The old miller was dead and buried, his few pathetic possessions distributed among Esarhaddon's men, and now it was time to leave this wretched forest behind forever. Never giving a glance back at the cairns of Tarlanc and his animals, Esarhaddon mounted his mare Ka'adara and turned her towards the east. As he watched his men help the slave girls onto their horses, he could hear the twins crying softly, whimpering like puppies robbed of their mother. Perhaps he should have had them gagged, but he knew that nothing short of a beating would have quieted them, and he did not want to risk scarring their perfect skin.
Never would he have expected anyone to help those incorrigible twins in their escape attempt, but the old miller had dared try it, and had paid for his offense with his life. Surely the old man knew that the penalty for helping a slave to escape was death, and so he had no excuse. He probably had been beguiled by the sisters' beauty and gave up everything he had to help them escape. "Old fool," Esarhaddon thought scornfully to himself. "Should have left well enough alone!" The unfortunate incident of the miller soon slipped from the slave trader's mind, for he had far more important things with which to occupy his thoughts than with some old dotard whose meddling had almost deprived him of his property.
He should not give any thought at all to the miller, for the old man was but one of the many insignificant people who had briefly touched his life and then were forgotten forever. No, the old man was of no consequence. What rankled Esarhaddon was the unbelievable actions of the uruk Sharapul. There was no sense in what he had done, none whatsoever! Sharapul had always been one of Esarhaddon's best men, staunchly loyal, diligent in his services, and with a mind that seemed to be as strong as the granite rocks of the hills. True, the slaver conceded, the uruk had a fondness for his own gender, but Esarhaddon had found that uruks and orcs were often that way, and it did not affect their fighting, hunting and tracking abilities in the least.
"My lord, you look troubled," Ganbar remarked as he brought his horse in line behind Esarhaddon's mare. Ganbar had thought it unnecessary, but the chief slaver had insisted that the girls' hands be tied in front of them and their horses led. Esarhaddon and Ubri would ride at the head of the small column, while Ganbar and Inbir would ride behind with the slave girls. The care of the pack animals had been entrusted to the young eunuch Ásal. Ganbar did not know about any of the others, but he felt pity for the two young women, and the sound of their soft crying disturbed him.
"Puzzled is the word, Ganbar," Esarhaddon replied, touching his heels to his mare's flanks and urging her into a trot. "I have rolled the matter of Sharapul over and over in my mind, and I still cannot believe that a good, loyal uruk such as he turned brigand and went on a senseless rampage of murder and carnage."
"I cannot make any sense of it either, my lord," Ganbar replied, shivering at the memory of Sharapul's ghastly lopped off head lying in the dirt. "No one is even certain how Sharapul's catamite met his doom. The slave girl Elfhild was there, but she says that she had fainted, and when she awoke, Âmbalfîm was dead. The other girl is no help either, for she had ran away and witnessed nothing of what happened."
Inbir spoke up, a scowl darkening his handsome face. "My lord, it seems plain to me that the two uruks planned to make away with the women and then fell into an argument over who would have them first. Or, perhaps, Sharapul wanted the women for himself, but his catamite became jealous and protested. We all know that Sharapul had a boiling hot temper, and in his rage he killed Âmbalfîm." Inbir paused, trying to choose the right words. "He blamed his lover's death upon the girl, and sought to extract his revenge upon her."
"I do not think that Sharapul meant to do the deed," Ganbar spoke up. "His grief and guilt at murdering his lover were too much a burden for him, and that drove him mad." Ganbar shook his head. "It is a pity to have lost both of them, for they had always served you well, my lord."
"Grief?" Esarhaddon snorted in derision. "The brutes are incapable of sorrow!"
"Then I do not know, my lord." Ganbar pursed his lips. He well knew his employer's low opinion of uruks, and he would not argue with him. Ganbar had known many uruks, and indeed most were savage, brutal creatures. But yet he had seen some display kindness on rare occasions. He felt pity for poor Âmbalfîm, for the half-breed had always seemed more like his elvish ancestors, given to a gentler nature.
"Gentlemen, I am inclined to believe Inbir's explanation for why Sharapul killed his lover and then attacked the girl," Esarhaddon remarked. "She, too, came to the same conclusion - that the two lovers came to blows, and in the ensuing fight, Sharapul slew Âmbalfîm by accident."
"It is mystifying enough to try to comprehend the hearts and souls of men, my lord, but well nigh impossible to understand that of a uruk," Ganbar offered.
"This is indeed true, Ganbar," Esarhaddon conceded, his mind still burdened by Sharapul's treachery and the fight in the clearing. He wondered if he could trust any of the uruks in his employ, or if at any moment they might strike him down in cold blood.
"What does it matter, my lord?" asked Ubri with a shrug. "You slew the beast, and now his fly-speckled head rests atop a pole, a fitting ending to the scoundrel."
"I will never put such confidence in another of his breed, lieutenant," the slave trader admitted. "No matter how good their breeding and how well they are trained, uruks will always have that untamed wildness of their kind about them. Their blood is tainted!" A shadow crossed the slaver's face, and he scowled, his eyes narrowing. "I do not like to employ them, but I am forced to it. They are the best trackers that can be found, and I use them like hunting dogs when necessary, for they can always find their quarry."
"My lord," interjected Ubri, "if our map is correct, we are very near the main thoroughfare."
"Then lead on, Ubri, for all of us are eager to be done with this trackless wilderness." With an exclamation of almost boyish exuberance, Esarhaddon touched his heels to Ka'adara's sides, urging her to keep up with his lieutenant. They rode to the top of a small knoll, and there, down below them, lay the Great West Road.
"At last!" Ganbar exclaimed, a low sigh escaping his lips. He touched his golden earring almost reverently and thanked all the Gods that this misadventure would soon be at an end.
After four days of chasing the Rohirric twins across Gondor, the men were in a jubilant mood. For a time, it had appeared that the girls' trail was lost completely, and even Esarhaddon, whose zeal for life always ran high, had been close to giving up the quest. But they had persevered, and their efforts had finally been rewarded when they ran the quarry to the ground.
"Does this road look familiar to you, slave girls?" Ubri called back over his shoulder. "It should, because you came down this way on your journey from Rohan."
"Yes," answered Elfhild. "I remember that burnt out village over there just a little way off the road. All that is left now are ghosts and ashes." She shivered and turned her eyes away from the depressing ruin.
"That village would still be standing today had not the people of Gondor refused to surrender to Mordor." Ubri was not about to let an opportunity pass to teach these barbarian girls the righteousness of Mordor's cause. "What a pity that the people had to be so hardheaded and filled with pride! Now everything for which they strove lies in ruins. How the Great One in the Tower must have grieved when He heard the news of the burning, for He never wishes to cause suffering. Blame all this woe upon the Stewart of Gondor and his counselors, whose stubbornness caused this war in the first place!"
Ubri was ready to launch into a lecture about the awesome might of Mordor when the small party met a cavalry patrol approaching from the south. With the war still raging in the north, it was common to see heavily guarded supply wagons, detachments of foot soldiers, and cavalry patrols, all headed towards Rohan. None would ever challenge Esarhaddon, and if they did, he had the papers to prove that he was aligned with Mordor. The black-clad cavalry troopers were part of an elite detachment of Khandian cavalry bound for the war in Rohan. When the officer in charge recognized Esarhaddon, he hailed him as a friend. The two men exchanged pleasantries for a while, and then, wishing the Southern merchant a safe journey, the officer saluted him and led his men north.
Elfhild and Elffled were learning more about their master, but there were still many things that puzzled them. They wondered how this man, whom they had thought to be but a simple merchant, was so well-favored with the enemy. He had surely not won this prestige by military prowess, for he denied ever having served as a soldier. Then, if not a military man, perhaps he was some high-ranking agent of the Dark One? All they knew about him was his profession, a disreputable slave trader, dealing in human flesh. Since he seemed to be so powerful, Elfhild wondered what he had done, what confidences he had betrayed, what lies he had told, what bribes he had offered, what fell deeds he had committed, and what price of soul and spirit he had paid to attain his position with the loathsome foe. "Everything about him is contemptible," she cursed to herself. Yet she could not help but wonder what he would be like if he were an honorable man.
Although he had reclaimed the two escaped slaves, Esarhaddon's mood had quickly turned foul. There was no way that he could balance his satisfaction with finding them against his irritation at the time that had been lost in the search. Just the time that had been spent burying the old miller and his animals had set them back, and lost time represented wasted gold. They must move faster! Muttering a dark oath to himself, he halted the small cavalcade and turned to Ubri, his first lieutenant. "Ubri, we are moving no faster than diseased snails! We must make better time than this, or we will not reach Amon Dîn by dark!"
"My lord, if you wish to push the pace, we can, but I was not certain if the slaves would be able to keep up." Ubri jerked his head over his shoulder, giving the twins a doubtful glance. "If we urge the horses past a trot, these girls might fall off."
"I doubt that, lieutenant," Esarhaddon laughed, the first real laugh he had that day. "Do not forget that they were born in Rohan, and it is said that their children suckle mare's tits when their mothers will no longer nurse them, and learn to ride before they can walk."
"As you wish, my lord," Ubri replied, "and if they do fall off, we can always tie them to the saddle." With that, he signaled for the small column to move forward, and soon the men had their horses cantering. Although the twins' hands were bound in front of them, they rode their horses with grace, amazing the men with their abilities.
That night, the slavers made camp east of Amon Dîn in a sheltered grove of alders and willows. The servant boy Ásal prepared supper, serving the men first, and the twin sisters last. The meal was a sparse one - dried fruit, meat, and hard bread - for they were running low on provisions. The men had wine to wash down their food, but Elfhild and Elffled had to be satisfied with water. After the meal, Ásal spread the twins' sleeping mats and blankets and then left them to their sleep. Throughout the meal, the boy had been moody and sullen as he sat hunched by the fire, and the girls wondered at his change in behavior. They soon found themselves too sleepy to ponder the matter for long, though. Certainly it was exhaustion brought on by the rigors of the trail that drove them early to their sleeping mats. Weariness and grief were the explanation for the almost euphoric oblivion which descended upon them soon after they laid their heads upon the folded blankets which served as pillows. They did not awaken until the boy shook them the next morning before dawn.
Breakfast was a quick and simple affair, for the slavers were impatient to reach the city by nightfall. The journey would be a comparatively easy one over a good road and in fair weather, and barring any accidents, the entourage would make five leagues between dawn and noontime and another three more before they stopped for the evening in Minas Tirith. There they would obtain a fresh supply of foodstuffs and exchange their worn out horses for fresh ones. Before daybreak, Esarhaddon had dispatched Inbir to ride to Minas Tirith with a message for Awidan, the slaver's chief agent in the city. Awidan was to see that Esarhaddon's great tent was set up and waiting for him when he arrived.
When the time came to ride out, Ásal took the twins to where the men were waiting with the horses. "Tie their hands in front of them, Ásal," Ubri ordered, his expression smug. "Such rebellious slaves as these deserve no consideration." Resigned, the sisters put up no fight as the boy bound their hands. Resistance under these circumstances would only bring them grief. Besides, where could they go in this wilderness should they manage to break free from the men? This was what life had become for them during the past month - plod mindlessly like dumb beasts through a country devastated by war; then eat, sleep, and repeat the same routine the next day. Over and over the monotony continued, part of some rhythm ordained by powers beyond their comprehension. At least now they would ride instead of tramp endless miles on sore and aching feet, Elfhild thought dryly.
"Even though you have not asked, still I will give you a piece of good advice, slave girls," Ubri remarked when Ásal had finished tying the cords around Elfhild's wrists. "If you make yourselves more agreeable to the noble shakh and vow never to attempt another escape, he might be more kindly disposed towards you." One corner of his mouth twitched into a half-smile. "I am uncertain whether the two of you are capable of taking advice when you receive it. As the sage has said, 'Fools spurn good advice, but the wise give heed to sound counsel.'"
Elfhild raised haughty eyes to his. "Captain Ubri, we will consider the matter," she replied coolly. In truth, she did not want to talk to Esarhaddon uHuzziya about anything. He would probably only laugh cruelly at her if she did beg him for mercy.
"He who scorns wise reasoning is like a foolish beggar who sits in the marketplace and, when offered a coin by a generous benefactor, refuses it upon the grounds that he does not like the giver. Consequently, his would-be benefactor will go on his way, his purse untouched, while the beggar's stomach will gnaw with hunger that night." Ganbar, his arms folded across his chest, looked pityingly at Elfhild.
"Hard-headed Rohirric wenches! As with all women, there is but little reasoning ability in them!" Ubri muttered in Haradric as he turned to Ganbar. "But no matter now, Ganbar; we know that they must submit eventually. Now it is time for us to be leaving this ill-omened place. Here comes the slave boy with the horses."