted and undulated, the vapors taking the forms of men, beasts and monsters, a dancing menagerie which glided and played across the surface of the water before being ripped into tatters by the breeze and evaporating like mirages. When the twins turned their gazes back to their guards, it seemed that they had been staring at the Morgulduin for hours, but in reality the vision of the river had held them captive for only a few seconds.

The entourage drew rein at a grim, squat structure which guarded the approach to the pontoon bridge. Two guards strode out of the building and stepped onto the road. "Halt!" they commanded, crossing their spears and barring the way. A flinty eyed, dark-skinned man, a corporal by his insignia, swaggered from the guard station and stared at them. "Papers?" he inquired, his nose wrinkling up and twitching as though he had smelled something unsavory.

Ganbar leaned towards Elfhild and whispered out of the corner of his mouth, "Filthy Khandians!" She sent him a questioning look, but he only frowned and shook his head.

As the grim-faced guards looked on, Ubri handed the lead line of Elffled's horse to Ganbar and rode forward past the shakh. Dismounting before the corporal, he bowed and presented him with the requested documents. The man leafed through the sheaf of papers, his quick eyes scanning each page until he came to one which captured his attention. He read the document over several more times before staring over the page at Ubri.

"You are Ubri uMandum, agent of Shakh Esarhaddon uHuzziya, yes?"

"Aye, I am he," replied Ubri, his face expressionless.

At the mention of his name, Esarhaddon gave a quick nod and moved his horse a few steps forward. "Corporal, you surely must remember us! We passed through here not more than two weeks ago."

"Yes, my lord, I remember you. You must understand that this is merely a technical formality which is required of everyone who crosses the river. Ever since that elf berserker slaughtered the entire garrison of Cirith Ungol back in the spring, security has been tight. Rules are rules, and I must abide by them," the corporal explained in the same flat, businesslike tone which he used with all who requested permission to cross the bridge. His eyes dropped to the papers once again. "These other men are Captains Ganbar and Inbir?"

"Aye," came Ubri's equally flat monotone.

The corporal looked up sharply. "Where is the slave boy Ásal? He was brought into the occupied territory with you."

Ubri looked to Esarhaddon for direction, and was grateful when the slaver replied for him. "The eunuch was given to Shakh Awidan, and all papers applying to him are now in the shakh's possession."

"Very well." The corporal seemed satisfied with the answer. The man reshuffled the documents, reading through them a second time. His eyes skimmed across the papers, as though he were searching for errors. "Lord uHuzziya, these papers state that you have in your possession two slave women, twins by name of Elfhild and Elffled of Rohan, who bear the Numbers 99337-GER021T and 99338-GER022T. I see they had escaped recently and were recaptured a few days ago. Though I am sure that the information contained here is truthful and accurate, and these are indeed the aforementioned slaves, still I am compelled by the rules and regulations governing the traffic of Mordor-owned slaves to request inspection of their collars."

"Easily arranged." Esarhaddon's eyes slitted threateningly, and the corporal's eyes darted back to the papers in his hand. Quickly dismounting, the slaver walked over to the side of Elffled's horse and looked up into the girl's fearful eyes. "Do not be frightened; no one will harm you. Swing your right leg over the pommel and slide straight down. Raise your arms up and I will catch you."

Elffled took a deep breath and pivoted her leg so that she sat sideways on the horse. Hesitating a moment, she looked down at him and saw that he was grinning. Shyly dropping her gaze, she slid off the saddle and into Esarhaddon's waiting arms. For a few moments, he held her in his strong grasp, the hard muscles of his chest pressing against her breasts, his face very close to hers.

"Now remember you are no longer in Rohan. Do not think to impress the corporal with glances bold and saucy, for he will take you for a tawdry tavern wench and treat you accordingly. Conduct yourself modestly and keep in mind that this will be good experience for you when you are exhibited on the auction block. Keep your voice soft and demure and your eyes averted while he examines your collar," he murmured softly as he stroked her soft cheek with his knuckles. The day had been a hot one and he smelled of sweat and saddle leather, strong masculine aromas mixing with pungent spices and the lingering scent of mint tea.

"Y-yes, my lord," she stammered. "But the thought of being sold on the auction block frightens me."

"Perhaps your master will be a kind man. You should be flattered; it is certain that he will have to be a rich one to be able to purchase a little beauty like you," Esarhaddon chuckled. As his dark eyes gazed into hers, he bent his head. She tensed, afraid for a moment that he would command her lips in a kiss just as hateful as those of Daungha, but his full, sensual lips parted slightly, then curled into a condescending smile. He gripped her by the shoulders and spun her around to face the corporal.

Her back straight, her head bowed slightly, Elffled endured Esarhaddon's touch as he pushed back her hood and tugged the neck of her tunic down to expose her collar fully. "Raise your head," he ordered. Closing her eyes, she leaned her neck back and steeled herself for the inspection.

The corporal leaned down, squinting, and compared the number on the collar with the one on the document. "Number 99338-GER2E03, aye, that number agrees with the records. She may pass. Let me see the next one."

After helping Elffled back into the saddle, Esarhaddon presented Elfhild to the corporal. "Number 99337-GER1E03, aye," the officer noted as he inspected her collar. "Now give me a few minutes to record this information on my records and sign some documents, and you will be free to go."

Soon returning with the papers, signed duly with his signature, the corporal presented them to Ubri and motioned the party forward towards the bridge. "You may cross. The officer on the other side will want to look at the papers, but all that it will take to pass his inspection will be a glance at my signature." The two guards dropped their spears to their sides and stepped aside. Esarhaddon mounted his horse, and with a jaunty wave to the three guards, he led the party down the bank and onto the bridge.

Elfhild's horse, though usually calm and placid, balked when its hooves touched the uncertain footing on the pontoon bridge. Ganbar cursed the horse and gave a sharp tug to its halter rope. A slap across the flanks from Inbir caused the stubborn mount to surge forward suddenly, almost careening into the rump of Esarhaddon's mount and sending Elfhild reeling back in the saddle.

"So much for the vaunted horsemanship of the Rohirrim," Ganbar snorted. "She can barely stay in the saddle!"

"I could ride much better if my hands were not tied," Elfhild spat out, clenching her legs tighter around the horse's sides.

"Perhaps you will have an opportunity to prove that someday," Esarhaddon called back over his shoulder, "if you do not fall off and break your neck first!" Laughing, he urged his mare into a trot. Her hooves clattered across the boards as she stepped high, for she did not like the uncertainty of the structure beneath her feet.

Passing over the floating bridge, they arrived at the guardhouse on the other side. Once again, an officer asked to see their papers, and after skimming over them, he motioned them ahead.

As the setting sun turned the Anduin into blood, Elfhild looked back over her shoulder, taking a long, wistful look at the lands across the river. Her old home lay to the west in faraway Rohan. Her new home was to be somewhere on the other side of the mountains. Ahead of them lay the foothills of Ithilien, and far in the distance she could see the hazy dark shapes of the Mountains of Shadow. Maybe somewhere in those hidden mists, the trees budded with the promise of fruit, the green grass still grew, and bees returned to their hives with their legs drenched in yellow pollen from blooming flowers. As she gazed up at the mountains, she had the urge to explore these strange and mysterious lands, to climb the slopes and gather bouquets of wildflowers. The cold, fog-enshrouded waters of the Morgulduin called to some part of her soul which she did not yet understand, and she longed to walk along the river's banks and dance with the phantoms of the mist...

With each plodding step of the horses, the Anduin lay further and further behind the twins. At last the girls had arrived in the unknown East - where now lay their future... and their fears.

Next Chapter

Previous Chapter
Main Index