The Circles - Book Five - Chapter 18

The Circles - Book Five - Through the Valley of Death
Chapter Eighteen
Strange Southern Brew
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

Elfhild awoke from a particularly unsettling dream in which poor old Tarlanc had come to her, grave dirt clinging to his tattered clothing. His tall, thin form appeared cadaverous now, and the front of his tunic was covered with a deep maroon stain from where his throat had been slit. His face, mutilated by Sharapul's cruel blade, was covered with a ghastly grin from ear to ear, his cheeks dark with dried blood.

"Because I did not fulfill my oath, I am cursed to walk the earth," he moaned, the sound both piteous and terrifying. "You are just as much responsible for my death as the uruks!" He shambled forward, stabbing a bony finger at her. "Murderer! Murderer!"

Sitting up, Elfhild felt dizzy and reached out a hand to support herself. Throbbing waves of pain assaulted her skull, and her eyes ached so fiercely that the pale light of early dawn seemed to set off raging bursts of fire behind her eyes. She blearily looked at her surroundings. Elffled was beside her, still sound asleep. Thankfully, the slaver was nowhere in sight. She wondered what purpose he had in sharing the sleeping mat with her and her sister. Perhaps he was convinced that they might try to escape under the cover of darkness, and he was guarding them in case the drugged wine did not produce the desired effect of somnolence. Or perhaps he was protecting them from the dark creatures which he said lurked in the woods. Or perhaps he was in an amorous mood and wanted to paw over their bodies while they slept. Who knew the mind of such an abhorrent man? Of course, perhaps Elfhild had only dreamt that Esarhaddon had slept between her and her sister. When besotted out of one's wits by some strange potion, who knew what was really real and what was illusion?

Elfhild shook her head to clear it, but even the slightest movement caused the pain in her skull to rage mercilessly. Her mind and body seemed to be disengaged from each other, disjointed parts of the whole, though at other times, she was certain that the two were separate entities entirely. In her addled state, she was unable to concentrate for any length of time, and she felt as though her brain had turned into a conglomerate of honey and mush. Massaging her temples, she looked about her, not quite certain even where she was. Nothing seemed to make good sense to her that morning. Pulling her knees up to her chest, she rested her forehead upon them and closed her eyes. She must force herself to think, to make sense of what was happening to her, but her mind still refused to cooperate.

"Are you awake?" Ganbar's rough voice barely penetrated her foggy brain. Then there was silence as he waited for a reply. Hearing none, he repeated the question. "Are you awake?" Slowly he tapped his foot up and down. Even though the sound could barely be heard, its impatient repetition irritated Elfhild, for she resented being constantly hurried all the time.

"Do I look like I am awake?" she shot out petulantly, keeping her head pressed against her knees.

"Keep your flippant comments to yourself, woman, and do not give me any sauce!" Ganbar growled. "And why do you remain seated, stupid cow? You show me no respect by assuming this slovenly pose! Have you forgotten what I taught you?" Angered by what he perceived as the girl's insolence, Ganbar's usual good nature was sorely pressed, and he spoke harshly to her. "Slaves are to rise up and bow when their superiors approach them. You should be whipped for this insolence! Now stand to your feet and bow!"

Elfhild slowly lifted her head and concentrated on Ganbar's blurred shape until at last his body came into focus. The feeling of unreality which had plagued her since waking had begun to fade, and with a shiver of dread, she realized her impertinence. "Master, please forgive me! I must have been talking in my sleep!" she apologized hastily as she commanded her unsteady legs to bear her weight. Then as another wave of dizziness struck her, she felt light-headed and tottered back and forth, weaving on her feet.

"Sit down, wench!" Ganbar exclaimed irritably. "You have not yet regained your wits."

"Thank you, Master," Elfhild murmured gratefully as she sank to her knees and sat back on her heels.

"If your mind were not befuddled from the draught of yesterevening, I would punish you severely for your hateful tongue and lack of respect!" Ganbar snapped. "Clear your head of its webs! The time for sleep is over."

Scowling at the kneeling slave girl, Ganbar was struck by just how vulnerable and frightened she appeared. He had the urge to kneel down beside her, comfort her and wipe the tears from her eyes, and perhaps tell her an amusing story to put a smile upon that lovely face. "She looks so devastated," he reprimanded himself as he felt the bite of guilt.

Had he been wrong in treating her so severely? "Yes, yes," he answered himself, "the sweet, darling girl never deserved the cruel name I called her or the harsh treatment I have dealt her and her sister." Seeing her distress, Ganbar felt angry with himself, angry and frustrated. He had never wanted the assignment of supervising these girls, and he knew himself to be woefully inadequate for the task. What did he know of teaching new slaves anyway? His two slave women had already been trained when he purchased them. Perhaps he was doing everything wrong. "Damn it, why did the Shakh decide to give the slave eunuch away? If he had stayed, he would have been the one to teach these girls!"

Feeling guilty, Ganbar began to speak again, but his tone was much kinder than before. "I have something here which might be helpful to you in waking up." Elfhild saw that he held a brass tray containing two small tulip-shaped green ceramic cups, two brass saucers, and two glasses of water.

Ganbar's loud talking had awakened Elffled, and, groaning, she sat up. "What is that?" she asked, gesturing towards the tray. "From the smell, I do not think I want any... I fear that my stomach is unsettled this morning." Though her sleep had been deep and peaceful with no dreams that she could remember, still she felt nauseated and her body ached with a dull pain.

Deciding that he would deal more kindly with the sisters, Ganbar squatted down and placed the tray on the carpet between them. "Slave girls, the foam-topped brown liquid which you see before you is called 'coffee,' and the glasses of water are provided so that you can refresh your taste after each drink," he remarked as he rose to his feet and moved away to stand at the edge of the carpet. The carpet belonged to the great shakh himself, and it would be rude of him to stand upon it. He considered a moment and then added, "You are cautioned that the coffee is very hot, and perhaps you will find the water of use in keeping the liquid from scalding your mouth."

Cautiously, Elfhild picked up the cup and stared down at the frothy foam on the surface of the liquid. Carefully maneuvering the cup to her mouth, she took a sip. "Ow!" she cried, almost dropping the cup. "'Tis both hot and bitter!" She made a wry face and quickly reached for the glass of water to cool her tongue.

"Perhaps bitter to your unaccustomed tongue," Ganbar laughed, "but we are used to our coffee strong and only mildly sweetened. You girls should feel grateful this morning, for the illustrious Shakh has decided that he will allow you each a cup of this fine coffee. Making good coffee is a complicated and involved process, and while any one of us can brew it, the Shakh reserves that task for himself, for he takes great pride in preparing the drink."

"We are honored by the lord's kindness," Elfhild replied bleakly as she took a sip from her cup. Though Ganbar's tone was milder, she could not yet forgive him for his harsh words.

Growing irritated at Elfhild's sarcasm, Ganbar shot her a hostile look. "Of course, as ignorant barbarians, you would know nothing of the pleasures of this wholesome and stimulating drink!"

"Nay, Master, we are peasants," Elfhild interjected coldly, "and until recently we had not traveled more than a few leagues from our home. We have no idea what the folk of other countries eat or drink."

Ganbar pondered her words for a few moments, and, concluding finally that the girl agreed with him, he smiled indulgently. "Since someday you may well be making coffee for your new owner, you should begin now to learn all you can about this wondrous brew."

"Master, after drinking a few swallows of this strong concoction, I can see that is an acquired taste," Elffled offered diplomatically as she felt her throat assaulted and her stomach scourged by the bitter draught.

"Aye, that is true, but it is a taste that, once acquired, is irresistible. The salubrious effects of this commendable potable were discovered long ago by a young goat herder who was tending his flock in the highlands of Harad." Ganbar beamed at the girls, pleased that at last they had become more tractable. Warming to his story, he went on, gesticulating excitedly with his hands as he came to points which especially impressed him. "The young goat herder had just moved his flock higher up the mountain when he discovered that they had begun to act in a queer fashion. The creatures would not sleep that night, but jumped and cavorted until almost dawn, seemingly indefatigable.

"When morning came, he observed the goats closely and found that they favored a red berry which grew on a small gray shrub covered with colorful foliage. Curious and perhaps more than a little foolhardy, the boy ate some of the berries and discovered that they refreshed his senses and made him more awake." Ganbar smiled at the girls, and seeing that they seemed interested in his tale, he continued, the tone of his voice growing more excited. "One day a wandering holy man came upon the lad, and learning of the beneficial qualities of the berry, he ground some of them up and poured boiling water upon the powder, thus creating what we know as 'coffee.'" Resting his hands upon his thighs, Ganbar looked from one girl to the other, expecting a comment.

"Master, your story was most enjoyable." Elfhild smiled politely. Her sister's face, though, had turned ashen, and the corners of her mouth turned down in a queasy expression. As she had followed Ganbar's animated exposition of the goat herder's tale and watched him wave his arms exuberantly, she had become even sicker.

Pleased at Elfhild's compliment, Ganbar took it as his cue to go on. "You girls do not know how fortunate we are to have this enjoyable brew today, for our supply was exhausted days ago. Were it not for the gracious kindness of Shakh Awidan..."

Elffled could bear no more. As she forced down the last of the coffee, she found that the strong brew collided with her stomach in a churning wave of acidic fury. Her hand shaking, she put the cup down on the carpet. "Oh no, I am sick!" she moaned as she clasped her hands over her mouth and sprang to her feet. Running a few feet into the trees, she bent over, gagged, and retched the contents of her stomach into the bushes. Another racking spasm slammed into her stomach, and she retched again. "Oh, I am dying!" she wailed.

"Oh, Elffled!" Elfhild started to roll to her knees and rush to her sister, but Ganbar's firm hand on her shoulder pushed her down.

"Is your sister a child and can do nothing for herself, even vomit?" Ganbar chided her, his brows furrowed in a deep scowl. "It is her stomach, not yours, that is sick! There is nothing you can do to help her. Now, woman of Rohan, you will finish your coffee, and then you will place both cups and saucers back on the tray. Thank whatever gods you worship that she did not expel the contents of her stomach on the Shakh's fine, expensive carpet!" Shaking his head, he gave her a pitying look as he held up his hands towards the heavens. "If that had happened, the little beauty would have felt the sting of the flail!" He looked towards the woods where Elffled was still bent double. "After you have collected the cups, you will follow me to the stream, where you will wash your dishes."

"But, Master, what about my sister?" Elfhild protested. "Can you not see that she is ill?"

"Not ill enough to need a nurse," he growled. "When her stomach is cleaned out, she will follow us soon enough. If not, she will have to answer to me."

By the time Elffled finally stumbled to the stream, her sister had finished washing and drying the dishes and had placed them back in the tray. "Master," Elffled bowed from the waist, "I am so sorry! I did not mean to--"

"I know, I know," Ganbar dismissed her apologies with a wave of his hand. "There is little time to talk, for we soon must be on the trail once again. The men have already eaten, and you are allowed what remains."

Feeling far too queasy after her violent attacks of vomiting, Elffled did not touch the cold breakfast that awaited them. Elfhild ate sparingly, her mind brooding upon both the strange flying beasts and the dream she had about Tarlanc. After they had finished cleaning up the eating utensils, they went back to camp and found their horses saddled and waiting for them. Soon the party turned back on the main road and set off at a sprightly trot in the direction of Mordor.

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