The Circles - Book Six - Chapter 16

The Circles - Book Six - Across the Wide Hamada
Chapter Sixteen
New Friends, New Foes
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

Elffled felt a gentle hand upon her shoulder. "The guard is coming to unchain you," she heard a kind voice tell her. "Do you think that you can walk?"

"Yes, I - I think I can manage." Elffled looked up into the eyes of her aunt. Tears of joy flooded her vision, and she smiled despite the vomit that dribbled down her face. Her aunt took a handkerchief and gently wiped the smelly mess from her mouth and chin.

The image of Leofgifu faded before her, and she found herself gazing up into the sour face of Böri. She hastily lowered her head, adverting her eyes, both in shame and subservience. She felt another wave of dizziness surge over her and wondered if she would retch again. There was a tug on her neck as the guard reached down to unsnap her chain from the coffle. After he had roughly pulled her to her feet, he led her to the side of the road, where other women and children sat, dazed and bewildered. Elffled recognized several of the women from other troops, but she dared not speak to them for fear of breaking the slaver's rule of silence.

Keeping her eyes demurely lowered, Elffled watched Böri from her peripheral vision. Olive-skinned and of medium height and build, there was little about Böri that would hold anyone's attention. He was much like any other young man who might be found loitering around the marketplaces in Harad or Nurn, his posture slouched as he leaned up against the side of a building and watched the people pass by. If there were anything distinguishing about him, it would be his long, triangular-shaped nose set over full, drooping mustachios. As he caught the sour stench of aged vomit on the women, his nose twitched, wiggling up and down in disgust like a hare's. Elffled felt the impulse to giggle, but quickly stifled her urge.

The guard turned away from the recuperating women to watch the caravan as it moved by them. When the physician's wain drew alongside the group of captives, the driver turned his horses off the road. One of Tushratta's servants let down the steps, and the door opened. A silken handkerchief pressed to his nose, Aziru stepped from the wagon. Before the door was closed, Elffled caught a hasty glimpse of Goldwyn, her turquoise eyes shaded in the dim light of the wain. She thought about all the trouble Goldwyn had caused with her ill-conceived plot to escape the chains of slavery, how she had enflamed the desperation of the captives and given them false hope. Elffled put the blame of Tarlanc's death solely upon Goldwyn's shoulders, for even though it was Elfhild's idea to flee into the wilderness, Goldwyn was the one who had given it to her. If they had never tried to escape, they never would have met the old Gondorian miller, and he would still be alive and well, living in peace with his great mastiff, tending to his beloved horses, and grinding grain at his mill. Truly it was folly to defy the might of Mordor! Elffled wondered if Goldwyn was riding in the healer's wain because of some illness, or if perhaps she was being kept isolated as punishment. It mattered little to her, as long as she did not have to bear the arrogant woman's insufferable presence.

Böri bowed to Aziru, touching his hand to his forehead and then to his chest. "How fortuitous it is that the illustrious physician's assistant should consent to offer his vast experience to aid these poor women and children!" With a feeling of resentment, he noted that Aziru barely acknowledged his greetings. What could he expect? The Khandian had always held an overinflated opinion of his own worth.

"What seems to be wrong with them?" Aziru asked the guard, who had managed to force a polite smile. Aziru had already been informed by a messenger about the matter, but it never hurt to ask a witness.

"Sir, the sight of the executed men unsettled the wenches and their brats." Böri motioned his hand towards the two impaled men. One of them appeared to be dead, while the other was still struggling, mumbling out some incoherent nonsense about his wife. The guard noted that the man's struggles only served to inch him down farther on the pole. Maybe this prisoner would not be like the other, a weakling who had the gall to die relatively quickly. Böri hoped that the man was made of stronger stuff and would last a few days. A slight smile touched his lips at the appealing thought. Those who resisted Mordor should pay, and pay dearly!

"Is that all?" Aziru scoffed. "Such sights are common in Mordor, but I suppose they will learn that soon enough."

"Physician," the guard looked worried, "the supply wagons have already passed us! We cannot wait here all night. What do you want us to do with them?"

"Though both their minds and stomachs have been thrown into a state of great distress, these slaves are perfectly strong enough to travel." Pulling on his bulbous nose, Aziru gave the guard an impatient look. "As soon as my servants have given them some infusions of calming herbs, I want these women and children on their feet. They can march behind my wain. If any of them should become incapacitated again, I am sure that there is room for them in the supply wagons. That should do it." Aziru smiled patronizingly before turning and walking back to his wain.

Böri had a good idea why Azriu did not want any other passengers in the physician's wain. Everyone in camp had heard about Shakh Esarhaddon's favorite, the madwoman. It was said that she was prone to violent fits and behaved as lewdly as any prostitute in a brothel. Some even said that she was possessed by demons. He swallowed hard as a shadow of fear contorted his unexpressive face into a grimace. He was man enough to handle any woman, but not one who was possessed by an evil spirit! The Shakh could keep this wench! There would be plenty of others when they got back to Nurn.

After the physician's servants had given the women a healing draught, Böri dismissed them with a nod and then turned to the women. "On your feet now, you worthless slaves!" he shouted harshly. "You have rested long enough!"

The remedy which the captives had been given, a tisane of ginger, was almost painfully hot to Elffled's tongue, but she found that it seemed to settle her stomach. She smiled wryly. She had believed that after all the grim and ghastly sights she had seen since leaving the North, that she was immune to all horrors. Obviously she had been mistaken. She tried to push away the images of the two dying men, but she could not forget the sight of their writhing, mutilated bodies. It was as though their suffering had been burnt into her mind with a branding iron, and try as she might, she could not drive the vision of agony and death from her thoughts. She wondered how many more sorrows she would witness ere this journey was over, and if she would find even more at its end.


Later that evening, the physician's wain pulled onto the dusty trail that led to the campsite. The guards motioned the women on, and as the exhausted captives trudged into the slave camp, they saw that the cooking cauldrons were already boiling merrily. Released from their bonds, the captives would have a short time to enjoy their fleeting liberty. Elffled looked around for her sister and found her standing in the long line for supper. They exchanged glances as Elffled took her place near the end of the line.

"I understand you were not feeling well earlier," the oily-tongued Ali told Elffled as he stepped away from the group of guards and sauntered over to her.

"No, Master," she murmured. "I fear I have a weak stomach, easily upset by distressing sights." She bowed her head slightly. "Thank you for inquiring after my health." As the line inched forward, she moved ahead, leaving him behind. She did not want anything to do with the fat, greasy bastard.

Ali, though, was not to be deterred, and he stepped beside her, grabbing her arm and forcing her to look up at him. His hot, sensual eyes were smoldering, sending out messages that Elffled did not want to answer. "I was concerned about your welfare," he told her in a voice warm with desire. A woman like this with her fair hair and blue eyes was rare in Harad, and Ali longed to claim her for himself.

Elffled blushed as she felt the eyes of the other women upon her. "I have recovered completely, Master. Thank you for your consideration."

Holding one arm tightly with an unyielding grip, Ali leaned down and whispered in her ear. "You will find that I am a man of some influence among the guards. It is well known that the Shakh is greatly impressed with my abilities and plans to advance me soon. If you would just be friendly to me, I can make things... easier for you. More food, perhaps, and other pleasantries that I am certain you would enjoy." He smiled, the mustache on his upper lip twitching slightly, tickling her ear.

"I - I am but a slave," she stammered nervously. "I am not deserving of such honor. Please let me be on my way, Master!" The women in the line ahead were looking back and staring at the guard and Elffled. Some of the women had that knowing look on their faces, the one they reserved for girls whom they considered not quite respectable.

"My dear, surely you know that the Shakh has already grown tired of you," he stated smugly as he nuzzled her earlobe, his beard rough against her skin. "He is a connoisseur of beautiful women, and you are just one among the many delightful creatures in his care. You should be grateful to me for taking an interest in you."

"Please, Master, the line will go on without me, and I am faint with hunger!" Elffled was growing desperate. Surely this foul lecher would not dare to do anything in broad daylight!

Lost in his own lustful thoughts and distracted by the noisy commotion of the camp, the fat, greasy Southron did not hear the beat of hooves as the riders turned their horses onto the dusty road. "Remember my offer still stands... I can use my influence and have you freed to come to me. There are others who would be eager for the chance." He leered down at her. "Perhaps I will have some presents..."

"Are you really sure that is what you want to do, Master?" Elffled's voice was liquid honey as she recognized the riders who were approaching. "I am not sure that the Shakh would approve."

Ali's smile faded when he turned back and saw the riders. Quickly he released her, his expression changing instantly to a disapproving scowl. "Remember what I said," he announced loudly so that all could hear. "There will be no more trouble out of you!" He touched the handle of his flail and then turned on his heel and quickly walked away. He did not notice how Elffled's shoulders sagged slightly, or hear her sigh of relief, but she was glad that the odious man had gone.

Esarhaddon reined in his chestnut mare, his bodyguard a few paces behind him. Elffled recognized Ganbar and Inbir, but Ubri's presence was conspicuously missing. Although she wondered why the slaver's chief bodyguard was not with him, she was far more interested in Inbir, who always made her heart quicken and her pulse race. The line of women and children sank to the ground, kneeling before the riders, until the Shakh ordered them to rise.

"It has come to my attention that some of you fell ill today because of an incident that you witnessed along the road," Esarhaddon announced in his deep voice. "An unfortunate occurrence which I regret that you had to see... but when criminals try to undermine the established authority, they must be prepared to pay the ultimate price for their folly. No one can escape the Great Overlord's wrath! It would do you all well to remember that." He watched the waiting line of slave women and children for a moment before touching his heels to his mare's flanks and riding away at a fast trot.

While Esarhaddon and the rest of his escort rode on ahead, Ganbar lingered behind. "Is Ali bothering you?"

Elffled was unsure whether she should tell the truth or lie. What if Ali was friends with Ganbar? She studied the Southron's face for a moment, trying to divine his intentions. When at last she spoke, she decided to tell the truth.

"Yes, Master."

Ganbar frowned. "Ali does not always have the best of manners. I will speak to him. He will not bother you again, little flower." With a nod of farewell, he rode off to join the slaver and his men.

"Thank you, Master!" Elffled exclaimed, a feeling of gratitude washing over her.


"There is plenty of food... we did not eat it all." Elfhild looked up brightly as her twin lowered herself to the ground across from her. The twins and eight other girls sat cross-legged in a circle around a large earthenware bowl filled with a thick stew of lintels, chickpeas and rice mixed with a few bits of dried vegetables. The girls took pieces of flatbread from a sack, and after breaking the bread in pieces, dipped it into the mouthwatering porridge. "I am afraid it is not very hot now." Elfhild frowned sympathetically.

"Oh, I think it is perfect!" Elffled inhaled the fragrant mixture and smiled at her sister. One of their new troop members passed the sack towards her, and Elffled took a piece of bread that had already been broken, dipped it into the stew, and began to eat slowly.

"While we were, um, gone, the troops were reorganized," Elfhild explained as she scooped up more of the stew with a piece of bread. "We are the only two remaining of the old troop." As an expression of sadness crossed over her face, she glanced down momentarily. Then biting the inside of her cheek, she raised her head and looked her sister in the eyes. "The guards tell that Waerburh drowned," she lowered her voice, "though her body was never seen by anyone. Breguswith is no better and has been moved to a troop composed of those who are insane or simpleminded."

"Oh, that is sad about both of them!" While Elffled was sorry, she was not surprised. That dark night of the escape, the twins had heard two splashes into the waters of the Anduin. One of them must have been Waerburh. What a horrible way to lose one's life... the murky waters rushing over your head... the water filling your lungs... A shudder went over Elffled's frame. She could not bear to think about it any longer. And Breguswith - poor, mad Breguswith - everyone who was familiar with her knew that she had never been the same after her baby died. The sad stories were endless... would there ever be happy ones again? So many of the old troop members were gone. How difficult it was to believe that they had all been together just a month before. She decided not to mention Leofgifu, for it was apparent that their aunt was now in league with the slave traders. Something so delicate was a matter reserved for a private conference with her sister.

"I saw Goldwyn in the healer's wain," Elffled interjected casually, changing the subject. "I wonder what became of her sons." Not that she really cared, but Goldwyn was in the camp and the three boys were nowhere in sight, so that was of some curiosity.

"They escaped." The girl beside Elfhild leaned forward eagerly, her eyes shining. She appeared to be a year or two younger than the twins, with wavy dark blonde hair and hazel eyes the color of pine needles flecked with amber. "The orcs caught their mother in a tomb, I hear, but the boys got away, slick as weasels! Though I do not quite believe it, everyone says that Goldwyn's eldest son will lead his brothers back to the Mark. He is just a boy, and not too bright as I understand. He would make a poor leader." A smug look on her face, the girl folded her arms over her large bust. She was short and on the plump side, and Elffled wondered how the younger girl had managed to keep any weight on at all after weeks of brutal marching.

"A shame about their mother, but at least the boys escaped," Elffled replied as she scooped more chickpeas from the bowl. The stew really was quite delicious.

"Why is Goldwyn in the healer's wain?" Elfhild asked, her brows furrowing in concern. "Was she hurt?"

"I have no idea... there was no opportunity to ask. Maybe someone tried to throttle her for ever coming up with that stupid escape plan." Elffled gave a flippant laugh, but stilled her voice when she felt the other girls staring at her strangely. "How would I know? Even if I had asked, they would not have let me in the wain!"

A hush fell over the group as the girls once again exchanged that peculiar look, clearly uncomfortable with the topic of Goldwyn, but yet equally intrigued. "There are many stories," whispered the short, plump girl, her hazel eyes clouding with mystery. "Some say that she was driven insane because she lost her sons. Others say that she saw something so horrible in the tomb that it caused her to lose her senses." The girl dropped her voice even lower, as though the very mention of the tomb would summon forth some unspeakable evil. "There is even a dark rumor that she is possessed of a fell spirit."

Her eyebrows rising so high they almost reached her hairline, Elfhild regarded the girl skeptically. "Goldwyn, possessed!" She laughed and snorted at the same time. "What a wild tale! You really should not believe everything you hear, Beorhtwyn," she admonished the other girl, who glared at her. "You know how rumors go..." Yet no matter how far-fetched the dire revelation sounded, it still made her feel uncomfortable inside. Trying to shake off the feeling, she cleared her throat and looked down at her long, slender fingers.

"You can think what you want, but believe me, Goldwyn is possessed," Beorhtwyn retorted irritably. "She screams sometimes, as though her soul were being wrenched from her body, and she has strange fits when she believes she is someone else - an elf, an orc - I do not know." Her sudden tense laughter caused the other girls to jump. "You know the healer Tushratta - he is the essence of dignity - well, I heard that Goldwyn tried to force herself upon him! Like a dog in heat - no shame at all!" She lowered her voice, clearly titillated by the rumors surrounding the golden beauty. "Not only that, but she tore off her clothes and offered herself to his ugly little assistant... Even the slave girl who was attending her could not escape her lewd attentions." Her latter revelations brought gasps and giggles from her audience, who were hanging onto her every word.

Elffled waited until the hubbub had quieted down before speaking to her twin. "Sister, it appears as though much has been happening in camp since we left. I suppose that you have caught up with everything." She felt left out, but she was famished and could not resist another morsel of bread dipped in stew.

"Obviously not quite all the news," Elfhild remarked dryly, ignoring the muffled giggles of the other girls. She wished that they would just be quiet, but she could tell that they loved to chew over gossip.

"Elfhild, I am at a disadvantage, for I do not know any of the others. Please introduce me," Elffled suggested, a little irritated at her sister for not having already made the introductions.

Smiling, Elfhild looked around at the other members of the troop. "If you have not guessed already, this is my twin, Elffled. The family resemblance is striking, do you not think?" The other girls tittered, and the twins smiled at them all. "Perhaps if you all introduce yourselves, along with anything else you might want to say, things will be easier."

"I think it would be best if Hereswith and I went first, as we both have kitchen duty this week and must be leaving in a few moments." The speaker, a statuesque young woman in her early twenties, smiled at the younger girls. Her long, wavy hair was the color of golden honey, and she had sparkling greenish blue eyes the color of robins' eggs. "I am Mildthryth of Dáburna. My mother was a seamstress of some renown, creating many fine garments for well-to-do ladies in our town and surrounding villages. Perhaps you have heard tell of Gode, the seamstress of Dáburna?" When the other girls all shook their heads, Mildthryth sighed sadly. "When the orcs raided our town, my mother and I were separated. I pray that she managed to escape. She was the only family I had; my father died in a wagon accident when I was twelve, and I have no brothers or sisters."

The girls all expressed their sympathies and hopes for Mildthryth's mother, and then Hereswith introduced herself. Like Mildthryth, she also appeared to be in her early twenties, but she was of average height and had straight, smooth fawn-colored hair and dark blue eyes. "I am Hereswith, also of Dáburna. My father was the town tanner. When Théoden King called upon all able-bodied men to muster in Edoras, my father joined the éored from Dáburna and rode off to war, first to Helm's Deep, and then to Gondor. When the first rumors of war in Anórien came from the east, I should have fled with my mother and younger sisters into the White Mountains, but I chose to stay, for there would be no one left to watch over my family's home. Unfortunately, I was no match for the orcs, and here I am now."

"It is good to meet you both." Elffled smiled at the two older girls, who had risen to their feet and were shaking out the wrinkles in their skirts. "I hope we will all become good friends." She noted that both Mildthryth and Hereswith hailed from the same village as Aeffe; perhaps they knew her as well? She also noted a similarity between the two girls' stories: both of them had been separated from their mothers and other family members when they had been captured, and they had been forced into captivity alone. Elffled looked around at the other girls in the troop, observing that none of them had mothers or other older relatives present. It seemed that when organizing the troops, the slavers kept siblings together and did not separate women from their children. Perhaps this was a troop composed of young women who had become lost from their families during the war, or were the only survivors of the attacks upon their homes.

The girl who had shared all the camp gossip about Goldwyn earlier began speaking once again. "They call me Beorhtwyn, and there is not much to say about me." Beorhtwyn idly scratched the blotchy collection of pimples which scored her otherwise pleasant round face. "My father was a swineherd. I do not know where he is now. I think he ran away when he heard the news about the invasion. My mother died when I was very young. I guess that is all." She self-consciously pushed back a wavy strand of her dark blonde hair, which was one of her best features. She turned her head to the tall, skinny girl beside her. "This is my sister - Burghilde - but she does not say much. She is ten."

Blushing slightly, Burghilde made a face. "I say enough. Who cares anyway?" The girl shrugged. Even though the two were sisters, they did not look anything like each other, except for their eyes, which were the same shade of hazel. While Beorhtwyn had blonde hair, Burghilde had fine brown hair streaked with golden highlights, and across her cheeks was splashed a very large birthmark. Although the mark was not terribly conspicuous, the deep reddish mauve splotches made her appear to be perpetually blushing. Once when an old aunt of theirs had thought Burghilde was out of hearing range, she shook her bony finger and muttered that anyone born with such a mark was eternally cursed.

Neither Beorhtwyn nor Burghilde liked to talk much about their family, for neither one held much love for their father. The two sisters had two different mothers, explaining their differences in appearance. When Beorhtwyn was a little girl, her mother had taken up with a traveling tinker and never came back. After that, her father had brought another woman, not his wife, to live with him in his hut, and Burghilde was the result of that seamy union. Many in their village either looked down upon Burghilde or felt pity for her, for she was a child born out of wedlock. Even worse, her father was technically still married, and there was always the possibility that his wife might return one day.

"I am Lady Tove, daughter of Thane Redwald of Horscelde," announced a beautiful auburn-haired maiden whose haughty green eyes looked upon the others with a sense of superiority. She appeared to be around seventeen, and carried herself with a regal bearing, as though she were a princess. "Whilst my father and three brothers were away at war, riding with Théoden King, our keep was attacked by the enemy. The Horscelde Guard bravely defended the keep, but the barbarians breached the walls, slaughtering most of the men and taking the women and children captive." She paused for a moment and then looked heavenward, her hands pressed against her chest. "'Tis a good thing my mother, who was a kinswoman of the King, departed for the Halls of the Dead years ago, for it would have been too much for her to see her beloved home in flames." With a melodramatic gasp of anguish, she wiped a nonexistent tear from her eye. In reality, Tove had cared little for her mother, who had been a cold, unfeeling woman who gave criticism with open hands and love with a miser's fist. Tove was secretly glad when the old bat had died, although she did enjoy the prestige that her mother's kinship with the King brought her. These lowly peasants did not need know that, however.

"There, there, dear Tove, do not cry," simpered the girl beside her. A year or two younger than the daughter of the thane, this fair maiden had dark brown hair and sea gray eyes, hinting at Gondorian ancestry. "I am Lady Cyneburh, daughter of Coenred, Thane Redwald's steward," she proclaimed, looking around at the other girls. "Alas, my father, the steward, was one of the brave men who fell in the battle for Redwald's Keep." She looked down sadly and gave a loud sniff. The gesture was a falsity, however, for she despised her father, considering him an overbearing fool who had driven her mother to drink herself to an early death. The steward's daughter and the thane's daughter had much in common besides noble blood; they had both lost their mothers at young ages, and held one parent in contempt whilst lavishing all their love upon the other.

"I am Wulfwaru," a slender, petite brunette of thirteen summers introduced herself, her brown eyes smiling at the others. Her light brown skin, traits of her Dunlending ancestry, made her stand out from the others. "My family herded sheep in the mountains, moving from pasture to pasture with the season. Back in the spring, my uncle Sebbi and I traveled down to the plain to sell wool in Horscelde. We arrived on the very day when day became night." Her face clouded with unpleasant memories. "Oh, it was horrible!" Shivering, she ran her hands down over her arms.

Their eyes filled with sympathy, the other girls patted her on the shoulder, offering her softly spoken condolences and the pathetic scraps of cloth they used as handkerchiefs. Sniffing, Wulfwaru wiped her nose off with a bit of tattered linen.

"Uncle Sebbi had never been very robust, and I think the strain of seeing the world go black was too much for him. He became very ill, troubled in both mind and body, and so we were forced to remain in the town. A very kind lady offered us a place to stay. Then Horscelde was attacked by the orcs... The beasts killed all the men, and... and... I guess you know the rest." Tears streaming down her cheeks, she buried her face in her hands.

"Oh, Wulfwaru, those were terrible days! I will never forget them!" The girl beside Wulfwaru, a pretty blonde who was obviously with child, slid a comforting arm around her and pulled her close. "I met Wulfwaru in Horscelde," the older girl explained, her silvery gray eyes looking around at the other members of the troop. "My family ran one of the inns there, and Wulfwaru and her uncle stayed in the house next door. She has had a rough time of it, being so young and away from her family. I look after her now, as neither one of us have anyone left." She glanced at Wulfwaru, who had recovered from her fit of grief and now sat quietly, looking somewhat sheepish.

"It is so kind of you to have taken her under your wing -- ah..." Elfhild hesitated, realizing the other girl had not introduced herself. "Pardon me, but I do not believe I caught your name..."

"I am Sunngifu of Horscelde." With a graceful flourish, the girl bowed slightly from the waist. "You may have heard of me... I had somewhat of a reputation back in my hometown. Seems that some did not approve of my... morals. All of them probably have done the same deeds as I have, but I had the misfortune of being found out." She shook her long, yellow mane to the side, her eyes challenging, determining if anyone was brave or pompous enough to accuse her of anything. When shy smiles and averted gazes were the only reactions, she relaxed.

"Getting more difficult every day to hide your little love child, is it, Sunngifu?" Tove remarked cattily, looking down at her fingernails, which had once been long and carefully filed. Now they looked as ragged and torn as those of a peasant. She quickly hid them from view.

"You would be glad enough if you were carrying Lord Sigbert's child!" Proudly, Sunngifu smoothed her dress over her stomach, emphasizing the round bulge. "But you are not, so you are jealous of me! Too bad, Tove! Some girls just throw themselves at men, and find their pathetic attempts rejected. Others have only to smile, and the fine lords are worshiping at their feet!" She lifted her chin arrogantly.

"Whore!" Cyneburh spat out, her fists clenched in anger. "Adulteress! It is not Lord Sigbert's child you carry, but the by-blow of one of his stable boys, or one of those louts who frequented your family's inn! Lord Sigbert is betrothed to Lady Tove, and he would never look at such a spurious strumpet as you! You should be beaten for daring to speak to a lady of Tove's rank in such a disrespectful manner!"

"Cyneburh, you are such a loyal friend, always coming to the aid of Tove... If someone did not know better, one might think that you were more than just friends," Sunngifu purred maliciously. "I know how... close... you two are. Mmmm... mmmm... mmmm... How sweet and cozy!" Puckering her lips and hugging herself, she made loud kissing noises. "Some girls are that way, you know..."

"Girls, please!" Elfhild ran her hands through her hair in frustration. "If there is a commotion, the guards might slap us all in chains! Can we not just finish these introductions in peace?"

"Seriously, Elfhild, I do not know why Cyneburh and I have to bother with such low peasants, all so ill-bred," Tove sighed, looking much put upon as she regarded the other girls with haughty disdain.

The two girls' eyes caught and held. The tension could be felt as taut as a tightly wound spring. Elfhild remembered the confrontation with Tove and Cyneburh earlier that day, and concluded that she did not care much for the two arrogant daughters of the nobility. "Well," she drawled out slowly, "you are a slave now, just like the rest of us, so there is no need to act so high and mighty!"

"Just listen to her, Cyneburh!" Tove exclaimed, aghast. "She acts as though she is a highborn lady!"

"Oh, I do not know, Tove..." Cyneburh remarked snidely, her voice lisping slightly. "My guess would be that being a slave comes naturally to such a lowly peasant! After all, she is related to Leofgifu the overseer, a known traitor who betrayed her own countrywomen for fame and glory."

"How dare you speak falsehoods about my aunt!" Elfhild shouted, rolling to her knees and glaring at Tove and Cyneburh. "Keep your mouth shut until you can keep a civil tongue!"

"Would you listen to that?" Tove hissed.

"Yes, it is awful, is it not?" Cyneburh agreed, shaking her head. "Such disrespect for her betters!"

Before anyone realized what she was about to do, Tove lashed out with her foot, kicking the earthenware pot and sending the remainder of the stew spewing onto Elfhild's lap. For a moment, the other girls stared blankly at the soup as it soaked into Elfhild's tunic and then ran onto the ground.

"Ohh!" Elfhild screamed in rage. Reaching into the warm, mushy mess on her lap, she took a large clump of uneaten vegetables and threw it at Tove, hitting her square in the face.

"How dare you!" Tove screamed, shaking in rage. She was scarcely able to believe what Elfhild had done. The other girls scrambled to their feet and formed a circle around Tove and Elfhild, hoping for a fight. Elffled joined the fray and soon had Tove down on the ground, smearing her face with slightly burnt chickpeas and grinding them into her beautiful auburn hair.

"The guards!" Cyneburh screamed as she saw the guards running towards them.

"Wench fight! Wench fight!" Ali cried as he and three other guards raced to where Elfhild, Elffled and Tove were shrieking and plummeting each other. Amused and aroused by the sight of the struggling, writhing female bodies, the guards grabbed the girls and pulled them apart, their eager hands groping and fondling anything they could grasp.

"You little brawlers just cannot stay out of trouble, can you?" Ali chided the three guilty girls after they had been separated. "Well, there are enough dirty pots and pans to keep you all busy and out of trouble until well into the night! Come along now!" he ordered as he and the other guards dragged them away to the cooking area of the camp.

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