Leaving behind the forests which lay around Amon Dîn, the small party of horsemen continued southward on the Great West Road. All about them were the scars of war and destruction - barren fields, abandoned farmsteads and burnt out villages. Most of the people of Anórien had either been killed or fled from the onslaught of Mordor, and those who remained did so at their own peril. The brave few who chose to stay were forced to acknowledge the invaders as overlords, or live as outlaws in their own country. The Sun, for which the fiefdom had been named, had turned sullen that day, hiding her face behind veils of steel gray clouds. The twins looked up at the skies and feared the gloom-cursed cloud of Mordor might be returning to darken the land once more.
They had seen little traffic on the highway that day, and only once had it been necessary for the horsemen to pull aside, and that had been to allow a long supply train to pass by on its way northward. The drivers were a motley lot, sullen-faced Southrons and half-breed orcs for the most part. Many of them had seen hard service in the war, and had been left too impaired for further fighting. Mordor always had a use for every thrall, though, and no matter how maimed one might be, if he still had some eyesight and the use of a leg and an arm, there was work for him to do.
Cavalry patrolled the road in both directions, ever vigilant for stragglers, escaped slaves, and rebels who defied the might of Mordor. Occasionally these patrols would be attacked and slaughtered by bands of Gondorian insurgents. There was no concern that there would be any major engagements, though, for the only fight left in the conquered peoples was to the north or in the deep south. While the twins were still afraid of any enemy they saw, no patrol ever challenged Esarhaddon, but instead hailed him as an ally.
By midday, the party had come to the Grey Wood, a small expanse of dense forest to the west of the road. They halted for a short time near a small stream shaded by willows, stopping only to eat and care for the horses. After the short respite, they were back in the saddle and once again on the road to the south. The canopy of the heavens had dulled to an even more somber shade of gray, the heat building up under the clouds with no promise of rain. Sweat soaked everyone's clothing, and no matter how many times the men reached for their water flasks, their thirst never seemed to be abated. The horses, too, were soaked in sweat, foamy lather streaking their necks and sides, but they were a tough breed, strong and accustomed to the heat of the Southern deserts, and they could endure.
Though the others suffered from the oppressive heat and lack of cooling breezes, Elfhild was affected the worst of all. She felt dizzy and nauseated, and black spots danced before her eyes. Threatened with the embarrassing prospect of being tied to the saddle if she could not ride her horse, she was afraid to ask the men to stop. Her hair was damp and lank, and the sweat that rolled down from her forehead stung her eyes, almost blinding her. How long would it be before the slave trader called another halt to rest the horses? If she could only endure the malevolent heat a little longer, perhaps the short rest and some water would be enough to relieve her malaise. She knew what ailed her; she still suffered the effects of the heat sickness, and her illness was made even worse by her grief for the old miller.
A quick glance at her sister told Elfhild that her twin was worried. She wondered to herself if she looked as miserable as she felt, but then the horse jumped over some obstacle on the road and soared high. She thought how strange it was that the animal did not collide into the horses ahead of it, nor did its hooves touch the road. There was no longer any road anyway, and all the trees had disappeared. "Elffled," she murmured weakly, and then she was spiraling, her mind and body twisting and turning into some dark vortex...
When Elfhild awoke again, she was terribly ill with her stomach knotting up as though a hand were deep inside, clenching and squeezing. She retched violently, but her sister, ever faithful Elffled, was prepared, and caught the sickening mess in a glazed earthenware bowl that Ganbar used when he milked his mare. Elfhild gagged and vomited again, over and over it seemed until only a froth bubbled from her mouth. Her sister and Ganbar supported her body while she retched, wiping the filth from her mouth and swathing her forehead with cool cloths.
"What ails the girl, Ganbar?" asked Esarhaddon, his horse a shadowy darkness that blotted out the muted light of the sun.
"My lord, her sister says that she was beset by the sun sickness a few days ago, and now it has come upon her again," Ganbar replied, wiping Elfhild's face before turning to look at Esarhaddon. "I would be quite surprised if she were ready to ride by the time you wish."
"The girl is an endless source of trouble," Esarhaddon growled. "I sometimes think she is hardly worth the effort."
"My lord Esarhaddon," Ásal's tongue stumbled hesitantly over his master's name, "if it is permitted for me to ask, what will you do with her? Abandon her upon the trail and let the beasts feed upon her?" His eyes flicked nervously from Esarhaddon to the girl.
"Have you no common sense, you foolish boy?" Esarhaddon bellowed as he scowled at the young eunuch. "I have too much invested in the Rohirric girl for that! Now be silent, lest I have you whipped for being a fool." He gave a quick glance at Elfhild and then turned to Ubri. "Take Ásal and go cut saplings to make a litter to transport the girl."
"My lord, I can ride," Elfhild's weak, shaky voice could barely be heard. She straightened her body and put a trembling hand to her forehead. "But it would be a great boon if you would allow me to do so with my hands free to hold the reins."
"Why not?" Esarhaddon shrugged. "If you should try to run away, I will have Ubri kill your sister."
"Surely you would not do such a thing!" Elfhild sputtered, her eyes wide with fear. "You went to such lengths to recapture us!"
"You will never know unless you try me, will you, slave girl?" The slaver looked down at her, his heavy-lidded eyes unreadable. With a laugh, he dismounted his horse. "I will give you another hour, girl, and if you are not able to sit your horse, I will have you carried by litter." Esarhaddon looked to Ásal, who stood with his head bowed, his hands folded across his middle. "Now, Ásal, you lazy lout, your relief at not having to cut saplings will come to naught, for you are to make us some tea." Esarhaddon turned and walked away with Ubri and Ásal following, while Ganbar lingered behind like a faithful hound.
"Do you really think he would kill me if you tried to escape?" Elffled trembled as she cast a timid glance in Esarhaddon's direction.
"I do not know," Elfhild replied quietly. "Only yesterday, he threatened to kill us both. I have no idea what the man is capable of doing!"
"Pay heed to the shakh's words, daughters of the North," a grim-faced Ganbar told them. "He will brook no disobedience from his servants. That is just a little piece of friendly advice from one who has seen much." Reaching down, he touched Elfhild's shoulder. "Please be good! I would hate to see your lovely sister slain. Besides, blood makes me sick to my stomach."
After Elfhild had recovered enough to ride, the Southrons set off again, their destination Minas Tirith. They paid the girls little heed, although Ganbar looked back at Elfhild every now and then to see how she was faring. Even the servant boy Ásal, who had been so solicitous of them the day before, was ignoring them. He seemed sullen and unhappy; his mouth did not smile, and no longer did his tongue wag with endless flattery. The twins wondered at this sudden change in personality, but since they had only met the boy yesterday, they assumed he was merely given to moods and whims.
As they approached the once-green fields of the Pelennor, the mood of the Southrons turned as gray as the ashen sky. Although the battle had been a victory for Mordor, the Haradrim and Easterlings had suffered great losses. Each one of the Southrons had known someone who had fought upon the Pelennor Fields, be it acquaintance, trusted friend, or kinsman. Although each man hoped and prayed that his fellows were still alive and well, it was illogical to think that everyone had survived. The Southrons knew that once they arrived in Nurn, their joy at having returned at last would be tempered by sorrowful tidings from the front. Here in the wilderness, though, they were isolated from the war which raged in the north, for news always traveled slowly.
In the distance lay the ruins of the Rammas Echor, the wall which surrounded the once green farmlands around the White City. During the battle in the spring, the forces of Mordor had breached the wall, razing it to the earth in several places. Now ruined stone littered the ground, causing the great wall, which had once been patrolled by sentries, to resemble some ancient ruin which time had long forgotten. The landscape of Middle-earth was dotted with such ruins, crumbling reminders of ancient kingdoms and civilizations which now existed only in dusty pages of lore.
As the riders approached the northern gate to the Pelennor, they reined in their horses and stared at the ghastly sight before them. The gate had been battered down during the bloody battle in March, leaving nothing but a gaping hole in the wall. Sometime during the past few days, though, the aperture had been framed around by an archway of rude beams taken from broken siege engines and catapults. Skulls had been hung along the sides of the ghastly arch, their sightless eyes peering out at all who came and went upon the road. Across the lintel, written in crude Westron, were the words "Death to the Enemies of Mordor." Banners bearing the Great Eye were hung over the walls, emblems of the power of Mordor. The work was obviously done by orcish artisans with a grim sense of humor and no sense of honor whatsoever, for who would know whose skull had belonged to a man of the West, and which had belonged to a warrior of Mordor?
The men gazed at the monstrosity before them, one thought shared by them all. As crude and banal as the creatures of Mordor were, how could their minds devise such an abhorrent mockery of those who had bravely given their lives on the battlefield?
"Is this some crude jest?" Esarhaddon loudly demanded. "Such an evil thing is an insult to our countrymen who perished while fighting the enemy!"
"The uruks' minds ever turn to corruption!" Ubri growled, his eyes blazing with fury. "I detest them all, every last one! Fiendish bastards! When this war is over, the Great One should destroy them all!"
"He will never do it." Ganbar shook his head knowingly. "He needs them too much, and what is it to Him if thousands of Haradrim and Khandians are slaughtered while in His service?"
"The Khandians!" Esarhaddon laughed grimly. "No good has ever come from that people."
"Well, there are your physician, Tushratta, and his assistant. They are both good men, my lord," Ganbar reminded him, knowing full well that Esarhaddon would slough off his words, "and skilled in the medical arts of Bablon."
"There are a few exceptions," Esarhaddon admitted grudgingly. "But not many. Now why do we waste time sitting here staring at this grotesque creation? Let us be on our way to the city!"
As the riders passed beneath the grim structure, Elfhild and Elffled shuddered with dread at this ghoulish tribute to the bloody hand of war. After their escape a few nights ago, the sisters had hoped that they would never again see the grim fields of the Pelennor. How wrong they had been! Here, in the northern part of the Pelennor, there had been fewer casualties, but still the war had taken its toll upon the land. All around them were the charred frames of farmhouses and outbuildings which had been put to the torch as the Mordorian invaders had pressed southward. Here and there lay the skeletal remains of men who had died in defense of the walls, or in the desperate flight back to the city.
Elfhild and Elffled stared helplessly as the scenery passed by. It was as though they were trapped in some nightmare in which they could only watch events unfolding about themselves rather than having any part in them. The distance seemed to pass all too quickly, and then they were in the very midst of the battlefield. Great trenches scored the blackened ground, as though the very earth had been clawed by some gigantic beast. Broken siege equipment lay abandoned upon the field like the forgotten toys of giants. The stench of death still lingered here, the corruption oozing deep into the ground. Vainly the girls tried to block out the reek by pulling the necks of their tunics around their noses. Skeletons of the slain mûmakil rose up like pallid monuments to death, and smaller skeletons of horses, men, and orcs lay in scattered heaps across the field, most of the bones picked clean by the vultures and ravens. Nothing had changed in only a week, but somehow the battlefield seemed even more horrifying than before.
As the road drew closer to Minas Tirith, it widened into a broad avenue which was flanked on either side by a series of tall poles. Crowning the poles were skulls, many of which bore battered and dented Rohirric helms. Tied beneath the skulls were hair-braided strings of knuckle bones which jangled unpleasantly together at the slightest breeze. It was an orcish tribute to the Riders of Rohan, a grim testament that any who defied the Dark Lord - even the staunchest, bravest defender - would inevitably fall to the might of Mordor.
As her horse's hooves plodded dully upon the pavement, Elfhild looked up into the dark, empty eye sockets of each staring skull. Tears welled up in her eyes when she came to the skull which belonged to her father. However, she received no visions from those dark, empty eye sockets this day, and the skull gazed at her sightlessly as she rode by. She was uncertain whether she was more sad or relieved at the silence.
The twins were relieved when the party reached Minas Tirith, for the sight of the conquered city distracted them from thoughts of their father and brother's demise on the fields of Pelennor. They remembered the vast tent city which had been constructed before the broken walls. They passed by the pens for slaves, the buildings for officials, the workshops for tradesmen, the huts for the workers and stables for horses. Many of the tents and pavilions were lavish, the material woven of bright colors, all bearing the emblem of their countries atop staffs raised high above the tents. Other tents were woven of black goat hair, their sides open to catch the breeze. Raised above these were colorful pennants, their sigils signifying nomadic clans and tribes of Harad. In contrast to the tents of the Southrons were the barracks of the orcs, which were some distance away from the encampment. A lively breeze had sprung up and ruffled the standards atop the tents, and both sisters thought they could catch the vile scent of orc on the wind.
Sleek greyhounds and whippets, aided by a few nondescript curs, ventured forward to bark and snap at the riders before a word from their masters sent them back whining into the shade along the sides of the tents. Soon the riders came to two of the largest pavilions on the field and halted their lathered and blowing horses in front of the lesser of the two pavilions. They were welcomed by a small, delicately built, tawny-skinned man, graying of beard and mustache, who clutched a tasseled shawl about his shoulders as though he were cold. Inbir stood beside him, his head bowed, a smile lighting up his handsome young face at the sight of the safe arrival of his master and his senior lieutenants.
Bowing from the waist, the older man touched his fingertips to his heart, his lips and then to his forehead. "Peace be upon you, greatly esteemed of the Southern merchants, illustrious Shakh Esarhaddon uHuzziya! I pray you will honor me by taking some refreshment in my tent!"
"Greetings, Shakh Awidan lûk-Nysmr. May peace be upon you and your house," Esarhaddon replied, returning the greeting. "I am pleased that you have set up my pavilion as I had ordered you to do." Swinging down from his saddle, he handed his reins to a waiting servant and signed to his lieutenants to assist the twins in dismounting. A word from Ubri sent Ásal leading his pack horses to the nearby stables.
"All has been done as you requested, my lord," Awidan replied. "I am sure that you will be pleased." The two men embraced and kissed each other on both cheeks. "How my heart sings with joy that you have returned safely!" Awidan gave his employer the most sincere smile that he could muster. He could care less whether his master had returned or not; in fact, the evil thought had crossed his mind that he would rejoice if Esarhaddon had perished upon the trip. "My servants will show your men to their tents and take your women to your own pavilion. All your horses will be cared for while you are my honored guests. Now if you will join me in my tent..."
"Awidan, all will be done in time." Esarhaddon held up his hand. "I will see to my own pleasure after I have taken care of certain necessary business. There is the matter of these two slave women which must be addressed. After they escaped, they were taken in by a meddling old fool who filed off their collars. This, of course, cannot be tolerated, for it breaks the rules of the contract with the Tower. They need new collars, and then there are the formal papers which must be filled out." Since Esarhaddon's arrival, the two men had conversed in a Southern dialect, but as the slaver looked at Elfhild and Elffled, it appeared that he had reached some decision. "Speak in Westron, Awidan, since this is a matter that concerns my women."
"As you will, my lord." Awidan smiled at his employer, his dark eyes furtively shifting to the twins. "A collar is only a small thing, quickly replaced. The clerk will have the necessary papers filled out before the blacksmith locks the new collars about their lovely necks. All will be done as prescribed by the laws of the land." He folded his hands, clasping his fingers together.
The blacksmith! A shock of panic shot through Elffled; this vile man and his guards had pawed all over her sister and her the last time they had been taken to Minas Tirith. Whimpering softly, Elffled clung to her sister. "Please do not let them take us to those horrible men!" she whispered, close to tears.
"Lord Esarhaddon," Elfhild spoke up bravely, "this blacksmith, if he is the same one who gave us our first collars, terrifies my sister so much that I fear she will faint if she is forced to see him again!" She glanced over her shoulder at Elffled, who was cowering behind her.
Esarhaddon was clearly amused as he turned his dark eyes towards her. "What! Are my gentle doves afraid of the hard-working blacksmith? I can assure you that he performs his labor industriously and well." Stroking his beard, his eyes met those of Awidan, who smiled uncomfortably and let his hands drop to his sides. "...Unless there is something about him that I do not know, Awidan?"
"My lord Esarhaddon, while the man is somewhat loutish - he is from Umbar originally, a descendant of the men of Númenor, I believe - he has always accomplished every task which he has been set. He is almost never ill and has not missed a day at his forge in five years." Awidan glanced down at the tassels on the hem of his shawl and found that he was fingering them unconsciously, a nervous habit of his.
Without looking back at Elfhild, the master slaver asked her, "Tell me why your sister fears him. Do not be afraid, my little dove. No one will hurt you for telling the truth. What did he do to her? Speak plainly." His three lieutenants exchanged knowing glances with each other. With a feeling of growing irritation, Awidan discovered that the tassels had become tangled, and though he kept his eyes on Esarhaddon, his fingers worked frantically to untangle the strands.
"The blacksmith and his assistant were very cruel to both of us," Elfhild proclaimed defensively. "They called in five of the guards, and all seven men took turns tormenting us." Her face turned red with embarrassment, and she looked down, her voice starting to waver. "They - they kissed us, and pawed all over our bodies with their filthy hands! My sister suffered the most, for one of the guards lifted up her skirt and - and - touched her improperly." At these words, Elffled burst out into wailing sobs, and Elfhild clutched her tightly. "Oh, my lord, please believe us!" Elfhild begged piteously. "We are telling the truth!"
Esarhaddon's eyelids had drooped lower. Though he appeared almost to be sleeping, the finger circling around the hilt of his scimitar moved back and forth, much like the switching of a leopard's tail before he springs upon his prey. Awidan's eyes followed the motion, almost hypnotized. "Awidan," Esarhaddon sighed, "can you not keep your people under control?"
"My lord," Awidan coughed and clutched his heart, "I am old man, and this wretched, damp climate is injurious to my health--"
"This has nothing to do with your health, Awidan," Esarhaddon bluntly cut him off. "This is a matter which pertains entirely to business. If dolts like the blacksmith and those damn fool guards that you keep in your employ damage the merchandise and make it unsalable, I have lost money, and if anything makes me unhappy, it is failing to turn a profit upon a venture."
"Shakh," Awidan's voice was a plaintive bleat as he rapidly fanned his face with his hand, "these wenches could be telling us lies, tales which they have concocted! Lest there be any misunderstanding of the way I conduct business here, I will have the physician examine both of these girls. Should their value have been lessened in any way, I will go directly to the authorities and purchase them myself. Your family's business establishment will lose nothing, either in profit or reputation!"
Esarhaddon's hand slid from his scimitar and dropped to his side as he moved closer to the older man. Swiftly reaching out his right hand, he clamped Awidan's shoulder in a grip of iron while his other hand clenched the man's right forearm. Esarhaddon's voice dropped to a low undertone as his eyes bore into his subordinate's. "While your most thoughtful offer is appreciated, I am inclined to think that no harm has been done... this time. However, it is obvious that the smith and his cronies are a fell lot and deserve punishment. Do you not remember that old adage, my friend? 'The reputation of a man's business is determined by the integrity of the man and his employees.' Then the other adage, which is so fondly elucidated by our venerable wise men, 'The rogue and scoundrel laugh at the weak man but fear the strong and harsh?' Or that other saying so commonly heard, 'The whip will drive wisdom into the soul of a fool?'"
In spite of the chill which he perpetually felt in this damp, foreign climate, Awidan had begun to perspire heavily. As Esarhaddon held his shoulder in a forceful grip, the little man winced, a small, gasping moan escaping his mouth. "The bastinado, Awidan. My lieutenants will administer the sentence. Aye, the bastinado... One hundred strokes for the blacksmith, fifty on each foot, and the punishment must be laid on hard and heavy! For those guards who are guilty of touching that which is not theirs, they, too, are to be scourged with the bastinado, twenty-five for each foot. I am being merciful, Awidan. You know that I am! Kind and compassionate! It would be within my rights to have them all castrated or killed!
Esarhaddon's heavy-lidded eyes were mere slits, his face so close to the other man's that his heavy breathing hit him with fragrant puffs of mint. "Now the man who fondled the wench beneath her skirts... the bastard must forfeit his left hand as punishment for trying to steal what is rightfully mine. You understand, Awidan?" Esarhaddon smiled, backing away slightly and releasing the harsh, painful hold on the man's arms.
His whole body shaking, Awidan gulped, his throat bobbing convulsively as he stared panic-stricken into the eyes of the slaver. "A-aye, my lord, I understand, and I concur with your judgment. After these scoundrels have recovered from their injuries, I will dismiss them." As he silently prayed to his gods for protection, the underling's hand clutched desperately at the amulets beneath his robes.
Awidan did not like to think what might happen should Esarhaddon ever discover that long ago he and the blacksmith had struck a bargain. Awidan would turn a blind eye to the blacksmith's lewd attentions towards captured slave women in exchange for gratuities. The gifts themselves were never large, for the blacksmith was a man of modest means. However, the contribution of a small amount of his pay or the gift of some overlooked memento from the sacked city was enough to buy his silence. Though bribery was a punishable offense, it was a common practice and most thought nothing of it. "But not Esarhaddon uHuzziya!" he fumed to himself. "The vain bastard thinks he is too good to accept a bribe!"
"Now, my old friend," Esarhaddon put his arm around the trembling shoulders and began to guide the older man into the tent, "you have given many years of honorable service to my family. Perhaps it is time now for you to think about those golden days of retirement. Your wife and family in Harad have not seen you in a long time and will be overjoyed at your return."
"Worthy Shakh, while your concern is appreciated, I feel that I still have a number of years left to devote to your service. For the sake of my health, however, perhaps a little holiday might be in order... that is, of course, if you would approve," Awidan mumbled tremulously, his right thumb and forefinger compulsively winding around the tassels of his shawl.
"That might be advisable," Esarhaddon agreed amiably. "A holiday could be just the thing for your health. Now let us settle ourselves comfortably within the shaded confines of your tent. We will discuss the matter while my men and I enjoy those refreshments which you have so generously offered."
"You know that everything I have is yours, shakh," Awidan exclaimed nervously as he inclined his head and kissed the sleeve of Esarhaddon's tunic. Looking down at his richly slippered feet, the fearful little man was grateful that they would not be the ones to face the bastinado's bite.