The Circles - Book Six - Chapter 6

The Circles - Book Six - Across the Wide Hamada
Chapter Six
A Merchant's Dilemma
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

Years later, Elfhild would remember that her first sensation upon awakening in the early morning hours of June 27th was light, fierce and intense. She was certain that her eyeballs were melting as the searing flames of white fire bored corridors of agony through her brain. Whimpering with pain, she pulled the covers over her head, closing her tear-filled eyes to barricade the light and keep the anguish at bay. The narrow window was only an arrow slit that ran from the ceiling to a few feet above the floor, but through the thin aperture poured the blinding light of dawn. The Sun seemed to have turned madwoman as she rose over the Morgai Mountains, ranting and raving as she rained all her unbridled fury into the chamber.

Men were speaking somewhere close by, but Elfhild could not recognize the voices - voices which roared through her tortured ears like the crash of a great waterfall. Shielding her ears with her hands, she tried to keep the sound away, but a strong hand that seemed as great and heavy as a solid iron weight tore loose the covers from her face, exposing her to the horrible light once again.

"Please, no!" she screamed, burying her face into the pillow. "You are blinding me!"

"She is still out of her head, Shakh, and babbling nonsense," Ganbar remarked gruffly in Haradric. "Who knows what those perverted bastards did to her?"

"Nothing good, you can be sure. From what I can tell of it, the girl has been drugged, but I doubt it was the juice of the poppies! Just look at her eyes!" Esarhaddon proclaimed grimly as he rolled the moaning girl over on her back. Pulling her hands away from her face, he tugged her eyelids open and surveyed her dilated pupils.

"Have mercy!" she shrieked as she turned her head to the side. Touching her cheek gently, Esarhaddon moved off the mattress and stood up, leaving the sobbing girl curled into a tight ball.

"Both girls are still in a stupor," Esarhaddon growled. "After they come to themselves, I will find out what happened to them. If those fiends raped the wenches, their value will be reduced to less than half! Some men refuse to accept defiled women in their harem!"

Ubri, his dark eyes peering from beneath the bloody bandage wrapped around his forehead, masked his insatiable lust for the twins behind a sarcastic smile. "There is an old witch woman in Nurn who can make them virgins again for a price. She is said to be so skillful that even the village whore will seem as chaste as a holy man's daughter!"

"Captain, for years you have known me to be an honest man," Esarhaddon answered sourly. "If I offer them as virgins and they prove to be tarnished, the reputation of the House of Huzziya will suffer! No," he shook his head, "even if they are both with child, I will make no pretense when I put them on the block! They will be sold exactly as they are, with no deceit on my part!"

The Shakh looked over at Elffled, who sat on the opposite side of the bed, holding her head in her hands. He noted that while the girl was still dazed from the poison which raged in her body, she looked to be in better shape than her sister. Both girls' faces and arms were splotched with blue bruises, and their wrists were chafed from where iron manacles had dug into their skin. While her sister seemed relatively unharmed, Elfhild bore the marks of harsh treatment, for her chin and lips were crusted with dried blood. Some scoundrel had struck her! This did not surprise Esarhaddon, though, for the girl was often rebellious. At least the damage dealt to his slaves did not seem severe, and he surmised that there would be no permanent scarring which would reduce their price.

His men were watching him, their eyes occasionally glancing to the door. They were impatient to leave this dismal fortress where so much had happened in such a short time. Each one had received injuries in the brief skirmish before they had been captured. After they were taken to the dank, dreary cells of the dungeon, they were stripped and searched. The orcs had delighted in brutalizing them before gleefully applying the lash and then leaving them to hang naked in the chains until Corporal Bekir had them brought before him for questioning.

Even though the scourged weals were hidden under their clothing, the party of Southrons still was a sorry looking lot. The wound which Esarhaddon had received in his thigh was worse than he cared to admit. Besides a number of minor injuries, Ganbar's face was a mass of bruises, his eyes swollen black and blue. Inbir's body was covered with bruises, cuts and bites from when he had been pulled down from his horse and the orcs had clamored over him. There was a nasty looking gash on his left arm from a wound by a scimitar, and he walked with a slight limp. Ubri, who had decided to be a hero and take on Bekir's men, had been brought down in the skirmish with a sharp crack to his hard head. In the dungeon, he had been the especial target of the orcs' mischief. Still, Esarhaddon thought, he had accepted the ten lashes like a man. "The fool," the slave trader thought as he glanced at him. "He actually seems to be proud of his bloody bandage and wears it as though it were a medal!"

Esarhaddon looked around the room, his hooded eyes concealing the depth of his rage. "Men, all of us want revenge for the dishonor that has been dealt to us. Unfortunately, we will not have that privilege, but the guilty ones will pay a horrible price for their perfidy, nonetheless. I have been told that when we ride from the fortress, we shall see their tormented bodies hanging by hooks from the castle walls. Death by that means can be long and agonizing, and we can all take satisfaction in knowing that before their spirits finally flee their suffering bodies, they will consider death a gift!"

"Aye, Shakh, their deaths will be slow and hideous," Inbir spoke up from his position by the window, where a battered Ganbar occupied a low stool beside him. "They would have done the same to all of us. Fate has been merciful to the world by ridding it of this vermin. Still, it is a cruel way to have to die." He rested his hand against the window frame. "Down in the dungeons, their screams were a most disturbing sound. We could all hear them begging and pleading as they were led through the hall on their way to their executions."

"At least it will not be our heads that are hanging from the wall," Ganbar remarked matter-of-factly, stroking the stubble on his chin.

Elfhild groaned, and all the room turned to look at her. Esarhaddon gathered the trembling girl in his arms and held her as the floor streamed and rocked beneath them and the walls curled and bled green bile. She could remember nothing which happened after she had drunk the drugged wine, and though she struggled to recapture the events of the night before, there was nothing but a vast emptiness. It was as though a corridor of her mind had been sealed off with a barrier which could not be breached, and behind it lay some unknown terror. Though she could sense its presence, she could not pierce its depths.

"Slave girl, what did the bastards do to you and your sister?" he asked, his measured deep voice barely concealing his anger.

"C-cannot remember," Elfhild whimpered. A part of her mind told her that she should be relieved that Esarhaddon and his men were still alive, but she could not concentrate upon willing herself to speak these thoughts.

"Men," Esarhaddon growled, turning back to face them, "let us be away from this accursed place and thank the fates that we are still alive." His eyes took in Elfhild's massive black pupils set in her weary, blanched face.

Neither sister could quite remember what happened next, for their minds were still in the grip of the potent elixir of truth. Though they were no longer plagued by vivid hallucinations, the twins had as much difficulty concentrating as they had focusing their eyes. The fog of confusion lifting momentarily, Elffled realized that she was sitting atop a horse which was plodding steadily downhill. Inbir was riding behind her, his firm, steady arm holding her close to his chest while his other hand held his horse's reins. Relief washed over her to see him alive and well, and she sighed as she leaned back against him, her heart beating faster. She held a hand up to her squinting eyes and took a brief peek at her surroundings. Though the world was still a blur of brilliant light and sharply contrasting colors, she could tell that she was on the winding road which led away from Cirith Ungol.

Shielding her eyes, Elffled cast a furtive sideways glance to Elfhild, who rode in front of Ganbar, her head nodding drowsily. His eyes swollen and black, Ganbar squinted painfully as he rode ahead. Esarhaddon, his left calf swathed in clean bandages, rode at the front of the small party, silently cursing the dead Commandant Panturion and all his cronies. Twisting around in the saddle, Elffled looked back to Ubri, who, although suffering from a painful headache, had been deemed fit enough to handle the group's pack horses. At last having regained her bearings, Elffled turned around and shut her eyes against the searing light. How she longed to ask what had happened! The last thing she could remember was eating fancy pastries with Corporal Bekir's men... However, judging from the brooding silence which hung over the procession, now was not the time to ask questions.

As Esarhaddon's party rode below the walls of the castle, their eyes were drawn upward, where fifty or so men hung from the walls. Some were already dead, food for the carrion-birds; others, far less fortunate, still gasped and moaned in agony, writhing on the meat hooks which pierced their bodies.

Seeing that Elfhild was beginning to stir, Ganbar thought it best to warn the girl about the gruesome sight. "Do not look," he commanded gently, "for your stomach is not strong enough to bear it."

With one last shuddering glance at the blood-stained fortress, the Southrons rode across the bridge which spanned the rugged Morgai Valley. Below the bridge, rocky cliffs fell like crashing boulders from either side of the narrow trough; at its center a small wadi, swollen by the recent rains, ran through copses of low trees and thickets of thorny bushes. The valley behind them now, the surefooted horses soon were carrying their passengers up the steep trail which led through the Morgai Pass. After the party had ridden for two hours, they came to the highest point in the mountains. Stretching out as far as the eye could see was the dismal haze of the plateau of Gorgoroth.

Esarhaddon called a halt in the shade of a scrubby juniper thicket which grew along the northern slope. The slave trader was in a terrible haste to leave the unpleasantness of Cirith Ungol behind them, and he would have pushed ahead had it not been for the women. Weak and frail creatures that they were, they needed a rest after their ordeal. After they had eaten a brief meal of scanty trail rations, the men sat cross-legged on the ground, drinking the frothy coffee which Inbir had brewed on the brazier. While the water in that area had an unpleasant, oily taste to it, at least it was clean and drinkable, and the flavor of the coffee obscured some of the foul taste. Though they spoke in low voices, the language they used was Westron, so the twins were able to understand all that they said.

"Lord Esarhaddon," Ganbar stated, his forehead wrinkled in puzzlement, "now that it is all over, what was it all about?"

"When I was taken to Panturion's audience chamber, at first I assumed that he wanted a bribe. This would have been a simple matter, since I was quite willing to pay, within reason, of course." Esarhaddon smiled wryly. "However, after he had asked a few innocuous questions about our travels, he inquired about my friendship with Captain Valto. He seemed satisfied with my replies, but then he began questioning me about the two slave girls. He seemed very interested in them, and wanted to know how long I had possessed them, what I knew about them, and what I planned to do with them." He glanced to the twins, who were sitting silently under the boughs of a nearby pine. He knew they were listening to every word that was said.

After Inbir had refilled Esarhaddon's empty cup, the slaver inhaled deeply of the strong fragrance and then half-closed his eyes as he took a sip. "We would all be dead men now had it not been for the intercession of Lord Kalus, although we were hardly the reason for his takeover of the fortress."

"Shakh, while you were in Panturion's chambers, each of us was taken to a separate cell and asked similar questions," Inbir remarked as he refilled their cups. "It seems Panturion and his retainers were certain that there was a plot to assassinate them, and he felt that somehow we were connected with it. I must admit that their methods for extracting confessions were robust, to say the least... although one of the devils said he had developed a liking for me and might go easier on me if only I cooperated." He smiled softly.

"That is what you get for having a pretty face," Ganbar chortled. "I am glad I am ugly! At least a uruk would never want me for his catamite!"

"Only if his taste were atrocious," Inbir chuckled, and they all laughed at that.

Esarhaddon set his cup down on the carpet and rose to his feet. "Gentlemen, we will reach the rest of the caravan by nightfall. Tonight when we relax at our leisure, we will have much to discuss, but now it is time for us to make our departure." His dark eyes hidden behind almost closed lids, he glanced at the twins, who were stumbling to their feet and brushing crumbs off their laps.

Had they been defiled when they were held at the fortress? Had Bekir and his men subjected them to heathen perversions which stripped away the innocence both from their bodies and minds? What would Esarhaddon do if they were no longer virgins? Since he had already gone to such great lengths to recapture the pair after they had escaped, he was considering outbidding all the other buyers at the auction and purchasing them for himself. His plan had been to bring them to his villa in Nurn, where he operated a school for female slaves. Once the twins were properly educated, the ignorance of the peasant replaced by decorum and skill, he would sell them at a much higher price to the elite of Mordor. Two identical golden-haired maidens who possessed both beauty and social graces and hailed from a faraway land were sure to fill his coffers with much gold.

But now Esarhaddon worried that perhaps the whole journey to recover the twins had been nothing but a waste. Even if their purity were still intact, would this mysterious potion have lasting effects on their minds and bodies? While the slave trader knew of the poppies and other drugs, using them extensively on unwilling slave maids, he was unfamiliar with all the fiendish potions, poisons and elixirs which were developed in the dark still rooms of the Mordorian apothecaries and laboratories. Would the twins ever recover from the unknown drug, or would its effects possibly render them feeble-minded or insane for the rest of their lives? The most valuable slaves were virgins, beautiful and graceful in appearance, healthy in body and mind, pleasing in temperament, and willing to learn. Those who did not meet the standards would still be sold, but to buyers of lesser means. Some, of course, would be bought by brothel keepers who were not so particular.

During his years as a slave trader, Esarhaddon had been faced with many obstacles - raids on his caravans; greedy desert tribesmen who sold too high and bought too low; sandstorms which raged out of the west, obliterating men, animals and goods; flash floods that came up quickly, surging through wadis and destroying all in their paths; swamps, quicksand, deserts, rivers and mountains; stinging insects, scorpions, deadly serpents, and wild beasts; stolen or lost animals; plagues, agues and pox; whining bureaucrats with their endless papers and records; and tax collectors who demanded countless fees and tariffs. The House of Huzziya had survived them all, and Esarhaddon and his brother Emran had grown richer by the year. Gazing around him, Esarhaddon smiled as he mounted his chestnut mare for the rest of the journey east. The potential loss of two insignificant slave wenches was nothing. Whatever happened, the proud House of Huzziya would endure!

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