The Circles - Book Six - Chapter 13

The Circles - Book Six - Across the Wide Hamada
Chapter Thirteen
New Beginnings
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

The great, brooding volcano known as Mount Doom slumbered in the fetid heat of midday, its huge mass a grim silhouette on an otherwise featureless horizon. That day the crater was quiet, with the only indication of its incredibly hot interior the column of gray smoke which rose steadily to the brooding clouds above. Sixty-five years earlier, after a long period of inactivity, the volcano had erupted concurrently with the Dark Lord's open declaration of His dread presence in Mordor. Since then, the earth had often trembled as fire and lava belched out of the peak's fiery crater, pelting the tortured land with ash and fiery missiles. Though the volcano appeared to be sleeping that day, those men and orcs familiar with its ways knew that the Mountain of Doom could suddenly turn deadly. Its moods were as volatile as those of its Master, and often mirrored them.

The column of Rohirric slaves sank gratefully to the rocky ground for the short rest stop at midday, the women and children weary from the morning march of over two leagues. Though the caravan had camped for three days, the rest had not been nearly long enough for women and children already exhausted from a journey of almost three hundred miles. Accustomed to the warm summers and relatively mild winters of the rolling plain of Calenardhon, the captives suffered greatly from the harsh, unyielding climate of Gorgoroth. The heat, though, could be tolerated, at least by the strong. However, the very air could be at times a torture to breathe, for often it reeked of brimstone and tasted foul to the tongue.

Many coughed and choked, their throats and lungs dry and irritated by the malodorous fumes and dust-laden air. All were dirty, their clothing saturated with sweat and the grime of the trail. Though they received sufficient food, many of the children had dark circles under their eyes, their arms and legs were thin as reeds, and their expressions were distant and dull. Too intimidated to ask to play as normal children would, they huddled close to their mothers, their young minds languishing from the lack of stimulation. Adding to the somber setting was the occasional piercing wail of a hungry infant whose mother had insufficient milk to feed her child. The flail, though, was a powerful motivator, and when it brushed across the bare legs of the captives, they would move quickly enough.

Though they left the slaves' necks chained in coffle, the guards had quickly untied their hands. Flails at their belts, the men swaggered between the lines of captives, jeering and taunting and ever eager for any excuse to apply the whip. "You greedy slaves are going to have to wait a while for your rations; one of the supply wagons broke down on the trail a few miles back," the guard known as Ali growled as he neared a woman and her small son. "It takes a lot to feed you ingrates!"

Bristling at having to wait in the hot midday sun, Ali wanted the caravan to start moving again. There were many miles remaining before they reached Turk├╗rzgoi, and the journey had been taking far too long. He had a wife and children waiting for him back home. He blamed much of the accursed delay on the slave mutiny eleven days before, and his ire was especially kindled whenever he saw the twins, for they had almost made good their escape. Elfhild and Elffled were in the next line over and were not looking in his direction, but he was keenly aware of them. Lusting for both girls, he kept glancing at them, ravishing their soft, nubile bodies in his mind. "Probably virgins," he thought wistfully. "How I would like to be the one to deflower them!" He licked his lips; it seemed that since they had come to this dreadful place that he could never drink enough water, and the smell of his reeking body had become offensive to his nostrils.

As he walked the length of one of the lines of captives, Ali's attention was drawn to a tired-faced young woman and her son. Stopping in his tracks, he turned back to take a closer look at them. Though the woman was pretty, with delicate features and dark blonde hair, her son was the exact opposite. The boy was about as ugly a whelp as he had ever seen, with his bright orange hair, florid freckled face, prominent ears, crooked nose, and slightly protruding front teeth. "An orc's imp might look better," Ali thought scornfully. "His only use is to be the servant of a blind man, for then his poor master would never have to see him! Unfortunately, the rest of the world would have to look at the wretch. Such an ugly child should have been put to death at birth!" While he was forced to endure this miserable wait, the young Southron decided he was entitled to a little entertainment. Besides, the other men's spirits were always boosted by a little bit of slave baiting.

Laughing to himself about the cruel sport he was about to have, Ali gathered up a mouthful of spit and launched a concentrated stream at the boy's face. The child yelped in surprise and looked up at the leering Southron, his pallid gray eyes wide with fright and indignation. The boy stood there for a moment, seemingly frozen in place as the guard's saliva dripped down his cheeks. Then, as his mother reached out to clutch him in a protective embrace, the boy bolted away in pure panic, his chubby little legs flying over the pebbly ground.

"One of you grab that brat!" Ali bellowed at the two nearest guards.

"Catch him yourself, Ali!" one of the guards grumbled. "We are not paid to be nursemaids!" When Ali leveled a black look at him, the man let out a stream of profanities and then motioned for the other guard to join him. The child had only a small head start; he could never hope to outrace them with his short, fat legs. In spite of the odds, the lad tried, not really having any idea in his wild fear of where he would go if he did manage to escape. Though the watching captives pitied him, they still felt a certain excitement any time one of their number took the chance - the foolish, reckless chance - to attempt to escape from their tormentors.

Weaving his way through the lines of chained slaves, the boy ran, his breath coming in gasps. He ducked under coffle chains, smiling his foolish smile as the women moved aside for him. Only two lines of slaves stood in his way of freedom, but he ducked through a hastily opened gap. Once clear of the column, there was nothing beyond but open ground. He stopped at the edge of the road, daring a glance back to see that more cursing guards had joined the chase.

"You little bastard, come here!"

"Mother!" the boy shrieked, almost colliding with the horse of one of the flankers. As the frightened horse reared, the boy dodged underneath its belly, nearly missing being trampled by the flailing hooves. Tearing past the horse, the boy saw more horsemen closing in until he was surrounded. Overcome with frustration, he balled his hands into fists, his homely face convulsing into a fit of tears.

"Got him!" the guard shouted triumphantly as he leaned down from the saddle and scooped the screaming child up in his arms, tossing him over his shoulder. A low murmur rose up from the captives when their small champion was defeated. Would he be beaten for his audacity? Their hearts pounding, the women waited breathlessly to find out the boy's fate. Carrying his struggling prisoner back to the line of captives, the horseman lifted the lad up in the air. "Ali, what do you want me to do with this scum of dogs?"

"Oh, maybe give him to the orcs." Ali winked at the other man, who lowered the squalling boy down to him. "They think tender man-flesh is a delicacy." This exchange caused the sobbing boy to renew his efforts to break free of his captors. The boy kicked against Ali's chest and pounded his fists upon his broad back, but Ali only laughed as the blows fell harmlessly upon his boiled leather armor. "Maybe the orcs will be so grateful to us that they will invite us to share the feast."

"Never ate man's flesh before, Ali, but after traveling all this way on skimpy rations, it might be an improvement over the hardtack and stringy dried meat they give us." Opening a mouth full of shiny white teeth, the guard moved his jaws back and forth, as though he were biting off meat. The other guards at that end of the line guffawed at the jest and licked their lips in anticipation.

Almost hysterical with fear, the boy's mother stumbled to her knees, screaming, "NO! NO!" Before she could struggle to her feet, the other women pulled her down and forced her to sit still.

Down the line, a tall woman in a faded blue cloak had watched the entire proceedings. Her face hidden by the hood, she pulled back the cloth and shook her curly mane free, pausing to smile at one of the chained captives near her. As she strode purposefully towards Ali and the laughing guards, she draped the loop of a tan leather-handled rattan cane around her wrist. When she reached Ali, the guards clustering about him moved aside, knowing looks on their faces. Tossing the screaming boy high in the air, Ali caught him on his downward descent and dangled him a few feet from the ground by the neck of his tunic. The fat Southron turned to face the woman, who stood at least three inches taller than him.

"Ali, sir," the woman bowed to him, "a thousand pardons for my intrusion. I do not mean to mar your enjoyment." She smiled apologetically. "However, I must remind you that if there is any damage to the illustrious Shakh's property - no matter how small or insignificant that property might be - he will surely become angry. I know you do not want to incur the lord's rancor," she remarked sweetly, inclining her head slightly.

"Woman, you assume an authority that is most unbecoming in a slave," Ali growled. He could not help noticing how most of the other guards regarded the woman with admiration.

When she raised her head, the woman's slate blue eyes flashed in amusement. "Sir, the only authority I possess is that which is given to me by the noble Shakh. If you question this, I might suggest you take the matter up with him."

His eyes narrowing, the Southron opened his mouth to argue with her, but thought better of it. "Bah! I will not bother the lord with trivialities which are of no consequence whatsoever." He looked up at her, wishing she were not so damned tall. Unfortunately, she was correct. The chief slaver, scion of the House of Huzziya, might be one of the richest men in Nurn, but he would shed bitter tears at the thought of losing money. While the slave boy was a repulsive looking brat, at least the little beggar would bring a pittance on the block. "Since you are so interested in this little toad, you take him!" With a menacing growl, Ali tossed the boy at the woman.

Catching the boy in her arms, the woman held him to her chest, protectively clutching his trembling body. "You are a fool, Ali," she calmly told him as she returned the boy to his mother. Bowing differentially, she turned on her heel and walked away to the unheard applause of the captives and the begrudged recognition of the guards.

"All right, men, the entertainment is over!" Ali snarled, irritated at the amused look on the other men's faces. "The supply wagon should be here soon, and we can be on our way after these slaves are fed!" The woman had publicly embarrassed him, and he longed to forget the whole unpleasant ordeal.

"Aye, Ali, aye," one man returned sullenly. "But just remember, you are not the one who gives orders here!"

"From the looks of it just now, Ali is now taking his orders from Leofgifu!" another guard laughed. The others joined with him, except for Ali, whose face had darkened with anger.

***

As the twins watched the last of the exchange, a figure moved between them and the other slaves.

"Water?" a clear voice inquired. A weary look upon her face, the slender girl shifted the large waterskin slung over her left shoulder to a more comfortable position. To help protect her shoulder from being rubbed raw by the waterskin, she wore a leather vest with a wide collar that curved up slightly. Saturated with both spilled water and sweat, her thin, drab dress clung to her body, outlining her shapely curves.

"What?" Elfhild looked up, blinking her eyes against the sun. She had been so completely absorbed by the unpleasant scene with the guard and the little boy that she had scarcely noticed the slave girl, who, throughout the entire altercation, had gone about her quiet way distributing water to the captives. The sight of her quiet, reserved aunt boldly confronting one of the guards was too shocking a vision to allow Elfhild to think of anything else. But the girl was speaking again... what had she said?

"I asked if you wanted a drink of water," the girl told her softly.

"Aeffe!" Elffled exclaimed, her face brightening as recognition dawned upon her. She wished that she could rise to her feet and hug their old friend to her breast. That would attract too much attention, though, and the women chained on either side of them might raise objections to having their necks yanked.

"Please, not so loud!" Aeffe cautioned, a forced smile frozen on her face. "The guards allow only a minimum of talking, and that must be done quietly, or they will whip you."

"It is just so good to see you again," Elffled whispered, keeping her voice low lest the guards overhear them. "I have so much I want to ask you..."

"Do you want water or not?" Aeffe asked testily, shifting on her aching feet. Raising her arm, she wiped the perspiration off her brow with the already damp material of her sleeve.

"Yes, some water would be wonderful. What about you, Elfhild?" She turned towards her sister. Obviously Aeffe did not feel that she was free to talk. Elffled knew the other girl's fear quite well; almost everyone feared the guards, whether they were orc or man. Only a few did not, and they were either stupid, like Goldwyn, or brave, like Aunt Leofgifu.

"Yes, certainly," Elfhild replied, licking her lips and looking wistfully at the waterskin. After the long, dusty march, her mouth and throat were dry and parched, and she longed for a drink.

Turning the spigot on the metal mouthpiece of the vessel, Aeffe directed the stream of water into a tin cup chained to the water bag. As she handed the cup to Elffled, she chuckled humorlessly, "Not very fancy, I know, but quite practical. Some are so desperate for a drink that they try to tear off the cup... others go for the water bag itself." As she turned to fill the cup for Elfhild, she tucked a wayward section of her reddish blonde hair behind her ear, revealing a yellowed bruise on her cheek.

"Oh, Aeffe!" Gasping in horror, Elfhild raised her hands to her lips. Aeffe turned her head away, blocking the sight of the ugly bruise. "I did not notice... your hair hid it..."

"Do not fret. I have found that most wounds heal." Aeffe's eyes darted furtively towards the men and orcs who guarded the prisoners. "You learn new ways here." Her voice dropped as she glanced at one of the guards. "Maybe not ones that you would wish to learn..." The guard, a seedy-looking fellow with small, pale hazel eyes, slapped the tresses of the short flail which he held against his palm. "Please!" Aeffe whimpered, a look of terror crossing over her face. "I must be going!" She hurried away, her tattered skirts swirling about her bare legs.

"Oh, 'Fled!" Elfhild exclaimed in a hushed whisper as she turned back to face her twin. "Did you see how haggard she looked? And that bruise upon her cheek!" Squeezing her eyes shut, she shuddered at the thought. "It must have been horrid when it was new!"

"Yes, I noticed," Elffled replied absentmindedly, wishing that she had drunk more water. "I wonder what happened to her." Though she was concerned about Aeffe, at that moment she was far more interested in finding out if the woman who had so boldly and fearlessly confronted the guards was really Aunt Leofgifu. Why was she allowed to march unchained? Why was she granted so much freedom? How had she gained the trust and respect of the slavers?

"We might not learn that until the caravan stops for the night," Elfhild remarked as she watched Aeffe stop by the last woman in their troop, an older lady who looked as thin and frail as a withered willow leaf. After filling a cup of water for the woman, Aeffe dashed away to the supply wagons, where she would refill the waterskin.

"Are you Elfhild and Elffled?" whispered the auburn-haired girl chained beside Elfhild. Despite her peeling sunburn and an abundance of freckles upon her reddened face, the girl was quite lovely with her dark ginger hair and sparkling green eyes. However, there was a cruel twist to her full, curving lips, and she regarded the twins with a certain sense of arrogance and entitlement.

Elfhild turned back to look at the other girl. "Yes, we are." Though she and her sister had marched in the same line with her all morning, it had been impossible for any of them to talk. The guards were quick to lash out with their whips at the calves of any girl who broke the rule prohibiting talking while marching.

"Leofgifu is your aunt?"

"Yes, she is," Elfhild answered.

"Do you know Aunt Leofgifu?" Elffled asked eagerly, hoping that they had found a mutual friend.

"Oh, everyone knows Leofgifu." The girl snorted in derision. "The fame of traitors spreads far and wide!"

"What do you mean, 'traitor?'" Elfhild demanded, bristling. "Our aunt would never betray anyone!"

Momentarily taken aback, Elffled gathered her wits about herself and challenged these dire accusations. "Why would you say such a horrible thing? Who are you, anyway?" She looked the girl up and down and turned up her nose disdainfully, as though she had smelt something foul. "You were never in our troop before."

"Oh, do not bother with her, Tove!" The pretty brunette chained beside the redheaded girl tossed her long, unbound hair over her shoulder. "She is just an ignorant peasant like her aunt, a low-born pauper not even worth our notice."

"Of course, you are right, Cyneburh." Tove's green eyes softened as she looked to the girl beside her. "Little swineherd girls from the country, still smelling of their sty!"

"Why do you say that our aunt is a traitor?" Elfhild demanded again, her fists clenching at her sides. "How dare you insult Leofgifu's honor!" She took a threatening step towards Tove, at the ready to defend her aunt from this lying, slander-spewing, haughty-tongued rumormonger.

"Her honor?" Tove laughed arrogantly. "Your aunt has no honor!"

"What do you mean by these insults?" Elffled's eyes narrowed and she glared darkly at the other girl. "Stop playing games and speak plainly!"

"I will not tell you anything!" Tove huffed indignantly. "You will just have to find out for yourselves."

"Be quiet over there!" a guard barked, looking sternly at the girls as he tapped the flail on his palm.

Fearing the implication of that gesture, the four girls immediately fell silent and dropped their gazes to the ground in a show of subservience. They spent the remainder of the midday rest in sullen silence, hurling daggers at each other with hostile glares from scowling eyes.


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