The Circles - Book Six - Chapter 23

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

In the space of a half hour, all the beliefs that Elfhild had held about familial ties and bonds of loyalty were shattered. Once she had believed that families should draw closer together during times of trouble, but obviously she was mistaken, and everyone should put himself first when it came to survival. Her aunt certainly seemed to feel that way. Perhaps Elfhild had been a fool all along to believe that family always came first.

Although the very idea of Aunt Leofgifu's being in league with the Haradric slave traders was difficult for her to accept, Elfhild did not resent her aunt for taking this new position. What slave did not crave power, no matter how minuscule it might be? In truth, Elfhild envied her aunt, and wished that she, too, held a position of power among the Southrons. How satisfying it would be to have the authority to put that horrid Tove and Cyneburh in their places… to lord her authority over them, and make them bow and grovel in the dirt whenever she walked past! It would serve them right, thinking that they were so high and mighty! Tove might have been the daughter of a thane and a distant kinswoman of King Théoden, and Cyneburh the daughter of the thane's steward, but now they were lowly slaves, just the same as Elfhild. Slavery made everyone equal, because it stripped away the status and rank one held in society, and brought both the rich and the poor down to the same level. Not all slaves were equal, though. It all depended upon who held the whip, and who was struck by it.

At one time, Elfhild would have been furious at her aunt for alerting the slavers to the escape attempt, but now she felt only irritation and a deep sense of disappointment. A part of her still wondered what would have happened had Leofgifu not betrayed Goldwyn's plan to the enemy. Would more of the captives managed to escape the chains of slavery and found freedom somewhere to the West? Or would they have only found death in the desolation of the war-ravished wastes? Perhaps Leofgifu had been right; perhaps she had been wrong. Only the Gods could say. Elfhild knew her aunt truly believed that her deed had been selfless, one which had saved the lives of many women and children. Leofgifu's intentions had not been treacherous, and any rewards she received were purely incidental. Looking back, Elfhild realized now that the escape attempt had been foolish, and she and her sister were lucky to be alive today.

It was the overbearing attitude that Leofgifu had adopted that was so offensive. She was treating her own kin almost as badly as the callous overseers and merciless guards. Were they not the daughters of her husband's sister? Although Elfhild knew that she had been wrong to get in a brawl with Tove, she felt that her aunt had been unduly harsh in her handling of the situation. It would have been one thing if Leofgifu had taken them aside and reprimanded them for their actions, but she had used the whip to prove her point, as though she were one of the surly caravan guards who lashed the backs of exhausted captives' legs to make them march faster. If that were not bad enough, Leofgifu had threatened to send her own nieces to the troop of madwomen and miscreants destined for the brothels of the orc pits. The dark thought came to Elfhild that perhaps Leofgifu would not mourn overmuch if her two nieces spent the rest of their miserable days being raped by orcs and giving birth to their unholy spawn. And to think that all this started when Elfhild had tried to defend her aunt from Tove's slanderous words!

Shaken by Leofgifu's betrayal, Elfhild began to imagine all sorts of horrible things about her aunt. Though they were related only by the ties of marriage and not by blood, their mother and aunt had always seemed the closest of friends. Yet perhaps Leofgifu had never really liked the twins at all, but felt duty-bound to pretend that she did. Now that both her friend and her husband were dead, Leofgifu no longer felt a need to show the girls any kindness. Perhaps the loving aunt whom they had thought they knew never really existed. That thought was an unsettling one. What was real then? What was the illusion? Maybe everything was illusion, and nothing was real. Could they trust their aunt anymore? Could they trust anyone? Elfhild was no longer sure. Of course, these ideas were silly, and Elfhild knew that, but she could not stop the turbulent thoughts which rushed through her head.

Back in the Mark, when her mind was troubled so, Elfhild would visit her grandmother's grave and cry upon the soft, green grass. However, Rohan was far away now, and she did not know if her grandmother's spirit could hear her in this dreadful place where the mountains smoked and the earth trembled.

"Hild?" Elffled whispered. "Did you feel that? The earth moved beneath us!"

"I thought that was Tove's snoring," Elfhild quipped sarcastically.

"Her snoring is bad, but not powerful enough to shake the earth," Elffled chuckled softly. She pulled herself to a sitting position, careful not to disturb the sleeping girls around them. "But, Hild, I really felt something, a shuddering of the earth. And did you notice that when you look to the north, you can see a faint glow? I have been lying here watching it."

"No, I have not really been paying attention, but now when I look that way, I can see it." Making sure that Tove was really asleep, Elfhild sat up and drew her blanket to her waist. "That reddish glow set against the blackness... rather beautiful in a strange way, is it not?"

"Yes, when you think about it that way, I suppose it is," Elffled murmured, careful to keep her voice low. "But it is more than just strange. It is very..." she paused, searching for the right word, "dreadful... oppressive. I will be so glad when we are far from here!"

"There have been many dreadful things, sister, but we have survived them all. Maybe now the worst is over." Elfhild sighed, not sure she believed what she had just said.

"Do not say things like that!" Elffled hissed. "You will bring us bad luck!"

"As though we do not have enough trouble already," Elfhild growled. She squinted into the darkness, studying the northern horizon, and noticed that the light seemed to be pulsating.

"The latest being the fact that our aunt has taken up with a grubby little bastard who leers at us every time he sees us," Elffled muttered. "I did not think Böri was half so bad, but now the poor lout is dead." She shifted slightly. It was difficult to find a comfortable position upon the hard, rocky ground.

"Who knows what lies Ali told her, what promises he might have made?" Elfhild mused. "Perhaps she was lonely, 'Fled. Have you considered that?"

"More likely desperate," Elffled laughed softly. "Have you noticed when they are together, she is at least three inches taller, maybe more? The man is almost a dwarf!"

Glancing over at Tove to make certain the girl was still sleeping, Elfhild choked back a giggle. "'Fled, you are outrageous! How do you even know how tall a dwarf is? We have never seen one!"

"Well, they are short; that is all I know." Elffled shrugged. "The thing is that Ali is about the most ridiculous match our aunt could ever make!" Her voice sobered. "Hild, how could she do it? How could she betray Uncle Athelwine and frolic with the enemy? He has only been dead three months!" Impatiently she pushed back her hair, which had come loose while she was lying down. "Did she not even mourn for his death? It was not as though she were forced to be Ali's mistress. It was her own choice."

"I fear for Hunig." Not wanting to dwell upon the fate of her uncle, who most likely had been yet another casualty upon the bloody Fields of Pelennor, Elfhild looked at her sister, trying to see her face through the darkness. "The man is a lecher, and I would not put it past him to do something terrible to her! I can sense that our little cousin fears him."

"Oh, Hild, I fear the same thing!" Elffled shuddered at the unspeakable thought. "Maybe our aunt will tire of this tawdry affair when she realizes what a scoundrel he is." Though she was still whispering, her voice began to grow louder with emotion. "I still cannot believe she did such a thing!"

"Shhh!" Elfhild whispered. "I can see a torch! The first watch must have just ended, and the guards are making the rounds. If we do not want to listen to their incessant carping, we must pretend to be asleep." She slid silently back on the ground and pulled the blanket over her, smiling as she heard her sister mutter a choice word in Rohirric.

***

The next morning, his head aching, his muscles stiff and complaining, Esarhaddon stirred from a disturbed slumber filled with strange dreams. Having gone to sleep in a bad mood, he had awakened to one even worse. He sat up on his couch and accepted a goblet of watered wine from a slave boy. The servant kept his eyes respectfully lowered, but Esarhaddon could sense that the boy was frightened by the bandage on his head. He took a sip of his wine and let it roll around in his mouth, hoping it would lessen the bad taste which he had suffered for almost two days. He swore he could still taste the orc's foul blood.

The slaver ordered a servant to bring him the reports about the orc insurrection. Looking down at the one written by Ubri, he thought about the day before. Though he managed to put in an appearance at the execution, Esarhaddon had not enjoyed the spectacle nearly so much as he had thought he would. Every muscle, fibre and sinew in his body had ached, and at times he was so dizzy that he thought he might lose consciousness. He had managed to endure the pain, though, with the help of the poppy draught given to him by Tushratta. He had even attended the slain girl's funeral, observing with interest the Rohirric funeral customs and comparing them with those of his own land. Completely charmed by the lovely singer, he had ordered Carnation to bring her to his tent that night for a private audience. He had planned to teach her that her talented mouth could be used for other purposes besides singing, and he had even anticipated how she would hesitate when her soft lips first kissed his mighty shaft.

Concerned that his injuries would rob him of his full potency and vigor, Esarhaddon had ordered his wine bolstered with aphrodisiacs and stimulants. Lounging on his divan, he had watched the young woman as she sang Rohirric love songs for him. Even though the girl was beautiful in appearance and submissive in temperament, Esarhaddon could not keep his thoughts away from his constant pain. The aphrodisiacs had failed, and his mighty verge was limber and unresponsive. His ardor cooled, he had decided against taking the girl to his bed. Instead, he had commanded her to continue singing.

As he lay upon his couch, watching her expressive, lovely face while she sang, he found her melodic voice soothing. Instead of stroking the fires that always simmered in his groin, her melody almost lulled him to sleep. Giving her a few baubles, he had dismissed her early and ordered Carnation to return her to the other slaves. When she had been given the inexpensive glass beads, her eyes had caught his, and there was something in them beyond mere gratitude. Perhaps she was disappointed that he had not taken her to his couch? He would have to remedy that when he felt more like himself.

"Ah, woman," he thought. "Her body is like a finely tuned musical instrument. For the one who knows how to play her vibrating chords, her song is an orgasmic masterpiece!"

Esarhaddon's thoughts were brought back to the present when one of the slave boys inquired if he wished more wine. As the servant refilled his goblet, the slave trader stared down at the burgundy contents. He was glad for a day of rest, for he needed more time to recover. The way that his leg throbbed made him wonder if it was becoming infected. His head ached, and every time he breathed deeply, his sides hurt. Damn the physician, anyway! His remedies were worthless, and his only skill was in prescribing opiates which did nothing but numb the pain!

As he mulled over his watered wine, Esarhaddon considered the things that needed his attention that morning. There was the matter of Ubri, who clearly needed to be dismissed. Realizing there was no point in postponing the inevitable, Esarhaddon planned to release him that day. The caravan needed leadership, and ever since the Morgul Vale, Ubri was no longer fit for much of anything. Ganbar would serve as a suitable replacement, and the promotions for Inbir and Khaldun would be well deserved. Esarhaddon sighed heavily as he leaned back against the cushions of his divan and felt a sharp pain in his ribs. At least his time and attention would not be monopolized by the endless details that were always involved with embarking upon another day's journey, for it was the fifth day upon the trail, the time when the caravan halted so the men and animals could rest.

Esarhaddon signaled to the servants to bring him water and towels for his morning ablutions to his gods. After washing, he felt more refreshed, and ordered the servants to dress him in fresh sirwal, yellow tunic, orange caftan, and green pantaloons. He stepped into a pair of black brocaded slippers and waited as a slave boy wound a simple unadorned white turban about his head. When the boy's thumb accidentally grazed Esarhaddon's sutured wound, the slave trader yelped in pain and ordered the boy whipped for carelessness. Limping slightly, Esarhaddon walked through the arras held open by one of the servants and entered his main chamber, where he took a seat at the low table and called for a carafe of water and a fresh glass.

As he studied Inbir's report about the orc mutiny, he thought about a suitable reward for the young man who had saved his life. He knew that Inbir wanted the slave Aeffe, but he would have to think long upon the matter before deciding. Bestowing such a valuable girl upon a lowly guard might be a beneficent gesture, but it would only lose him profit. Perhaps a sword of the finest steel would suffice...

His reading was interrupted by a servant who announced the arrival of Carnation. "My illustrious lord, Master Carnation is outside and awaits your pleasure," the servant proclaimed.

"Send him in," Esarhaddon growled menacingly.

"My lord," Carnation bowed to his knees before him and kissed the hem of his sleeve, "you look well this morning."

"That is a damn lie, Carnation, and you know it! I look the way I feel, and at this moment, I resemble something the hyenas rejected. Everything seems to hurt," Esarhaddon muttered.

"Master, it is not for an humble slave to disagree, and I beg that you would not have me slain for daring to tell the truth! My lips cannot lie! You look much better than you did last night," he replied gravely. When Esarhaddon did not reply, Carnation continued. "Would Master like some breakfast now? The cooks have made fresh flatbread, which smells delicious." The eunuch inhaled deeply, as though the fragrances were caught in his nostrils. "There is delightful soup made from fava beans, lentils, rice, and pine nuts, and seasoned with garlic and other spices. If that does not interest Master's palate, there is a flavorful porridge with dried dates and cardamom..."

"I suppose it is better than dried mare's milk and blood, but not much." Esarhaddon wrinkled his brow in a scowl, but it seemed that the stitches pulled against his skin. "I will take some soup, bread and water... a little dried fruit would be good. If I remember, the master cook's porridge left something to be desired."

"Whatever my lord desires." Carnation signed to the servants, who bowed their way out of the tent and ran to fetch the food. "According to my lord's wishes of last night, he will see several of his men this morning."

"Yes, after breakfast." Esarhaddon stopped listening and looked down at Ganbar's report. He had asked the brusque Southron to tally up all their combined losses since starting the journey. The slave trader frowned as he read the figures. Over the course of the journey up to that date, the numbers of caravan guards - both man and uruk - had dwindled because of deaths or desertions, and there was still over a month to go before they reached Turkûrzgoi. If the caravan should be attacked by bandits...

When he read Ganbar's account of slave injuries, Esarhaddon's fist clenched around his glass. Women trampled, raped, and mutilated! The slaver shook his head. At least only one girl had died. This trip had promised to bring him great wealth, but now he was seriously concerned that he might not even break even.

Esarhaddon rested his chin on his hand and stared at the reports, blinking as his vision blurred. His head was still throbbing unmercifully, and the foul taste in his mouth seemed to be worse. As he closed his eyes, scenes from his dream began to surface in his consciousness. He remembered that in the night vision, he was back in his own land of Harad, and he had been summoned to the Great Hall of the Diwan, the Sultan's Court, where he was to be honored. As he was led down a long corridor of the Sultan's magnificent marble palace, servants bowed and nobles saluted. The corridor opened to a great courtyard, where he saw a huge raised dais on the far side of the court. There the Sultan sat enthroned upon an opulently cushioned divan crafted of solid gold embellished with diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, pearls, and other precious stones. Esarhaddon fell to his knees and touched his forehead upon the carpet.

"Rise and take your reward," he heard a sonorous voice boom out. As he stood up, Esarhaddon saw a magnificent sight. Hitched by two ropes on either side of his halter, a great black stallion bucked and reared as he was led into the courtyard. Though humbled by such an expensive gift, Esarhaddon was not quite humbled enough, only wishing that he had such power and riches at his disposal.

"May the steed carry you wherever your journeys take you." The Sultan smiled graciously. "But there is more. A man of your stature must be garbed appropriately." As the grooms led away the mount, other servants appeared with a silken robe of honor. Made of damasked cloth-of-gold, the rich robe was embroidered with silver thread and diamonds at the neck, sleeves and hem. Clothing him in the sumptuous caftan, the servants stepped away. A gift fit for a prince! Esarhaddon could scarcely believe his good fortune to receive such opulent presents.

"No man is complete without a sword to defend himself against his enemies," the Ruler announced, and as soon as the words were out of his mouth, two servants appeared out of the shadows at the side of the courtyard. His heart pounding, Esarhaddon managed to hide his gold lust under a smile of feigned humility. As the servants girded him with a richly tooled belt and sheath containing a magnificent scimitar with a jeweled hilt, he heard the crowd murmur their approval.

The Sultan beamed magnanimously at the slave trader. "Enjoy your rewards." With that pronouncement, the throng applauded and cheered, chanting the names of the Sultan and Esarhaddon.

Never before in all his life had such honors been bestowed upon Esarhaddon. His heart filled with gratitude, he looked up at the great dais and was inspired to pledge his undying fealty to the Sultan. Words of gratitude were forming on his lips when he noticed that the neck on the robe was uncomfortably tight. It was only his imagination, of course, a notion brought on by his heightened sense of exuberance, but when he attempted to loosen the collar, the material only tightened. As he looked up at the smiling Sultan, Esarhaddon's throat constricted. He had the urge to cough, but only a dry, hacking wheeze came out. Darkness washed over his eyes like a great wave, and he staggered. He tried to tear the robe from his body, but the garment was steadily shrinking. Frantically, he unsheathed the great sword and slashed at the hem, but the cloth repelled the blade like mail, and the scimitar clattered to the floor with a hollow, metallic clink.

The robe grew so tight that it began to compress his skin, as though it were a giant hand wrapping around his body. It had become difficult to breathe as the material squeezed his rib cage. He could feel several places on his body where the blood was starting to flow, and he looked down in horror at the dark spots where the blood soaked through the golden caftan. The crowd had begun to laugh at him, jeering and pelting him with rotten fruit.

Esarhaddon looked around for ways to escape, but every door in the courtyard was blocked by a pair of grim-faced guards with lethal spears in their hands. A singing heat spread over his body, and he could feel the accursed robe gouging into his skin and plowing up great troughs of flesh. He looked down at the floor and saw a pool of blood beneath his feet, rapidly spreading across the whole courtyard of the Diwan. He fell to his knees in the blood, screaming and crying for mercy, but the Sultan only laughed. As Esarhaddon's vision dimmed, his life fading from his tortured body, the last sight he saw was of the Sultan's eyes gleaming as two fires forged in the pits of hell, dreadful and terrible to behold.


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