An hour of hard riding up the river valley took the slaver's party to the deep well known as the "Spring of the Silver Coin." Noted on maps and geographies as near the midway point of the Morgul Vale, the life-giving fountain was one of the few sources of water which had not been rendered undrinkable by the webs of magic which lay so heavily over the vale. Though augmented by the recent rains, the silvery currents had their source higher up on the slope, from whence they flowed and tumbled down a series of ledges. Frothing and foaming, at last they splashed into a deep pool at the base of the hill. The overflow sluiced out and then, running beneath an ornately carved bridge, the stream twisted its way to the Morgulduin.
Turning off the main road, the men rode along the stream until they reached a sheltered meadow below the spring. The ground had been worn bare of vegetation except for scattered tufts of dirty gray green grass and a few scraggly bushes. Although the spring was a major source of water for Sauron's troops passing through the valley, the land around it was surprisingly well kept.
"Clean as a hound's tooth," Inbir remarked, his voice low, as he and Ganbar unsaddled the horses. "You have to appreciate that."
"The territory west of the head of the Morgulduin is under the jurisdiction of Minas Morgul. The Nazgûl are not fond of stepping in orc dung, especially if their women are with them." His face convulsing in a wide grin, Ganbar guffawed as he stripped the pack from the sweaty back of a bay gelding.
"Certainly not! Those illustrious lords do not want to dirty their fine riding boots," Inbir agreed, patting the neck of a sorrel mare before slipping a lead line into the ring on her halter. "I have heard that if the slaves do not polish those boots until the leather gleams, the Nazgûl turn the poor devils into a pile of smoldering ash!"
"I think that an exaggeration, my jolly friend, but now we best be quiet," Ganbar muttered under his breath. "Here comes the Captain, and from the expression on his face, he must have a burr stuck up his arse."
Inbir followed Ganbar's gaze to see the Captain bearing down on them. "All right men, enough of the levity," Ubri warned in a cold voice, his face flushed with annoyance. "You need to finish with the horses quickly. The Shakh is in a foul mood this evening, and he is impatient for his supper. Talking will not get anything done, and there is much to be accomplished before we can set up camp." The Captain ticked off on his fingers a list of tasks. "...horses need to be cooled off before taking them to drink... fed and then curried... sufficient supply of firewood gathered... campfires built... food served... tea prepared... Is that enough to keep you busy, men?" His gaze challenged them.
"Well, Captain," Ganbar interjected warily, "we could use a little help."
"Where are those slave girls?" Ubri asked, pointedly ignoring his underling's suggestion. "Those two are rebels, obsessed with escape, and slippery as eels. If you do not watch them constantly, they will run away again." He frowned, his eyes narrowing into unpleasant slits.
"Captain, if you look up there," Ganbar pointed towards the hillside, "you will see the maids near the spring. I sent them to gather firewood on the slope a while back, and they have not been out of my sight once." He was disgusted and angered when he saw the Captain's eyes gleam with lust as his gaze fell upon the twins. "The Captain desires them," Ganbar worried to himself, "but he dares not to touch a hair of their heads, for the Shakh would have his balls crushed and then impale him upon a stake." Ganbar had come to think of the twins as poor lost waifs who needed a strong man to watch over them. He would never let anyone know of this solicitous feeling, though, lest he be accused of indulging slaves.
As the twins gathered dry kindling beneath the trees, they passed by a boulder so large that it obscured the men's view of them. The Captain scowled, a look of alarm and suspicion on his face. "They are no longer in our view now, Ganbar. Perhaps once again they have slipped from our grasp?" he asked, disapproval in his voice.
"I think not, Captain. They are right behind that boulder." Ganbar called out to the twins. "Girls, come around so that we can see you." The twins quickly emerged from behind the boulder. "Resume your work gathering firewood." A look of amused triumph in his eyes, he turned to Ubri, enjoying the other man's chagrin. "Captain, you see the little houris are right where I told you they would be. In my opinion, they have given up all hopes of escape." He was barely able to hide the smug satisfaction in his voice.
"I would not be too sure about that," Ubri replied, feeling slightly flustered. Once again, he suspected that the other man's intent was to make him look foolish. "But never trust them for a second, and keep them under surveillance at all times until we return to Turkûrzgoi and they are sold," he retorted, trying to salvage some of his dignity.
"Captain, I will be most vigilant in that duty." Ganbar let his gaze roam to the two Rohirric beauties before he turned back to Ubri. "This day has been a most strenuous one, filled with sights and happenings which a simple man such as myself has difficulty understanding." An expression of weariness crossed over his face as he slumped. "The very thought of it brings a pale of more calamity upon our heads." His eyes went to Inbir, who supported him with a nod of agreement. Drawling out his words, Ganbar continued. "Maybe the reason Inbir and I are a little behind this evening is because we are both fatigued and worried about our circumstances. We could always use some help... but only to finish the task quickly and keep the Shakh's bile down." He rubbed his clean-shaven chin reflectively. Inbir, who held the lead ropes to two of the horses, kept his eyes trained on both men, careful not to let his eagerness to be rid of Captain Ubri show beneath his impassive mask.
Ubri looked sharply at the tall man, but then his tense expression relaxed into a condescending smile. "Why, certainly, Ganbar, you know I am always willing to lend a hand to such hard-working men as the two of you. You should have come to me sooner, and we would have settled this matter. I am always glad to help my men whenever I can... you can always count on me. But let us get this work done as quickly as possible, for if we do not, the Shakh will roast my balls." Hoping the men would laugh at his humor, he gave them a broad, insincere smile, but the other two only nodded politely.
"Aye, Captain. The work will be completed faster than the time it takes for a baby-faced dancing boy to pull down his pantaloons for the first patron who offers him a silver coin," Ganbar remarked good-naturedly.
"By the sweet breath of the Goddess, Ganbar, your humor is rank!" Inbir exclaimed, and then added, "Do you really think we could move that fast?"
"All right, men! We are only wasting time with this sort of talk!" Ubri interrupted, his stiff smile fading at the certainty that the men were in a plot to ridicule him. "Now with my assistance, we can set to work. Inbir, you will dig the fire pit, and after the slave wenches have brought sufficient kindling, you will build a fire. Ganbar and I will finish with the horses." His smile so contrived that his face appeared to be in pain, he put his hand companionably upon Ganbar's shoulder and then moved to the picket line. Glad that he was finally leaving their company for a while, he unhitched a horse and walked away with the beast. The animal snorted and stamped its hoof, shying sideways, suspicious of the ill will he sensed in the Captain. His face dark with anger at the unruly horse, Ubri roughly jerked the animal's halter, sending the beast into even more of a dither. As the gelding jumped forward, one of his large hooves came down squarely on Ubri's foot.
"Oh, damn!" he screamed, grabbing his knee between his hands and frantically hopping on one foot. "The damn, intractable beast has broken my toe! He ought to be destroyed!"
His eyes rolling towards the heavens in a look of resigned protest, Ganbar rushed over to the injured man, but Ubri refused to let him have so much as a glance at the injury. "No, no, it will bring me too much pain," Ubri protested. "If I can rest a while and have a goblet of wine, my foot will be as good as new." Leaning on Ganbar's shoulder, Ubri hobbled over to a large oak, where Inbir had spread a carpet beneath its branches.
"Oh, the wretched pain! How it hurts!" Ubri whined as Ganbar gingerly lowered him to the ground. "Now, Inbir, if you would aid me in removing my boot... Yes, yes," the Captain sighed. "That feels so soothing. Now, my good fellow, if you would only bring me a cushion..."
With a barely suppressed snort of disgust, Ganbar turned and walked back to the horses. "So much for Ubri's help," he thought. "The malingering bastard has nothing more than a bruise! He is only pretending that he has been hurt, hoping to get our sympathy and freeing himself of being any use at all to us."
After the commotion had died down, a sound far more pleasant than Ubri's nasal whine claimed the men's attention. "Master Ganbar," Elfhild called down from the hill, "my sister and I are very hot and thirsty, and so we beg upon your kindness to allow us to have a drink from the spring." As it had happened more and more frequently of late, Ganbar felt a tug at his heart when he heard that pleasing girlish voice.
"As long as you hurry, I see no harm in it," Ganbar answered gruffly, keeping the sweep of warm emotion out of his brusque reply. Inwardly he flinched when he caught the sour look in the Captain's eye. Sitting on a green, red and gold carpet, Ubri propped his back against the tree while he rested his foot upon a cushion. Inbir gave the malingering Captain a goblet of wine before he was dismissed with a nod. Esarhaddon walked over and sat down nearby. Soon both men's heads were nodding in a deep discussion. "No doubt the Captain will tell our master what unscrupulous scoundrels Inbir and I are, and that somehow we are responsible for causing the horse to step upon his foot," Ganbar thought to himself, resenting Ubri and his underhanded ways.
"You are far too lenient on the slaves, Ganbar!" Ubri's harsh voice growled, his face pinched and unpleasant. "Too much easy treatment will be the ruination of a slave!"
"And too harsh treatment will ruin them even quicker..." Ganbar looked the other man straight in the eyes.
"You are growing soft in your old age, Ganbar," the Captain muttered irritably, turning away.
Elfhild and Elffled knelt beside the spring, dipping their cupped hands into the water and bringing the draught up to their mouths. Their parched throats rejoiced at the cool, pure taste of the water, and they drank again from the spring. After such a bizarre day, the sisters were glad to be alone. Here, away from the men, they were able to talk in their own language without incurring the ire of their masters. When they had drunk their fill, the girls sat down upon a large rock beside the little pool.
"Are you sure we should have told the Southrons what we did?" Elffled asked, her brows furrowed in a worried expression. Even though she spoke in Rohirric, she still looked around furtively to make sure no one was listening in to their conversation.
"I hate to be a liar, but in this case, I believe truthfulness would cause us more harm than good," Elfhild sighed, grimacing a little at her words. "If Esarhaddon knew that we were alone with the Seneschal of Minas Morgul, he would probably accuse us of having loose morals and say we were a pair of harlots who would roll in the hay with any man who looked in our direction. Although he always boasts of being a superb lover, it seems that Lord Esarhaddon does not hold much respect for women, at least not those who have the misfortune of being slaves."
"Do you think he believed us, though? You had but moments to tell me your plan ere the men came to full consciousness." Elffled remembered her sister's hastily whispered command to follow her lead as they approached the addled men, who were still groggy from the spell of sleep that the Seneschal had cast upon them.
"What reason would he have to doubt us?" Elfhild shrugged, raising her hands in the air, palms upward. "The Seneschal took out his wrath on the entire party. Let Esarhaddon and his men believe that we suffered alongside them. We told the slaver that we had awakened mere moments before he did. When his men grumbled of having strange dreams, we told them that our sleep was also filled with nightmares. Why would they not believe our tale? We claimed to have the same experiences as they did!"
"I cannot believe we are lying to the Southrons." Elffled shook her head, a dazed expression of incredulity upon her face. "If they knew, they would whip the hide off our backs!" She wondered what had ever possessed her once honorable sister to spin a web of falsehoods meant to deceive the slave trader and his men. Perhaps it was the corruption of Mordor taking root in Elfhild's mind… or perhaps it was just common sense. Elffled felt a twinge of jealousy. She should have been the one to come up with this idea!
"Who is going to tell them?" Elfhild scoffed. "The Seneschal? He went back to his city, and I doubt we shall ever see him again."
"Still, it seems so risky…"
"As long as we keep those silver coins hidden, the Southrons will never be the wiser." Elfhild smiled confidently as she crossed her arms across her chest. "What the slavers do not know will not hurt them, but if they discover our secret, they will certainly hurt us!"
"Maybe it would be best for us to lose the coins." Elffled reached down and tossed a smooth pebble into the water. She leaned forward, watching as the stone sank. "No matter how crystal clear the water is, I cannot see the bottom," she remarked, studying the spring. "I know! Let us throw the coins into the spring and make a wish!"
Elfhild reached into her breeches pocket and pulled out the silver coin. Its shiny surface bore a raised image of the Great Eye surrounded by a ring of fire. On the other side were inscribed several unfamiliar looking runes, most likely stating the coin's denomination in the language of Mordor. A lowly peasant, Elfhild had seen few coins in her life, and none so fine as this exquisite silver piece. Why should she literally throw her money away? As long as Esarhaddon uHuzziya never saw the coin, there would certainly be no harm in either her or her sister keeping their new treasures.
"But, Elffled, we have never possessed anything so valuable as these two silver pieces!" Elfhild remarked as she studied the coin. "I do not want to throw our wealth to the wind, and, besides, the coins were the Seneschal's gifts to us, and 'tis poor courtesy indeed to reject a gift." She tossed the coin into the air and deftly snatched it up in her palm. "Ha! Maybe these coins are lucky and will bring us good fortune!"
"We certainly could use some luck," Elffled giggled, clapping her hands.
At that moment, Elfhild's eyes caught a splash of color along the steep, rocky bank above the spring. "Oh, look," she pointed, "wild roses! What lovely treasures to find!"
"Oh, let us go see them!" Jumping up, Elffled took her sister's hand and led her over to a tangle of rose brambles which grew in the dry, pebbly soil beneath a tall pine. Other briars grew upon the slope, and the sisters carefully watched where they stepped. Beyond the pine needle-covered ground, grasses shot up green stalks to meet the Sun, and cheerful daisies grew profusely. Though the sisters did not know yet what an oasis was, they would have compared the tranquil spring to one, for it was a haven of tranquility in the midst of a frightening land.
A shout from below startled the twins and destroyed their short-lived solace. "Time to go," Elfhild's face twitched in a regretful half-smile. She bent down to pick a rose, carefully pinching off the stem and avoiding the tiny thorns. As she brought the soft pink blossom up to her nose, the delicate petals dropped off one by one and were borne upon a sudden light breeze. Fluttering down into the rippling waters of the spring, they floated upon the glassy surface like tiny pink boats. Sighing, Elfhild picked up her bundle of firewood and headed back down the hill, casting a backward glance at the beautiful spring and the ephemeral rose blossoms.