The Circles - Book Six - Chapter 32

The Circles - Book Six - Across the Wide Hamada
Chapter Thirty-two
A Night in the Shakh's Tent
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

After some time had passed, Carnation entered the section of the tent in which the twins were waiting and announced that it was time for them to join their master in the adjoining chamber. As the girls approached him, Esarhaddon motioned for them to come forward and held out his sleeve for them to kiss. Then with a flick of his hand, he dismissed them to sit along the side of the tent. Three female musicians – one with a spike fiddle, one with a flute, and the other with a goblet drum – had just seated themselves on the carpet. A beautiful blonde girl, her blue eyes dancing, slipped from the cushions beside Esarhaddon. Rising to her feet, she eyed Elfhild and Elffled, taking them in from the tops of their heads to the slippers on their feet. She glanced at them almost pityingly before turning back to give the slaver a beguiling smile.

The twins recognized that this was the same young woman who had sung at the funeral for the girl who was killed during the orc rampage. Gone were her tattered, ill-fitting rags, and in their place was an elegant silvery white gown fit for a princess. Her unbound golden hair falling almost to her hips, she walked gracefully on the balls of her feet like a dancer. When she came to the center of the room, she faced Esarhaddon, her long skirt swirling about her ankles. The silver-clad maiden smiled charmingly at the musicians and requested that they accompany her. Then she lifted up her melodious voice and began singing a ballad about a brave warrior and his lost love who had been kidnapped by a dragon. Even though they had been hastily assembled, the three musicians adapted their native style to blend almost seamlessly with the Northern girl's presentation. After she had finished the song, she bowed to Esarhaddon and asked the musicians to play an introduction to her next selection. The girl sang a number of other Rohirric songs, her poignant voice seeming to hold the slave trader spellbound.

Elfhild wondered what the lovely singer meant to Esarhaddon, if anything. Were they lovers, or was she just a minstrel he had summoned to amuse him for the evening? From out of the corner of her eye, Elfhild watched Esarhaddon gazing with wonder upon the other girl, and felt the fist of jealousy clench around her heart. The feeling disturbed her, for she did not like to admit that she had any feelings for him other than fear and grudging respect. After all, he was a man of the enemy, and his profession was a loathsome one. Yet even though she told herself that she despised Esarhaddon, she also despised seeing him paying attention to other women. Her feelings towards the man were… complicated, to say the very least.

While Elfhild simmered with jealousy, Elffled was enjoying the girl's beautiful singing. It had been so long since she had heard the songs of her homeland, and the words filled her heart with a bittersweet longing for hearth and home. As she daintily sipped her drink, she wondered at the servant who attended Esarhaddon, tasting every goblet before he even touched it. That certainly had never happened before, and Elffled was puzzled. Did the slaver fear an attempt on his life?

Bowing as she finished her last song, the singer looked expectantly in Esarhaddon's direction, her face endearing in its silent plea. Then as he motioned for her to join him, she fell at his feet, kissing the carpet before him. Rolling her eyes in disgust, Elfhild turned her face away from the spectacle.

His eyes dark beneath his heavy lids, Esarhaddon cupped the singer's chin in his hand, lifting her face up to meet his gaze. "You sing beautifully, Hrothwaru. It is a shame that you were cursed with such a harsh Northern name, my white lotus blossom. I can barely pronounce it!"

"My lord, it was my grandmother's name," the girl's voice was meek and tremulous as she told him. "It means 'Famous Vigilance.'"

"Come sit by me, my pretty little slave, and let me see your face." He patted the cushion on his right side. When she sat beside him, he stroked her soft lips with a beringed finger. "Such beautiful singing should not go unrewarded." He signed to one of the servants, who brought him a small ebony casket decorated with geometric designs in tortoiseshell. Opening the box, Esarhaddon drew out a silver bangle and slid it onto her wrist.

"Oh, Master, it is lovely!" Hrothwaru gasped as she ran a finger over the spiraling design which adorned the length of the bracelet. "Never have I had anything so fine!"

"The bracelet becomes you," Esarhaddon remarked. "You may return to the others, my little nightingale, until once again I require your lovely presence to cheer my heart with your songs."

"Thank you, Master. I promise to please you always." Hrothwaru kissed his offered sleeve, and then crawling backwards three paces, she waited until he gave her permission to rise. In one fluid motion, she rolled to her knees and then stood, pausing for a moment, a look of such radiant beauty upon her face that Elfhild felt like spewing the contents of her stomach upon Esarhaddon's ornate carpet. Then bowing, the girl turned and walked, hips sensually swaying, to the entrance of the tent, where a guard waited to escort her back to the slave camp.

Elfhild willed the insufferable girl to trip and fall on her face, but, alas, no such fortuitous calamity ensued. How could she ever hope to compete with someone like Hrothwaru? Not only was Hrothwaru incredibly beautiful, but she was a talented singer. Elfhild surmised that she had come from a wealthy family, for she possessed the social graces of a lady of higher estate. While Elfhild's manners and bearing were adequate for the daughter of a peasant, she did not know how to behave as a refined lady of gentle birth.

Esarhaddon took a goblet from the tray offered to him by a servant, and as he sipped the ruby liquid, he listened to the three female musicians as they played. Apparently he grew tired of the music, for he signed to one of his servants, who whispered into one of the girls' ears, and the three soon left the tent. He then dismissed all the other servants save for one, a young boy who waited in attendance nearby. The slaver continued drinking his wine, obviously enjoying himself. The twins wondered if he were waiting for other guests to arrive, and they had almost convinced themselves of that when a diminutive young woman was quietly admitted to the tent. Taking her place at the side, she began playing a santur, humming softly to the melody.

Finally Esarhaddon seemed to notice the twins, and he gestured towards them, bidding them approach. After the girls had performed their obeisance, he allowed them to take a seat on either side of him.

"Can either of you sing?" He studied them with his dark, hooded eyes.

"Yes, my lord, though perhaps not so well as Hrothwaru," Elfhild replied modestly.

"Sing something for me. I would hear your voices."

Elfhild and Elffled exchanged glances of alarm, for they had not expected such a command. Both girls were intimidated to sing after Hrothwaru, as she was a much more accomplished singer. However, an order was an order, and as slaves they were compelled to obey. Asking Esarhaddon for permission to have a quick conference, the twins deliberated with themselves in whispers on an appropriate song. It would be wise to avoid any songs which spoke ill of Mordor or the men of Harad. They noted that many of the songs Hrothwaru had chosen were Rohirric versions of old Gondorian legends, and not the epic ballads depicting the deeds of the Riders of Rohan. Songs about maidens and dragons were much more diplomatic and politically acceptable than an epic lay about King Folcwine helping Gondor defeat an invading army of Haradrim. The twins decided upon a song about one of the most famous horses of the Rohirrim. Almost everyone liked horses, or at least respected the noble beasts, so the song seemed like a safe bet.

When Elfhild and Elffled had finished singing, Esarhaddon studied them for a long moment, thoughtfully stroking his bearded chin. "Both of you are adequate, but with proper training, I feel you could greatly improve." He smiled in amusement at the girls' crestfallen expressions. "What was your song about?"

"My song was about the Father of the Mearas, the legendary horses of the Kings of the Mark," Elfhild replied stiffly. Still stinging from Esarhaddon's criticism of her singing abilities, she struggled to keep from expressing her hurt and displeasure. It was obvious that neither she nor her sister would be gifted fine silver bracelets for their performance.

"Tell me of this horse," Esarhaddon commanded. "I would hear the story in Westron."

Clearing her throat, Elfhild composed herself, collected her thoughts for a moment, and then began to weave a tale for the Haradric slave trader.


In ancient days when the ancestors of the Eorlingas dwelt far to the North, there were many wild horses of divers colors and patterns which galloped freely over the land. King Léod, a man who prided himself upon his skills in horsemanship, reveled in the challenge of capturing these beasts and taming them. One day, he captured a wild foal which was as white as a mountain snowfall. It was his plan to tame this horse and ride it when it reached maturity.

Unfortunately, when King Léod attempted to ride the captive horse, the proud animal refused to abide such degradation, and threw the king from his back. And so King Léod died, defeated by the wild stallion which he in his vainglory sought to master.

Seeking vengeance, Eorl, the King's son, hunted down the white horse which had slain his father. Long did he and his men hunt for the treacherous animal, whom he called Mansbane. Yet when Eorl found the beast at last, he did not slay it. Instead, he demanded that the stallion give up his freedom as a weregild, for the horse had caused grievous offense to the House of Eorl. Knowing that he had been beaten, the horse submitted himself to the young king, who called him Felaróf, which means "Very Strong."

No ordinary steed was Felaróf, but one of the Mearas, which were descended from Nahar, the horse of the God Béma. In ancient days, it is said that Béma and His celestial host would gallop across the untamed wastes of Middle-earth, hunting the evil creatures that lurked beneath the boughs of the forests and in the shadows of deep dales. When the Wild Hunt was underway, the ground shook beneath the thundering hooves of the steeds of the Gods, and the horns and shouts of that mighty host and the howling of their hounds could be heard for miles around. Some say that one can still hear echoes of the Wild Hunt in times of great darkness and dread.

Some of Béma's herd remained in Middle-earth, and it is said that their descendants roam free over the plains of the North even to this day. Since the ancestors of these horses hailed from the Land of the Gods, they are blessed with great strength, speed, and intelligence. They are incredibly long lived, living four score years or more, making their lifespan identical to that of a man of the Mark, and possibly even longer. It is said that these horses possess the ability to understand the speech of Men, and can even speak aloud if they so desire.

Felaróf would not allow any other man save Eorl to ride upon his back, and the king rode the great stallion with neither bit nor bridle. It was upon Felaróf's back that King Eorl rode to the aid of Gondor when that land was being assailed by the Balchoth, fearsome enemies from the East. Because King Eorl helped the Steward Cirion achieve a great victory at the Battle of the Field of Celebrant, the Steward gifted Eorl and his people the land which would become known as the Riddermark, which means the Land of the Riders.

Many years later, King Eorl and Felaróf would meet their doom together upon the plains of the Wold, the northernmost region of the Mark. Both the King and his horse were laid to rest in a burial mound outside the gates of Edoras. This would be the first of many mounds which compose the Barrowfield, the sacred ground where the Kings of the Mark are buried. And so both the bodies of King Eorl and his noble steed Felaróf sleep beneath the earth, covered by a thick blanket of simbelmynë, the snowy white flowers which bloom upon the tombs of the Eorlingas. Remembering their ancestor's obligation to Eorl, the descendants of Felaróf are ever loyal to the Kings of the Eorlingas, and abide no one save the kings or their sons to ride upon their backs.


When Elfhild had finished her tale, she bowed with a little flourish.

"An interesting story," Esarhaddon remarked, rewarding her with a smile. "The history of the Mearas is not unknown to me, but the kings of Rohan are not the only men who can master them. In eastern Mordor, there are herds of black horses of exceptional beauty and strength, many of which are descended from Mearas taken from Rohan in raids. These horses are tended to by the Shatogtar, a tribe of nomadic herdsmen, but only the high lords of Mordor are permitted to ride them. Perhaps as the caravan travels closer to Nurn, we shall see some of these herds."

"Oh, I would love that!" Elfhild exclaimed, smiling. "We have never seen a wild horse herd before. Our people dwell in villages along the eaves of the White Mountains, but in the northern regions of the Mark there are horse herds which roam freely over the plains, and wandering tribesmen who tend to them."

"I would like very much to see these legendary horses of Mordor," Elffled agreed. "Whilst we have never seen the horse herds of the Mark, mayhap we will see those of this land." Esarhaddon's words had given her some hope that not all of Mordor was a desolate wasteland like their current surroundings. After all, horses could not very well eat rocks and sand.

"Now that I have established that the two of you can sing and tell stories, I would learn more about any talents which you might possess," Esarhaddon told them. "Can either of you play a musical instrument?" When the girls shook their heads, the slaver continued asking them questions. "What about dancing?" When they informed him that they knew some folk dances popular in the Eastfold, he nodded and continued his questioning. "Can either of you do any acrobatic tricks? What about juggling? Can you play games such as hounds and jackals, or backgammon?"

"I tried to juggle once, Master, but I fear that I was not very successful," Elffled giggled.

"I am not familiar with either of those games, Master," Elfhild admitted, feeling embarrassed at her ignorance. "We do know how to play several dice games, though."

"Our brother, Eadfrid, Elfhild and I used to put on plays back at home," Elffled added enthusiastically, ever eager to please. "Once we even performed a skit for a contest during the Midsummer Fair back in our village."

Elfhild's cheeks turned scarlet. "Those… those plays were just to amuse our family and friends! We are hardly trained performers." Why did Elffled have to reveal something so personal to this man of the enemy?! Besides, they had done terribly in that wretched contest, forgetting most of their lines as soon as they stepped upon the stage and saw all the faces of the villagers staring at them. At least no one had pelted them with rotten fruit, but still Elfhild did not want to remember the unpleasant ordeal.

"Any talents you might have will increase your value as slaves," Esarhaddon informed them, his hooded eyes scrutinizing their every movement, gesture, and expression. "Of course, you would have to be properly trained before these abilities would have any worth other than a passing amusement to your owner."

Elfhild felt her heart sink. For a moment, she thought that Esarhaddon was actually interested in her and her sister, but, no, he was only asking these questions to estimate their value upon the auction block. What a cruel, heartless man he truly was! Her chest ached with betrayal, and she felt ashamed that she had ever felt comfortable enough in his presence to tell him a story from her homeland.

"My servant, Rose Petal, tells me that you have taken to learning Black Speech as eagerly as a horse takes to new grass in the spring," Esarhaddon remarked, drinking from his goblet. "Is this true?"

"Yes, Master," Elfhild replied warily. She resolved to keep her answers brief, not revealing anything more than necessary to this man who saw her as naught but a sack of coins.

"We enjoy learning new things, Master," Elffled smiled. Back when she lived in Rohan, she had never even considered the possibility of having an education. Only the daughters of thanes and lords were schooled, and it was a useless pursuit for a lowly peasant ever to dream of acquiring such knowledge. She knew her place, and not to challenge it.

"So both of you enjoy learning things new." Esarhaddon's dark eyes glittered mischievously as he watched Elfhild take a dainty sip from her goblet. "Does that include learning all the infinite arts of love?"

Elfhild choked on her wine, the liquid burning her throat as she coughed and gagged. She could only sputter, and her throat muscles constricted painfully. "F-forgive me, Master," she stammered hoarsely, regaining her voice.

"Obviously the question disturbed you," Esarhaddon stated dryly, amusement in his voice.

"This is all so new to me," Elfhild mumbled, her cheeks hot with a furious blush. The slaver spoke of the arts of love… did he want to teach her that night? Did she want to learn? It was obvious that the man did not love her, even though he might lust for her. Conflicting emotions, affection and loathing, tortured her heart, tearing it in twain. Was this the punishment for harboring any feeling other than hatred for a man of the enemy?

"Things are new but once," Esarhaddon chuckled, "and then the mystery is removed. Of what are you frightened?" He studied her intently, ignoring the presence of her sister. He would turn his attention back to Elffled in time, but for now Elfhild had thoroughly captured his interest.

"I am frightened of you, Master," Elfhild admitted. She was terrified of this devastatingly handsome man and the power he held over her. She knew that he could be cruel, and that his lusts could be savage and uncontrollable. He would think nothing of ravishing her body and then casting her aside, with little regard for how her heart would shatter at such mistreatment. She knew she should loathe and despise him, but she did not.

Esarhaddon's laughter rumbled in her ears. "It is good for a slave to fear her master, but you have no need to be unduly afraid… unless you displease me." He reached his hand out and caressed her cheek.

"Then I hope I do not displease you," she whispered. Her heart pounding, she leaned her face into his hand.

"I believe you will please me very much, little flower."

He bent forward and his lips came down on hers, the kiss gentle at first and then growing more ardent. His beard tickled her face, and she giggled and sighed against his lips, her hands coming to rest against his broad chest. His mouth moved over hers, his hands weaving themselves in her perfumed hair. Her eyes drifting closed, Elfhild tried not to think about whether this was wrong or right, or the pain she would feel when Esarhaddon inevitably broke her heart by selling her to someone else. All that mattered right now was this moment. She poured her tempestuous emotions into the kiss, all of her desire, her resentment, her fear, her love. She gasped in surprise as she felt his tongue playfully touch her lips, and then his tongue plunged between her teeth and began a sensual exploration of her mouth. Shivering with pleasure, Elfhild moaned, her hands reflexively clenching the material of his tunic.

His lips leaving hers, Esarhaddon trailed kisses over her cheek and jaw, pausing to lick and suck at the tender spot where her neck met her shoulder. She squealed as his beard rubbed against her sensitive skin, and then quivered beneath his touches as his hands caressed over her body. Timidly at first, she ran her hands over his strong arms and then back along his shoulders, her touches becoming bolder when he awarded her with a lusty grin of approval. Fumbling with the buttons that held the bodice of her dress closed, he gripped both sides of the gown and jerked them apart. Before she knew what had happened, he had pulled down the neck of her chemise to reveal her white, pink crowned breasts.

Panic shot through her, and her hands frantically clutched at her bodice. "Master, the servants! They will see us!" She leaned forward against his chest in an attempt to hide her nudity. "Should they not be sent away so that we can be alone? What about my sister?" She glanced towards the serving boy who stood in attendance, and found that he was staring straight ahead. The santur player seemed to be engrossed by the musical instrument resting upon her lap, never once veering from her melody. Elffled averted her gaze, clearly embarrassed by the situation.

"Good servants see nothing and hear nothing, and these are no exception. They will tell no one what they witness, for they fear that their tongues will be torn from their mouths if they do," Esarhaddon laughed. "As for your sister? Sometimes it takes more than one to satisfy me." His big hands stroked and squeezed her nipples, and his lips came down on hers in another hungry kiss. "I will humor you, though, and give her leave to wait at the side of the tent for my summons."

"Thank you, my lord," Elffled murmured gratefully. She hastily removed herself from his side and took a seat at the opposite end of the tent.

Elfhild trembled as Esarhaddon pushed her back onto the cushions and drew her skirts up to her stomach. For a brief moment she felt faint with terror, and was certain that she would swoon. Although his ardor frightened her, she knew that if she resisted, he would take her by force, and she would much prefer to be Esarhaddon's willing bedmate than a victim of his cruelty and dominance. If she reciprocated his passion, then she had some power over her situation. She only wished that he felt something for her other than lust. Perhaps he did harbor some affection for her, she reflected hopefully. Perhaps he was just as conflicted about her as she was about him, and was torn between his lust for her and his lust for the coin she would bring upon the auction block. Perhaps if she brought him enough pleasure, that lust would turn into love, and he would keep her and her sister for himself. That would be much more preferable than being cast aside and tossed to the mercies of a stranger.

Esarhaddon unbuttoned Elfhild's gown the rest of the way and then tugged off her pantaloons. He laughed to himself when he thought of this maiden who was both shy and defiant at the same time, who both desired and feared him in equal measure. A smile half of lust and half of amusement flickered on his face as he teased her mouth with his warm, moist tongue. Commanding her to sit up, he pulled the dress away from her body and yanked the chemise over her head, leaving her naked before him. She shyly looked up at him, her cheeks flushed with a combination of passion and flustered embarrassment. How vulnerable and innocent she appeared!

"Are you still so frightened?" he laughed good-naturedly.

"Just a little," Elfhild admitted, trying to be brave. Daring to gaze into his eyes, she tried to ignore the presence of her sister and the other servants and focus only on the handsome man before her. She was glad that the tent was dimly lit by only a few lanterns, for the cozy gloom made it difficult to see anyone but Esarhaddon.

"A little?" he laughed. "I know better. You are terrified beyond words. You are certain I am going to ravish you tonight. You should have no fears of that, for you are more valuable to me as a virgin. But I will teach you what a man sometimes likes, or what I like, and I doubt others are so different." Rising to his feet, he gave her a devilish smirk as he began unbuttoning his caftan.

Elfhild's heart beat wildly in her chest as Esarhaddon's body was slowly revealed to her. It was quite obvious that amorous adventures had been his intention this whole time, for he wore nothing beneath the voluminous robe. She tried not to stare, but she could not avoid looking at his magnificent manhood, so vigorously and unashamedly displayed.

"You behold the pride of my family," he remarked arrogantly, chuckling as he saw the fear and wonder in the girl's eyes. "Kneel before your master and pay homage to his mighty pleasure sword."

"How… how do I do that?" Elfhild asked hoarsely, her throat suddenly dry.

"Like this, my dove." He placed her hand upon his stiffening member. "Hold me... move your hand there. Ah, yes, that way!" He sighed, a look of languid pleasure on his face. "Now, my pretty little slave," he cupped his hand under her chin, "caress me with your mouth."

While Esarhaddon had been sporting with the Northern girl, the santur player had kept her eyes modestly averted and her attention focused on striking the correct strings on the hammered dulcimer with the mallets she held in either hand. The daughter of a prostitute, Özlem had grown up in the fleshpots of Harad, and she knew when to mind her own business and look the other direction. Though no one in the tent would have noticed or cared if she struck the wrong note, she was determined that her performance would be flawless. As she was making the transition to another melody, she caught a whiff of something burning; perhaps some bit of food had spilled on the brazier in the other chamber. Someone would surely see about it, and it was not her place to interrupt her playing by saying anything. The odor lessened somewhat, and she was certain then that one of the servants had seen to the problem.

Humming to herself as she tapped with the mallets, Özlem smiled softly, admiring the expensive santur which sat on the colorful carpet in front of her. The hammered dulcimer had been a gift from Shakh Esarhaddon, who greatly appreciated her skills as a musician. The pearls which hung suspended from the raised headband that sat atop her dark hair and the pearl earrings which graced her small earlobes had also been gifts from the Shakh. He treated her well, providing her with food, clothing, lodging, and a small allowance. The Master could be quite generous when he was pleased with one of his servants. Perhaps he would bless the Northern girl with many gifts if she brought him joy.

Özlem heard a noise outside the tent, but assumed it was probably only some of the camp mongrels fighting over scraps and bones. One of the slave boys would surely drive the cur away. She could not let every distraction interrupt her concentration. Taking a deep breath to help her think, she decided upon another melody, one she especially enjoyed. As she lifted her mallets to strike the strings of the dulcimer, she caught another whiff of that strange acrid odor which she had detected earlier. Scowling, she wrinkled her nose at the smell.

And then she screamed.

Slashing blades ripped through the canvas wall of the tent as seven uruks burst into the chamber, their scimitars drawn, fury and bloodlust in their savage yellow eyes.

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