The caravan camped for the evening in a wide, sandy stretch beneath the towering ridge. Though the golden sands reflected the Sun's rays, the summits above them seemed to absorb the light and turn it sullen. Subjected to the scouring winds for untold eons, the softer rock below had eroded long before, leaving the jagged towers and spires above blasted and pitted like the decayed stumps of giants' teeth. The temperature this time of year was almost unbearable, leaving those people who dared enter the desert wrung out like dishrags and drained of energy. Beneath the cloudy skies, the air barely stirred, and the heat beat down with savage intensity. As far as the eye could see in any direction, there was only the barren landscape, its harsh outlines unrelieved by any vegetation except a few gray-green patches of desert grass.
Under the protective canopy of the black goat hair kitchen tent, Elfhild and Elffled had finally finished the burdensome evening tasks of cleaning the many cooking utensils. They worked in virtual silence, isolated from the chatter and joking of the Haradric slaves. Occasionally, they felt eyes turned in their direction, but when they looked up, they saw only mockery and scorn on the faces of the other slaves. When at last Akil came to take them back to their troop, they felt a sense of relief.
"Little mistresses," he bowed, "why such long faces?"
"I suppose, if you want the honest truth," Elfhild frowned as she wiped the sweat off her forehead with the back of her arm, "it is because no one likes us."
"Why do you say that?" Akil asked, his dark face wrinkling in concern.
"Oh, my back!" Elffled moaned, straightening her spine after she had finished wiping an earthenware platter and setting it atop a stack of plates. Clasping her lower back, she stretched out her stiff and aching muscles. "Dear sister, you exaggerate. Not everyone dislikes us." She giggled, thinking of some of the young men who were bold with their admiring glances in her direction. "Perhaps most, but not all." She smiled coquettishly at Akil, who colored a little but returned her smile.
"Perhaps it is because they see us as the enemy, or maybe it is because we were once free and they never were, or maybe it is because of the color of our skin and hair." Elfhild barely paid any attention to what her sister had said, instead launching into a speech of woe. She felt thoroughly miserable. She had not had a bath in days; her body reeked of sweat and grime; her tunic and pantaloons were soaked from the water which she had spilt on them; and the pesky fly on her ankle kept returning for more blood. She was tired of hostile glances, taunting laughter, and scornful words which she could not understand but knew were meant to hurt her. "Perhaps there are other reasons, but all I really know is that some almost hate us." On the verge of tears, she stared down at her feet.
"Little mistress," Akil's voice was mildly admonishing, "I think perhaps your sister must be correct in saying that you exaggerate." He folded his arms across his chest and looked at both of them. "No one hates you. While some of the others may well disapprove of you, it is for different reasons than the ones you gave. You will find that many of the other slaves have been long in the service of Shakh Esarhaddon, and they have a certain loyalty to him. The reason you are being ostracized is because they all know that you are ungrateful slaves who tried to run away." He exhaled, sighing. "Worst of all, they believe that you think that you are better than any of us."
"But--" Elfhild began to protest.
Akil cut her short. "Do not always be so quick to argue, little mistress. Think upon what I have said." He looked at her gravely.
"Perhaps you are right, Akil," Elffled told him, thoughtfully considering his words.
"Now, little mistresses, I have happy news for you which I am sure will make both of you feel better." The boy smiled at that point, revealing a set of perfectly spaced white teeth.
"What is it?" Elfhild asked, crestfallen at the eunuch's mild reproof.
"Follow me, little mistresses." He gestured to them. "You must not know yet, for it is a surprise. I tell you only that the most illustrious Rose Petal was called to the Master's tent this evening... where he spent a long time in conversation." The boy grinned, his eyes flashing in good humor.
"What does this have to do with us?" Elfhild asked, confused.
"Has he finally decided that we no longer have to wash innumerable pots and pans?" There was hope in Elffled's voice. She was accustomed to doing kitchen chores, but not for a horde of people. "Will you just look at my hands!" She held her raw, chafed hands out for Akil to see.
"I can speak nothing of it, so there is no use in asking me any more questions." Akil gave them an enigmatic smile before turning on his heel and leading the way past the cooking tents and into the desert. The Sun had sunk low into the western horizon, painting the grayish blue sky with streaks of yellow and orange and tinting the ashen clouds purple and pink. In the shade of the towering rocky prominence to the west, the air was a little cooler.
As they walked through a stretch of ground covered with mixed stone and sand, Elfhild stumbled over a rock and almost fell. "Do not be so clumsy!" Akil scolded. "If either of you take a tumble and spoil that pretty white skin, Master will beat me, not you, so watch where you step!"
"I am not clumsy!" Elfhild exclaimed defensively, her voice rising in irritation. "You make me sound like a cow!" She heard her sister giggling and turned to stare balefully at her. "This ground is so rocky that there is scarcely a place to step without tripping over one of the stones! Could you not have found a better path? We are not goats, you know!" Grumbling, she carefully made her way across the rough and tumbled ground.
"Be quiet!" Akil growled. "All your noise is making my ears hurt!" The boy had hardly walked more than a few paces when he halted abruptly and raised a hand. "Do not move," he whispered, gesturing with his head to a spot in the sand. Slightly above the surface of the ground there appeared to be a small nondescript rock, gray and brown in color, but as the twins peered closely, they could see a pattern standing out in slight contrast to the surrounding rock and stone. Staring in their direction was a pair of slitted reptilian eyes, a faint stripe angling towards the blunt jaw.
"What is it?" Elfhild whispered, afraid to raise her voice.
"Is it dead?" Elffled asked tremulously.
"Shhh! Do not disturb the dealer of death!" Akil warned them as he stared, his round eyes nearly hypnotized with fear, into the unblinking eyes of the serpent. Suppressing screams, both girls shrank back in terror. "Look closely and you will see that the ground has been disturbed where the creature buried itself beneath the sand, leaving only its head exposed." The young eunuch knew that his voice was trembling, and he struggled to force himself to remain calm. Scarcely breathing, the girls did not dare to move as they saw the faint outline of the small reptile under the sand. "This is a carpet viper, or sand viper as some call it, and its poison is deadly! Just quietly walk backwards and do nothing to alarm it. Perhaps it will leave us alone."
Afraid even to blink, the three slowly backed away from the snake's hiding place until Akil halted them. "We are safe now," he sighed deeply, raising his hand to wipe the moisture from his sweating forehead. Exhaling with relief, Elfhild found that her legs were shaky, her knees buckling under her. Simultaneously Akil and Elffled reached out an arm to steady her, and as they looked into each other's eyes, they shared a feeling that went beyond words. They had come close to death but had escaped it. The three stayed there for a while, recovering from the encounter with the deadly serpent. Then the eunuch looked away and motioned for them to follow. Backtracking towards the cooking tents, they cut a wide berth around the serpent's lair.
"That is a formidable reptile, very vicious and aggressive." Akil pressed a hand over his temple. "The serpent's habit of hiding beneath sand makes it even more dangerous. Often when the snake feels threatened, it will become agitated and leap from the sand, sinking its fangs into the unwary. By day it stays hidden in the sand or in the burrow of some animal, but whenever it spies its prey, it becomes aroused and will fairly fly into the air like a dragon! We are fortunate, most fortunate!"
Their faces ashen, their limbs still trembling, the twins imagined they could see the outlines of snakes under the sand, behind every rock and bush, waiting to spring into the air and clamp their venomous fangs into their throats.
"Thank you, Akil," Elfhild told him softly when she had regained her voice.
"You saved our lives," Elffled exclaimed with gratitude. "We are forever indebted to you!"
The eunuch halted and turned back, a wry smile upon his face. "It was my own fault that we encountered the creature. We never would have met it had I stayed on the main path and not led you through those rocks." Embarrassed, he looked down at the ground. "But I was in haste to get you back so that you could learn the secret."
"You are forgiven, Akil." Elfhild smiled and touched the boy's forearm. "We are very grateful to you." When his luminous brown eyes looked into hers, she saw that he was beaming.
"We must go, little mistresses," he murmured, forcing himself to look away from those fascinating blue eyes. As Esarhaddon's expansive pavilion came into view, Akil stopped and turned to the twins. "By now you have guessed the happy news." Though his smile was warm, he could not hide the wistfulness in his voice. "The Master has demanded your presence in his tent tonight."
"Oh," Elfhild replied, startled at the information. "Why does he want us?" It had been over a week since she had spoken with Esarhaddon, and she thought that perhaps she had seen the last of the man, except from afar. He had no real reason to interact with her now that she and her sister had been returned to the slave caravan.
"Does this mean we no longer have to work in the kitchen?" Elffled piped up cheerfully.
"Little mistresses, I am only a lowly slave, and the Master does not confide in one such as I," Akil replied, his face changing into a dispassionate mask. He had a very good idea why the Master wanted these girls. Why would a man such as Esarhaddon want them for anything other than his pleasure? Poor silly things, they were so innocent and naive. He could say nothing, though, disguising any feelings he might have under a veneer of formality. A eunuch must never become too close to his charges, or he would only be opening himself up to pain.
When they had reached the chief slaver's tent, Akil bowed, touching his hand to his heart. "Here is where I leave you, little mistresses. Peace be upon you." After doing his obeisance to Carnation and the other eunuch guard, he hurried away. The twins felt their hearts racing as they were ushered into the inner chamber of the pavilion. There before them, already filled and waiting, was a small oaken tub lined with canvas. Along one of the low tables to the side were various toiletries, oils, bath soap, perfumes, towels, cloths, and pails of water. Two slave girls were sitting on stools near the tub, their chests bare, their loins covered by long white towels.
"Little mistresses, these two slaves are Nissa and Me'am." Carnation nodded to the two olive-skinned girls, who rose to their feet and bowed. "They will be assisting you in your bath, and when you are finished, you will be served some light refreshments." The tall, handsome eunuch looked down at them and smiled. "The illustrious Shakh Esarhaddon is dining with his physician and is not expected back for some time. If you should want anything not provided, send one of the girls for me. Now if you will excuse me, I will be about my tasks," he told them as he left.
Blushing as they bowed to the eunuch, the twins could only stammer out a few words of gratitude. Feeling suddenly ill at ease, Elfhild walked over to the tub and stuck in a finger. "Oh, nice and warm!" she exclaimed. The two young girls giggled and then shyly smiled at them.
"Let us help the mistresses take off their clothing," Nissa offered as she walked over to Elfhild. "Put the soiled clothing in Me'am's basket so they can be laundered." Me'am waited with an empty reed basket, but since she was the more shy of the two, she only smiled, her light honey brown eyes downcast.
"Thank you, but I do not need any help," Elfhild told the girls kindly as she took off the scarf wrapped around her head and then untied her sash. She pulled her tunic and undertunic over her head and dropped them into the basket.
"No, we will be fine." Elffled smiled as she sat on one of the low stools and tugged off her boots. She tore the stained and tattered scarf from her head, and as her nose wrinkled with disgust, she dropped it into the basket. "Here is this hateful thing! I hope I never have to see it again!"
"What lovely hair Mistress has!" Nissa smiled as she hesitantly touched a long blonde tendril. "How I wish mine were like that, but it is as dark as a raven's wing!"
"Oh, I think your hair is beautiful," Elfhild exclaimed as she looked admiringly at the girl's unbound hair, which was long and straight, its texture like threads of silk. She was also impressed by the girl's striking green eyes, which were quite large and luminous, fringed with long, thick lashes. It was somewhat surprising to see a girl of the Haradrim with such light eyes; perhaps one of her ancestors came from the North? Little did Elfhild know that green and blue eyes were not all that uncommon in the South and East, especially among those hailing from Khand.
"Mistress is most kind," Nissa replied softly as she gathered the twins' dirty clothing and placed it in the basket. The other girl busied herself with adding some flower-scented oil to the water. When the twins had finished disrobing, they walked to the tub and waited while Me'am pinned up their hair. Soon Elfhild and Elffled sat across from each other, dreamy expressions on their faces as they luxuriated in the tub, feeling the warmth soothe away the aches and stiffness in their muscles. The steamy water was so comforting that they could forget for a while their tedious chores in the cooking tents, the terrifying encounter with the snake, and their apprehension at the coming meeting with the slaver. The two servants gently washed over their bodies with soft cloths drenched in a fragrant soap that smelled divine, and the girls sighed in pleasure at the warmth and perfume all around them.
"Mistresses, please stand up now so we can wash the rest of you," Nissa told the twins after their bodies had been covered with lather. "You were very dirty," she giggled as she washed Elffled's back. Elfhild smiled as she looked over to her sister, who was enjoying having a week's worth of grime scrubbed off her back by Nissa. After the girls had rinsed them off with urns of water, the twins were feeling very relaxed and refreshed. "Your lovely hair next, mistresses." Soon the twins' long tresses had been shampooed and then rinsed, and though their hair was soaked, it felt much lighter now that all the dirt had been washed away. When Nissa and Me'am had finished with the twins' hair, they wound towels about their damp locks. Dripping wet, the twins stepped out of the tub and into the waiting bath sheets that the two girls held for them.
"Mistresses, please sit down on the stools over there," Nissa pointed with her hand, "while we fetch your clothing."
The two girls returned with a stack of colorful, exotic garments. As the twins sorted through the clothing, deciding who would wear what, they breathed in the spicy, smoky fragrance which heavily scented the garments. The servant girls explained that it was the custom in the South to fumigate garments with incense. After donning crisp white sirwals and pantaloons of bright red and green, the twins were dressed in diaphanous chemises of fine silk. "Oh, how pretty!" Elfhild gasped, twirling around in the loose gown.
"And so soft," Elffled murmured, running her hands over the material.
"The material is made of silk and comes from the East," Nissa told them. "But there is more, mistresses."
The slave girls dressed them in silken caftans with tight bodices and swirling skirts. Elfhild had picked out a yellow gown decorated with red roses and green trim, and Elffled had chosen a blue caftan patterned with yellow starbursts and adorned with orange trim around the neckline and long sleeves. About their waists were tied sashes, a purple one for Elfhild, and a green one for Elffled. The servants gave them soft, backless slippers, which were a delight to wear.
"Oh," Elfhild exclaimed in dismay, "I fear this dress is too small for me!" She looked down at her breasts, which were almost bursting out of the wide, plunging neckline. Though the chemise which she wore under her gown covered her chest, the diaphanous fabric left little to the imagination. Beside her, her sister fumbled with the material of her own caftan, frowning when she could not adequately cover herself.
"Oh, no," Nissa laughed, "that is the way they are often worn in the South." She did not tell the twins that these dresses were on loan from the camp courtesans, for she felt that knowledge would be too offensive for the Northern girls' tender sensitivities.
"No one but the Master will see anyway." Me'am covered her mouth to hide her giggles.
"And the eunuchs," Nissa added with a knowing air, "but they do not matter anyway. They are not really men, you know."
"That is not what some say," Me'am's voice dropped as she looked furtively about the tent. Nissa shot her a warning glance, and the girl flushed in embarrassment. "Oh, I am sorry, mistresses!" she mumbled, clamping her hand over her mouth.
"Oh, you could not say much that would bother us," Elffled laughed. "My sister and I have seen gelded horses and cattle. I would imagine it would not be much different with men."
Arching an eyebrow, Elfhild scowled at her sister. Why did Elffled always have to border between silence and outspokenness? What a pity that she did not have sense enough to know when to speak and when to remain quiet. Trying to change the subject, Elfhild asked, "Do you know when the food will be arriving? I did not eat much at supper." Of course, that was a lie, but she did not want to talk about the mangled privates of the eunuchs.
"Not long, Mistress," Nissa assured her. "Probably by the time we finish with you two, the food will be here."
As the servant girls combed the twins' hair with wide toothed combs, they rubbed scented oil into their damp tresses so the strands would lie smoothly and be free of tangles. Me'am fetched an ornately decorated box, which the twins discovered contained jars, pots and bottles of various cosmetics, lotions and unguents.
"Oh, what is this?" Elfhild inquired, holding up a jar containing a powdery cream which was a deep green color.
"That is eyeshadow," Me'am explained. "You put it on your eyelids, like this." She closed one eye and pointed to the lid with her finger. "It makes your eyes pretty."
"There are many colors," Nissa added. "Green... blue... purple... brown... pink... Almost a rainbow!"
"What is in that jar?" Elffled pointed to a small pot containing a mysterious black substance.
"Kohl," Nissa told her matter-of-factly. "You use it to line your eyes." She pointed to her large green eyes, which were lined in a thin ribbon of black. "Perhaps you have seen others wearing it?" The twins nodded, and the girl went on with her explanation. "Kohl keeps the sun from stinging your eyes, and protects you from evil spirits. Oh," she added, giggling, "it looks beautiful, too!"
"So that is what the men wear around their eyes," Elfhild exclaimed with sudden realization.
"Can you teach us how to put it on?" Elffled asked.
The two slave girls looked at each other hesitantly. "Mistress, we are not skilled enough in the method," Nissa confessed. "Kohl is applied next to the eye with a rounded stick... I am afraid I might seriously hurt you!"
Daughters of prostitutes, the two serving girls had been learning the art of applying makeup when they had been taken from the brothel where they had been born and sold on the slave market. Realizing that the two girls showed skill, an agent of the House of Huzziya had purchased them before the journey west commenced. The chief slaver had turned them over to one of the camp courtesans for training. Still not confident of their abilities since they were still learning, Nissa and Me'am were reluctant to work so closely to the eyes of girls who were new to cosmetics. The twins could become frightened of the kohl stick and risk injuring an eye. Me'am slanted a glance at Nissa. Both girls could remember the day when one of the courtesans had beaten Me'am with the sole of her shoe when she had gotten eyeshadow in her eye.
"We could teach you how to apply it," Me'am suggested, "but the servants will arrive at any moment with the refreshments." She hoped that they would soon be there, for she feared another mistake would earn her a beating even more harsh than that one.
With kohl and eyeshadow out of the question, Nissa and Me'am took pots of flesh-colored creams and held them up to the twins' cheeks, trying to find a shade which would blend in with their fair skin. When a suitable shade was found, the slave girls worked their magic upon the youthful blemishes which popped up on the twins' foreheads and cheeks, making the unsightly spots seem to disappear. After they were finished with that part of the beautification ritual, Nissa and Me'am selected a small tube from among the sundry supplies in the cosmetic box. Instructing the twins to part their lips, the girls applied a rosy shade of rouge upon their lips and then dusted a pale pink powder upon their cheeks. After the servants had rubbed a sweet-smelling oil upon the twins' poor, maligned hands, they held mirrors before the girls' faces. Elfhild and Elffled were amazed at their new appearances.
"Oh, I almost forgot the perfume!" Nissa exclaimed, putting her hand to her cheek. "Here are the perfume bottles... pick a scent that pleases you." She removed five tiny bottles from the box and set them upon the rug in front of the twins. The sisters eagerly removed the stoppers and sampled the fragrances.
"Eww! Who would want to smell like this?" Elffled exclaimed, wrinkling her nose at a particularly pungent aroma.
"Oh, smell this one!" Elfhild held a jasmine-scented perfume beneath Elffled's nostrils.
The twins finally decided upon a sweet orange blossom fragrance for Elfhild and a sultry rose perfume for Elffled. The slave girls instructed them to dab the perfume on their wrists and necks, as the fragrance would be stronger when applied to these places.
"The mistresses are very beautiful," Me'am exclaimed, turning to Nissa. "Do you not agree?"
"Oh, yes," the other girl smiled shyly. "Now if the mistresses no longer need our services, we must be going."
Though the twins invited the girls to dine with them, Nissa and Me'am politely refused. After shedding their towels and donning their regular clothing, the girls bowed their way from the tent. Soon the eunuchs came to fetch the tub, bathing supplies, and basket of dirty clothing. Not long after that, another group of servants entered, bearing trays of sweetmeats and glasses of tea. After the twins had eaten, the utensils were cleared away. As the last servant left, the sisters sat gingerly on the cushions, careful not to crinkle their new finery as they waited in apprehension for the arrival of the Master.