The burial party of orcs had little respect for the dead Âmbalfîm, who had been so different from the rest of the uruks. A man lover, they had called him, a pussy boy, an elf. He and his lover were a disgrace to their kind, worthy only to be ostracized and shunned. As they shoveled the dirt from his grave, the uruks laughed, and the crude jokes came easily to their lips.
"We should have buried old Sharapul in the same grave with 'is little catamite," Farmak laughed as he threw a shovelful of dirt out of the pit. "That way, 'e could plug 'is bum boy for all eternity!"
"You're too merciful," Shatog scoffed. "We should have cut off their pricks and ballocks and let 'em go out into the dark unknown as eunuchs! Males lovin' males just ain't right!" He shook his head and spat to the side. "It's downright Elvish! Some of the old ways comin' through, I guess. Even the best of us ain't immune to our heritage!" The uruk paused for a moment, then quickly added, "Not that I'd ever swive with another male."
"Maybe it's not right for males to mate with each other, but I don't mind a bit watchin' the females go at it," Zaanûrz interjected, licking his lips. "You ever seen 'em?" he called up to Tûrum, who was lounging against a tree as he waited his turn to dig.
"Maybe I have." Tûrum grinned. "There ain't much privacy in a camp, and admit it, lads, most of us have seen 'em drink from the furry cup at one time or another." He turned to the fresh skin of draught that he had just opened. "Makes the prick go stiff just to look at 'em. When you see one of the wenches go down with 'er mouth between another one's thighs, lickin' and slurpin'," he paused, closing his eyes as he remembered, "you just can't control yourself!"
"What a little sneak you are, Tûrum," Shatog leered. "You like to creep around, don't you, and peek at 'em late at night when you 'ear 'em pantin' and moanin', all hot and bothered under the blankets!"
"Well," Tûrum smiled sheepishly. "Maybe..."
"Enough of this talk, you maggots!" Farmak growled, growing irritated at how little work had been accomplished. "Digging this grave is going to take all day at this rate! Now, Tûrum, if you can keep your mind off the slit-lickers, you can start digging in this 'ole while I take a rest." Climbing from the grave, he threw the shovel to Tûrum, who ducked as the shovel whizzed by his head.
While the uruks readied the grave for the dead Âmbalfîm, Esarhaddon's men had put the matter from their minds, and only Elffled really cared that the uruk had died. The party's horses were of much greater concern to the men, for the animals were weary after having been ridden hard for a number of days. Before the men tended to their own needs, they cooled down the horses, watered them and tied them to the picket line. As the horses contentedly munched oats from their feed bags, the men sat cross-legged on the ground and waited for Esarhaddon's slave boy Ásal to serve them their meal of dried meat, flatbread, and tea.
The twins had been provided reed mats upon which they could sit under the trees. The men stayed apart from them, laughing and talking together in their own language, occasionally glancing at the girls and smiling. The sisters were glad to be left alone by their captors. Their minds still reeled from the bloody ambush in the forest which had claimed the lives of Tarlanc, his faithful dog Haun, and his two horses, Mithril and Sparrow. It seemed so strange; only yesterday, they had been riding through the wasteland of Anórien with the old miller, listening to him play his mouth harp and tell stories from his younger days. Now he was dead, as well as his two horses and his beloved dog. One day he was there, and the next he was gone. How the world could change in an instant!
Elfhild could still hear Sharapul’s growling voice as he threatened to mutilate her body in horrible, unspeakable ways. She longed to take a bath, for she still felt his rough hands groping over her skin, leaving her feeling tainted and dirty. If only she could stop thinking about the torments she received at his hands, but the scenes were too fresh and vivid in her mind. She longed to escape into some magic land where everything was beautiful and everyone was happy and at peace. There was no escape, though. The images ground around and around in her head like the wheels of a mill.
Her heart felt barren and empty, sorrow rendering her spirits lethargic. How was it that she still lived? She should have died at the hands of Sharapul, but her life had been spared by the timely arrival of the Southrons. Perhaps she deserved to die. It was all her fault that Tarlanc had been murdered, for if he had never helped her, he would still be alive. She had brought him only misfortune and pain. She and her sister had only known him for a few days, and he had told them so much about himself. Had he known that he was going to die? Had the twins come to him like maidens of Death, the choosers of the slain, to bear him away to the other side? Fresh tears welled up in her eyes and rolled down her cheeks. A glance at Elffled revealed that she, too, was softly weeping.
Elfhild’s grim thoughts were interrupted by the sight of Ásal approaching with a tray of food in his hands. "Little mistresses, I did not mean to startle you." Bowing courteously, Ásal served the girls hot mint tea and bread. He noticed the tears on the twins' faces, and knew that they were grieving. His training had prepared him to handle distraught girls in the harem, and he found that the best way to calm them was with soothing, meaningless words. "Permit me to introduce myself; I am called Ásal," he told them in a whisper, giving them an admiring look. "Forgive this poor one, but if his mouth did not speak, he would die of sorrow! Your eyes are as deep as wells! Glowing like the stars, they are every bit as captivating as those of the dark-eyed lovelies who walk about the souks with their servants. Of course," he added with a bright smile that spread across his face, "those women are veiled. Thanks be to fate - you are not!"
Puzzled, Elfhild asked, "Why are the women veiled?" The boy's barrage of words had come too fast for her to absorb them, but she had never heard such words of flattery from the mouth of anyone. They rolled off his tongue effortlessly, as though he had practiced them for hours until he had them perfect.
"What is a souk?" inquired her equally confused sister.
The boy's eyes grew wide in surprise. "Mistresses do not know?"
"Why would we be asking if we knew?" Elffled could not resist a giggle.
"Oh, Mistress," the boy brought his hand up to his mouth, flushing under his dark skin, "you would not know, would you? No, of course not! Forgive this poor slave for his stupidity!" Taking a quick glance behind him and finding Ubri and the other men occupied with their own conversations, Ásal went on, his whispered words tumbling out one after another. "In many parts of Harad and Khand, the wives, concubines, daughters and slave girls of rich and important men are veiled. This shows their great modesty and high status. Peasant women who work in the fields seldom wear veils, and instead wrap scarves about their heads to protect themselves from the sun. Only foreigners, women of certain tribes, prostitutes, and the lowliest of slave girls go about with nothing upon their heads." Ásal beamed as he saw understanding slowly dawn upon their faces. "You would like the souk, for it is a marketplace where goods of every nature and description are bought and sold. This poor, worthless slave boy hopes that he has answered all questions to your satisfaction."
"Why do you call us 'mistresses' and insult yourself with these horrible, ugly words?” Elfhild asked, appalled by the belittling words that the boy used to describe himself. "Please do not! We are slaves, just as you."
Elffled had lost interest in Ásal's attempts at conversation, for she found his constant deprecating chatter irritating. Why did he have to pick a moment like this to talk about these strange foreign customs? There had been a bloodbath under the trees which had claimed the lives of a very dear friend, his dog and horses, as well as two uruks. She was in no mood to hear silly talk about a marketplace in a land far away.
"Does little Mistress not know?" Puzzled at so much ignorance, Ásal rolled his eyes skyward. "Harem girls such as you are considered on a higher level than low-ranking eunuchs like me, who are as dirt beneath your esteemed, lovely feet."
"What is a 'harem?' What is a 'eunuch?'" Elfhild queried, her mind filled with questions. "I do not understand these foreign words." However, her questions were never answered, for the conversation was interrupted by Ubri's impatient voice.
"Hurry along there, you lazy boy!" Ubri growled as he walked up to them. "We will be staying here only long enough to bury the old man, his animals, and the uruk, and then we will be leaving."
"The old man, as you call him, had a name," Elfhild spoke up angrily, surprising the captain and the servant boy with her temerity. "He was Tarlanc, the miller of Ivrenslaer, and he was a true and good friend to my sister and me." She lifted her gaze and looked directly into the captain's eyes. "The uruk, too, had a name, Âmbalfîm, and he was not some beast to be thrown into a hole and forgotten. Were it not for him, my sister might not be alive!" Though she would probably incur this Southron's wrath with her bold words, she could not stand to hear the men talk about Tarlanc so disrespectfully.
"Here I thought that Rohirric women were all ice, but I see that some have fire in their veins." Ubri laughed, but the smile never went to his eyes, which remained cold and aloof. "We will give the Tark a decent burial, girl, though his people never meant mine any good." He was unused to seeing so much independence in a female slave, and he found the quality irritating. He would forgive her impertinence this one time, though, for the girl was probably too grief-stricken to know what she was saying. "The shakh has also ordered that the uruk will receive the same for his part in aiding you, though if it were left up to me, I would not be so gracious."
"Thank you, sir," Elfhild replied quietly. It was painful to speak of Tarlanc, and she felt the tears welling up in her eyes. "How sad it is for him to be buried in this wilderness with no one to mourn for him," she murmured, her voice breaking in a sob.
"No more talk, girl! I have more important things to do than listen to the babble of slave girls." Ubri turned back to Ásal, who had been watching the proceedings with wide eyes. "You, boy, do not stand with your mouth gaping open like a fish! Return to your master and see to his needs and those of the other men."
"Yes, Captain, my feet rush to obey with joy and gladness!" the boy stammered, rapidly snapping to attention. "I live to serve!"
"Live to serve! Then be quiet, you simpering fool!" the captain growled. "You are a lazy, impertinent whelp, worthy only of beating! If you were my slave, I would be tempted to have your tongue torn out of your mouth!" His face dark with anger, Ubri turned on his heel and strode away, not even waiting to acknowledge the slave's humble bow.
"Little mistresses," Ásal turned to look at them, "you have angered Captain Ubri, which is never a wise thing to do! In the future, it would be well to stay out of his way!" He shook his head sadly. "I will return when I am allowed. Please do not be disheartened." His large, luminous eyes were soft with sympathy. "Remember, you have a friend in Ásal!" He flashed them the quick sight of pearly white teeth, bowed, and then followed Ubri.
"Friend?" Elffled snorted softly when the boy was out of hearing range. "Do we have any friends among these foreign people?"
"He seems harmless enough," Elfhild replied. "At least he is not a bully like Captain Ubri." The conversation with the slave boy had made her realize just how different she was from her captors. He had used so many unfamiliar words and spoke of odd customs, like women wearing veils. "These Southrons are so strange! I wonder how we will ever survive living amongst them." She sighed woefully. "Maybe this Ásal can help us understand their ways."
"If he can stop flattering us long enough to talk about something sensible," Elffled grumbled. "From what I have seen of him, he is a pretentious flatterer, and I do not trust him."
"We have more to worry about than the boy," Elfhild whispered. "You might not have noticed, but the slaver has left his men and is coming straight for us!"
The twins' hearts sank as Esarhaddon approached. Uncertain what to do, they froze in place, cringing against each other in fear. When he reached them, his perpetually hooded eyes regarded them sadly. Sighing deeply, he bent down and took Elffled's hands, lifting her up to meet his mournful gaze.
"My gentle one," he murmured in a voice tinged with tears, "with what I must tell you, my heart breaks as though it were a crystal vase dropped by a careless hand. Shattered upon a hard mosaic floor, it lies there ruined, the light now catching its slivered pieces and spinning the reflections away in a million glittering beams. Though it may have some transitory glitter, its usefulness is destroyed forever. Such it is with my heart."
Her brow furrowing in concern, Elffled timidly looked up at the slaver. "What is wrong, lord? Why are you so troubled?" His large hands tightened on her small ones. How strong was his grip! He could easily snap her neck with those hands if she displeased him. The thought terrified her, and she swallowed hard, her throat tightening.
"Ah, my tender white dove of the North, the winds of fortune blow first one way and then another. Never do we know what will be our ultimate destiny until the final accounting. No one knows which fragrant, delicate blossom upon the bough of the fruit tree will be able to withstand the cold blast of late spring to survive and bear fruit in the autumn." Giving them another gentle squeeze, he released her hands and backed away a step.
Though his words were kind and his touch gentle, Elffled grew increasingly more tense, fearing what foreboding conclusion his words would bring. She clutched the material of her tunic to keep her fingers from trembling. Growing increasingly more nervous, she chewed upon her lower lip and then gulped before asking again, "What is wrong, my lord?"
As though stricken by some sorrow too profound to express, his soulful eyes plumbed into the depths of her being. He sighed and gently placed his hands upon her shoulders and looked into her eyes. "Your fate rests upon your reply to my question."
"What is it?" she gasped, wringing the hem of her tunic.
Looking at her sadly, Esarhaddon gently squeezed her shoulders once and then released her. His right hand was instantly on the hilt of his scimitar. To her horror, he slid the weapon from its sheath and held it poised above her head.
"Your choice is slavery or death. Which will you choose?" His mournful eyes gazed down sorrowfully into hers.
Too astonished to speak or move, Elffled gaped at the slaver in horror. Spasms of terror shot through her body like little bolts of lightning, but all she could do was stand there as though she had been turned to stone. Her brain was so terrified that it could not even form sensible thoughts, much less entreaties for mercy. She could hear Elfhild screaming, one long, fear-tormented wail which seemed to reverberate from the trees.
"Is freedom worth death to you? That seems such a waste, but the decision is yours. You must choose now, for I will tarry here no longer!" Limbering up his muscles to deliver a killing blow, he swept the blade in an arc three times from right to left, reversing the weapon at each turn.
"S-slavery!" Elffled choked out hoarsely, her voice a rasping croak. "I chose slavery!" Falling to her knees, she clung to his legs, sobbing into his pantaloons. "Mercy! Mercy!"
"Mercy begged is mercy granted." With another look down at her, he drove his scimitar into its sheath, metal sliding against metal and ending with a firm clank. Sobbing hysterically, Elffled clung to him, gathering up the loose material of his pantaloons in her hands and kneading the cloth in her fingers. Laying his hand lightly upon the trembling girl's head, he stroked her hair, softly murmuring over and over, "Buzur, tur ash; buzur, tur ash."
"Do not weep, little one. You shall not die," he assured her. "Now rise to your feet." He paused, his gaze drawn to one of the uruks who had just returned and was in deep conversation with Ubri. "It is time for us to leave this place."