The Circles - Book Six - Chapter 17

The Circles - Book Six - Across the Wide Hamada
Chapter Seventeen
Kitchen Duty
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

Elfhild, Elffled, and Tove spent the rest of the evening slaving in the kitchen area, cleaning endless cooking utensils, scouring the large pots and cauldrons used to cook the caravan's meals, and cleansing the fine dishes reserved for Esarhaddon and his chief men. Having Tove as their partner made the twins' tasks even more of a drudgery than they already were, and being forced to work in shackles and chains only put the icing on the whole unpleasant cake. Elfhild and Elffled tried to keep as far away from the arrogant shrew as they possibly could, which was rather difficult, since the three girls were chained together by the ankle. In between washing and drying utensils, the girls snapped and snarled, blaming each other for their woes. Sharp stings from the overseers' switches soon quieted them down, however, and the girls quickly made an effort to keep their voices as low as possible.

The chief cook was an ill-tempered, burly eunuch named Muhaldim. A giant of a man, he was the proud owner of an enormous stomach which oozed like dough over his belt. Despite his size, though, his voice was ridiculously high-pitched, like that of a cranky old woman. He ruled the kitchen with an iron fist and brooked no insolence from the kitchen slaves. The three girls gave the huge black eunuch a wide berth, for they did not wish to incur his wrath.

The other slaves who worked in the cooking area were a mix of Southrons from Near and Far Harad, as well as a few of the Rohirric women and girls. Mildthryth and Hereswith looked at the twins and Tove with surprise, for they had not expected to see them again so soon, especially not in the camp kitchen. The Rohirric captives were not held in high esteem by the slaves who had long been in the service of the House of Huzziya, and were thought of as little more than nuisances who only got in the way. Save for leers and suggestive remarks, the Northerners were mostly ignored.

As part of the twins' punishment, the evening lesson with Rose Petal had been canceled, although his absence felt more like a blessing. Still, though, while Rose Petal seemed overly strict, both girls had a desire to learn Haradric, and he was the only tutor they had. Perhaps it was strange, even traitorous, to wish to learn the languages of their enemies, but each sister knew, deep in her heart, that if she wished to survive, she had to adapt to the alien culture of her new masters. To dwell in a strange land with no knowledge of the tongues used in that realm was a terrifying prospect, and to be thought of as an ignorant fool was even worse. Mastering spoken Haradric was the first step across the threshold of knowledge; learning how to read and write would usher the twins into the chamber of secrets of the learned. Perhaps Elfhild would indeed take up a pen someday and write a book chronicling her experiences as a slave in the service of Mordor... or at least learn how to read the words inscribed upon signs.

By the time that Akil came to fetch the girls and return them to their troop, the Sun was sinking beneath the jagged peaks of the Mountains of Shadow. Although the plain of Gorgoroth was a landscape of bleakness and desolation, the sunsets could at times be spectacular, for the atmosphere was thick with volcanic dust. As twilight settled over the rocky desert, the heavens were a painter's canvas streaked with brilliant crimson, fiery yellow, and deep purple. To the east, however, the skies were brooding and fell, for the Mountain of Doom continually belched out great clouds of dark gray smoke which hung heavy in the lower ethers, forming the suffocating roof which loomed perpetually over the plain.

Much to their distress, Elfhild and Elffled found out that nightfall would not result in the end of their unpleasant comradeship with Tove. The three were taken a short distance from their troop and chained together by the ankles. They would have to sleep that way for the night. Indeed, the punishment which had been meted out to the three unruly girls was cruel beyond measure. Sleep was slow in coming, at least for the twins. Adding to Tove's many faults was the fact that the wretched girl snored as robustly as any stout rider of the Mark.

Other matters also weighed upon the twins' minds. Both girls wondered what had become of their aunt Leofgifu and cousin Hunig. They understood that Leofgifu had been elevated to the rank of overseer, but that did not explain why she had not yet visited her two nieces. What was going on?

"Hild," Elffled whispered when she was sure that Tove was asleep, "you never mentioned anything about our aunt... Where is she? Why does she not stay with our troop? Where is Hunig?" Her soft voice was filled with worry.

Elfhild drew in a deep breath and then let it out in a forlorn sigh. "The others say that, shortly after the escape attempt, our aunt was appointed the task of overseeing several troops. Hunig follows along behind her, doing small tasks and running errands. How our aunt came to be so trusted by the slavers, no one quite knows, but many suspect she is guilty of some treachery. I cannot discern what is truth and what is only rumor, however."

"Surely these are rumors borne of jealousy!" Elffled forced herself not to raise her voice in outrage. "Our aunt would never do such an odious thing!"

Elfhild closed her eyes tightly. "Maybe the slavers threatened Hunig... maybe a guard offered to reward our aunt if she became his mistress." She sighed again and buried the side of her face into the rolled up scarf that served as her pillow. "Oh, I do not know!" Her head was spinning with all sorts of unpleasant imaginings which filled her with frustration and disappointment. "Only she can tell us, but, alas, since she is nowhere to be seen, she can neither defend her innocence nor confirm her guilt!" Restlessly flopping over onto her back, Elfhild stared up into the oppressive blackness of the night sky.

Was it shame that prevented Leofgifu from coming to her nieces, or something else? Could she not sneak away from her duties for a few moments to welcome them back? Perhaps she was so busy with her tasks and responsibilities that she had no more time for the twins. Or, perhaps, a cruel voice in Elfhild's worried mind taunted her, dear Aunt Leofgifu cared more about her new position of power than she did about them.

Had the twins been forsaken by their only living relatives?

As the girls drifted off into an uneasy sleep, they felt the earth tremble slightly beneath their bodies, but concluded that the sensation was only a harbinger of slumber, one of the strange twitches and jerks that one felt while falling asleep, and therefore nothing of concern. They did not know that, beneath the very ground upon which they rested, a raging turmoil brewed deep within the pits of the earth. After its brooding sulk, the Mountain was stirring again.

***

"Did you feel the earth shake last night?" Beorthwyn asked that morning as the girls waited in line for breakfast.

"The earth shook?" Elffled asked, her eyes still gritty with sleep. "I thought I only dreamed that..." She had not slept well the previous night. If it were possible, Tove was even more obnoxious in her sleep than she was when she was awake. First, she had tried to steal Elfhild's blanket, and was rewarded with a swift slap in the face. The ruckus that had ensued resulted in a mild tussle which the guards quickly broke up, warning that if the girls did not settle down, they would first be whipped, then tied by the wrists and gagged. That quieted Tove down considerably, but when she finally fell asleep, she tossed and turned, her flailing limbs tugging on the chain that bound the three girls together. When at last Tove had found a comfortable position, she started up that accursed snoring again, and then began mumbling in her sleep. The only thing that would have made the night worse was if Elfhild had begun her sporadic nocturnal habit of sleepwalking, and dragged all three of them off into the empty wastes of Gorgoroth.

Elffled's sleep had also been disturbed by strange and disconcerting dreams. She had dreamt that she was back in her old troop, and they were all camped in the ashy wastes of Gorgoroth, but everything was somehow different and strange. Leofgifu and Hunig were sitting near the twins, but it was as though Elffled's ears were full of mud, for the voices of her aunt and cousin seemed low and muffled, and she could not understand what they were saying. Goldwyn kept staring at her, and there was something in her gaze that made Elffled's very soul shiver in dread. At a distance from the other captives, Goldwyn's three sons laughed and joked with each other, as though they were unaware that something was terribly wrong with their mother. Waerburh was also there, her dark blonde hair heavy and lank from the water of the Anduin, her face ashen with the pallor of death. Rotting leaves clung to her moldering tresses, and her lips were pale and blue. Beside her sat Breguswith, who cradled her baby boy in her arms. In the dream, the babe was still alive, but the child seemed somehow different; his cries were loud and shrill, more like the desperate keening of some lonesome wraith than the crying of a living child. Although nothing bad had happened in the dream, it had still left Elffled feeling frightened and uneasy, and she longed for time to erase its memory from her mind.

"It was no dream." Beorhtwyn's voice interrupted Elffled's thoughts, and for a moment a shiver of dread ran down her spine, for she thought the girl was referring to her surreal dream about the old troop. "The earth here rumbles and shudders from time to time. You must have been quite worn out to have slept through the commotion." Lowering her voice, she whispered breathlessly, "One of the guards told me that a great ifrit - that is what the Haradrim call a demon of flame - dwells within the belly of the mountain, and when this monster is provoked, he causes the earth to shake and fire to spew from the mountain's peak. Of course," she added nervously, "I do not believe the tales of the heathen."

Elffled's gaze went to the black, looming form of the mountain in the distance. The roof of smoke which hung over Orodruin had spread out further, darkening the leaden skies and making the morning air reek of brimstone. Across the rocky, jagged plain, the tormented ground was scarred with fissures. Steam billowed out of the cracks, giving the landscape a misty appearance. Though the plain seemed endless, the heavy clouds which darkened the sky seemed to press in upon the captives, and the wide, open land made them feel eerily claustrophobic. Elffled trembled in fear. What would happen to them all in this strange realm?

***

The day was uneventful, one of many which would be spent marching across Gorgoroth. By the time that evening arrived, Elfhild and Elffled had seen little of their aunt, who usually walked near the end of the second troop in the column. While she still wore the collar of a slave, no shackles impeded her hands and feet. The twins noticed that while they had been gone, their aunt's elevated position had not been the only change. While the she-orc guards were still in evidence, there were fewer of them, and most of those who remained guarded two of the troops in the rear column.

Beorhtwyn had told the twins that these two groups of slaves were called the "incorrigibles" - women who were known rebels, troublemakers, brawlers, thieves, insane, simpleminded, or too ugly or deformed to be candidates for anyone's harem, household or field. These slaves were kept isolated from the better behaved ones, and many of them were seldom unchained. They had separate sleeping areas, ate by themselves, and were always under guard.

"The brides of the orcs - culled from the rest of us to breed like animals!" Beorhtwyn shook her head sadly. "What a horrible fate! I pity them!"

"Poor Breguswith must be among these poor, wretched souls," Elfhild whispered, and indeed the madwoman marched with the "incorrigibles," lost in her own delusions and still clutching her tattered bundle of rags, cooing and singing as she hugged it. The she-orc guards thought the spectacle was amusing and allowed the woman that small dispensation. When one of the guards would ridicule her, "You'll soon be the proud an' 'appy mum of an 'alfbreed imp," Breguswith only smiled as she hummed a lullaby to the pathetic collection of rags.

While the twins took comfort in the company of other young women, they missed their aunt and cousin. Having just met the other girls, neither Elfhild nor Elffled had the nerve to ask about Leofgifu, for deep in their hearts, they feared what they might hear. Though they hated Tove and Cyneburh for speaking ill of their aunt, they feared that the haughty pair were telling the truth. While for some reason Leofgifu was avoiding them, she could at least meet their eyes when they looked her way. The situation troubled the girls, but they were learning that in this harsh land, it was best to stifle their tears and force their faces into bland neutrality.

Supper that night seemed not to last half long enough, and soon they found themselves once more forced to labor with Tove. Accustomed to being served all her life, the thane's daughter took forever to complete her labors. Once all three of the girls had been taken to task when one of the cook's assistants found fault with the way they had coated a large iron pot with oil. The young man had become enraged, threatening in his fury to make the three of them lick the pot clean. Tove had been reduced to tears, wringing her hands and sobbing hysterically, all the while promising that she would do better next time. After the cook's assistant had left, waving his hands and bemoaning such incompetency, the twins had laughed and pointed at Tove, calling her insulting names in both Rohirric and Westron. They even made up a spiteful little song, taunting her with the mocking words as each sister in turn added another verse.

Daughter of a thane, kin to the king
Pretty little Tove had everything!
Never had her dainty hand washed a dish
All her whims answered, her smallest wish!
Her regal bottom hauled in a carriage
Knowing she was slated for noble marriage!
But now all Tove's dreams are dead
Her hands chafed raw, scratched and red!
Once she thought she was better than all
But now she is like us, just another thrall!

They finally stopped singing when Tove began screaming and pulling her hair. The guards watched them for a time, and while they did not understand the lyrics, they appreciated the sprightly tune. Ali, however, motioned for Leofgifu to translate, and after the men understood the lyrics, they all laughed heartily. Leofgifu and Ali talked quietly for a few moments, and then Leofgifu walked over to where the three girls had begun cleaning yet another kettle.

Standing in front of the girls, Leofgifu folded her arms over her chest and looked at them sternly. "Elfhild and Elffled, you will stop tormenting this poor girl immediately! I do not know what she has done, and it makes no difference. The only thing that matters is that the two of you are creating disorder in the camp, and that cannot be allowed!"

Flushing crimson, the twins lowered their heads and stared down at the ground. "Yes, Aunt," they mumbled sheepishly.

"You are never again to refer to me as 'Aunt' in public, but as 'Mistress.' Do you understand that?" Leofgifu asked, her voice cold as her eyes raked over them.

"Yes, Mistress," the girls returned numbly.

"You will attempt to get along with this girl." She nodded to Tove. "If you do not... I can guarantee that the punishments can get harsher."

Sick at heart, Elfhild and Elffled barely mumbled an answer. Although they both knew that it had been wrong to taunt Tove so cruelly, still Leofgifu's harsh reprimand left them feeling hurt, embarrassed, and confused. While the twins blinked away the tears that came to their eyes, Tove looked absolutely radiant, a smug smile brightening her pretty features.

"I do not want to hear of any trouble from either of you!" Leofgifu told them as she unfastened the whip from the richly tooled leather belt at her middle. "Perhaps you are unable to understand the generosity and kindness of the noble Shakh Esarhaddon, or how, if he wished, he could make your lives so much more unpleasant." She looked at her nieces sternly. "Now turn around and pull up the legs of your pantaloons!"

At least Aunt Leofgifu did not prolong the agony. Three times the flail fell sharply across the twins' bare calves, and three times they bit their lips but did not cry out in pain. They felt a certain satisfaction that Tove was too intimidated to open her hateful little mouth. At last the punishment was over, and as they faced Leofgifu once again, their aunt gave them some parting advice.

"If you do not change your ways, my fine little ladies, you will soon find yourselves marching with the incorrigibles! Remember that!"

Then without another word, Leofgifu turned on her heel and strode away.

Their aunt and cousin truly were lost to them. Now they had only each other.


Next Chapter

Previous Chapter
Main Index