The Circles - Book Five - Chapter 14

The Circles - Book Five - Through the Valley of Death
Chapter Fourteen
The Other Side of the River
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

The First Sight of Ithilien by Ted Nasmith

The pontoon bridge and the guard house some distance behind them now, the riders urged their mounts into a canter. The men did not slow the horses down until they were well into the trees of once fair Ithilien, where Esarhaddon called a halt to rest the horses. Scowling, he turned in the saddle and surveyed the trail behind them. Ubri moved his horse beside his lord's, tugging Elffled's mount along with him. Their voices low undertones, the two men spoke together in Haradric, each one occasionally glancing over his shoulder at the twins. Stroking his beard thoughtfully, the slaver nodded to Ubri, then touched his heels to his horse's sides and moved the animal forward to the head of the entourage. Ganbar jerked on the lead rope of Elfhild's horse, urging the animal into a canter as he rode up beside Ubri. As Elffled's horse came abreast of her sister's, the two girls exchanged questioning glances, both wondering at the subject of the men's conversation, and fearing that it might be them.

Ever since crossing the Anduin, Elfhild's mood had turned gloomy. She knew that there was no going back now. Any hope of escape was lost, and even if a rare opportunity did chance to arise, she was not sure if she still had the will to try again. Perhaps it was better just to accept her fate, to stop fighting and accept slavery. If she had not tried to escape, poor old Tarlanc would still be alive, working at his mill and enjoying the company of his beloved dog, Haun. For that matter, if her father and brother had never joined the fight against Mordor, they would still be alive as well. If her mother had surrendered to the orcs instead of trying to defend her home, she, too, would still be counted among the living. Loathsome though it was, Elfhild was coming to the unfortunate conclusion that perhaps defying the might of Mordor was a very bad idea…

Seeing that her sister was weeping softly, Elffled turned towards her and whispered in Rohirric, "What is wrong? Why are you crying?"

"After all the horrible things that have happened to us since this war began, I am filled with grief!" Elfhild sobbed. "Our parents and brother are all dead, and everything we have ever known is now lost to us! Crossing that river was like closing a door which can never be opened again! I am sad, Elffled, grieved and sad, and afraid of what is to come!"

"Hild, I am sad, too, and just as frightened as you." Elffled managed a weak smile. Oh, how she wished she could hug her sister at that moment, take her in her arms and hold her close in a protective embrace!

"To make matters even worse, we are alone and at the mercy of a man who considers us as troublemakers and rebels." Elfhild's voice rose high and shrill as she wailed. "He has already threatened to kill us, and I fear that he may yet plan to punish us for running away!"

Elffled was about to reply when Ubri turned in the saddle and cut her words off with a harsh rebuke, "You wenches act as though you were still in Rohan, always muttering to each other in that accursed language! What are you doing, plotting some mischief?" He paused, glaring into their fear-stricken faces. "If you are, you might as well forget it! There will be no escape for you this time."

"We were planning nothing, sir," Elfhild pronounced coldly, her eyes glittering with angry tears.

"Well, from now on, I want to hear no more talk in Rohirric. Speak in Westron so that we may understand what you are saying! I am sick of hearing your barbarous tongue. If you cannot speak in Westron, then keep silent, or I will have you both gagged!" Ubri shot her a look so sour that it could have curdled fresh milk.

"But we do not know Westron very well, sir," Elffled protested. "We are fortunate to know as much as we do only because our village was close to the Gondorian border."

"Deplorably ignorant little savages!" Ubri growled, his eyes clouding with anger as he looked back at them.

"Sooner or later, they must learn to speak our native language, and several others as well," Inbir remarked solemnly, forgetting for a moment his daydreams about Aeffe. "There is no better time than now to begin."

The sun was slowly sinking behind the western mountains as they rode deeper into Ithilien. The afterglow remained for some minutes, painting the sky in vibrant colors before the valley was plunged into dismal gray shadows. They were still on the outskirts of the Anduin valley; the land had not yet begun to rise and follow the course which the misty river had carved through the hills. Off into the trees, dilapidated cottages and old stone ruins peered out at them like silent sentinels, possessing secrets of the past. A multitude of insects hummed in the trees, and frogs croaked along the many small streams which trickled sluggishly down from the hills and mountains.

The small entourage had ridden another half mile when Esarhaddon led them off the main road and onto a winding path which ran into the woods. Coming to a sheltered clearing in the midst of a grove of mixed hardwoods and evergreens, Esarhaddon called a halt for the night, and the men set about making camp. Guarded by Ubri, the twins were left to sit their horses and wait while Ganbar went to the packs and retrieved a rug and two small brass oil lanterns - part of the gifts from the largess of Shakh Awidan. After lighting the lamps, he went to the area which had been set aside for the horses and hung a lantern from a low branch. The other he chained to a limb of a spreading plane tree about thirty feet away from the picket line and spread the rug beneath it.

After he and Ganbar had helped the girls dismount, they unbound their hands and escorted them to the plane tree. Ordering them to sit down and keep out of the way, the two bodyguards left them, going to tend their own horses and those of their charges. From their well-lit spot, Elfhild and Elffled watched as a picket line was quickly set up between two ash trees.

"Elfhild," her sister whispered to her, "with all this light, I feel as conspicuous as I would if we were standing naked in the village square! Do you feel as though we are on display?"

"While I do not like to think of it that way, I suppose that we are," Elfhild replied glumly. "They have lit up this whole area so that they can better see to guard us. They are taking no chances on our escaping this time, are they?"

"Well, they have no need to worry about that on my part." Elffled crossed her arms over her chest and glared pointedly at her sister.

Elfhild sensed her sister's displeasure with her and felt a pang of guilt. Choosing to ignore Elffled's remark, she scooted closer to her sister and dropped her voice to a whisper. "Elffled, there is something I must tell you. I would have told you sooner, but this is the first time we have been allowed to talk with each other for any length of time."

Elffled turned questioning eyes to her twin. "What is it?"

Elfhild looked around to make sure that no one was listening in to their conversation. Even though Ubri had forbidden them from speaking in their native tongue, he was not close enough to hear them, and Elfhild felt it best to talk in a language which the Southrons did not understand. "Our wine has been drugged the past two nights. I overheard Esarhaddon talking about it last night when he was taking his pleasure with two of the slave women back at Minas Tirith."

Elffled blanched, appalled by this revelation. "Oh, that is terrible!" A sad little sigh escaped her lips. "They really do hold complete power over us, do they not?" Her brow furrowed and she paused for a moment, as though contemplating some weighty matter. "Well, the food and wine we are given at supper might be drugged, but at least they are feeding us. They could starve us, you know. Feed us nothing but stale crusts of bread and thimblefuls of stagnant water."

"Oh, Elffled, it grieves my heart to hear you say these words, but, alas, I fear they are true." Elfhild shook her head in dismay. "We truly are at their mercy."

Hugging her arms around her legs, Elffled rested her chin upon her knees and watched the men caring for the horses. Though she had never imagined that one day she would become a thrall of her enemies, sent to labor as a slave in a foreign land, it seemed that these miserable circumstances were to be her lot in life. But then she started wondering… what if she were the one in power, and these Southrons were her slaves? While her sister and she were powerless against Esarhaddon and his men, at least in her mind she could have dominion over them. The corners of her mouth curled up in a calculating smile as she pretended that she was a rich buyer at a slave auction.

She imagined all four of her captors standing upon a stage, forcibly stripped to the waist so their muscular torsos and arms would be exhibited to the best advantage. As she studied each one, she would compare his physical attributes to the other men's. Then when the bidding started and the men looked over at her with pleading eyes, yearning for her to buy them, she would select one or two who struck her fancy. After their purchase, these fortunate two would fawn upon her, lavishing her with attention and answering her every extravagant whim. At this delightful thought, Elffled bit her lip and held her breath to suppress a giggle. She did not want Elfhild knowing about her outrageous fantasy.

All of the Southrons were bearded save for Ganbar, who sported a mustache upon his tawny face. Although each one was a fine-looking man in his own way, only two could be considered exceptionally handsome. While the sight of his wide shoulders and narrow hips might make many girls gasp in admiration, Ubri's heavy features appeared perpetually sullen, even hostile. He seldom smiled and his brow was scored deeply by an almost constant frown, giving the impression that his temper was quick and fiery, and if he were crossed, he would prove a fierce, desperate foe.

His temples and mustache silvered with gray, Ganbar, the eldest of the Southern slavers, was lean and tall, towering above the other men by several inches. The narrow bridge of his long, thin, hooked nose separated his close-set dark brown eyes and perched above his tight lips. There was a dark brown mole on the left of his chin, which did nothing to improve his looks. In spite of his close-set eyes, Ganbar could at least have been called pleasant in appearance if it were not for his prominent ears. A golden earring dangled from his right lobe, and rather than accentuating his stronger features, it only called attention to his conspicuous ears. Large and protruding, his ears reminded Elffled of those on the enormous gray beasts that she had seen among the invading force; mûmaks, the Southrons called them.

The twins knew nothing about him, but Ganbar was a frugal man who had always been prudent with his earnings, never squandering his substance in drinking, wenches, and riotous living. Over the years, he had managed to save enough that he was able to loan his brothers the money to set up a small stall in the souk of Sangkur, a port city on the southeastern tip of the Haradric peninsula. As his brothers had prospered, they had been able to repay the loan with interest.

A large, powerfully built man with broad shoulders, thick chest, and muscular, brawny arms, Esarhaddon was the heaviest of the four Southrons. He had the lazy, indolent look of a man who preferred the pleasures of luxurious living to the more rigorous pursuits of fowling and hunting. His dark brown eyes, often half veiled beneath heavy, drooping lids, appraised everything with a critical and calculating gaze. He lived as though he were sultan of the whole world and everyone was his servant. Though Elffled could not deny that he was a darkly exotic and intriguing man whose commanding presence could make many a maiden swoon, he carried far too much weight for her ever to consider him as truly handsome.

Yet the thought of the powerful slaver groveling at her feet as a lowly slave was truly a delicious one. While she reclined luxuriously upon silken brocade pillows and cushions, he would be forced to wait upon her hand and foot, bringing her every delicacy that she craved. When he had pleased her, she would pat him upon the head and stroke his dark curls as she would a pet dog or cat, and call him those petty terms of endearment that the Southrons were so fond of using.

Inbir, the beautiful one, would be seated on a cushion beside her chair, looking up adoringly at her, his soft, luminous eyes glowing with love. Strumming upon his lute, he would sing songs that he had composed for her, haunting, lovely melodies which extolled her beauty and grace. While she would require Esarhaddon to perform more menial tasks, such as grooming her favorite horse or holding the animal while she mounted, she would demand nothing more of Inbir, save that he keep her entertained with his music and poetry. She was certain that she could be quite content to spend her whole life listening to him sing and play while she watched his dark eyes close in ecstasy as he sang his heart out for her. Of course, both Inbir and Esarhaddon would love and idolize her, worshiping the ground where her shadow had touched. Occasionally, she would deign to reward one of them with a light kiss upon the forehead.

Certainly each slave would become jealous of the other, but that was so much for the better, for their envy would only make them that much more eager to please her. Then, if she ever found a good man who was worthy of her, she would marry him, but she would not cast aside her loyal servants. Nay, she would hold them just as dear to her heart as she did when she had first obtained them. She would wind her husband so tightly about her finger that he would become a slave of love, and so in that sense, there would really be three doting slaves to serve her, rather than only two. After all, since the men of the South could have many women, why could not a woman have her own gardens of delight filled with strong, handsome men who lived to please her every whim?

While in her mind she might be able to make the men of the enemy suffer for every harsh deed which they had dealt her, every cruel and cutting word, in reality Elffled was overpowered and outnumbered, a weak and helpless slave at their mercy. She could amuse herself by imagining that she had power over them, but in truth she trembled with fear in their presence.

By the time Elffled had pushed these vain imaginings from her mind, the guards had finished caring for the horses for the night and turned their attentions to the camp. Nearby Esarhaddon and Ubri were involved with one of their usual private discussions, talking quietly in their own language. The twins could hear Ganbar as he rummaged through one of the packs, and Inbir, who hummed to himself as he built a campfire. Preoccupied with their own pursuits, none of them paid the slightest bit of attention to the twins.

Weary from the day's journey, the men were concerned with little save food, drink and rest. While the presence of the two fair maidens stirred their hot blood, the guards knew that both were out of their reach. If any of them should touch one of the captive slave women, he would be lucky if all he lost was his manhood. Part of a larger consignment of slaves bound for the land of Nurn and under the protection of Esarhaddon, the twins would be put on the public auction block, as per the Mordorian laws. They might be bought by a lord who wanted slave girls to warm his bed or work in his household, or their purchaser could be a private dealer who would train them and then resell them for a higher price.

Whichever the case, their new owner would most likely pay an exorbitant price for them. Those lords who had been granted the right to operate factories and huge farms often did not purchase slaves, but rented them from Mordor on an annual basis. However, those who wished finer quality slaves for their households were quick to pay for the privilege of owning them, if anything was really owned in Nurn. In truth and in practice, the Dark Lord owned everything and everyone in that sad land. None of Esarhaddon's men gave much thought to such matters, which were the concern of rich merchants and lords, and not simple men who were descended from nomadic herders.

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