The Circles - Book Six - Chapter 22

The Circles - Book Six - Across the Wide Hamada
Chapter Twenty-two
A Chance Encounter
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

"Elfhild, Elffled, my darlings!" Leofgifu was upon the girls before they could think of a convenient way to slip away unnoticed. Enfolding them in a wide embrace, she gave their cheeks a quick peck before stepping back to look at them. "I was overjoyed when I learned that you had not been injured in the horrific earthquake or the dreadful orc rebellion!"

"No, Mistress, we managed to survive," Elfhild replied stiffly. After their last encounter with their aunt, she was uncertain how to behave around Leofgifu anymore. It felt so strange to call her mistress, but Leofgifu had demanded that they call her by that honorific in public, as opposed to the more familiar title.

"Actually, we were never in much danger, Mistress," Elffled pointed out with a casual shrug. "We were not near the area where the orcs kidnapped those poor women." Although she gave her aunt a charming smile, she simmered internally with the hurt and resentment she had been nursing for the past three days. "After the terrible way she treated us, whatever does she want now?" she wondered, feeling suspicious of Leofgifu's intentions.

"Hunig and I were so frightened last night!" Leofgifu exclaimed. "The guards could barely keep order. Many of the women lost their wits, trampling others in their terror." Closing her eyes, she shuddered at the memory of the attack on the camp. "There were so many injuries, everything from minor cuts and bruises to broken bones. And the uruks murdered poor Master Böri. So very sad." Her chest fell in a woebegone sigh. "Luckily, we were safe, but that did not make it any less terrifying. Hunig wondered where you were and if you were all right."

The reminder of Böri's death did not seem to bother Hunig, who had never liked the guard. She was far more interested in being reunited with her cousins, and a bright smile lit up her freckled face from ear to ear. No longer able to restrain her joy, she ran forward and wrapped her arms around Elfhild's waist. Laughing, Elfhild embraced her, happy to see the little girl again. "Oh, I missed you so much after you ran away!" Hunig exclaimed, looking up at her cousin.

"We are back now," Elffled remarked wryly.

"I am so glad!" Hunig exclaimed as she turned to hug Elffled, who bent down and kissed her on the forehead.

Looking away from the twins, Leofgifu turned her attention to Akil, who was waiting nearby in polite silence. "I wish to take the girls to my tent. I know they are scheduled to be returned to the other slaves, but it has been a while since we have been together."

"Certainly, Leofgifu," Akil remarked. "When you are finished speaking with them, I will escort the girls back to their sleeping area."

With Akil following behind them all, Leofgifu led the small group away to the section of the camp that was reserved for the caravan laborers. Several tawny-skinned, doe-eyed women, some with babes in their arms, openly stared at them. A fetid stench assaulted their nostrils, and they knew they were not far from the latrine. A few dogs rushed from between the tents to bark and growl at them, but when Akil lunged forward, brandishing his whip, they slunk away, whining. Walking down the long row of tents, the twins were silent as their aunt greeted several guards by name. They noticed that Hunig was also quiet, which was unusual for their little cousin, who had always been so talkative.

Pausing at one of the smaller tents, Leofgifu pulled back the curtain and went inside. The interior was sparsely furnished: a tattered, threadbare rug was spread out over the dusty ground, and a small collection of personal effects – bedrolls and blankets, spare clothing, cooking utensils, sewing notions, and other sundries – was piled neatly along one wall. Elfhild, Elffled, and Hunig talked quietly while Leofgifu prepared tea on the small campfire outside. When she returned to the tent, she joined the others on the carpet and poured them all a glass of tea.

"I regret that I have not been able to speak with you sooner," Leofgifu told them after taking a sip from her glass. "Lord Esarhaddon put me in charge of overseeing five troops – a very important position – and my duties keep me quite busy."

"I understand, Mistress," Elffled stated blandly. "I am sure you have many responsibilities." It had been three days since she and her sister were returned to the slave caravan, and their aunt had only approached them twice during this period. Once to comfort her when she had been stricken ill by the sight of the dying men impaled upon poles, and then to punish her and Elfhild for quarrelling with Tove and Cyneburh. Surely Leofgifu could have made time to visit with them, if only for the briefest of moments.

Leofgifu seemed to brighten at what she assumed was Elffled's sympathy. "Managing fifty women and children is a challenging task, and I am usually so exhausted after the day's march that I can barely stand."

"Indeed, it must weary your arm to wield the whip all the time," Elfhild muttered under her breath, bitterly remembering the sting of the lash across her calves.

Elffled's eyes grew wide at her sister's reckless words. Wondering what would happen next, she looked back and forth between Elfhild and her aunt, expecting a particularly brutal fight to break out at any moment. For a few agonizingly long seconds, all was quiet in the tent, a silence which was broken by Leofgifu's sudden intake of air.

"I am sure you think that I am cruel and unfair for reprimanding you the other day," she stated coldly. "Having to apply the lash is the least favorite part of my duties as overseer. I do not wish to hurt anyone, especially not the daughters of my husband's sister. However, you were driving that poor girl to tears with your cruel taunts and horrible singing. Even worse still, you were causing disorder in the camp. There must be no infractions of the rules, and those who do break the ordinances of the House of Huzziya must be punished severely. Without order, there is nothing!" Her slate blue eyes regarded them gravely, and the expression upon her face was one which brooked no challenge.

"But, Mistress, Tove and Cyneburh had accused you of all manner of treachery, and we could not stand idly by whilst they heaped slander upon your name," Elfhild protested. "These accusations are the cause of our quarrel. Perhaps my sister and I acted like fools, but we were coming to your defense." Such bitter irony, she fumed to herself. At least she still valued her kin, and put family above position or duty.

"Tove and Cyneburh are not the first of our countrywomen to condemn me, nor will they be the last." Leofgifu chuckled humorlessly. "Because of my recent deeds, I have many enemies now, and few friends."

"Mother," Hunig piped up, "I am really not very hungry." She gloomily pushed her glass of tea aside.

"That is puzzling, since you are always saying that you are famished." Leofgifu cocked an eyebrow. "Play with your doll then. I hope you are not coming down with something." She felt her daughter's forehead, smiling when she detected no fever.

The little girl excused herself and picked up a rag doll near a back corner of the tent. There she sat quietly, rocking the doll back and forth.

"I know you do not approve of my being one of the overseers," Leofgifu stated, making no apology. "But quite frankly I do not care what you, or anyone else, think of me." Her voice was filled with bitterness, as though she had borne the brunt of much scorn. "Though I know not what Tove and Cyneburh told you, I fear that at least some of their claims are true. Indeed, I am a traitor, and, yes, I was rewarded quite handsomely for my treachery."

At this astounding revelation, Elfhild felt her heart sink like a leaden weight and her mind reel with astonished dismay. "What… what did you do?" she whispered, her heart pounding with dread.

"It was the night of Goldwyn's planned escape attempt," Leofgifu confided, her voice quiet with reflection. "When she began telling everyone of her plan, my heart grew heavy with dread, for I feared that she would lead all who harkened to her words to a miserable doom in the wilderness. Why, the woman is incapable of leading a thirsty horse to water, much less a group of women and children back to the Mark!" Leofgifu shook her head in disgust; even before the war she had held little love for Goldwyn. "After you told me goodbye that night, I slipped away to warn the guards what Goldwyn was planning. I did not tell them her name; I would never do such a thing! I simply said that I had overheard talk of escape."

"Why did you not alert them sooner?" Elffled asked bitterly. "You would have saved us a lot of misery." She thought of Tarlanc's useless death. She could still hear the screams of Sparrow and Mithril as the orcish arrows brought down the beautiful steeds. She could remember poor, brave Haun as he charged the great brutes, only to be riddled with arrows. All of them would still be alive today had Tarlanc never met her or her sister, she thought guiltily.

Leofgifu regarded Elffled with surprise. "Most condemn me for treachery; you condemn me for not being more timely in my betrayal."

Elffled blushed and averted her gaze. "I never wanted to escape in the first place, but I could not bear the thought of being separated from my sister. So where she led, I followed… much to my grief."

"Hmph! It was much to my grief; she complained the whole time," Elfhild muttered under her breath, glaring daggers at her twin.

"I know now that I should have alerted the guards sooner," Leofgifu mused, looking down into her glass of tea and idly watching the abstract reflections of light in the amber liquid. "But I did not realize at first the power that Goldwyn held over the others, how she used their fears like kindling to stoke the fires of her own misguided cause. I had assumed that most would consider her talk of escape as the ramblings of a desperate, despairing mind, and that the only hope that she offered was a false one. However, when she rallied almost the entire camp to her cause, I understood then that I must save the poor, deluded fools from themselves. Fleeing through blighted, enemy infested lands would have been a perilous course, and every last one of you would have perished upon that dreadful journey. I did what I had to do so that you could survive." She reached across the table and gripped the twins' hands. "You do understand, do you not?"

"Yes, Mistress, we understand completely," Elfhild answered dully, so shocked that her mind seemed to stop functioning. She could not believe that Leofgifu had turned traitor. So that was why all the women and children had been recaptured so quickly, why Goldwyn's plan had been such a dismal failure. Some part of Elfhild still managed to mumble out words that made sense, although she could not fathom how that was even possible in such a dazed state.

"You did what you thought was best," Elffled simpered, still resentful of the fact that it had taken her aunt so long to betray Goldwyn's idiotic plot to escape.

"Then you do understand." Leofgifu breathed a sigh of relief. "I am so glad." A wavering smile on her face, she squeezed their hands and then sat back on the carpet. "I could not bear it if there were any lasting enmity between us!"

Little Hunig, who had been quiet up to this time as she played with her well-worn doll, spoke up, her lisping voice touched with sadness. "Mother, why do Elfhild and Elffled call you 'Mistress' instead of 'Aunt?' Are you not their aunt anymore, and am I not their cousin?"

Leofgifu's back straightened as though she had been hit by a bolt. Her hand trembled as she lifted up the tea glass. "Why would you ever think such a thing? Certainly, dear, I am still their aunt, and you are their cousin. Nothing has changed."

"Then why do they not call you 'Aunt?'" Hunig asked, perplexity in her voice.

"It is better this way, so the others do not get the wrong idea. I am one of the overseers now, and 'Mistress' is my title. The other slaves would feel left out and offended if I let the twins call me 'Aunt.'"

"Mother, it does not matter to me what the other slaves think!" Hunig exclaimed defiantly. "I love my cousins!"

"Hush, darling. You are too young to understand," Leofgifu brushed her daughter off with the time-honored response that adults give to children who ask too many questions. "Be quiet now and go back to playing with your doll. These are matters which concern only grown-ups."

"Yes, Mother," Hunig muttered sullenly. She retreated to a secluded corner of the tent, where she softly sang a Rohirric children's song to her doll as she bounced the toy up and down.

Watching her daughter play for a few moments, Leofgifu turned her attention back to the twins. "Lord Esarhaddon says that if I prove to be a worthy overseer, he will consider allowing me to keep Hunig when he sells us," she confided, her voice low. "Many times, children are separated from their mothers so that the slavers can make a better profit."

"That is horrible!" Elffled gasped, unable to believe that even Esarhaddon could be so callous. "Children should be allowed to stay with their mothers!"

"This is Mordor," Leofgifu remarked grimly. "There is little kindness or mercy to be found here."

Elffled felt tears beginning to well up in her eyes. She could not imagine the horror and sorrow a mother would feel at having her crying, screaming child torn from her arms by the henchmen of greedy merchants! "I pray that Lord Esarhaddon keeps his word and permits you and Hunig to stay together!"

A wry smile passed over Leofgifu's face. "Well, I fear that Lord Esarhaddon will think me a terribly inefficient overseer if I cannot even keep my own relatives in line." She gave a little snort and pierced the twins with a meaningful stare.

A pang of guilt stabbed Elfhild's heart. She did not want her petty squabbles with Tove and Cyneburh to be the cause of a mother being separated from her daughter forever!

"Your behavior of late has been appalling," Leofgifu continued, her voice taking on that authoritarian tone she used when she was carrying out her duties as overseer. "The two of you have been brawling like common tavern wenches and creating quite a commotion in camp! Absolutely disgraceful!" She shook her head in disgust. "I do not need to warn you about the consequences of such actions, or what can happen to troublemakers. Even if you do not have a care for your own fates, you must remember that others besides yourselves are affected by your defiance." Her gaze drifted back to Hunig, who was humming softly to herself as she braided her doll's disheveled yarn hair.

"No, Mistress," Elfhild interjected, her voice as remorseful as a penitent thief as he looks up at the gallows. "We have learned our lesson, and only a fool repeats past mistakes."

"We do not wish to do anything which would cause grief between you and the slavers," Elffled remarked, her voice filled with grave solemnity.

"I believe you are sorry," Leofgifu replied, giving the girls a reassuring smile. "Surely everything will be much better now that we have had this talk."

While the women had been speaking, Akil had waited quietly at the entrance to the tent. Worried that night would soon be falling, he cleared his throat to make his presence known. "Mistress, forgive this intrusion, but the girls need to be going. The guards will be wondering what happened to them."

"Yes, Akil," Leofgifu nodded to him. "I have kept them far too long." Turning to the twins, she clasped her hands in front of her. "You must go now, but please come back and visit us!" She looked at them imploringly. "I will see if it can be arranged. Now, my darlings," she rose to her feet, "come here and let me hug you before you leave."

Their faces frozen into grimacing smiles, Elfhild and Elffled stood as stiff as boards as their aunt hugged them in a tight embrace. "I am so glad we made our peace." Brushing her lips over her nieces' brows, she released them from her arms and then smiled at Hunig. "Come and say goodbye to your cousin."

Her curly hair bouncing, Hunig bounded up to the twins. "Please come back soon and visit us, or I shall be very sad!"

"We will be back whenever we are allowed," Elfhild assured her, feeling guilty for making a promise she did not know if she wanted to keep. Even though she now knew more about her aunt's motivations, she still did not feel like forgiving her quite yet.

After bowing to Leofgifu, the twins turned and walked to the entrance of the tent, where Akil awaited them. As the boy led them back to the slave compound, the two sisters' faces betrayed none of the conflicting emotions they felt, the turmoil which swirled inside their minds like dust devils over the ashy plain of Gorgoroth, that rumbled through their hearts like the restless stirrings of the Mountain of Doom.

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