"Ah, there you are," Corporal Bekir greeted the twins when they returned to his audience chamber. Sinking gracefully to their knees, they bowed their foreheads to the floor. "Did I not tell you before that it is unnecessary to do that?" Bekir frowned, his dark brows lowering over his eyes. "I want you to feel comfortable while you are here, so confine your obeisance to a simple bow, and do not crawl upon the floor like dogs. Now rise to your feet!"
The girls stammered out their thanks, surprised at such leniency after they had been taught to grovel before their superiors. Elffled wanted to think that Bekir's leniency was an apology of sorts for the rough treatment which they had received in the dungeon, but her intuition warned her not to trust this man. Elfhild was equally as suspicious, but she vowed not to let the men know of her doubts. Who knew what these officers might be planning?
Summoning up her courage, Elfhild decided to see how far she could press this new tolerance. "Master, please forgive a lowly slave for inquiring, but what do you want with us?" She raised her gaze to his chest.
Bekir looked at Elfhild in surprise. "Why must you be so alarmed? I assure you that our intents are honorable. We want nothing from you, save for a bit of your time. My little flower, I know you are frightened," he told her as he took her hand in his and pulled her down beside him on the couch. "There is nothing to fear. You certainly will not be hurt." Still holding her wrist, he began to massage her palm with his thumb.
Flinching instinctively at his touch, Elfhild forced herself to sit still. Why was this man being so kind to them? It was some trick, some ploy to lure them into a false sense of security. After all, this was the same man who had ordered that every member of Esarhaddon's party be stripped, searched, and imprisoned in the dungeon. She believed nothing the Corporal said; everything was a lie meant to confuse and disorient Elffled and her. From beneath lowered eyelashes, Elfhild cast a glance to her sister, silently willing her twin not to trust this sham of good will.
"You must believe his words, little houri, for he speaks the truth," Khosrow spoke up. Turning the stem of his wine goblet between his fingers, the older man plopped a dried date in his mouth and contentedly chewed. "You are to relax and make yourself comfortable here. You will find that we are not quite the monsters that you have been led to believe. We can be quite accommodating under the right circumstances." His heated gaze shifted to Elffled. "Here, sit by me, houri in the green tunic." He patted the cushions. "I would wager in the course of the next few hours or so, we will come to know each other quite well."
Gulping hard, Elffled sat down beside the Easterling. When he shifted his weight and pressed his thigh against hers, she trembled and suppressed a whimper of fear. Were these horrible men going to rape her and her sister and then murder them both when they were finished?
"Yes," Bekir agreed as he accepted a goblet of wine from a passing slave boy. "Before the night is over, we are going to be very good friends." Behrang and Pirooz chuckled conspiratorially and nodded their heads in agreement.
Elfhild cleared her throat loudly, not liking at all the suggestive tone this miserable conversation had taken. "Masters, please pardon this humble slave, but she is very worried about her Lord Esarhaddon and his men. What is to become of them?"
"A regrettable affair." Bekir's solemn brown eyes were filled with sympathy. "All would have been well if the Shakh had only cooperated, but no; he refused to explain the discrepancies in his papers. Even at that point, there was still hope for the situation... up until the time when his second-in-command went berserk and decided to take affairs into his own hands." His grip on Elfhild's wrist grew tighter. "What could I do? All those who challenge the authority of Mordor are considered criminals and are put under arrest." Bekir shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of helplessness. "Even now at this moment, the Commandant is debating the punishment which will be inflicted upon the Shakh and his men. It does not bode well for them." He shook his head sadly, and then his expression became more hopeful. "However, you might be able to help your master..." The officer brought her hand to his full, sensual lips and lightly brushed a kiss over her fingers.
"How?" Elfhild demanded sharply, her body stiffening.
"Why," Bekir smiled broadly, "by answering a few simple questions. If you are able to provide us with the information which we need, the Shakh's penalty could very well be lessened. You could even be responsible for saving his life." His intense brown eyes bored into Elfhild's. Though she feared him, she could not help noticing that the man was attractive, save for his eyes, which were cold and cruel.
She weighed his words a moment, struggling to divine his true intent. "Well," she spoke hesitantly, "I suppose we can answer your questions, though we are but unlearned peasants and know little of our master's business." Though she did not know much about Esarhaddon uHuzziya or how he ran his slave trading establishment, she surely did not wish to say anything which would betray him to these men, for she sensed that they were even more despicable than he was.
"We will do anything to help Lord Esarhaddon!" Elffled suddenly blurted out, causing Khosrow to peer at her sternly. Elfhild glanced at her sister, surprised at the vehemence of emotion.
"It is quite apparent that you both think a great deal of your master, little flowers of the North," Corporal Bekir chuckled indulgently. "That quality is a commendable trait in slaves." The other men murmured their agreement. "You two will be given the opportunity to help your master, but it will require your total cooperation. Are you willing to give it?" He looked at each girl, his eyes soft pools of gentleness, his voice sensuously persuasive.
"Oh, Master, we will do anything!" Elffled wailed. She had heard enough, and if she heard more, her mind would surely explode. Bargain for the life of her master? Esarhaddon might be petty and callous, but at times he could be gentle, not like these horrible fiends! Besides, if Esarhaddon were to die, she and her sister might become the slaves of Corporal Bekir or one of his cronies, and she knew how cruelly these men treated poor Awarthannen. Dropping to the carpet and crawling to Bekir's feet, she flung her arms around his ankles and buried her face against his boots.
"We will help you," Elfhild replied calmly, somewhat disgusted at her sister's fawning display. She wondered how much of the scene had been sincere, and how much had been engineered purely for dramatic effect. "What do you want us to do?"
"We want nothing more than the answers to a few questions," Bekir told them. "Now rise, Elffled." He patted her head as though she were a pet. "You are to stay here with Khosrow and Behrang." He gestured to the two men. "Then after you have had something to eat and drink, you will tell these two gentlemen what they want to know."
"Thank you, Master," Elffled replied diffidently, bending down to kiss his sleeve. "Anything," her tortured mind told her, "anything to keep us out of the dungeon! I do not know if I can bear another moment in that nightmarish cell!"
After giving Elffled an indulgent smile, Corporal Bekir stood up, a signal to the other men to rise to their feet. "Khosrow and Behrang, I know the girl will be in good hands with you." He nodded to them. "Now if you will excuse us, Pirooz and I will question the other beauty in my bedchamber."
When he caught the look of pure terror in Elfhild's eyes, Bekir smiled at her and helped her to her feet. "Do not fret, my dear. Unfortunately, an officer of my rank is allowed only a limited number of rooms, and I have decided to talk to you in the most commodious of them. I surely do not want to question you in the cell. It is a rather depressing place at times, is it not?" He slipped his arm under her elbow and led her towards his bedroom.
"Yes, Master," Elfhild replied distractedly, turning her head to look at her sister. The other girl had gone pale, her large eyes filled with dread. As Bekir opened the ornate door and ushered her into the room, Elfhild caught a last glance of her sister. She felt a mixture of rage and dread when Khosrow clasped Elffled's shoulder and pushed her down on the couch. Then Pirooz, his eyes glittering like a ferret's, followed them into the room, pulling the door softly shut behind him.
Directing Elfhild to sit on the cushions by the low table, Corporal Bekir sat down cross-legged beside her. Pirooz took a place across the table from them. Soon servants brought in trays of sweetmeats, fruits, and goblets of wine and set them upon the table.
"Excellent wine, is it not, Pirooz?" Bekir asked as a servant placed a red jeweled goblet before him.
"Superb, Corporal," Pirooz replied as he sipped from a goblet embellished with green stones. He reached for a little cake and savored the taste of pistachios and sesame seeds.
"This looks particularly tasty, Elfhild." Bekir gestured towards a plate of small round golden-colored cookies. "And those over there are truly masterpieces of the culinary arts. You will find them delicious!" He pointed towards a tray of honey-drenched pastries made from layers of paper-thin dough. "Here, why do you not try some of everything?" He smiled as he began filling her plate with pastries.
Elfhild eyed the food suspiciously. "It is drugged, is it not, Master?" she asked softly, her eyes never leaving the table.
Bekir's eyebrow shot up in surprise. "Why would you ask that?"
"Because it always is," she replied quietly. "My master drugs me every night, so I am accustomed to it." Shrugging, she reached forward and picked up one of the golden cookies, savoring its unfamiliar sweet, tart taste and the crunchy slivers of pale colored nuts. Perhaps this would be her last meal. She might as well enjoy it, toasting Death and surrendering to her fate with a full stomach.
"Why does he find it necessary to drug you every night?" The Corporal raised an eyebrow. "If the only way the notable Shakh can get a woman in his bed is to render her insensible, he must be an incredibly poor lover!"
"It is because he thinks I will try to escape." Elfhild's voice was as cold as ice.
"Would you?" Bekir probed, his cold dark eyes viewing her skeptically.
"Where would I go, Master? It is a long way back to the Mark. I tried to escape with my sister, but naught save tragedy came of the attempt. I suppose you could say we have learned."
"But you have not completely accepted your servitude, for you are most outspoken for a slave." He stroked his beard, his eyes never leaving hers. "Aye, your wine is drugged, but 'tis a harmless one which will not do you any great hurt. Although it is a comparatively new elixir, we here at Cirith Ungol are very pleased with it." The results had been quite satisfactory, he mused to himself. Only a few dozen had died during the initial testing, and here of late the only adverse reaction was irreversible madness in a few of the cases.
Peering over the rim of her goblet, Elfhild's eyes blazed like blue fires as she boldly stared the Corporal in the face. "Why have you given me such a potion, Master?" She tipped her head back, defiantly tossing down a swallow of wine. "Is my sister to be drugged as well?"
"You ask far too many questions for a slave." His eyes flashed a warning. "Still, I will answer your question." He paused. "Aye, your sister has been administered the same potion as you have. The drug's only purpose is to help you remember certain details... nudge your mind when you forget." When he saw the look of doubt on her face, he grasped her forearm, his fingers tightening painfully on her flesh. "You are not having second thoughts about our little bargain, are you, girl?"
"Of course not, Master... but, please, you are hurting me." Elfhild searched his eyes. Help her remember? But she did not know anything important enough that anyone would go to such trouble to discover!
With a cold smile, Bekir released her arm. "Just so we understand each other."
"You are too kind, Master," she told him sweetly as she drank again from her goblet. The flavor was far too honeyed, but she attributed that to an attempt to mask the taste of the potion. She did not let that fact bother her, though, for it had been hours since she had been given anything to eat or drink, and she was thirsty and famished. Never had she seen such delicacies as those upon her captors' table. There was a sliced loaf, dense and somewhat crumbly in texture, which tasted of nuts and honey. One variety of cookies was studded with strange looking green nuggets, which she guessed were some variety of nuts. The layered pastries were crunchy and delicious, although incredibly sticky. She washed down each bite with the drugged wine. "So like the corporal," she mused bitterly. "He may seem sweet, but in truth his heart is filled with poison."
"These are excellent confections, sir. They taste much like those I remember in Khand." Pirooz plopped another one of the golden cookies in his mouth and chewed slowly, savoring the rich taste of almonds, lemon and orange. As he ate, his eyes never left Elfhild's face. "The girl really is quite pretty," he mused. "What a pity she must be wasted in such a way!"
"Your memory has not failed you, Pirooz." Bekir smiled as he sipped from his goblet of wine. "The head cook of the fortress kitchen owed me a few favors, and I decided that this was a good time to collect them by having him make these delicious morsels."
As Elfhild wiped her mouth with a napkin, she noticed that Bekir and Pirooz were watching her intently as they talked. "Probably studying me to see if I turn into something grotesque," she thought resentfully. "Perhaps they are sorcerers, and Elffled and I are part of some obscene experiment of theirs!"
Soon the drugged wine began to have an effect. Having difficulty concentrating on the men's conversation, she began to feel lethargic and somewhat drowsy. The heady wine had made her feel hot; her face was burning from the heat. Her heart was pounding, and her vision began to blur. Her throat felt scratchy and dry, and she was so very thirsty… She took another sip from her goblet - perhaps a little too quickly - and it only made her feel worse.
"How do you feel, my lily of the North?" Corporal Bekir's voice cut into her thoughts.
"As someone who had just been drugged with some strange potion might feel, Master," she replied tartly, irked by his idiotic question. She noticed that Pirooz had procured a reed pen, paper, and a brass inkwell from the desk and was listening intently, probably noting down everything she said.
"There is nothing to cause you to be afraid, my little confection, but I can see that you are. You are almost shaking." Bekir shot a glance to Pirooz and was pleased when he saw that the secretary was scribbling frantically. "These sensations are completely to be expected. Try to calm yourself. Everything is going precisely according to plan."
"What are you writing about me?" Elfhild demanded suspiciously.
"My secretary Pirooz is merely noting a few pertinent facts about our little experiment," he replied, running his eyes over what Pirooz had written. "What a pity you cannot read the elegant language of Mordor." He sighed heavily, making Elfhild feel like a country bumpkin. "Of course, once we have finished here, Pirooz will copy the notes in two forms - the language of Mordor and Westron. Pirooz is quite an accomplished scribe, having first studied in Khand. When he had completed his studies there, he went on to take advanced courses in the academy at Lugbûrz. I understand he is even compiling a history of the academy... in his off-duty hours, of course. Is that not true, Pirooz?" Bekir looked to his secretary.
Pirooz beamed proudly. "Yes, sir, indeed I am... I am giving it my best anyway," he replied in an humble tone.
Elfhild was feeling completely lost by the men's conversation, both because of the stupefying effects of the potion and the unfamiliar words which peppered their speech. "Forgive my ignorance, Masters, but what is an ah-cad-eh-me?"
Bekir looked at her thoughtfully, a mildly amused smile on his lips. "You mean you do not know, my dear?" He gazed into her eyes, which he discovered to his satisfaction had become so dilated that her irises were but pale blue rings. "No, I suppose you really do not, do you?" Picking up her wrist, he felt for her pulse and found it was beating rapidly. She was reacting much like the others had done. "Soon now," he thought. Estimating the time, he looked at the hourglass on his desk. "About half an hour has passed," he told Pirooz in a Khandian dialect. The secretary nodded, reed pen moving rapidly across the paper.
"No, I - I am afraid I do not know what an academy is," Elfhild stammered nervously, feeling very self-conscious of her ignorance.
"An academy, my dear," Bekir picked up his wine goblet and looked into its ruby red contents, "is a school of higher learning where young scholars from Nurn and the allied countries of Mordor pursue advanced studies. There are several universities in Nurn, but of course, the greatest one is in Lugbûrz. Besides a school for scribes, Lugbûrz boasts one for strategy and tactics, others for military arts, engineers, quartermasters, physicians, and all the many skills and professions needed in Mordor's great and glorious army. Did that answer your question?"
"Y-yes... yes, it does." It was becoming increasingly difficult for Elfhild to keep anything in focus. Her clothes seemed to have become too tight for her, and she tried to loosen the collar of her tunic. She was aware that she was slurring her words, but her tongue was unresponsive unless she controlled it with a conscious will. One hand clutching her forehead, which felt feverish, she reached out for her goblet, but strangely the vessel was not where she thought it would be. Everything was twisted and tilted, like the vision of a drunkard. She winced when she heard the sound of the goblet clattering against the table. "F-forgive me, Masters!" she exclaimed miserably, twisting away from the table. When she tried to bow her forehead to the floor, she fell over sideways onto the cushions. A little giggle escaped her throat at the absurdity of it all.
"You are clumsy today, my Northern flower, but think nothing of it." Bekir nodded to two slaves, signing for one to clean off the table and the other to bring Elfhild a glass of water. When the slave boys had finished, Bekir dismissed them, admonishing them to remain on call should the officers have need of them. He turned back to Elfhild. "Now sit back on the cushions and have a drink. I know you are thirsty." He held the glass to her parched lips.
"Yes, Master," she mumbled as she accepted the proffered drink. The room revolved around her faster and faster, and Elfhild felt herself spinning in the center of the vortex, her mind and body separating into fragments. What had the Corporal given her? Esarhaddon's sleeping potion had never affected her this way. The light which spilled from the amber glass in the brass lamp that hung from the ceiling seemed yellow and blinding. Elfhild closed her eyes against the light, which was exploding in her vision. Her attention wavered as she attempted to listen to what the men were saying, and what she did hear seemed jumbled. Perhaps if she sat quietly for a while, her perceptions would return to normal.
That was not to be, however. Rolling to his knees, Bekir bent down and picked her up as he rose to his feet. The sudden movement made her dizziness worse, and a million brightly colored spots danced in front of her eyes.
"Where are you taking me?" she gasped as he walked across the room. Did he plan to throw her back in the dungeon? When he smiled condescendingly down at her, she wanted to hit him, smashing his face and destroying that patronizing leer. Yet when she tried to lift her hand, it fluttered as weakly as the broken wing of a bird.
"To the divan... where you can rest more easily," the Corporal told her as he lay her down on the cushions and called for Pirooz.