Her mouth gaping open, Elffled stared at the lifeless bodies of the Southrons, her mind reeling with horror. Four men had been murdered to appease this Seneschal's lust for coin. She knew little about the Southrons, but guessed they probably had wives, children, servants, and kinsmen who would grieve for them. She imagined the heartbreak their families would feel when tidings reached them of their bizarre deaths. Though Esarhaddon often treated her and her sister harshly, Elffled felt a reluctant loyalty to him, a strange bond forged of desperation. Now she and Elfhild were at the mercy of this Seneschal, a dark sorcerer who possessed terrible powers.
"This cannot be happening," she told herself, her mind in a state of disbelief. None of this was real... it was all just a horrible nightmare caused by the sleeping potion which Esarhaddon had put in her wine. Soon she would wake up and find herself back in the slaver's camp, protected by strong men. Closing her eyes, she willed herself to awaken from this demented fantasy.
"What do we have here?"
Elffled looked up to see the Seneschal towering over her. His shadow blocked out the light of the sun, and the air around him seemed cold and chill despite the balmy June day. Consumed with ever growing fear, Elffled felt as if she were shattering into a thousand little pieces like a vase dropped upon a cobblestone street. She sank to her knees in a trembling mass of mindless terror, her forehead pressing against the ground in subservience to this powerful sorcerer.
"You may rise," the Seneschal told her, and Elffled struggled to stand upon shaky legs.
"M-my sister is ill, my lord," Elffled stammered, her head bowed. "She cannot obey you, for she has fainted and now lies in a stupor."
"Ah, I see," the Seneschal murmured, tsking and shaking his hooded head. "The valley has that effect upon some." He bent down over the unconscious girl. His gloved hand hovered over her face for a few seconds, his fingers pulsing as though sensing the currents of the ethers, and then he inhaled deeply. Gathering her into his arms, he rose to his feet, and, in a voice cold and deadly, ordered Elffled to follow. She had no choice but to obey their new captor.
Walking past the unseen eyes of the dark escort, Elffled followed the Seneschal to a winding path which led through a grove of junipers. The trees grew close together, their scaly needles touching, their branches weaving together as though each tree were embracing its neighbor. Sunlight fell down through the tangled limbs, casting muted shafts of light and shadow over the little trail. Wild roses grew in the sunny places, their delicate vines sprawling over rocks and pebbles. A soft humming was heard every now and then as a black and silver bee lighted upon each dainty pink flower along the path.
The Seneschal laid Elfhild down upon a beautiful bench carved from pink and white marble. The back and sides of the stone couch were engraved with ornate floral designs which resembled vining roses clambering up elegant trellises. Crawling up and down the trunks of the trees which surrounded the bench were small phosphorescent worms which glowed like corpse lights against the shadowy bark.
"Can… can you heal her, my lord?" Elffled asked timidly.
"Do I look like a healer?" the Seneschal asked, a hint of amusement in his cold, icy voice, as though enjoying some private jest. "I can do many things, the least of which is to revive this unfortunate maiden."
Kneeling over the unconscious girl, the Seneschal intoned a few phrases in an unfamiliar language. Elffled shivered at the knowledge that the sorcerer was performing some sort of magic ritual. Even if this unknown spell did restore her sister's health, she felt as though she were witnessing something which was inherently wrong. Magic deviated from the natural order of things, and thus it was forbidden. But, still, if it could help her sister…
Elfhild's eyes slowly fluttered open, and she looked up blearily at the hooded figure who loomed before her.
"Have you come to bear me away to the Halls of the Dead?" she whispered.
"Nay," the Seneschal chuckled, "I am here to return you to the land of the living."
Suddenly Elfhild realized that this was a noble lord of Minas Morgul, and not the grim spectre of Death. She sat up quickly, her intention to kneel upon the ground before him, but stars swirled in front of her eyes. Slumping forward, she clutched her head in her hands and moaned. Taking a seat beside her upon the marble bench, Elffled gently rubbed her back and shoulders.
"Look at me, both of you," the Seneschal commanded. "I want to see your eyes."
Fearfully, the sisters raised their heads and gazed upon the chin of the cold, emotionless silver mask. Creeping slowly, hesitantly, their eyes traveled up the metal face, their gaze meeting his unseen eyes. Abject terror ripped through the minds of both girls. Their hearts seemed to freeze, their breaths stolen from their chests, caught by an unseen hand. It was as though time itself had come to a grinding, screeching halt. Yet neither girl could turn away from the dark slits of the Seneschal's mask. He held their gaze captive like a great dragon of old, his will subduing theirs with little contest, and the twins sensed that he was weaving some enchantment over them.
With a sudden movement, the Seneschal pulled his helm from his head and held it under his arm. The twins were surprised at the man's appearance. They had expected to see a face marked with malice, but instead they saw a handsome young man with arresting gray eyes, a high, arrogant nose, and full, sensual lips. His long black hair escaped his padded arming cap and fell over his shoulders. His face was pallid, as though he spent most of his time inside in secret dark spell rooms, pouring over ancient grimoires. He smiled pleasantly at the girls, revealing pearly white teeth, but the perfection they saw could not disguise a cruel set to his lips. Elfhild noted that there was a gap between his front teeth, and she remembered the old sayings that such a trait was a sign of deep sensuality.
"Elfhild and Elffled, slaves from the wild hinterland of the North, I am the Seneschal of Minas Morgul," he stated in a deep, masterful voice. Cupping his chin in his hand, he studied them for what seemed like an eternity, the brooding expression on his face frightening to behold. Even though they were fully dressed, the sisters felt even more uncomfortable than they had when they stood naked before the slaver. The Seneschal's intense gaze bored into them, as though his eyes were attempting to pierce through their flesh and breech the very sanctity of their souls. Untrained as they were in guarding their thoughts, the twins gave the Seneschal little difficulty in divining their natures. He sensed that one girl was tormented with guilt and divided in loyalty between the country of her birth and the land of her conquerors. The other girl, however, was loyal only to her sister.
Dropping down to one knee, he reached out and took Elffled's hand in his. Straightening each long, slender finger, he inspected first one side of her hand and then the other. "A peasant maid," he remarked as he ran a thumb over her roughened palms. His fingers traveled upward to rub over the callouses which encircled her wrists. "Such lovely wrists to be bound all the time... such sweet, slender wrists." His eyes glanced up into hers, causing her heart to leap in her chest and a blush to appear on her cheeks. When he turned away from her, she was left feeling bewildered and strangely dejected.
The Seneschal lifted Elfhild's hand and cradled it between his two palms, giving it the same thorough inspection that he had given her sister's hand. "You should stop biting your fingernails," he admonished, frowning as he laid her hand back down upon her lap. "It flaws the perfection of your slender fingers."
"It is a bad habit of mine, my lord." Utterly baffled by this strange Seneschal, Elfhild drew her hands close to her stomach.
Turning his attentions back to Elffled, the Seneschal reached his long fingers up to touch the hollow of her neck. His caresses were like bolts of lightning which blazed white hot through her veins. Oh, what was happening to her? She did not know, and at that point, she did not really care. Her eyes fluttered closed, her lips parting as she sighed softly. "Such a delicate neck," she heard his husky voice murmur. "I can feel the blood pumping. The red rose, so vibrant, and the pink, so much alike, but quite different."
Slowly he traced the outline of her jaw with his finger. "Do not be frightened..." he whispered, his fingertips brushing over her cheeks and skimming over the bridge of her nose. His cool caresses traced a ribbon of fire down to her lips, a finger tracing over their full contours. Her head tilted forward, her blushing skin longing for a deeper touch. Two fingers gently probed her closed eyelids, much as a blind person reads the features of another with his fingers.
"You are beautiful."
A ripple of pleasure washed over her body and she moaned softly, her head tipping back. Caught in this strange feeling, she reached her hands out to clutch him, but he had moved away.
"And now you, Elfhild. Are you as beautiful as your sister?" His smoldering eyes bored into hers, causing a strange little shiver to race up her spine. He seized her shoulders, his fingers slipping under her collar to trace over the life-giving veins and arteries of her neck. He could feel her pulse; her heart was hammering wildly. Her terror was an exhilarating aphrodisiac, an intoxicating perfume which his flaring nostrils inhaled deeply. As he caressed her face, she surrendered to his touches, the wild beating of her heart slowing as a sigh of pleasure escaped her lips. He stroked her under her chin until her long eyelashes fluttered closed over passion-darkened eyes.
"Rise, my beauties," the Seneschal commanded, extending his hands to them. "It has been a pleasure speaking with you. I will take you back to the Southrons now. Would that we could meet again someday..."
Frightened thoughts swirling wildly through their heads, Elfhild and Elffled obediently followed the Seneschal along the winding path through the juniper grove. When they reached the bridge, the twins saw to their horror that the four Southrons had not moved, and lay as still as death upon the pale Morgul road. Just beyond the men, the black riders sat atop their ebony steeds, forming a semi-circle of guard. Standing out in sharp contrast against the surrounding landscape, their silent, brooding presences resembled a wall of shadow which seemed to absorb all light around them.
"Oh, great lord," Elffled gasped, turning frightened eyes to the Seneschal. "I thought you said you were taking us back to the Southrons. Why do they still lie upon the ground? Are they dead?"
"Dead?" the Seneschal asked, his voice a mixture of curiosity and amusement. Once again he had hidden his handsome face behind the grim silver mask, and all that could be seen of his features was a strange glow around the eye slits.
"Yes, my lord," Elfhild spoke up fearfully. "How still they lie upon the ground, as though the bitter kiss of death were even now upon their pale lips!" On the verge of panic, she tried to calm the frantic beating of her heart as she stammered out, "Please, my lord, I beg you, awaken them from this deep slumber!"
"But they repose so peacefully..." His voice was a low hiss. "Would you have me disturb them from their blissful rest and return them to the twisted sham of life?" His eyes seemed to flash behind the slits of his mask, and the twins sensed that he was laughing at them all. "You have but to say the word, daughters of Eadbald the Brave, and these men will remain as you see them for all eternity. It matters not to me if life returns to their bodies or they molder into dust."
Elfhild blanched in horror at the thought of the lives of the four men being snuffed out like candles on a windy night. Though they were her enemies, they did not deserve to have such a horrible fate. "No, my lord!" she cried desperately, pleading with the Seneschal. "Please spare their lives!"
Slowly the Seneschal turned to face Elfhild. "Would you not take the opportunity to wreak your vengeance upon the enemies of your people? If they die, no one will ever know except the three of us. If you wished, you could come with me into the City. I am sure the Morgul Lord could find a place for you amongst his servants."
For one sickeningly long moment, Elfhild was tempted to beg the Seneschal to use his dark magic to slay the slave trader and his men. His words were a seductive whisper which tickled her ears and tantalized her senses. Visions of a future without the cruel Esarhaddon uHuzziya entered unbidden into her mind, filling her heart with a perverse hope of freedom. No longer would she live in fear of his anger and his whip. She and her sister would be free at last! She felt drunken with the power which she, a lowly slave, held over her masters - the ultimate power, the power of life and death.
"Oh, Gods, what am I thinking?!" her conscience cried out in anguish. That would be murder, cold-blooded, heartless murder! The very act of entertaining such ghastly fantasies made her feel like a murderess! Had war and tragedy twisted her that much? She jammed her knuckles into her mouth, biting down hard, punishing herself for her horrible thoughts, but the pain was not enough to cleanse her guilt-stained conscience. Though Esarhaddon often chastised her for trivial offenses, still he had never done anything severe enough to earn death as punishment. The man had even saved her life twice! She could not repay his mercy with treachery!
"No, dread lord, no!" Elfhild cried desperately, her hands clasped before her in supplication. "Spare the Southrons! Please spare them!"
"These men are enemies of your people," the Seneschal taunted. "They would gladly have claimed your kinsmen's lives, if they had the chance. Despite this, you would feel no hesitation in allowing them to live?"
"Oh, my lord, I cannot bear to see you kill them!" Elffled interrupted, tears welling up in her eyes as she looked to Esarhaddon and Inbir, who appeared close to the edge of death. She felt her heart stir with pity for both of them. The doughty Ganbar had been kind to them, and she would surely wish him no harm. Ubri, though... Perhaps it would be just as well if he were dead. "No, no!" she thought wildly. "I would not want the blood of anyone on my hands!"
"My lord, these men are but merchants," Elfhild spoke up bravely. "To my knowledge, they have never raised their swords in battle against my people. Though killing them might appeal to some, I cannot find it in my heart to order their executions. Nothing will bring my slain kinsmen back to life, not even the deaths of a whole army of orcs and men." Oh, how well she knew that bitter fact!
"Daughters of Eadbald, truly your loyalty should be commended." The Seneschal looked towards the unconscious Southrons. "I will spare these men at your request, although perhaps in time you may regret your mercy." He reached into a black leather bag at his belt and retrieved two silver coins, which he tossed to the twins. "Good slaves should always be rewarded for their fidelity and devotion. Although, now that I consider it, perhaps you should give these tokens to your master, as it seems that he feels that he is too poor to pay the tolls required to pass through my valley…" He threw back his head and laughed, a harsh, mocking sound which caused the twins to cower against each other.
The Seneshal took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Raising his right hand, he etched arcane symbols into the air as he softly chanted, "Nagraufom dhûlal!" Almost before the words were out of his mouth, the four men awakened and slowly sat up, groaning and looking around in confusion.
"Perhaps we shall meet again someday, maidens of sorrow!" The Seneschal laughed madly as he spurred his horse in the sides, causing the great stallion to spring forward. His laughter blew back to them on a cold wind as he galloped away towards the gleaming spectral city. His escort fell in behind him and the procession wound its way back up the winding road like a slithering serpent of shadow.
Hidden amongst the trees and underbrush that covered the northern slopes of the Ephel Dúath, the scout watched the proceedings between the Seneschal of Minas Morgul and the two young women. Clad in garments stitched from patches of mottled green, brown and gray, the man blended into his surroundings like a chameleon perched on a branch. Though most men in his profession preferred to creep about under the cover of darkness, he was glad for the daylight, for he knew that the wraiths in the valley below could not see him. They were weakest during the noonday sun, for the light confused their senses and robbed them of the greater part of their power.
Several days ago, a large caravan of slaves from Rohan passed through the Morgul Vale, and from what he had been told by his superiors, a smaller party was expected to come along later. The scout suspected that this small group of travelers consisted of the slave trader and his men, along with two captives. The men were obviously Haradric, and the women appeared to be from Rohan.
What interest did the Seneschal have in the two women? He had worked his foul magic to cast some sort of spell of sleep over the slavers while he talked to the pair. One of the women appeared to have fainted as well, but the Seneschal carried her away. Or had she really fainted? Perhaps it had all been some sort of ruse…
Obviously, the Seneschal did not want the nature of his conversation to be overheard by the wrong ears. Though the scout's location gave him an excellent view of the valley below, he could not see what happened once the Seneschal and the women disappeared into the juniper grove. Obviously, something of great import transpired within the shelter of those close-growing trees. What sort of treachery was the wraith planning this time?
Perhaps the women were really spies in the service of Minas Morgul. At what price did the women of Rohan sell their loyalties to spy for their enemies? The scout shook his head. So much for the vaunted virtues of the decadent and morally corrupt West! Of course, he considered, perhaps these were not escaped Rohirric slaves after all, but Rhûnian spies in league with the wraiths…
Swiftly and stealthily the scout left his hidden vantagepoint and moved through the woods towards the east. His superiors would be very interested to hear all that he had beheld that day.
"Nagraufom dhûlal!" - Rise sleepers. "Nagraufom" - rise, MERP; "dhûlal" - sleep + -al (suffix that turns verb into noun).