"Aeffe!" the deep male voice grated harshly. A hand over her mouth stifled her scream while a powerful arm wrapped around her waist and pulled her against a firm, muscular chest. The waterskin slid out of her grasp, the remainder of the water sloshing as the vessel crashed noisily to the ground. She had not seen the man lurking in the shadows when she had walked behind the supply wagons on her way to refill the water container. Now she was captured in his arms, pressed tightly to his body, as he nuzzled her cheek.
"Aeffe, my heart!" he murmured, his breath hot against her ear, his mustache and beard tickling her face. "Now, my houri from the gardens of Paradise, I am going to take my hand from your mouth. Please do not betray me with a scream!"
Her heart pounding in her chest, Aeffe felt a thrill rush over her body, hot tingles prickling her skin. She nodded her head, kissing the palm of his hand before he pulled it away. "Inbir!" she gasped as he turned her around to face him. "I missed you so much!" Her breath caught in her throat as beheld once again his handsome countenance, his soulful brown eyes shining in his light brown face, the bottom half of which was covered by a neatly trimmed mustache and beard. Worry filled her when she saw the cut under his left eye and the bruise on his right cheek, and she wondered how he had been injured.
"I thought about you often while I was away." Inbir reached out and gently touched her cheek. A frown crossed his face when he saw the yellowing bruise there. "Who did this to you?"
"One of the she-orcs," Aeffe whispered, instinctively flinching away when she saw the anger flare in Inbir's eyes. "What - what happened to you?"
Inbir reached up and gingerly touched the scabbed over cut beneath his eye. "The guards at Cirith Ungol worked me over. We had the misfortune of being caught up in a quarrel between Cirith Ungol and Minas Morgul. If Lord Kalus had not arrived when he had, all of us would have come to an unpleasant end. The Seneschal's men made quick work of the rebels, and then freed all of us from the dungeons."
"Oh, Inbir, that is terrible!" Aeffe shivered with dread as she thought of what could have happened to Inbir and the other Southrons and her friends Elfhild and Elffled. "You are lucky to be alive!"
"Indeed, all of us are. But you should not worry yourself over my battle wounds, dear Aeffe." Inbir gave her a lopsided grin filled with bravado. "I am more concerned about what the she-orc did to you. Female orcs are just as barbaric as their male counterparts, if not more so. She was probably jealous of your beauty, for she-orcs possess little of that."
"More likely she wanted it for herself." Her sunburnt cheeks coloring a deep shade of red, Aeffe shyly looked down, shivering with disgust as she remembered the groping hands of her tormentors. "While you were gone, a group of she-orcs took it in their heads to make a public spectacle out of whipping several of the women. The punishment was unjust, for all of the charges were either false or greatly exaggerated, but the orcs would not be denied their cruel sport. Unfortunately, I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Inbir sighed, his voice sounding dejected. "I wish I had been here to protect you."
"It does not matter really." Aeffe shrugged. "When Master Tushratta found out, he had all the she-orcs responsible punished for their actions. They got a taste of their own medicine, and for that I am glad, though they learned naught from the experience and remain just as horrid as ever."
"Nothing like this will ever happen to you again, Aeffe. I swear it!" He pressed his clenched fist against his heart. "I am here now, and I will protect you from harm."
"I - I feared that perhaps you had forgotten me." She timidly looked up into his deep brown eyes, which were filled with concern. "It seems so long since that night in Lord Esarhaddon's tent."
"Oh, Aeffe, how could I ever forget you?" Inbir exclaimed, his voice sounding hurt. "I fear that you have captured my heart!"
"Do not say such things!" Aeffe chided, her brow furrowing as a troubled expression came over her face. Inbir was a poet, given to flowery words and exclamations of passion, but did he really mean what he said? Perhaps he had merely been carried away by the moment, so wrapped up in the excitement of returning to the camp that he had not considered the meaning of his language. Perhaps he only spoke fair words to lure her into his bed. Although she would not mind being lured there, she did not want to be cast aside for the next pretty maid who captured his attention and left with a babe to raise as best she could.
"And why should I not say what I feel?" He stepped closer to her. "I speak the truth."
"You tease me cruelly if your words be not honest." She backed away from him and looked across the plateau, her gaze resting upon a long fissure in the blackened earth. Steam was pouring from the crack, a pale gray smudge upon a deeper gray landscape. Could she trust this Southron? She felt in her heart that she could, but the heart was easily deceived, seeing only the visions it wished to see.
"But they are the truth!" Inbir's voice was filled with hurt and offense. "Every day I spent searching for the escaped slaves, I thought of you and time we spent together in Shakh Esarhaddon's tent, drinking wine and smoking the hookah."
Aeffe turned back to look at Inbir, her eyes studying his earnest face, trying to perceive if there was any sign of mockery, of falsehood. "I remember that night with fondness," she murmured softly.
"It was one of the few pleasant things which have happened to me on this entire ill-fortuned venture." Inbir spoke as a man scarred from battle, and Aeffe wondered at what dread things had happened to him on the journey to Mordor. She had noticed that he was walking with a limp, and her eyes inadvertently went to the cuts and bruises upon his face.
Suddenly feeling shy, Aeffe looked back at the plateau. "I – I wish that there could be another night like that."
"But without Shakh Esarhaddon and the others," Inbir chuckled. "I would much rather be alone with you."
Blushing, Aeffe put a hand to her face, uncertain what to say. "If my grandfather were still alive, he would never approve of such an arrangement." She smiled sadly as she thought of the dour old man who had raised her after her parents died of the fever. He had been murdered by the orcs, and now she had no one. "Of course, I doubt Lord Esarhaddon would approve either."
"If we are careful, the Shakh will never know." A roguish grin lit up Inbir's face and he gave her a playful wink. "I would enjoy being in your company often – that is, if you enjoy being in my company as well."
"Oh, Inbir, there is nothing I would like more!" Aeffe exclaimed.
"Then I will try to meet with you as frequently as I can without arousing too much suspicion." As though he had suddenly become afeared that they were being watched, he cast a wary glance around. When he saw that no one in the camp was paying them any heed, he turned back to Aeffe. "I would like to learn more about the fair maiden who has stolen my heart like a thief."
"And I wish to know all about Inbir, the handsome bard from Harad." Tucking a strand of reddish blonde hair behind her ear, she flashed him a coquettish smile.
"There is not much to know," came his humble reply, "but I will tell you all that you wish."
A soft smile upon her face, Aeffe looked into the eyes of her adoring swain. "Do you believe in love at first sight?" she asked mischievously. "For the moment I first met you, I felt in my heart that we were meant to be together." Perhaps she was foolish, for she had only spent one night in Inbir's company, but, oh, what a wonderful night it was! Was it so wrong to be young and in love, and to believe that forever could be decided in an instant by the heart?
"Ever since I first saw you, surrounded by the swirling smoke of the hookah, you have haunted my thoughts," he whispered, his voice hoarse. "Perhaps you are a sorceress, and you have bewitched me with your spell of love."
"A sorceress?" Aeffe giggled, smiling. "Oh, how I wish that were true, for I would use my magic to whisk us both away to an enchanted land filled with beauty and wonder!"
"You already have, for I feel wonder whenever I am around you." Reaching out a hand, he gently caressed her hair. "Tresses of copper and gold, the two colors mingling together like the rays of the setting Sun in the desert."
Sighing, Aeffe leaned into his hand, nuzzling his palm. "Oh, Inbir, you speak so beautifully!"
"You inspire me, sweet Aeffe," Inbir murmured as her blue eyes looked up adoringly into his brown ones. "I could spend hours composing songs dedicated to your beauty, but none would ever completely capture your loveliness. Yet if my songs and the music from my oud pleased you and brought a smile to your fair lips, it would be enough for me."
Aeffe's eyes lit up with excitement, and she clasped her hands in front of her heart. "Could you play me a song upon your oud?"
"Alas, not right now," Inbir sighed. "I cannot stay more than a few moments. I have tarried too long as it is." He held her face in his hands as he bent down to sear her lips with a lingering, passionate kiss. Her legs weak beneath her, she slid her arms around his neck, her body melting into his. How she longed to run her fingers through the dark hair that lay hidden under his keffiyeh!
"Inbir, how I have missed you!" she whispered as she lay her head against his shoulder. "But you take such a risk! What if Lord Esarhaddon should discover us?"
"Then your Inbir would hope for one last glimpse of your rapturous countenance before he died!" Smiling, he lifted her face to look at him. "My gentle joy of the morning, your name would be the last word I would say on earth and the first one I will say in Paradise." When he saw her eyes fill with fear, he pulled her roughly to him and tormented her mouth with another smoldering kiss. "There is no reason for you to be afraid," he murmured against her lips. "Both the driver and his assistant are my friends, and even as we speak, they are watching for those who could be a threat. Any sign of the Shakh or his guards, and my friends will give the signal, a few notes of a song about a dancing girl. So let us enjoy this moment which we have borrowed from Fate." Leaving trails of fire across her flesh, his hands slid down her back to grip her rounded bottom, pulling her closer to him.
"Oh, Inbir," she moaned as she pressed her body against his. "How can this all end? If he does not buy me for his own harem, the slave trader will sell me to a rich merchant or noble!"
"Hush." His fingers lightly caressed her lips. "That will not happen! Fate cannot be so cruel!"
"There can be no other way, my darling lord! We only deceive ourselves by thinking anything else!" The tears crept from beneath her lashes, and she began to weep.
"You will be mine someday, rose of desire!" Gripping her upper arms, he covered her mouth with his, and with a sigh, her soft lips parted. His tongue plunged between her teeth and explored the treasures of her mouth. The fire rising in his already heated loins, he longed to pick her up in his arms and carry her away to his tent. "Aeffe, my fortune-favored beauty," he panted, "while the Shakh lives for his gold, he is not an evil man. When I offer myself to him as a slave in trade for your freedom, he will not easily shrug aside my offer." He leaned his forehead against hers, lost in the pools of her blue eyes. "I have been with the Shakh for over a year, and know that he values men skilled in arms who know how to fight. He prizes fine horseflesh, and there are few horses that I cannot handle. Not only that, but I can read and write and play the oud, which are no small accomplishments in his eyes. The Shakh will be eager to have me among his servants."
"No, Inbir!" Aeffe pulled away from him and closed his mouth with her fingers. "You will not do this! I will not allow it! You will not become a slave for my sake!" She looked at him defiantly, her lovely blue eyes sparkling with determination.
"You will not have any say in this matter! It is between the Shakh and me!" Inbir's dark eyes narrowed, flashing angrily, and she was forced to look away. He stood there, glaring, holding her by her upper arms. Then an unreadable expression came over his face and he turned his head to the side, listening. Aeffe looked at him questioningly, and then she heard the melody. The tune, which Aeffe guessed was sung in Haradric, had a rousing melody, a drinking song, she supposed. The singers were untrained, two rough soldiers who shattered the melody with flat, off-key singing as often as they harmonized. When Aeffe realized what the music portended, she felt a chill race over her body, her stomach knotting in fear. "Inbir!" she whispered, her arms going around his neck, desperately trying to deny that he would soon be forced to leave her.
"It is time," he told her grimly. Turning away from her, he faced the direction of the voices.
"Do not veil your beauty from my eyes, my gentle one!
But be like the doe and roam freely over the mountains,
Let me see the loveliness that I delight to cherish...
Come and walk freely with me; let there be nothing between us
Only the brush of a kiss, the touch of a hand,
Come with me, my gentle doe, and let us go to the mountains!"
"Aeffe, I wish there was time to translate the words," he told her as he crushed her mouth in one last kiss. "I must go! We will meet again soon, I promise you!" As a tear slid down her cheek, he bent his head and licked the teardrop off. "Do not worry so; the time will pass quickly... until we meet again... silim!" With a smile and a jaunty bow from the waist, he slipped between the wagons and then was gone.
Blinded by her tears, Aeffe stared unseeingly at the line of supply wagons for a long moment before finally wrenching her gaze away from the place that Inbir had been. Her mind was racing and her heart was reeling. Oft during the journey had her thoughts returned to the musician from Harad, and she imagined that they were together in some fair land far from this dismal place. She knew not then if he regarded her with fondness or if he even thought of her at all, but these idle daydreams had kept her distracted from the grinding misery that had become her life, the endless days filled with tedium, suffering, and the endless march towards doom. Now she discovered that he felt for her the same affection that she felt for him, and her heart warmed with joy. Such happiness terrified her, for it did not feel wholly real, and she worried that at any moment some great calamity would befall her.
Wiping her eyes with the back of her sleeve, Aeffe walked towards the periphery of the camp, where she gazed out into the distance. The blackened, rock strewn plateau of Gorgoroth lay before her, a tortured, desolate wasteland stretching out as far as the eye could see. Looming upon the eastern horizon was the Mountain of Doom, a dark, brooding shape which continuously belched forth great plumes of reeking smoke. How could love blossom in a land so barren, where ashen clouds blocked out the light of the Sun, and all hope seemed to be smothered beneath grimy layers of dust and soot?