The Circles - Book Six - Chapter 21

The Circles - Book Six - Across the Wide Hamada
Chapter Twenty-one
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

Returning home from a long journey can often seem very strange and uncomfortable to the traveler. Perhaps he has been changed by his experiences abroad, while everyone at home has remained the same. An even more disconcerting experience is when the traveler finds that while he was absent, life at home had changed, but he has stayed the same. Or perhaps his time away has caused him to look at the world in a new light and see things for what they really are.

Such was Elfhild's dilemma. Just sixteen days before, her countrywomen were calling Esarhaddon uHuzziya evil; now through an act of violence and brutal revenge, he had become their hero. Certainly what the uruks had done was unforgivable, and they deserved death, but she could not condone such a repulsive and gruesome form of execution. The Southrons should have beheaded the wretched uruks and been done with it. There was a difference between hacking an enemy to pieces in battle, and brutally torturing a condemned criminal before leaving him to die a slow and agonizing death. Although they took great pleasure in slaying orcs in battle, the Riders of Rohan would never torture a captured enemy. What had happened to her countrywomen? She could still remember the hatred and savagery that had contorted the women's faces as they clamored for the death of the uruks. Had her face looked that vicious when she had slain the uruk who murdered her mother? Elfhild shuddered. The thought was too painful, and she refused to think any more about it.

The sudden change in the women was unsettling. In addition to their descent into bloodlust, they had also switched loyalties and now allied themselves with the Haradric slave trader. Many of these women had risked their lives to escape from the accursed man and all the evils that he represented, and now they adored him, raising their voices in praise of his deeds. Had they forgotten so quickly the fear and loathing that they had once felt for Esarhaddon uHuzziya? Had they forgotten about Waerburh's claims of rape, the incident which sparked such hysteria? Waerburh had thrown herself into the Anduin, preferring death to enslavement. Obviously the poor woman's sufferings meant nothing to her countrywomen now. Had they ever meant anything? Perhaps the only value of Waerburh's horrifying account was to provide entertainment for a dull night.

The whole camp was buzzing with praise for Esarhaddon, and whenever he walked by, the women would bow and scrape, chanting "Hail, Master" in both Black Speech and Haradric. Elfhild felt disgusted with all the hypocrisy she beheld. She grudgingly accepted the fact that she was now a slave of Mordor and that Esarhaddon was her master, but at one time many of the other women would have damned her for giving up, for surrendering to the enemy. After all, she was a woman of Rohan, and it was her duty to hate anyone who came from Harad or any other country that was an enemy of her land. By her defiance, she would be honoring her king, her country, and her ancestors. Of course, she would also be subjecting herself to beatings and whippings and all manner of cruel punishments for having the gall to defy the might of Mordor, but that did not matter as long as one was brave and heroic, right?

Besides revealing the insincerity and fickle attitudes of her countrywomen, this sudden adoration of Esarhaddon uHuzziya also stirred up Elfhild's own conflicted feelings for the man. Although she was loath to admit it, there was a part of her that found Esarhaddon desirable. However, she dared not allow herself to love him, for she feared it would only end in heartbreak. The man did not see her as a living creature with a mind and soul, but rather as an investment that would enrich his ill-gotten coffers. To him, the captive women from Rohan were naught but objects to buy and sell, to use as he saw fit, to defile and degrade if he so wished. To love such a man would be torture, and had she not suffered enough already? At least now, if perchance Elfhild were to surrender herself to Esarhaddon in a moment of weakness or because of the coercion of the whip, the other women might not be so quick to shame her and label her a whore. They had already cast their honor and morals aside when they reveled in the cruel execution of the uruks, so who were they to speak of propriety?

Elfhild tried to put these troubled thoughts far from her mind as she and Elffled entered the main cooking tent late that afternoon. At least they were no longer forced to toil in chains alongside the rude, ill-tempered Tove, who was as quarrelsome as a squawking magpie. That had been a horrible punishment indeed, and the twins wondered if perhaps a sound whipping would have been much more merciful. Although they no longer had to work with Tove, Elfhild and Elffled still had to labor as scullery maids, for they had been assigned kitchen duty until further notice. Rose Petal had informed them that Shakh Esarhaddon had made this decision because he felt it was best for the twins to remain busy so that they would stay out of trouble. "Hard work teaches humility," the smug eunuch told them. "Besides, if the shakh decides to sell the pair of you as kitchen thralls, this will be good training for you."

"Slave girls, both of you are late!" The chief cook's assistant frowned when the twins finally arrived. "Cook Muhaldim tolerates neither tardiness nor sloth. You will take yourself to the kitchen scullery without delay. Go now!" His mouth curled in a great toothy grin, he reached for a switch hanging from one of the tent poles and swiped at the twins. Elffled successfully dodged him, but he slapped the switch across Elfhild's legs as she dashed away. "Ha ha!" he laughed, holding his sides. "The switch is the greatest teacher, and a certain cure for laziness!"

The other servants eyed Elfhild and Elffled suspiciously as they approached the scullery area of the camp. Slaves were tending the fires that were used to heat the water needed for cleaning, and the smell of smoke was strong in the still air. A large woman with a broad, wide face and narrow, almost slanted eyes walked up to the girls and looked them over from head to toe. "You are to clean those," she ordered Elfhild, waving her hand towards a collection of dirty pots and pans. Eying Elffled contemptuously, she pointed to some leather pails. "You are to fetch more water."

As the girls turned to attend to their tasks, the woman called them back. "Why they ever sent you two, I cannot understand!" She crossed her arms over her broad bosom. "You are both far too skinny and sick to be of much use!" she told them, her thick Haradric accent barely understandable to the two Northern girls. "I suppose we have to take whatever they send us, though, and make the best of it. Now do not stand there all day gaping like baboons! Make haste! There is much to do!" The woman watched the twins as they bowed stiffly and turned away.

"She assumes such airs!" Elfhild whispered. "She is only a slave like us, but you would think she was some grand lady!"

"Shhh!" Elffled hissed. "She is one of the supervisors, and we have to obey her. Just try not to get on her bad side if you can. In other words, my dear sister, keep your mouth closed unless you are called upon to speak, and maybe you will go unnoticed. Now I must tend to my own duties." She kissed Elfhild's cheek and then went to fill her pails at one of the nearby water wagons.

Elfhild groaned when she saw a large kettle which seemed to be the dirtiest of the lot. The slave who had been entrusted to watch the rice must have been an unreliable scamp, for the rice had burned, sticking to the sides and bottom of the pot. There was nothing to do but clean it and get the task over as quickly as possible. Scouring the cauldron with coarse salt, Elfhild muttered to herself as the salt stung the tiny nicks and cuts on her hands. She dried the pot and then applied a light coating of oil to preserve the iron. Finishing her task, she turned to the next dirty utensil.

"I heard that the boy who burnt the rice was soundly whipped," Elffled whispered as she paused by her sister. A pail of dirty, greasy water in each of her hands, she was on her way to dump them in the latrine.

Elfhild pushed a strand of sweat-soaked hair from her perspiring face, her hand streaking her forehead with even more grime. "Who told you that?"

Elffled shrugged her shoulders. "Oh, just one of the kitchen laborers who was talking to me." She wished she could put the heavy buckets of water down for a little while. She did not dare do that, though, for one of the overseers would be sure to bellow at her before lashing her with the switch. Just thinking about the punishment brought back memories of the stinging pain which the guards and overseers had exuberantly doled out to her calves.

"You mean you were flirting with them again." Elfhild giggled as she began to wash a container of cooking spoons. She wondered if her sister had become enamored of another one of the Southrons. After all, Inbir was in love with Aeffe, and had no interest in Elffled.

"Of course not!" Elffled protested. "We were only talking. Now I cannot stay another minute, for I must deliver this water! I will see you when our work is over for the day."

After the twins had finished their tasks at the camp kitchen, Akil escorted them to Rose Petal's tent for their daily lesson. The senior eunuch was seated at a low table spread with a green porcelain tea pot, small glasses, an earthenware pot of water, and a plate of sweetmeats.

"Be seated," he told them and waved the boy away with his hand.

"Greetings, Master." The girls bowed politely before sitting down at the table.

Rose Petal scowled at them. "Has anyone ever taught you how to sit correctly? The imbecilic expressions on your faces tell me that you know nothing of which I speak." He shook his head. "Ignorant girls! Your posture and carriage are deplorable! Remember, you are to be as graceful as gazelles, not lumbering water buffalo cows pulling a farmer's cart! Now you will stand up and move yourselves well! No!" The eunuch's irritated voice rose to a higher pitch, and the girls froze in their tracks. "Are you in pain? Are your joints stiff? Do you suffer from constipation?" A smile flickered in his brown eyes as he watched the girls blush furiously.

"You will do it this way." Rose Petal rose effortlessly to his feet and then sank fluidly to the ground. "Lower yourselves gracefully and demurely back to the carpet! Posture is everything!" Arching a disapproving eyebrow at them, he insisted that they practice the motion over and over again until he was partially satisfied. "You may remain sitting. That was a passable showing, but far from what I consider appealing. If you are chosen to be the servants of a wealthy lord or lady, you will learn that not only must you be beautiful, intelligent, and talented, but you must also have exquisite poise, bearing and a certain regal dignity. To do that, you must practice, practice, practice!"

"We shall strive to do better, Master," Elfhild told him, wondering how they could have any regal dignity when they were constantly degraded and treated as simple-minded inferiors, little better than slow-witted children.

Lifting the teapot, Rose Petal poured glasses for the twins and then one for himself. "Help yourselves to the pastries. Eat as many as you like, for both of you are far too skinny and need some meat on your bones." He motioned to the delicate wafer-thin cakes topped with sugar.

Making sure their table manners were impeccable, the girls gratefully began eating. Fascinated by its unique design, Elffled had been gazing at the teapot, which was decorated with the theme of a dragon twisting its way through a garden filled with flowers. She noticed that the eunuch had been watching her while she sipped her tea.

"Little mistress," Rose Petal looked at Elffled, "I see that the teapot interests you."

"Yes, Master. I have never seen anything like it. Was it made in Nurn?" Elffled smiled becomingly at the eunuch as she dabbed her lips with a napkin.

"No," he told them in his pleasant, high-pitched, almost boyish voice. "The glasses were manufactured in Nurn, but this beautiful treasure was brought from a far away land. The caravan that carried it was faced with many dangers as it traveled along the Spice Road that leads from the Land of the Golden Lords. It is amazing that it ever reached Nurn safely." He ran a long, delicate finger over the image of the dragon. "Green porcelain is said to have great powers, not only to ward away wicked spirits, but to detect poison in a draught by changing color." Smiling, he looked up from the teapot. "If the dose is potent enough, the water will boil up in the middle and be clear on the sides."

"Master, those qualities must make the teapot very valuable." Elffled's eyes widened, wondering how much gold the teapot was worth. "But does the magic really work?" she asked politely.

"Who would know?" Rose Petal shrugged. "I have never seen the color change, but then no one has ever tried to poison me." He laughed softly. "The efficacy of celadon porcelain might be questioned, though. I once heard that there was a great lord of Nurn who drank from such a set and was suddenly stricken with great, racking pains in his stomach. His condition worsening, he passed blood from both his stomach and bowels, and a few days later he died in great agony. Rumors say his son poisoned him so that he might inherit more quickly." The eunuch sipped his tea. "This set was given to me as a gift, and I am quite proud of it." Pushing aside the tray of sweetmeats, he nodded to one of the slaves in attendance. The servant returned soon with a laver and a bowl. Pouring water over the eunuch's hands, he then dried them.

"After that pleasant repast, we will resume your studies in the language and customs of Mordor and its allies. What can you remember from the last lesson?" Rose Petal listened as the twins eagerly told him the few words and phrases which they could recall from the last time he had taught them. Hoping to impress him with their knowledge, they added any other words that they had heard during their journey from the North.

"Silly girls! Those words you learned on the trail are mainly orcish words, although there are a few Haradric and Khandian expressions scattered among them." Rose Petal glanced down at the peridot and gold ring on the little finger of his right hand. "Some of them were quite obscene, I might add. Do not repeat them to our illustrious master, unless you want to insult him."

"Oh!" Elfhild exclaimed, blushing hotly and pressing her hand to her mouth. She wished she could turn into a small insect and crawl under the carpet. Her mouth twitching, Elffled suppressed an embarrassed giggle and averted her eyes.

The servants brought another pot of hot tea, and Rose Petal poured cups for the girls and himself. "If you do not know the meaning of a word, do not say it," the eunuch advised. "You will be taught to speak the language of Mordor in time, but you will learn the dialect of the nobility and not the coarse, vulgar speech of the orcs."

"We will never say those words again, Master!" Elfhild solemnly promised.

"Oh, Master, I did not know how terrible those expressions were! Cut my tongue out if I ever say such words again!" Elffled hoped that her dramatic outburst sounded completely sincere. These Southrons always used such melodramatic expressions, and the more that she sounded like one of them, perhaps the quicker they would accept her.

"Without a tongue, you would have less value," Rose Petal told her, unimpressed by her naive affectation. He looked at her sternly. "Now our time for study is rapidly drawing to a close, and so little has been accomplished." The eunuch then began teaching them the Mordorian alphabet, making them sound out each letter as he said it. He showed no mercy when they mispronounced letters, severely reprimanding them for each small mistake. When he had finished this part of the lesson, the twins were tired and frustrated.

"Perhaps you will learn calligraphy when we reach Nurn, but that takes years to master. I will be satisfied if you learn the alphabet and a few common phrases."

"What is calligraphy, Master?" Elfhild asked, truly curious.

"Calligraphy is a style of writing which is very beautiful." Rose Petal took a sheet of parchment from a leather satchel on the table and held it up for the girls to see. "This beautiful flourish is written in the Tengwar of the Elves, but the letter beside it is in the script of Mordor." He traced his finger over the two letters.

"Master, I want to learn how to read and write!" Elfhild exclaimed wistfully. She would much rather be learning the written word in Westron, but she would take what knowledge she could get.

"You must first be able to speak the language before you can learn to read and write," Rose Petal laughed scoffingly. "Memorize the alphabet and practice it whenever you can, and perhaps someday you can read and write it."

"Of course, not the unsavory words," Elffled giggled, thinking she might enjoy learning them more than she would the scholarly ones. Still, she wanted to learn to speak the foreign tongue, for she was weary of appearing ignorant and unlearned to her captors. Back in the Mark, she did not know many people who could read or write, but she had decided that being literate might well serve her in the future. Perhaps the great lords of Mordor and its allies might appreciate a literate and intelligent woman more than the men of Rohan. Perhaps combined with the beauty she knew she possessed, she could learn to be indispensable to a wealthy lord, and thus grow in power and influence. A sweet little smile curved her lips. It never hurt to plan.

Rose Petal reiterated the phrases for "Good morning," "Good evening," "My name is," "Thank you," "Forgive me," "Yes," "No," and other simple words and phrases that they would need in their everyday lives. He made the girls practice their lessons until their minds were almost numb. He ended his lesson for that day by telling them the expression for, "Who are you, please?" When he demanded they recite the expression, he answered them in Black Speech, "I am Rose Petal from Far Harad." Elfhild was the first to come closest to the correct pronunciation, but Elffled was able to give a reasonable approximation.

"You learn quickly, little mistresses." Rose Petal was somewhat surprised at the rapid progress which the twins were making. When they had first come under his tutelage four days prior, he was certain that they were stupid. Perhaps he had misjudged them, though, and had confused their inexperience with backwardness. Esarhaddon had ordered him to teach the twins enough Black Speech so that they would be comfortable with simple words and commands, as well as a few phrases in the most common dialect spoken in Northern Harad. If the eunuch were successful, his master would be pleased... possibly pleased enough to advance him.

"Master Rose Petal, we are trying very hard to learn," Elffled remarked, quite earnestly. "We are indebted to Lord Esarhaddon for allowing us to learn."

"You should continue to practice and study duteously," Rose Petal told them. "Now the lesson is completed for today. It is time for you to leave."

A short while later, Akil was shown into the tent, and Rose Petal dismissed the girls for the day. Passing under the awning, the twins looked across at the great expanse of barren ground that stretched beyond the tents of the slaver and his staff. They almost stopped in their tracks when they saw Aunt Leofgifu and Hunig walking in their direction.

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