The slam of the cell door echoed ominously before heavy, oppressive silence fell over the room. As a restless cloud swept away from the sun, the light from the narrow window strengthened, casting a pale beam upon the opposite wall. Now accustomed to the dimness, Elfhild and Elffled could make out the stark imprint of a smeared bloody hand on the wall across from them. Little imagination was needed to envision the tortures that some poor soul had once endured as he groaned in agony unimaginable.
The twins shuddered as they saw other reminders of the grim purpose for this room. All around them, manacles hung from chains hooked to rings in the walls. To their right, a menacing-looking cage was suspended from the ceiling by a chain which attached to a device of metal and wheels. Another smaller cage hung to their left. A wide assortment of fearsome whips and scourges hung from hooks on the wall near the cages.
"Oh, Elfhild, I am so afraid!" Elffled whimpered, looking over to her sister with wide, anguished eyes. "I am sure they have killed Lord Esarhaddon and all the men! And... and..." her voice choked, "soon they will be coming for us!"
Elfhild reached out for her sister's hand, stretching her arm as far as it would go along the rough stone wall. She sighed in frustration when the tips of her fingers missed Elffled's by only a few inches.
"No... no..." Elfhild shook her head. "I do not think they have killed the men... at least not yet."
"And why not?" Her eyes overflowing with tears, Elffled sniffed back her sobs.
"Do you think anyone gets out of this place that easily?" Elfhild snapped irritably, on the verge of crying herself. "No, they will probably torture them for a few days before letting them die!"
"Ohhh, Elfhild!" her twin moaned. "I do not want to think about those proud, strong men suffering such a horrible fate!"
Fighting back her own tears, Elfhild looked up at the dark, gloomy ceiling high above them. "Alas, we will meet the same doom as our masters. We will never get to see the rest of Mordor, or the land of Nurn. This is where our journey and our tale ends… in this horrible place of death and suffering."
"Oh, Elfhild, why are we even here?"
Elfhild sighed and shifted uncomfortably, for her legs were growing tired of standing. "I do not know, but I fear we are victims of the strange politics of the Dark Land. That Corporal Bekir claimed that there was a problem with Lord Esarhaddon's papers, and used this as justification for seizing the entire party. But I feel that we have been singled out for some reason… the uruks seemed very interested in those strange undertunics that we were given to wear, as well as the two silver coins that the Seneschal gave us."
"I knew we should have thrown those coins into the bottomless spring!" Elffled exclaimed, the chains hooked to her wrist manacles clanging against the stone wall as she moved. "But, no, you wanted to keep them… you said they might bring us good luck! Ha! If ever there were an unlucky coin, we were given two of them!"
"How was I to know we would be searched by uruks in the employ of a corrupt officer of Mordor?" Elfhild snapped, glaring at her sister. "I just wanted to own something that was valuable and fair to behold. Is that so wrong?" Sniffling, she blinked away tears. "Maybe we should blame poor Su-a and Su-din for giving us those tunics in the first place. They said that the runes embroidered on the material would protect us from enemies. Some protection, indeed! Now the orcs have both our tunics and our coins!"
"It seems like everything that is meant to bring good fortune has the opposite effect," Elffled whispered, her eyes growing wide with sudden realization. "Perhaps it is the enchantment that lies over the valley…"
As the two sisters awaited their fate in the dark dungeon, time inched by as slowly as a slug crawling up a tombstone. Though it seemed that hours had passed since they were first cast in the dismal cell, the girls knew the impression was but a trick of their troubled minds. Judging by the slant of the light coming from the narrow window slit, no more than half an hour had passed. Perhaps it would be hours before their captors returned... perhaps days. Each time they moved, the manacles about the girls' wrists and ankles chafed their skin, and their muscles were stiff and cramped from standing so long. How they longed for rest from the merciless cuffs, but if they allowed the chains to support their weight, the harsh metal would soon have their wrists scraped raw. Did their captors plan to leave them there until they died from thirst and starvation? Had they traveled so far only to end their lives in this foul cell? A swift execution would be better than this!
Wait -- was that a sound coming from the antechamber? Each girl held her breath, waiting for the rush of guards who would drag them away to suffer even greater misery than this. A few suspenseful minutes passed, but they heard nothing more. The sisters concluded that the faint noise was only some sound from outside, one of the many phantom noises which echoed off the walls of the austerely furnished cell. In the oppressive silence, each sound was magnified, heightening the dread that the twins felt.
The faint scurrying of rodents in the walls seemed like the marching of heavy boots; the moaning winds which whipped around the fortress became howling spirits. Outside, starlings had built nests in the chinks where the mortar of the castle walls had weakened over the years. Their discordant squawks were harsh and mocking to the twins, for the birds were free and they were not. There were other noises, too, which the girls could not explain: strange creakings and shufflings. Every now and then, faint whispers, snatches of indistinct conversations, came to their ears. How they dreaded to spend the night in this horrible place!
The twins had not drunk any water for hours, and their thirst was beginning to nag at them, causing them to feel light-headed and out of sorts. Elfhild licked her parched lips and ran her tongue over her gums, for they had begun to stick to the insides of her cheeks. Even a spoon of water would be delightfully refreshing. Again, the question came to the minds of both girls - how long would they be forced to wait?
"When do you think the guards will come back?" Elffled asked, fearfully glancing at the door of the cell. "I do not know how much longer I can hold myself up!" Shifting her weight, she lifted her arms high, stretching them as far as the chains would allow. "Oh, how I wish I had a drink of cool spring water! All I can think about is the Spring of the Silver Coin, and how wonderful the water tasted."
"My mouth and throat are so parched that I would be grateful for even a sip of stale, tepid water which had been left in a waterskin for days! Anything to quench this thirst!" Elfhild moaned. Her gaze went to the thin shaft of light on the opposite wall, and frowned when she saw that it had not budged even an inch since she last looked.
As each agonizing minute wore on, Elfhild and Elffled became more and more worried, both for the Southrons and themselves. Fears built up in their minds which they could never share with the other. As though a tableau were being enacted before their eyes, both girls could see the men stripped, their writhing bodies bound to whipping posts as the flesh was flailed from their backs. They could hear the screams that echoed and reechoed through the torture chamber as the men howled in agony. And then the torturers would come for them...
Both girls were startled from their grim musings when they heard the key turning in the lock. Their hearts pounding painfully in their chests, they waited breathlessly for the toll of doom and pushed themselves against the wall as the door opened. Swaggering and leering, Conag and Pagoj entered the cell. "The Corporal will see you now," Conag laughed as he unfastened the manacles from Elfhild's ankles and wrists. Pagoj quickly freed Elffled, but the girl's cramped muscles were so strained that she almost fell on the floor when she attempted to walk. Elfhild's arms and legs were equally sore and stiff, but she tried to hide that fact by keeping her back straight and her head held high.
"Right in there! Hurry up now and don't gawk!" Conag told them gruffly as the two uruks herded the girls into the antechamber. Striding across the room, Conag knocked on an intricately carved dark oak door, the design of twining vines and serpents a superb example of the woodcarver's art. "Wait here," he ordered the twins. When he was granted permission to open the door, he turned back to the girls and made a swooping, exaggerated bow. "Ladies first," he laughed mockingly.
Conag gave the girls a push, causing them to stumble into the room. They jumped as the door slammed closed behind them. Looking around wildly, they saw that Bekir and three other men sat upon a low divan. The Corporal turned from his companions and smiled courteously at the girls. At the sight of the officer, the twins forced their stiff, aching legs to kneel as they pressed their foreheads against the floor. "No, no," he chuckled kindly. "None of that here. On your feet now and stand where we all can see you." Rising to his feet, he reached down and helped the weary girls up. "Gentlemen," he began, "these are... let me see..." He lifted the sisters' chins up so he could read their collars. "The one in the green tunic is Elffled, and the other is Elfhild - the Rohirric girls I mentioned to you."
"Corporal Bekir, we have been looking forward to meeting them," the tallest and darkest of the three men replied graciously. His companions - an older man a few years past middle age and a younger fellow barely out of his teens - nodded, smiling pleasantly.
"Ladies, these gentlemen are Khosrow and Behrang. Pirooz," he gestured to the tall man, "is my secretary and aide. Khosrow and Behrang," he nodded to the two others, "are officers of the tower. We will all be working together."
Feeling ill at ease at the unexpected courtesy which their captors were showing them, Elfhild and Elffled murmured a greeting and then folded their hands across their waists. Their eyes downcast and demure, they studied the designs on the crimson and black carpet. Even though they were prisoners and most likely would soon be executed, the sisters still resolved to carry themselves with dignity and grace, a pair of perfect Mordorian slaves.
"We will give you a few moments to clean the trail dust and dungeon grime from your hands and faces," Corporal Bekir told them cordially. "I will summon a servant to fetch a pitcher and a bowl of water." He leaned back and pulled a bell cord which dangled down from the ceiling. "Go to my bedchambers and wait until I command you to return." He motioned with a jerk of his chin to another door in the room.
The twins were too stunned by this strange turn of events to ask any questions. Bowing low, they backed away three spaces and turned, recalling the lessons in protocol that Ganbar had taught them. If only they could race from the room and hide themselves away in some neglected corner of the tower! Instead, summoning all their resolve, they walked with as much dignity as they could muster. As the girls made their way across the room, the men resumed talking to each other.
Glad to be away from their jailers, the twins closed the door behind them and sighed with relief. They found themselves in a spacious chamber which was decorated in a mixture of East and West. Light filtered through a narrow glass window and fell across a cushioned divan built along the side of the wall. Across from them, a curule chair and a small stool rested in front of a large hearth. A magnificent cherrywood desk and chair, several clothes trunks, and a large wardrobe were arranged along the other sides of the room. In the center, resting atop a finely worked carpet, stood a low table surrounded by cushions.
They heard a knock upon the door and a tall, dark-haired slave girl entered the room. Crossing over to the divan, the girl placed a pitcher and bowl on top of a small rosewood chest decorated with ornate mosaics crafted from mother-of-pearl. Several small, neatly folded towels were draped over her forearm. Laying the bundle beside the bowl, the girl bowed and turned to leave.
"Wait," Elfhild called as she walked over to the divan.
The girl looked up. "Yes, Mistress?"
"I - I just wanted to say thank you." Elfhild was shocked when she looked closer at the slave and saw the dark bruises on her face and bare arms. The girl was wearing a short-sleeved dark blue shift which fell just below her knee, revealing even more bruises and scratches. The low scooped neck barely hid another dark bruise between her breasts.
"Oh, my!" Elffled gasped. "What happened to you?"
The girl's cool gray eyes regarded Elffled haughtily. "I fell," she proclaimed, holding her head high, her eyes daring them to question her. "Now, Mistresses, I must go."
"No, wait, please! Can you not stay a while?" Elfhild reached out to touch her arm, but the other girl moved aside.
"No, Mistress..." A look of uncertainty flickered across the girl's luminous gray eyes. "The Master wants to see you as soon as you have finished washing up... and you should not keep him."
"Well, stay while we finish," Elfhild encouraged her. "You are one of the few girls we have seen since we escaped in the ruined city nine days ago."
"Yes, surely it would not hurt anything to stay a few minutes?" Elffled added as she lifted the pitcher and poured water into the bowl.
"No longer than that, Mistress." The girl looked down at her bare feet.
"How did you come to be here?" Elfhild asked as she patted her face with a damp washrag. She wished she could wash her entire body, for she could still feel the disgusting, groping paws of the uruks who had searched her. The Corporal had only given her leave for a few moments to wash her hands and face, however, and she dared not do anything which would provoke his anger.
"I am from Gondor," the girl replied, unmistakable pride in her voice. "I was the daughter of a merchant of Minas Tirith who was confident enough of victory to insist that all our family remain. When the city was stormed, it was too late to leave, and we were trapped. My father and brother died defending the walls." The girl glanced nervously back towards the door. "My mother fell ill and died shortly after; the shock, probably. My sisters and I were captured during the looting of the city. When one of the Easterling generals claimed his share of the booty, I was part of it." She lifted her proud head and rebelliously tossed her long black hair. "After he raped me repeatedly, I was sent as a gift to the Commandant of Cirith Ungol, who soon tired of me in his bed and gave me to the Corporal. That is all of it." She shrugged, her calm gray eyes meeting the twins' gazes.
"I am sorry," Elfhild murmured, her heart filled with sympathy for this proud, hurt girl.
"How terrible for you!" Elffled exclaimed. She wished she could say something to this poor girl that would make her feel better, but she felt totally inadequate.
"I survive," the girl answered simply. Squaring her shoulders, she dared either of them to challenge the hard shell of bravado and bitterness with which she surrounded herself. "Now I must go. I have tarried far too long." She turned to leave.
"Wait - will you not at least tell us your name?" Elffled implored.
Slowly the girl turned around, her lovely gray eyes cold, her full red lips smiling bitterly. "I do not have a name anymore. It died when my life did. They will change your names, too."
"Please," Elfhild walked closer to her, "you have to be called by something!"
The girl's lips twitched slightly as she answered, "I call myself Awarthannen, the Forsaken." She gave a wry laugh and then departed from the room.