Far ahead of them on the arid plain, the riders could see the green and yellow pavilions of the House of Huzziya. Making the gray, overcast morning even more dreary, the smoke from the cooking fires trailed upward and mingled with the dismal haze which perpetually lingered over the plateau. Even from a distance away, the encampment had a stark look about it. Thorn bushes had been cut and placed about the perimeter of the camp, their long, spiked branches presenting a foreboding view to the newcomers. Surrounded by that almost impenetrable fence, few slaves would be foolhardy enough to attempt an escape.
As the travelers' eyes roamed over the terrain before them, they could see the small settlement of Utot-Dalbukot, which lay less than a mile away from the slaver's encampment. Utot-Dalbukot stood at the way-meeting where the road to Isenmouthe connected with the main thoroughfare. Composed of a collection of low, squalid huts and a few larger buildings, the town had grown up around the modest-sized military outpost, which was located nearby. Even though the town was unimpressive, it had been given an auspicious name by the Mordorian Ministry of Planning, "A Village of the Peaceful Plain." The only thing which distinguished the ramshackle town from the other motley villages in the area was the lively taverns and seamy brothels which served both orcs and desperate men.
As a trumpet rang out in welcome, the gates to the makeshift stockade opened, and with a shout, a welcoming party of riders rode out to greet the slaver. Easily recognized was the leader, the sparse, dignified physician Tushratta, the tall, Khandian cap on his head lending him even greater height. He tapped his spurs to the sides of his mount, and as the mare galloped forward, he quickly drew ahead of his escort.
"By the Goddess' fulsome tits, I feel like a returning hero," Ganbar grinned through swollen, blackened eyes as he watched the riders approach. Hours had passed since he last had eaten, and his stomach, which felt like a huge, empty cavern, gave out a long, protesting rumble. Almost drooling, he licked his lips at the thoughts of food. Mutton with rice, hot and steaming from the pot... fresh flatbread... cheese... dried fruit... perhaps even honey. Ganbar could almost smell the fragrant aromas of spiced stew bubbling in the pot! When they reached the camp, he intended to slake his hunger, and then he planned a visit to the tent of the courtesans. He felt the warmth in his groin grow as he considered which whore would be his first choice for the night. He scowled when he considered that his favorite might already be busy with another patron, but there were other equally voluptuous wenches eager for his attention.
"Possibly everyone had doubts that we had survived the journey, and at times I had misgivings myself," Inbir returned gravely as his eyes took in the encampment. This was the first habitation of any size which they had encountered since they passed by Minas Tirith, and though there was nothing notable about the encampment, at least it was civilization. Inbir had seen enough of the waste places, those desolate stretches of depopulated land which seemed to go on without end. Familiar with the teeming cities of the South, Inbir had often felt edgy when passing by the once thriving villages which were now devoid of man and beast, and remained silent, stark memories of what the Dark Lord's mad dreams of conquest had wrought.
Civilization meant baths, hot food, warm beds, companionship with friends, singing and dancing, and always the ney, the drums, the mizmar, the oud. At that moment, Inbir would welcome a steaming tub, where he could luxuriate and reflect on all the ideas which he held in his head; the poems and music that he wanted to write; and how it was his dream to capture the essence of all life in a simple poem. As much as he hoped for these things, though, he longed for the sight of Aeffe even more. During the long, lonely nights on the trail, he had often thought of her. She was a bewitching houri who haunted his dreams, moving in and out of them, just beyond reach.
Aeffe was his first love since that one time when he was fourteen and he had been enraptured by the daughter of a rich merchant. Now in reflection, he was not even sure if that had been love or merely lust which possessed him in the first flower of manhood. Whatever the case, his feelings had never been reciprocated, and her father had refused his suit. He had written poems about her, too, but they had been poor pieces, not worthy of the work which he knew he was capable of producing, and he had consigned them to the flames.
Inbir was no longer that naive youth, and as he had matured, his poems had changed, increasing in depth and perception. Some of them had even reached the attention of possible sponsors. While it was his ambition to secure the patronage of some rich lord eventually, now Inbir's sole goal was to write poems worthy of Aeffe's beauty, her gentle voice, her gazelle-like shyness. Though the words and music that swirled through his mind had not yet reached fruition, soon he would capture them and set them to paper. Perhaps he could catch her alone sometime and tell her the thoughts of his heart... No, no, that was too much to contemplate, for the slave women were forbidden to one who did not possess the coin to purchase them.
"Let us not keep our welcoming party waiting!" Esarhaddon laughed as he touched the spurs to the sides of the red mare. With a snort, Ka'adara tossed up her head and galloped towards the approaching welcoming party. Even though he had not accomplished everything which he had set out to do, Esarhaddon considered himself successful, and accordingly his mood was jubilant. Not all the escaped slaves had been retrieved - that was true - but they had found the most valuable. It would have been better, he thought, if they had been able to bring back Goldwyn's three sons, but he had done his best.
Besides the boys, there had been other losses - the captive women who were never found; the horses that were killed in the landslide and the fight at Cirith Ungol; the deaths of the mad Sharapul and his catamite Âmbalfîm; and the desertion of the tracker Torû. Esarhaddon judged that the deaths were no real loss, no more than any other animal which was little mourned when it died. If he estimated correctly, his gains would far exceed his losses.
Esarhaddon smiled when he heard a great shout rise up from the advancing riders, who had lifted their spears and scimitars high in the air in salute. Soon the two groups met on the outskirts of the fenced encampment, and Esarhaddon halted his snorting mount beside that of Tushratta.
"Peace be upon you, Shakh Esarhaddon uHuzziya!" Tushratta exclaimed as he bowed, his hand on his heart. "The Gods have seen fit to return you to us!"
"Upon you be peace, Tushratta. I suppose I was fortunate enough to escape their attention this time." Esarhaddon returned the gesture and then leaned over to embrace the other man. "It is good to be back," he told the physician as he slapped him on the shoulder.
As the two men rode off towards the stockade, Tushratta's escort parted and fell in behind Esarhaddon and his party. "Was there any trouble while I was gone, physician? Did the slaves attempt another escape?" Esarhaddon asked as his eyes took in the bristling thorn barricade and the guards positioned around it.
"Lord, I am distressed to tell you this," Tushratta replied, his dark eyes solemn. "There was an unpleasant incident with the she-orcs while you were away." At the look of quick anger that surged over Esarhaddon's face, the physician held his hand up to stifle a too-quick response by his master.
"An incident? What do you mean by that?" Esarhaddon fumed, his face turning ruddy beneath his tawny skin. His agitation clearly showed as he tapped the riding crop lightly on his thigh, reminding Tushratta of a cheetah getting ready to pounce upon its prey.
"My lord," Tushratta replied deferentially, "you know how their twisted minds work. They think of little except violence and mischief. With no provocation, some of the orc females went berserk, tying up four of the slave women, and beating them unmercifully."
"Under what grounds and under whose authority was this madness done?" the Shakh demanded, looking Tushratta coldly in the eye.
Tushratta brought his fist to his mouth and coughed dryly. "The she-orcs charged that the women were openly lusting for them, a trumped up accusation if ever there were one. Durraiz was their leader."
"That is absurd! And you let this happen, Tushratta?" The slaver's voice was accusing as he clenched the handle of the crop in his fist.
"Shakh, it all happened so quickly. I was in my tent, playing chess with Aziru, when one of the servant boys brought me the message that there was a disturbance in the camp, and I should go immediately." Tushratta looked down at the reins in his hand. "When Aziru and I reached the scene, we saw four slave women, their wrists lashed to wagon wheels. Several of the female guards had been savagely whipping them."
"I could expect something like this from those brutes... but the rest of my guards... where were they?" Esarhaddon scowled, his dark eyebrows furrowed. "I pay these men to maintain order!"
"It was the orcs' turn to guard the prisoners, my lord. Our men were off duty." Tushratta bowed his head.
"You mean they were all drunk or taking their pleasure between the thighs of the prostitutes!" Esarhaddon growled. He should never have left Tushratta in charge of the camp when he was away! While the slaver trusted Tushratta with his life and the lives of his women, the man was far better suited to medicine than he was to leadership. Still, the doctor was loyal and dependable... if only he could only develop more of a spine!
"Quite possibly, my lord," Tushratta replied dryly. "Once it came to my knowledge, the situation was resolved quickly, and those responsible were punished."
"And the slaves?" Esarhaddon demanded, his veiled eyes appraising his subordinate's face.
"There will be no permanent scarring, my lord. Nothing that happened to any of them will lessen their value. You have nothing to worry about on that account." As Tushratta looked down at a fly which had lighted upon the curved tip of his riding boot, he noticed for the first time a stain on the slaver's trouser leg. "My lord, you are wounded!" he exclaimed. "Forgive me for not realizing sooner! Let us hasten to your tent so that I may attend to your injury!"
"It is a small matter, surely nothing of any consequence. We will talk of it later, physician," Esarhaddon announced gruffly and urged his mare into a smart trot. "Now I want to enjoy my return to the camp."
As the party rode into the stockade, they were greeted by a jubilant crowd of Esarhaddon's guards, servants and slaves. There was a little confusion as a sour-faced eunuch directed the camp musicians to march at the head of the slaver's procession. As the high, nasal wail of mizmars rang out over the throbbing of the kettle drums and the clang of cymbals, the enthusiastic crowd waved and cheered wildly. Overcome with joy at the sight of their returning master, two men, members of a divine order, moved out of the crowd. With a nod from the eunuch, they joined the musicians, twirling and leaping, their robes swirling out from their bodies like the petals of field poppies. Waving their scimitars and spears, the guards joyfully hailed the return of their lord. Cheering and ululating, the crowd shouted almost in perfect unison, "Esarhaddon uHuzziya! Esarhaddon uHuzziya! Peace be upon the House of Huzziya!"
Smiling benevolently at the writhing throng which pushed and shoved to get a better look at him, Esarhaddon opened the pouch at his belt and tossed a few coins to either side. He chuckled in amusement as the onlookers dove for the coins, grabbing them from the dusty earth. Passing by the ecstatic crowd of servants and retainers, he surveyed the Rohirric captives who were lined on either side of the path that led to his great pavilion. His eyes roamed over their bent forms. Most of the women had been taught to perform proper obeisance when he rode past, but those who were reluctant found themselves forced, none too gently, to their knees by the guards.
As he rode by his side, Tushratta could see the obvious pleasure on Esarhaddon's face. After the harsh words which the slaver had hurled at him earlier, the physician felt vindicated by his small triumph. Although inwardly Tushratta felt smug, he would never let such emotions show on his calm, impassive face. The physician considered that his employer was far weaker in temperament than he was. Compassionate in all ways, Tushratta pitied his master when he gave into his choleric nature. Obviously, the slaver could not help himself, and the physician was not the sort of man who held petty grudges.
"You have outdone yourself in organizing this marvelous welcome for me, Tushratta," Esarhaddon told the physician, who rode by his side. "I am only surprised you did not find a few camels to add to the parade."
"I had more in mind a few mûmakil, my lord." The physician allowed a small smile to play over his usually solemn lips. "Unfortunately, none were to be found," he added dryly.
"Welcome, Master," came the soft voice of a woman who had slipped through the crowd. The slaver halted his horse, causing the whole procession to come to a stop. Reverently touching his stirrup, she buried her face against his knee. "I have missed you so much, Master," she purred, her voice deep and throaty. "Will you favor this wretched one by allowing her to look up at you?"
"Kishi..." Esarhaddon's voice was deep with sudden desire for the leader of the caravan's pleasure women. "Your beauty makes me a willing captive. However, you are holding up the parade," he chuckled. Reaching down, he swung her up into the saddle, sliding his left arm around her waist as he kneed his horse forward into a trot.
"My lord, I have missed you," Kishi breathed huskily in his ear as she slid her arms around his neck. "Let me make up for all those nights when you needed a woman to warm your blankets." Her dark eyes flashed as her lips caressed his cheek.
Esarhaddon laughed, pushing her face away. "My bed was warm enough while I was gone, my little firebird," he chuckled.
"Not as warm as I could make it, my lord," she replied haughtily, her full, ruby-stained lips on the verge of a sullen pout. Arching an eyebrow, the Eastern woman glanced over his shoulder at the twins.
Sensing the gaze of someone upon her, Elfhild lifted her head and peered out from beneath the shadows of her hood. There, perched shamelessly upon the slaver's lap, was an exotic beauty who seemed very much at home in his arms. In one glance, the lady's kohl-rimmed eyes took the measure of her worth, relegated her to insignificance, and then laughed mockingly. Elfhild felt an instant dislike towards the foreign woman, who turned away to whisper in Esarhaddon's ear. Perhaps it was the fact that her eyebrows met in the middle that made Elfhild suspicious. Though one long, continuous eyebrow was considered attractive by many in the East, in Rohan it was considered a sign that one was a shape-shifter, possessed of an evil spirit.
However, with the exception of her eyebrows, the woman was quite lovely, Elfhild grudgingly had to admit. Compared to the lady's extravagant, exotic beauty, Elfhild was a lowly clover flower, just one of many in the fields. The foreign woman was a magnificent, brightly colored lily, with raven hair that flowed like a river of ebony past her hips, skin a lovely shade of light fawn, and doe-like, luminescent eyes which spoke their own language, a tongue of passion and desire. She wore a gown the color of daffodils, the bodice of which was so tight it looked as though it had been sewn onto her body - or perhaps painted on with golden paint. Elfhild flushed with embarrassment as her gaze fell upon the woman's uplifted bosom, which almost popped out from the plunging neckline of the gown. A frothy mass of transparent, filmy ruffles laid over her chest for the sake of modesty, but the sentiment was just a pretense, for the material hid little and only made it slightly more difficult to see. Hemmed to resemble the petals of tulips, the sleeves of the yellow gown were short, revealing red brocade under-sleeves which clung tightly to the woman's serpentine arms. Her skirt was split in the middle, showing off the scarlet of her under-dress, and beneath that, her diaphanous chemise and pantaloons striped with orange and gold.
Such an ostentatious display of wealth rankled Elfhild and she fumed with anger. Here she was, dressed up like a Haradric beggar boy, while this fancy woman flaunted her jewels and elegant dresses! Life was so unfair! No one should be so favored by fortune. The foreign woman was beautiful, and alluring, and mysterious, and Elfhild was just... just a farm girl with tangled hair and dirt under her fingernails. Oh, how she despised her! But most of all, she despised the attention Esarhaddon was giving the woman as he rode towards his pavilion!