The Circles - Book Five - Chapter 38

The Circles - Book Five - Through the Valley of Death
Chapter Thirty-eight
The Writer and the Poet
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

By mid-morning, the twins found themselves looking at the confluence of two major tributaries of the Morgulduin. Tumbling down from deep gorges on either side of the valley, the churning waters, still swollen from the rains of the previous day, spilled into the misty stream in a froth of white foam and steam. Here the valley widened slightly, creating wide bottoms which quickly turned into fens during the winter rains. Built upon higher ground, the road hugged the feet of the southern mountains, meandering with their sinuous curves.

Esarhaddon led the riders across a bridge of gray stone which passed over the stream that flowed from the southern ravine. Just beyond the bridge, a rocky overlook commanded an impressive view of the confluence. Upon this scenic point was a grove of dark evergreens which stood tall and proud. In the midst of the coppice was a standing stone, both majestic and unsettling in its austerity. Rose brambles twined about the slender obelisk, the thorny vines embracing it in the desperate clasp of a dying lover, the fragrant crimson blossoms the color of freshly spilled drops of blood.

Though Esarhaddon and his companions scarcely gave a glance to the standing stone, the girls were fascinated by the unexpected sight. Disappointed that the slave trader did not slow the brisk pace, Elffled frowned as the grove passed by her admiring eyes all too fleetingly. From out of the corner of her vision, she caught the cold, hard expression upon Captain Ubri's face. Deciding that it would be best not to ask the sour-faced Captain about the origins of the stone, she wondered, "Why does he always have to be so unpleasant and intimidating?" She looked over her shoulder for a last glimpse at the granite sentinel, and when she glanced at Ubri again, she found that he was deep in contemplation, absently staring at some point in the distance.

Unbidden, a vagrant thought not of her own making began to filter into Elffled's mind. The sight which so enthralled her had not even penetrated Ubri's clouded brain. But how could she know that? she asked herself with a feeling of unease. She closed her eyes, stubbornly unwilling to accept what her senses told her. Yet she could not deny the words, spoken in a masculine voice, that came to her mind. The Captain was brooding upon the death of Caran, the previous captain of Moskala before Valto. Scattered fragments of his thoughts intruded upon her consciousness... "He was a poor player at tarocca... what a fool to wager so much... He owed me five silver coins when he died... now I will never see that money again!"

The possibility that she might be reading Ubri's mind was a disturbing one to Elffled, for this was the first time that she had ever understood the intimate musings of anyone other than her sister. Sometimes it seemed as if she could discern Elfhild's unspoken thoughts and feelings, but she had always assumed that this was because she knew her sister so well. Many people believed that the bond between twins was so close that they could divine the thoughts of the other, even if they were separated by great distance. It was an easy task for her to guess what Elfhild was thinking, she thought with an impish little smile.

Why, then, had Elffled been able to understand what the surly Ubri contemplated inside his brooding skull? Or had she only imagined that she had perceived anything? The man frightened her terribly, and she knew that even if she could clearly divine his every fantasy, she would find them obscene, even violent. However, there had been nothing terrible in the sensations which she had received from him; in fact, they had been ludicrously petty. What a fool he was to lament money owed to him by a dead man! How crass and disgusting! Bowing her head, she looked down at the pommel and hid her amusement under long, curling lashes. Perhaps she should cultivate this slight talent which she might have... Could anyone possess a greater power than the ability to fathom another's mind... and perhaps even influence it? The idea was intoxicating! Then with a sinking feeling, Elffled reasoned that such notions were only wishful thinking. She sighed heavily. She was just an insignificant slave, lost and alone in an alien land, and not some sorceress who possessed the power to divine the thoughts of others.

Elfhild was the one who asked the question that was on both of the sisters' minds ever since they first beheld the rose enshrouded obelisk. "Master Ganbar," she asked deferentially, "that great stone we saw by the road... is it a marker to honor some battle or other momentous happening?" From the moment she had first laid eyes upon the stone, she sensed that it represented great grief and tragedy, and she felt that she would never be satisfied until she learned the story behind it.

Up ahead of them, the slaver called for the riders to slow their mounts to a walk. As his horse's gait decreased, Ganbar turned to Elfhild and studied her face. "I am surprised you even noticed that marker. Why is a foreigner such as yourself so interested in the landmarks of the Morgul Vale?"

"Since coming to this valley, I have seen marvels which I never believed could exist," Elfhild exclaimed, her voice filled with wonder. "There have been great cities of stone, castles and fortresses, endless fields of ensorcelled poppies, an ice cold river whose steaming waters bring death at just a mere sip, and rugged mountains covered with plants the like of which I have never seen before. If I am ever taught to read and write, someday I just might write a book about all my travels."

Ganbar's eyebrows shot up. "I have never heard of a woman writing a book, but if you ever do, slave girl, I want to be the first to purchase a copy." His lips twitched as he unsuccessfully tried to stifle his laughter.

"Oh, Master Ganbar, please do not mock me, for I am very serious!" Elfhild gave him a hurt expression. "I come from a family of poor peasants and know little of the ways of scholars. When I saw the scribes in Minas Tirith using the written word to record important information, I watched them with fascination, enamored of their skills. I would like to be like them one day, possessing the ability to read and write."

While Ganbar and Elfhild had been deep in spirited conversation, their mounts had settled into a slow walk, causing them to fall behind the other riders. Hearing a chuckle, they both turned to look at a grinning Inbir.

"She wants to write a book, does she? Hmmm..." The young Southron rubbed his chin. "I would think that a book written by a slave girl should be a spicy, scintillating read, and this mournful looking wench seems hardly capable of such a feat. Why, she does not know a single one of the positions which are described in such lavish detail in the Eastern love manuals!" His dark, sultry eyes flashed devilishly at Elfhild, and then, laughing deeply, he directed his mocking taunts towards Ganbar. "Once you boasted that you had developed some new ones of your own, including a variation of Fluttering Dove, which involves suspending the girl from--"

His large ears reddening with embarrassment, Ganbar cleared his throat loudly. "Oh, be quiet, you damned idiot! Fetch your oud and compose another maudlin melody about how the flooding wadi ripped you away from your beloved! No, wrong song," he added spitefully. "Sing about how you are a slave to your mistress' bow-shaped eyebrows!"

"You insult my talents, Ganbar!" Inbir snarled, shaking his fist high in the air. "Get off that horse right now, you rapscallion, and we will settle the debt you owe to art!"

"Oh, shut up, Inbir! Today your brain is in your crotch," Ganbar spat as he kicked his horse into a brisk walk. Laughing uproariously, the younger man watched him ride away, and then moved his horse beside Elfhild's mount. He flashed the bewildered girl a magnificent smile of pearly white teeth. "Have you ever noticed that Master Ganbar has much in common with that obnoxious denizen of the desert, the camel?" he asked, his voice filled with mischief. "Both are surly-tempered, devoid of a sense of humor, and filled with such massive quantities of flatulence that when they break wind, the zephyrs go out both ends."

"I - I do not know," Elfhild stammered. The references to a "camel" left her utterly baffled, and since she did not want to announce her ignorance, she decided to withhold asking any questions. The whole situation made her tense, for she wished to have no part in any in any argument between these two men. Knowing her ill fortune, she would probably choose to favor the loser, thus incurring the animosity of the winner. At last she found her voice. "Master Inbir, I have to be--"

"You need not be in such haste, little one." His voice was husky as his hand snaked out and seized her horse's reins below the bit. The horse snorted in surprise and tried to jerk away, but Inbir soothed the beast with those strange melodic words in his own language.

"Please, I - I really should go," Elfhild whimpered, but in response he only gripped the reins tighter as he moved his horse closer to hers.

"Little siren of the North, you and I have never talked much. There has never been an opportunity." His dark flashing eyes sparkled with amusement.

"What do you want, Master?" she implored nervously, casting a yearning glance towards the rest of the party, which was steadily drawing farther away from them.

"Nothing, nothing at all," he murmured, his deep, masculine voice low and tempting, "only the opportunity to admire the bow of your eyebrows as they arch with such charming chagrin above your alarmed blue eyes... and the graceful slope of your regal nose... the set of your determined little chin... and, ah, did I forget the very enticing curves of your pink, petal-soft lips? You ask what I want. Nothing, nothing at all... save one smile from your sweet mouth." His intense brown eyes stared insolently into hers.

Inbir's strange behavior frightened Elfhild, for she had never seen him act in such a bizarre way. She longed to escape his attentions, but he held her horse fast. Instead, she lowered her head, deferentially refusing to acknowledge his presence. Though she, as a slave, could never tell him to go away, perhaps he would take the hint from her polite reserve. And to think her sister actually fancied this odd young man! Well, maybe now Elffled would not find him so desirable once she saw how peculiar he was.

"No smile for me, pretty little flower?" Inbir's forehead wrinkled in a deep frown. "Not even one tiny smile? No?" His dark eyes mourned in disappointment. "You have answered me with cruel silence, more cutting than the sharpest sword. My heart is broken, smitten to the core!" Raising his face towards heaven, he brought his hand to his heart. "With great sorrow, I am forced to release you. Heartless maiden, have you no comprehension of the injustice which you have done?" A shuddering sigh racked his lean, wiry body.

"What have I done, Master?" Elfhild looked up at him in bewilderment, uncertain what she had done and frightened that she would be punished for this unknown crime.

"O Perfection of Beauty, do you not know what heinous blow has been inflicted upon my soul?" He stared at her, his face contorted in shock.

"No, Master, no!" Elfhild shook her head violently, her eyes wide with fear. "I do not know what you are talking about!" Close to panic, she realized how high-pitched and shrill her voice had become, and she winced at the sound.

"You really do not understand, do you?" Inbir looked at her pityingly, as though she were a simple-minded child. "Perhaps you were not paying attention, but Master Ganbar gave me an important task. Should I fail to fulfill it, I would suffer his taunts and jeers."

"What was your task, Master?" Elfhild ventured, totally confused now.

"I am surprised that you cannot remember, for he was quite emphatic... unless, of course, you two are fellow conspirators in a plot designed to make me appear foolish." Inbir's voice was dead serious. "He requires a song of me, and not just any song, mind you, but one about how I pay slavish homage to the eyebrows of my mistress. Unfortunate man that I am, I have no mistress. What was I to do?" He shrugged. "I decided to use you as my model."

"A model?" Elfhild stared at him in dismay, horrified by the thoughts of a song about her eyebrows.

"Well, you were convenient." His face broke into a wide grin as his deep voice rumbled in uproarious laughter. "Now go and tell that to Ganbar, girl!" He was almost bent double with mirth as the tears rolled down his cheeks. "Explain... explain," he wiped the tears from his face, "that he would have had a song if only you had given me a smile!"

"Yes, Master, yes! I will tell him!" Relief flooded over her as he freed her horse's reins.

"Then what are you waiting for?" he roared as he gave her horse's rump a sharp slap. The beast sprang forward in alarm. As she fought to gather the reins in her hands, Elfhild was quickly born away. She was more than glad to be quit of Inbir and his eccentric mood.

His laughter finally subsiding, Inbir reached for his waterskin hanging off the pommel. "Though that bit of entertainment scarcely paid me back for Ganbar's outrageous insults, there might be some compensation. After all, it was almost worth it for the pure pleasure of watching the girl squirm. If I am lucky, she will pester him the rest of the afternoon with nonsensical questions about my 'unusual behavior.' She would never have the wit to understand my little joke about the song."

Inbir shook his head. "That one and her sister are a strange pair," he mused as he rubbed his chin. "No different from the rest of the Northern barbarians, they are unlearned, coarse, and dull-witted, filthy in body and slovenly of dress. It is said that they take but one bath a year, which they wait until May to endure, but only the Gods know!" He stroked his chin thoughtfully. "What other savages could produce daughters reckless and foolish enough to embark upon a journey through almost two hundred miles of enemy-held territory? How ironic it is that - once recaptured - these formerly wild and untamed maidens now think only of ways to preserve their own skins. Unbelievable! Perhaps we are civilizing them." A deep, melodic chuckle escaped his throat as he urged his horse into a trot, the pack horses following behind.

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