When Elfhild and Elffled awoke the next morning, they felt drowsy and addled, their senses sluggish, their brains filled with cobwebs. The previous night had been one fraught with nightmares for the girls, and both sisters had dreamt the same troubling dream which filled their slumbers with horrible visions of a corpse-strewn battlefield. Far above the earth they beheld this sweeping vista of carnage, as though they were birds soaring through the heavens. Wounded men, orcs and animals writhed in pain, crawling in blind agony through puddles of blood, groping the ground with hands missing fingers, with the stumps of severed forearms. The anguished cries of those who clung tenaciously to what life yet remained in their mangled bodies rose up into the heavens, combining into one long, ululating shriek which still echoed through the night long after the twins had awakened screaming.
Esarhaddon knew full well the true cause of the terror which held the minds of his slaves in thrall - the unholy wails of the winged messenger. He suspected that the courier bore ill tidings for the Tower, for the messenger was traveling with such speed that, for a moment, the slave trader had feared the tent would be blown away. Not wishing to alarm the girls with tales of the dark roc-riders of the skies, he assured them that the horrifying shrieks which they had heard were merely a fierce wind which howled and wailed around the tent. To calm their fears, he had administered a mild sedative, which they had gladly taken to forget the horror which still lurked in their minds. Now both girls sat on the other side of the low table from him, their senses still benumbed by the sleeping draught.
"I will see if you have learned anything from Rose Petal's teachings." Esarhaddon studied the twins. "Surely you must have absorbed something."
"Good morning, Master," Elfhild responded in Haradric, thrilled that she had been able to learn a few words of the foreign language and eager to show off her new knowledge. Perhaps her learning abilities might prove her intelligence to the slaver and make him think more highly of her.
"Very good," he replied, nodding his head slightly in approval.
Carnation's high-pitched voice called from the other side of the curtain. "Master, the slave boys are here with your breakfast. Would you wish to dine soon?"
"Presently, esteemed Carnation," Esarhaddon answered him. Rising to his feet, the slaver looked down at the twins. "When you have washed and dressed yourselves, you may eat whatever is left of the meal. After you are finished, a guard will return you to the rest of the captives. Do not tarry long, though, for the caravan will soon be leaving."
"Master," Elfhild spoke up politely, "I have a boon to ask of you."
"What would you ask?" He stopped, his dark eyebrows furrowing.
"If it pleases you, please see that we are returned to the troop of Leofgifu of Grenefeld."
"Why is that so important to you?"
"She is our aunt, Master."
"Your aunt... Leofgifu, yes, I know the name." Esarhaddon nodded, stroking his beard thoughtfully. "When the troops were reorganized after the ill-fated escape attempt, your aunt Leofgifu of Grenefeld was named as overseer of several troops for her... loyalty, shall we say. I have been told that she handles her new responsibilities admirably well." He turned to go, but paused. "Ah, yes," he added as though as an afterthought. "I trust that you will enjoy the two places which were reserved for you near the middle of the line in your new troop."
Turning, the slaver left them and walked through the curtained entryway, his dark eyes smiling slightly, his full lips curled in an inscrutable grin.
While they washed and dressed, the twins could hear the low voices of men speaking in Haradric in the public chamber of the tent, but they were able to understand only a few words, and those were nothing of importance. As time passed, the men grew louder, and here and there, a laugh punctuated their discussion. Listening, keeping as quiet as they could, the girls heard the soft rattle of plates, platters, and drinking cups, and knew that the breakfast was being served. The slaver had guests that morning, and the quiet, detached voice of his physician mingled with the more strident tones of the slaver's three lieutenants, and several other men, whom the twins did not know.
Their stomachs snarling with hunger like starved hounds, Elfhild and Elffled wished that the men would leave soon so that they could eat. After a while, the girls could hear the men rising to their feet, and when their ears caught the word, "Silim," they knew Esarhaddon's visitors were taking their leave. When all was quiet on the other side of the tent, the girls were about to peek into the chamber when a high-pitched voice halted them.
Pulling open the arras, the tall, slender form of Carnation came into the harem chamber, his gait a picture of practiced dignity. "Little mistresses, the day wanes and you still dawdle! You must eat breakfast, and quickly, for the caravan is preparing to leave!" he gently scolded them as they rose to their feet and bowed to him. "Make haste! Make haste!" His voice filed with excitement, he gestured to them with his upraised palms.
As the eunuch stepped aside, the girls filed into the public chamber. The tent flaps had been thrown open to provide a breath of air for the interior. The brightness from the open entryway was a shock to the twins' eyes, which, after a day in seclusion, had grown used to the muted light of the tent. Across the pavilion, near the guarded entrance, the girls recognized Akil, one of the boys who had attended them the previous night. In his arms was a bundle of plain, nondescript cloth.
After Carnation's approval, Elfhild and Elffled sat down cross-legged at the low table. Esarhaddon and his companions had gone, and the only reminders of their morning meal were platters and bowls of uneaten food. To the twins, it was a feast worthy of celebration. Remembering their lessons, both girls made sure that their table manners were impeccable and their posture above reproach. However, Elfhild soon felt the scrutinizing stare of Carnation upon her, and instantly stopped eating. Her sister looked up briefly, a charming smile upon her face, and then reached for the flatbread, tearing off a piece and dipping it into a small bowl of oil and spices. She eyed the eunuch as she daintily took a bite, and he smiled back at her.
"Is something wrong, Master?" Elfhild asked hesitantly.
"Your hair, little mistress... it is as unruly as the tangled tail of a wild mare. Did you fail to brush it this morning?" he asked her, the expression on his rounded face puckered in disapproval.
"No, Master," Elfhild replied, tension tightening her throat. "Both of us brushed our hair."
"Then you do not brush it enough." Pursing his lips, Carnation studied them intently before kneeling down behind them. "Something must be done about your hair!" A frown came over his ebony face when he observed the damage from the sun and elements. "These ends are split and broken!" He held up several strands of Elfhild's hair which were forked in a number of places. "So lamentably dry and brittle, like desert shrubs, absolutely deplorable! Your hair desperately needs to be trimmed and then given treatments of hot oil to restore its health, but there is no time for that!"
His brow furrowed in concentration, Carnation gently combed and brushed their hair. After they had finished eating and he was still not satisfied with his efforts, Elfhild ventured to ask if the departure of the caravan was imminent. "Do not be concerned! The horn you that heard was only the second one. The caravan is not yet ready to depart. Now back to what we were doing." He stroked his beardless chin with the tip of his forefinger. "The attainment of the desirable often takes effort... and some cooperation," he told Elffled as the comb hit a snarl. "You are too impatient! There is plenty of time! I need only add the finishing touches!" When he was finally satisfied with their hair, he had plaited Elfhild's tresses into nine braids and Elffled's into seven. As he rose to his feet and walked around to face them, he was beaming, his pearly white teeth almost glowing.
"Perfect!" he exclaimed. "...Or nearly perfect, for it would be vain and insulting to the Gods to say that one had created anything that was without flaw. But at least the numbers are auspicious." His eyes flicked towards the youth who stood waiting near the entry of the tent. Signing to Akil, Carnation motioned for him to approach, and as the boy moved beside him, the bundle clutched in his arms, Carnation informed the girls, "Little mistresses, these cloaks are to replace those which you lost at Cirith Ungol." He watched as the boy drew the garments around the twins' shoulders, fastening the drab, dun-colored cloaks about their throats. "Only slightly used, second hand, you could say... The owners will never miss them." The eunuch chuckled softly. "See what nice hoods they have!"
Drawing the tasseled hood over Elffled's head, Carnation stepped back to see the effect. "Are you disturbed by the rend? I see by your expression that you are. You need not be," he told her as he readjusted the hood. "There is only a little stain on the cloak, scarcely noticeable. I am sure that the former owner was a good and noble man." He touched the dark brown discoloration over the heart. "He reposes now in a land without poverty, hunger, disease, sorrow, or war, surrounded by beautiful women much like you... handsome men, too," he added with a chuckle.
"Thank you, Master," Elffled whispered, her gaze dropping to her feet. As though a corpse had laid its hand upon her breast, a disturbing shiver rippled over her body. She was wearing the blood-stained cloak of a slain enemy, and she could almost feel the impact of the arrow which had pierced his heart. She shrugged off the feeling. What did it matter who had once worn the garment? At least she had something to cover her in the savage lands.
"Of course, you will not be able to wear the hoods when you are in coffle." The handsome black eunuch glanced at Elfhild, who had just picked up a piece of cheese and was putting it in her mouth. She smiled back at him. "That is why you have also been provided with scarves... not just you, but all the women and girl children... the boys will, of course, have keffiyehs to protect their heads from the heat of the Sun." The twins looked at him unblinkingly as he motioned for Akil to present them with two tasseled scarves, one sky blue and one white, both worn and of cheap quality.
When Carnation saw their faces wrinkle into disapproving expressions at all the stains on the cloth, he frowned sternly. "Did you think that you could expect the best!" He snorted contentiously. "You are slaves! You could be dressed in rags and no one would care! If you had any sense, you would kneel at your master's feet and shower him with bouquets of felicitous wishes for all the things that he has done for you!"
"Master, indeed we are unworthy slaves, failing constantly to show our appreciation." Elffled hung her head, pretending to be ashamed. "Do you have it in your kind, generous heart ever to forgive us?"
His expression impassive, the eunuch folded his arms across his chest and looked down at the top of her head, the golden tresses hidden by the scarf. He had always had a tender spot in his heart for innocent, doe-eyed, fair-skinned blonde beauties from the North, and she was no exception. If only he were still a man... but he had been robbed of that. His broad hand reached out and cupped her under the chin, lifting her face upward.
"Perhaps I will inform your master that you are truly penitent and aspire to do better." He patted her cheek. "But now we must leave. We will soon be traveling through an area even more desolate than the one where we are, an area of savage heat and scorching earth, where there is no vegetation for miles and the ground is cracked and tortured." Carnation's ebony face looked grim. "Smoke and steam spew from the earth and distort the vision, making people stagger as though they were drunken! When you are beyond the range of the dark clouds that billow above the Mountain of Fire, the blinding glare of the Sun reflects upon the parched ground and pierces the eyes, often causing them to burn and swell shut. Some even go blind!" He shook his head. "You and all the other captives must protect your faces and eyes from the fumes and dust, the stinging wind, and the brightness of the Sun."
Their eyes wide, the sisters looked at him, both thanking him for his warning. "Master," Elfhild ventured apprehensively, "I hope Nurn is not so foreboding!"
"Ah, Nurn has its own dangers, peculiar only to itself," Carnation remarked enigmatically. No amount of coaxing or wheedling could persuade him to reveal what he meant. "Now you must go." He looked to the boy who stood beside him. "Akil will take you back to the line." Touching his fingers to his forehead, he gave them a short bow. "Farewell and may peace follow your path!"
As the twins were led to the area where the captives were being mustered for the morning march, they could hear the loud sound of many voices. As they drew nearer, they determined that the women were shouting in unison, but the words were unclear.
Elffled felt the light touch of her sister's hand on her arm. "Listen to them!" she exclaimed, looking puzzled. "They are crying out in Haradric!"
"Yes, I believe you are right," Elfhild returned. "But they are saying the same thing over and over."
"Chanting," Elffled remarked matter-of-factly, ignoring the slave boy who had turned back to look at them. "Rose Petal must have taught them to say 'Good morning, most honorable Shakh Huzziya,' the same as he taught us. I wonder if he made them repeat the words over and over without rest or peace until they could pronounce the words without a single mistake. Reminds me of teaching a brainless crow how to speak after its tongue has been slit."
"Little mistress," Akil spoke for the first time since they had left the tent, "what you have just said is a gross untruth. Only fools would cut a crow's tongue. The birds are natural mimics, picking up words as they are taught. One should not state something for a fact, unless one is certain of its veracity." The girls could not see his expression, for his back was turned to them, but they caught the air of superiority in his voice.
Not in the least flustered by Akil's rebuke, Elffled pursed her lips, an expression of amusement on her face. As she watched him walk ahead of them, she could not help admiring the youth's broad shoulders and narrow hips. "So I am ignorant of the ways of crows! What I meant was that Rose Petal has no more respect for us than if we were silly birds," she told him charmingly, but there was a cutting edge to her voice.
"Foolish words proceed from ignorant mouths. If you had any wisdom, you would know better than to speak of Rose Petal in such a deleterious fashion." Akil's voice was huffy. "Be careful in the future with your words regarding him, for you might find that they have reached his ears." He quickened his pace so the girls had to hurry to keep up with him.
"Oh, Master, I meant nothing uncomplimentary about the very honorable Rose Petal," Elffled simpered sweetly, her aquamarine eyes wide and innocent. "Actually, one who could teach those hidebound old biddies anything is truly a master of the instructor's art." She could not see the faint smile which crossed the eunuch's solemn face, but she sensed that he was pleased by her deferential tone.
Ahead of them they saw a bare, open section of the camp where the slaves had been formed into columns of four troops each. "Here is where I take my leave of you, little mistresses," Akil remarked as he turned the twins over to a fat, grinning guard. "I shall return for you after you have eaten supper." Inclining his head, the eunuch touched his fingertips to his brow and retreated.
"Have you forgotten your place so soon, wenches?" the still-grinning guard asked as he opened the satchel slung over his shoulder and drew out two pieces of rope.
"Our minds are slow, good master," Elffled murmured as she crossed her hands behind her back. "You must forgive us."
"Many apologies, most noble master," Elfhild added softly. She was becoming increasingly amazed by the ease with which Elffled was starting to use simpering, self-deprecating words to ingratiate herself with their captors.
"If two such lovely girls were to be gracious to me, I might find it in my tender soul to forgive them," the guard chuckled as he bound Elfhild's hands behind her back. "Should those lips of honey smile at me whenever we meet, perhaps ways could be found to make things easier for you." Peering down at her collar, he studied the name plate before fastening a length of chain to the loop. He glanced furtively around and stepped between her and the line of waiting slaves. "My name is Ali," he whispered.
"I am honored to make your acquaintance, Master," Elfhild replied shyly, uncertain of how to behave, for she seldom attempted to talk to any of the guards.
"There are... ways... if a girl is willing... that meetings can be arranged at night when the camp is quiet. Do not worry!" He looked at Elffled intently as he bound her hands and read the information on her name plate. "Your absence would never be discovered, and you would find that you were amply rewarded for your services." The guard leered at the twins, his greedy eyes imagining what delights lay beneath their voluminous robes.
"Master, we are only slaves, our destiny held in the hands of others," Elffled replied as smoothly as she could. "If you desire our company, you must first seek the permission of the great and noble Lord Esarhaddon." Although the man was very aggressive, she doubted that he would attempt anything, at least not out here in the open with so many people watching as the caravan prepared to leave. And if he did, Esarhaddon would have his feet beaten, just as he had done to the other guards who had dared touch her and her sister. Perhaps Ali might even lose his hand, she thought savagely.
"If that is the way you want it..." The guard's mouth twisted into a frown, his face becoming slightly paler under his tawny skin. "I was only offering a possibility... nothing definite was suggested." He tightened his grip on their leading chains, tugging them forward. "Oh, by the way... If you mention one word of this to the Shakh, I will deny this conversation ever happened, and do you think anyone ever believes the word of slaves?" He laughed unpleasantly. "Now you two beauties are ready to join your friends. Follow me," the guard commanded as he turned and directed them to the middle of one of the columns. After adding them to the coffle, he nodded to another guard before taking his place at the side of the column.
The Sun's bright rays had not yet burnt through the haze of early morning when a horn sounded, loud and clear in the brisk, foul-smelling air. Knowing what was in store for them, many of the captives muttered and groaned. Here and there, a small child sniffled and pulled at his mother's skirts. A tall, dour-faced guard called out, "Attention, slaves! We will be moving out soon! I want the lines as straight as arrows when we march!"
Another horn sounded, and the main gate to the thorny corral was pushed aside. Khaldun, at the head of the advance scouts, rode out on his fine gray gelding. Behind them marched the uruks, looking appropriately fierce in their piecemeal armor of leather and mail. A small escort of cavalry preceded Esarhaddon, who was surrounded by his bodyguards. Following behind the slaver and his escort was the treasure of the caravan - the women and children captured and ripped away from their homes and destined for the households of rich lords and ladies in the South and East. Walking beside the columns of slaves were guards, accompanied occasionally by slaves who served as water bearers.
Behind them came more uruk guards, and then, herded along by a small force of men, marched the sullen Gondorian slaves in the possession of the House of Huzziya. As the long line stretched out, assorted Haradric and Nurnian servants, slaves and dependents moved ahead, almost carefree with unbound hands and unfettered necks. Then with a sharp slap of reins and the crack of whips, the long line of supply wagons and wains rumbled by, conspicuous by their bright colors in the drab, barren landscape. A small herd of cattle and their drovers came last, followed by the rear guard of horsemen. On either side of the caravan at a distance of eight hundred yards rode the flankers, those men picked by Khaldun to protect the vulnerable sides of the caravan.
At last, to the beat of drums and the crack of slave whips, the Rohirric captives marched from the thorny corral to resume their journey across the plains of Gorgoroth.
Had anything really changed?