The Circles - Book Five - Chapter 16

The Circles - Book Five - Through the Valley of Death
Chapter Sixteen
Serving Master
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

Hanging down from the low-spreading silvery branches of a plane tree, the brass lanterns cast a festive amber glow over the scene below. Awaiting their supper, Esarhaddon and his three lieutenants were seated cross-legged upon a large crimson rug adorned with gold medallions. Though the men's sense of humor and merriment seemed no less than on any other night, still Elfhild and Elffled sensed that there was a change in the underlying mood shared by the slaver's three lieutenants. The men seemed tenser, more serious, alert and on guard. Occasionally one of them glanced furtively into the dark shadows under the trees and just as quickly looked back at the fire, as though it was their only protection against some evil which lurked unseen in the forest. Esarhaddon, however, seemed perfectly at ease, comfortable and nonplussed. Amused at a joke told by Ubri, the slaver threw back his head, roaring with laughter and slapping his thigh in enthusiasm.

Despite all the merriment and mirth, the good cheer reached only as far as the circle of radiating light extended. Beyond the comforting circumference of the lanterns' glow, the trees lay all about them, heavy and somber. In places where the branches grew twisted and sullen, the dark growth seemed to be encroaching, and sometimes a glance at the forest gave one the uncanny sensation that the trees were not always in the same places they had been before. These sensations, of course, were but mere figments of the imagination, for it took trees years to grow, and they never moved of their own accord like men or animals. Of course, not one of the men would admit his unease to the others, for he knew that if he did, he would find himself the brunt of many scornful gibes.

Ubri, a man of common sense and practicality, much like the slaver himself, laughed off the vague sense of anxiety which troubled the far corners of his mind. This strange mood always came over the men whenever they recrossed the Anduin and approached the domain of the Dark Lord. There was no logical reason for this dread, however, for the House of Huzziya had paid the required monies and fees and held contracts which granted them the right of passage through these lands.

This unease was nothing more than the flickering memory of childhood fears, conjured up by rumors which brooded about the Haunted Valley like a cloud of squawking ravens. Every time Ubri passed through the vale, he tried not to think of the stories of ghûls and djinns and travelers who never returned, or of the shadowy figures which he sometimes saw for a brief instant on the periphery of his vision. It was a fear unworthy of a man, and he hated it, but at least he did not let it strip him of his senses, as happened to some travelers. Still, though, he was only a common man, and not possessed of the doughty fortitude of his lord, and could not help but feel a degree of intimidation. The fear was totally unfounded, though, he told himself.

Since the night of their capture in the Mark, being forced to camp every night in the woods was hardly a novel experience to the twins anymore, and they had spent many a dark and doleful night beneath the shadows of tall trees. Though they had been afraid then, it was not the forest itself which they feared, but rather their brutish captors. While the woods of Ithilien appeared much like all the other woods through which they had passed, there seemed to be an undercurrent of mystery about them, which began at some indefinite point in the east and radiated outward like ripples in a pond.

Indeed, ever since they had crossed the Anduin, both girls had sensed a change which they could not name or define, but which they knew was there. Elfhild had sensed it even before they completed the crossing of the Anduin, swirling in the vapors which steamed above the mouth of the misty river. While the war-devastated plains of Gondor exuded a dismal ambiance of utter barrenness and ruin, and the deserted city of Osgiliath was permeated by the neglect of years, this side of the Anduin had an aura of strangeness about it. Here the very air seemed alive, filled with some unseen presence which coated the trees, covered the ground, and clung chill and clammy to the skin.

As they prepared the food for supper, the twins often glanced towards the great plane tree with its cheery glowing lanterns. Even though the darkness seemed to press close, it was silly to be afraid, for there was only a short walk to where the men sat, enjoying their usual lively banter. If any threat from wild beast or orcs should arise, the Southrons would protect them, for they were all well-armed. Still Elffled felt compelled to look over her shoulder into the gloom several times, but she saw nothing more frightening than the luminescent yellowish green sheen of a glow worm which was creeping along the ground near her foot. Elfhild, occupied with slicing hard cheese, was momentarily startled when she heard the high, shrill "kee-ew" of an owl far away in the woods. A short while later when the little owl swooped above her head, she shrugged its unexpected appearance away, concluding that it was merely seeking its supper.

The twins found they were actually enjoying the simple, commonplace task of preparing a meal. If such work was all that was involved in servitude, then being a slave was not so very much worse than being a scullery maid in a thane's hall. Yet when Esarhaddon's languorous gaze oozed over their bodies as they went about their business, they felt the true helplessness of their condition. Unlike scullery maids, the twins were only property, chattel for wealthy Mordorians to buy, sell or trade.

Even though they were only lowly slaves, they could still show these wicked men of the South that their personalities remained intact and that they took pride in themselves and what they were. No matter that it was only the humble act of slicing and placing food on a tray, they would do their work neatly and efficiently. They would not turn to petty meanness just to spite the Southrons, and rather than haphazardly dumping the food on the tray and expecting the men to fish out what they wanted, the twins would arrange the food as tastefully as they would if it had been for a thane. To Elfhild, this act was a passive show of defiance, while Elffled strove to please her captors and earn what respect she could from them.

As each girl labored over the large cutting board, she determined that the tray would look as pleasing as any the slavers had ever beheld in the South. Their ideas on doing this differed, however, when it came to how the food would be arranged upon the platter. They had both agreed upon a starburst pattern, but they were at odds on how exactly to group the food into the rows which resembled the rays of the star.

"No, no, Elffled!" her twin whispered. "Do not put that piece of meat there! It looks out of place in that row of cheese!"

"I think it looks quite artistic, sister. See how the contrast in color makes the cheese stand out?" Elffled remarked as she added another slice of meat to the row.

"No, no!" Elfhild tossed her head in frustration, her voice rising higher. "It simply will not do! The meat should go elsewhere!"

Then, much to their chagrin, the irritated voice of Ubri interrupted their petty bickering. "What is taking you wenches so long? Are you going to be out there the rest of the night? Wash our hands now before I come over and speed you along!"

"Yes, yes, Master, we have prepared the food and now we are coming directly to wash your hands," Elfhild called apologetically over to the captain.

"See what you have done now by trying to destroy my work?" Elffled hissed through clenched teeth as she tossed a rind of meat at her sister, which struck her on the shoulder. "You have made the Captain angry at us!"

"Oh, yes, it is all my fault," Elfhild huffed as she covered the tray and set it aside. At least, she thought as she filled a silver ewer with water, the mundane normalcy of preparing food had taken their minds off their deplorable situation for a while.

In spite of Ganbar's instruction, the twins were anxious, uncertain of their new duties and how they should behave around these foreigners. Looking over to her sister, Elfhild watched as the lamplight caught the mixture of emotions that played over her face - anxiety, anticipation, fear, and finally grudging acceptance. Elfhild smiled encouragingly at her, and her twin managed a weak smile in return. Squeezing her sister's shoulder for comfort, Elffled took a deep breath, bowed her head, and stepped forward to walk beside Elfhild.

Her fingers curling around the slender curved handle of the ewer, Elfhild kept pace with the other girl, who bore a tray which held a large ceramic bowl and a stack of small hand cloths. As they approached the carpet where the Southrons were seated, their chins were tilted downward and their eyes were demurely averted. Kneeling gracefully at Esarhaddon's side, Elffled held the bowl under the slaver's hands while her sister poured scented water over them. Barely nodding at them, Esarhaddon cleansed his hands while continuing his discussion with Ubri, who sat across from him.

After the sisters had washed and dried the hands of all of the men, they rose fluidly to their feet and went to fetch the meal, moving as quietly and inconspicuously as small mice. Soon returning, Elfhild knelt and placed the platter of food in the center of the rug. Elffled had brought a stack of napkins which she had found in one of the packs and wordlessly handed each man a cloth to wipe his hands and mouth, or to soak up a spill if needed. When the girls were finished, they silently rose to their feet and backed away, waiting for further orders.

Esarhaddon looked down at the platter, an enigmatic smile touching the corners of his mouth. Then he tore off a piece of hard bread, poured a few drops of olive oil over it, added a piece of meat, and put the morsel in his mouth. This was the signal for his men to eat from the communal plate. Furtively watching the men from beneath averted eyes, the sisters stole sidelong glances at each other, wordlessly expressing their disappointment that no one seemed to appreciate their work.

"Ingrates," Elffled muttered under her breath. "We could have rubbed the food in the dirt before serving it to them! They would not have noticed!"

"They would have beaten us if we had," Elfhild whispered back knowingly.

Throughout the meal, the men had talked among themselves in their own language, ignoring the girls as though they were not even there. Only twice were the twins summoned, once when the supply of dried meat was running low, and another time when the dried fruit needed to be replenished. Not once were they given a friendly word, paid a compliment, or thanked for their service. The men did not even call them by their proper names, referring to them instead as "slave" or "wench." Hungry and offended, Elfhild and Elffled hoped that the horrid meal would soon be over, and they would be able to take their own supper in peace.

While the men sat at their ease and talked, the twins' duties were not yet finished. Returning to the storage area, they left the soiled reminders of the meal and fetched fresh water and towels for the Southrons to use to cleanse their hands. After attending to the other men, the girls went to Inbir, kneeling on either side of him. Elffled's heart quickened at the nearness of him, and suddenly she felt very shy and clumsy as she held the bowl beneath his hands. She fought the urge to look up at his handsome face, and instead studied his fingers as the water from the ewer cascaded over them. As she was drying him, her elbow accidentally collided with his arm. Tensing, she froze in place, frightened of punishment.

"Please forgive me, Master," she murmured softly, her head bowed.

"Clumsy slave!" Inbir looked up at her sharply. As his indignant eyes collided with her tear-filled ones, his offended glare gradually softened until the barest hint of a smile turned up the corners of his handsome lips. "Do not let it happen again!" Looking away from her, he turned to Esarhaddon, whose lazy, hooded eyes were unreadable. "Shakh, with your leave, I will go now to prepare more tea." Inbir's voice sounded hoarse as he excused himself.

Ganbar coughed. "You wenches may eat now," he told them in a low voice. Rising to his feet, he motioned for them to follow and then led them towards the storage area. "You may eat whatever is left upon the platter. Be quick about it, though, for you do not have much time. You still have the dirty trays, platter and utensils to wash in the stream."

The sisters looked down at the tray of picked over food, and Elffled made a face at the meager fare which remained. "We will never get fat eating these crumbs," she muttered, a scowl marring her lovely features. "I had hoped that the food among the Southrons would be better than this."

"What did you say?" Ganbar demanded suspiciously.

"Master Ganbar," Elffled returned sweetly, "I was merely remarking on how wonderfully filling this repast will be."

His face relaxing, Ganbar nodded. "It is good to see that you appreciate what you are given. Now do not waste any of it!"

"Oh, how could we, Master? There is so little of anything... that we do not like," Elffled simpered as she picked up a small, dried out raisin and made an elaborate ceremony of chewing the fruit. She congratulated herself on having had the wisdom to sample the food as she was preparing it, for in spite of the scant meal which they had been given, her belly felt reasonably full, though it could be fuller.

When the sisters had finished eating, Ganbar took a lantern and guided them to the stream bank. Never letting them out of his sight, he supervised them as they washed the dishes and later packed them away. "The Shakh has paid you both a great honor," he told them as they followed him back to the campfire. "He will allow you to stay and talk with him for a time before he retires."

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