The Circles - Book Six - Chapter 9

The Circles - Book Six - Across the Wide Hamada
Chapter Nine
Scholarly Matters
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

"Rose Petal, my servant, what is your opinion?" Esarhaddon casually flipped his hand towards the twins, who stood near the center of the harem chamber. His legs stretched out before him, the slave trader relaxed in his dark oak curule chair, a goblet of his favorite wine held easily in his hand.

The man whom he addressed as Rose Petal stood at the prescribed distance from his master, his head slightly inclined, his hands clasped over his middle. A young man in his early twenties, he was tall and slender, his deep umber skin revealing his Far Haradric ancestry. Impeccably dressed in a long, flowing caftan of green silk patterned with yellow vines and curving green branches upon which perched nightingales, he was spotlessly clean, and every time he moved, his swishing robes perfumed the air with some enticingly exotic fragrance. He had worked with the House of Huzziya for less than a year, and this was his first time traveling with a caravan. He was eager to please his masters, for he had hopes of a promotion to bigger and better things.

"Incomparable master of all masters," the handsome eunuch's voice was soft like a boy's, "though my words were as sweet as honey from the comb, they would be nothing but untruths, full of guile and false flattery." He shifted one curved slipper over the rich, brightly colored carpet. "I am troubled. I wish to be perfectly truthful, but I do not want to bring offense. Do I have the freedom to be honest?" He lifted his head up slightly, the long lashes fluttering over his limpid dark eyes.

"My servant, honesty is to be preferred to blandishments." Esarhaddon studied the face of the man before him. "You need have no fear. Tell me the truth. No harm will come to you."

"Then with my lord's leave," the musical voice began, "I will give you my lowly opinion. If my worthy lord aims at perfection, much work will be required to effect the transformation. I pray that I am wrong." He paused, his earnest face worried. "Not having the experience of my elders, I must apologize for any lack of discernment beyond my years. Only those with a sharp eye can see beyond the physical loveliness to what lies concealed inside." His head bent low, he studied the curved toes of his slippers.

"What you are really saying is that, beyond all the rhetoric, you are not impressed with these two women."

"Unfortunately so, Master."

"Your reasons?"

"Forgive my candor, lord. I wish I had more pleasing things to say, but... I think this pair will be more difficult than most of the other Rohirric captives." His smooth brow furrowed in consternation. "While they are lovely in appearance, their minds are ignorant; yet they remain haughty, oblivious of their own ignorance. As the old adage goes, arrogance is a weed that grows mostly on a dunghill. If you want your garden to blossom, weeds must be plucked out before they smother everything."

"Then what would be your advice?" Esarhaddon watched the eunuch's face as the young man considered his answer.

"Put them under my care until we arrive in Nurn, Master. I will do my best to pluck out the weeds and replace them with flowers of exquisite beauty and fragrance. If fate so decrees it, by the time we reach Turkûrzgoi, there will be the foundations of a flourishing garden. If I am not successful, I beg you to kill this worthless slave, for his life will be meaningless." His expressive dark eyes, so eager, so earnest, clouded slightly as though he were considering the gravity of failure. Of course, he had no wish to die, but a certain amount of melodramatic hyperbole was expected in Haradric culture.

"Rose Petal, though your youth could be a disadvantage, you came highly recommended to us. I understand that you are proficient in literature, grammar, calligraphy, mathematics, music and history, among other subjects." Esarhaddon waited while another servant refilled his wine goblet, and then he turned back to the eunuch.

"My master is exceptionally kind." Rose Petal smiled softly. "I taught my former master's two young sons from the time they were five until they were eight." A touch of melancholy crept into his soft, boyish voice. "Then, unfortunately, plague carried away both the sons and many of the women in the harem, and my services were no longer needed." He looked down, sorrow filling his eyes.

"I remember that dark year, for I lost several of my children." Esarhaddon shook his head sadly, and then swiftly changed the subject back to the twins. "Until we reach Turkûrzgoi, you will serve as the instructor for these two slaves. Since they are from a barbarous tribe whose mode of living is scarcely above that of animals, they need to be taught proper etiquette and courtesy, skills which will do much to civilize them. Though the trail is no place to begin such an extensive course of training, I want you to teach them the fundamentals of decorum and begin their studies in language. While Black Speech is the official tongue of Mordor, it brings me happiness to hear the slaves in my keeping speak Haradric as well. Every evening after the camp is set up, you will teach them in my public chamber or your own tent."

"While you were gone, the other eunuchs and I taught the Northern women and children several phrases in both Black Speech and Haradric," Rose Petal remarked, a tinge of pride in his voice.

Easrhaddon nodded. "I want you to focus your attention on these two slaves for now, for they need much work ere they have any value other than as milkmaids or kitchen thralls."

"Master," a slight flush of modesty colored Rose Petal's dark cheeks, "I have been trained in everything that is essential to the care and instruction of females, from the application of cosmetics to the selection of styles most befitting to their individual shapes and colorings. While I do not like to boast, the eunuch who instructed me said that I am quite accomplished in the dressing and styling of hair." His blush deepened.

Esarhaddon slowly sipped from his goblet, enjoying the amenities of his camp after the long days on the trail. He noted that, although the eunuch did well in concealing his emotions, he still could not keep the eagerness from his voice. The slaver let him wait a while longer before he replied, for he had learned long ago that it was helpful in making decisions of character to observe men when they were uneasy. "The House of Huzziya is well aware of your achievements. Unfortunately, there will be little time for you to display your many talents on the journey. All my efforts must be concentrated upon moving this caravan to Nurn as quickly and safely as possible. Too much time has been lost already." He looked down to his injured leg and saw that the wound had oozed through the bandage again. It was time to call this audience to a halt. He shifted his position on the cushions and looked to Rose Petal.

"It will be unnecessary for you to spend much time in teaching them to serve food and wine, for Ganbar has taught them the elementary things, but should I have them serve my guests and me, I do not want them to bring shame and dishonor to my house." Esarhaddon's eyes roamed over the nubile bodies of the two silent slave girls and then looked back to the eunuch.

"Master, I will do everything in my power to school them," Rose Petal told him in a calm, reassuring voice. "Even the most precious of stones must be cut, shaped and polished by the jeweler."

"That is all I can require," Esarhaddon nodded, "but your task might be a daunting one." He studied his wine goblet before continuing his instructions. "In addition to teaching these slaves, you will correct any minor infractions in deportment, pointing out to them where they have erred and telling them how they might correct their faults. You may switch them lightly for minor transgressions, but there will be no marring of their flesh. As you know, slaves carry their history on their backs, and when a buyer sees this silent record, he knows that the slave is obstinate and unruly. A male slave - if he is strong and brawny - might be acceptable, but a female slave who is scarred always brings a lower price." Esarhaddon was pleased at the way Rose Petal listened to every word like a sponge taking in water. "I think the switch will be sufficient for these two, for they frighten easily. However, should there be serious breaches, you will report them to me. Their punishment and discipline are to be in my hands alone."

"Yes, Master. Everything will be done as you have specified," Rose Petal replied in his soothing, melodious voice.

"My servant, there is a possibility that if you do well with your assignment, you will be appointed to a higher position in the House of Huzziya. Now I have important business to which to attend. While I am away, you will begin the training of these two slaves."

"I am honored by your trust in me, Master," Rose Petal replied, a polite smile on his handsome face. "My only desire is to serve you."


For the next hour, Rose Petal instructed the twins in a few simple words and phrases in Haradric. His hope was that they should learn several forms of greeting and farewell, and how to introduce themselves. He found that both girls seemed eager to learn, but both had difficulty in pronouncing the alien tongue. The eunuch considered using the switch to facilitate their education, but the Shakh had warned him not to whip the twins unless they were willfully disobedient. Esarhaddon would frown upon punishing them when their only fault was slowness in learning a new language. The eunuch realized, too, that strict discipline might put these students in such a state that they would be unable to concentrate upon their studies for some time afterward. He would have to try patience, which had always been one of his weaker points, since he tended to demand much from his students.

His wide brow lined with creases, Rose Petal demanded each girl say a select sentence over and over again, hoping that by repetition they would learn to pronounce the words correctly. "No, no, no!" he cried in his high-pitched voice, clasping his hands over his ears. "When you pronounce 'My name is Elfhild,' you sound like a barking cur with a very sore throat! While it is true that the sounds are articulated in the back of the throat, they are not so harsh as you insist upon making them. Now try again."

After many attempts, Elfhild finally managed to get the words out of her mouth without her tongue stumbling over every word. The eunuch's comment, "Can you do no better than that?" irritated her, but she would not let him know of her annoyance. Instead, she resolved to practice until she could say the words perfectly every time with no distracting accent. Elffled, on the other hand, had far more difficulty, and even though she wanted to learn to speak the Haradric language - which she connected with Inbir, poetry, and all things beautiful - she was in tears by the time the session ended.

Informing the twins that he would resume their lessons the next day, Rose Petal departed from the tent, visibly affronted. Though they were both exhausted from their long and grueling day, Elfhild and Elffled discovered that they were hungry and welcomed the slave boys when they arrived with their evening meal. The supper that night - small pieces of beef mixed with rice and savory spices - was so appetizing that the sisters were almost drooling. After the main course, the servants seemed particularly solicitous as they served them dried fruit and pastries. Their eyes downcast beneath long lashes, shy smiles on their dark faces, the boys filled the twins' cups with honeyed wine. They were so courteous and attentive that Elfhild decided to practice her new linguistic skills upon them.

"My name is Elfhild," she announced in halting Haradric, hoping that she was not making a fool of herself.

One boy, older and taller than the rest, looked mildly surprised. Then a smile spread over his ebony face. "The gracious lady of inestimable beauty is advised that my name is Barzil," he told her in Haradric.

"I... I only understood your last few words," Elfhild confessed, blushing softly. "I know only a few words in Haradric, and I just learned them a short while ago."

"Do not let your heart be distressed," Barzil reassured her, speaking in Westron. "Such loveliness which rivals the beauty of the Moon in its fullness needs no language." Without a trace of shyness, he looked her straight in the face, and she saw that he was a handsome youth with clear black eyes under thick eyebrows, a regal nose, full, sensual lips, and a square jaw. "Intelligence is written upon your forehead, and I am sure that you will master the language of Near Harad in quick order."

"Thank you, Barzil," Elfhild replied, blushing hotly at Barzil's deluge of compliments. "I hope you are right." Although the boy was polite and appeared friendly, she felt uncomfortable. This was one of the few times when she had ever opened a conversation with one of the enemy's slaves, and she hardly knew what to say next.

"I am most usually correct, Mistress," Barzil told her confidently, "for I am a good judge of the nature of people." Envious of the attention the girls were paying Barzil, the other boys frowned at him. Barzil merely signed to them that they were to go back to work and quickly clear off the table.

Elffled shyly studied the boys before asking, "What are the names of the others?"

"That ugly fellow over there with the scar on his forehead is known as Urin, and the other rascal is Akil," the boy replied. "Watch what you say around them, for they know Westron as well as you and love to gossip." While the other boys bent to their labors, Elffled saw the faces they made at Barzil and grinned in amusement.

Pouring water from the ewer into the basin, Barzil held the bowl out for Elffled so that she could wash her hands. "You will not get much out of those scoundrels, though, for their eloquence is that of bull oliphants." He laughed at the other boys, who muttered under their breath and scowled at him. Putting her hand to her face, Elffled giggled at Barzil's good-natured jesting. "Now if you please, you may wash the dinner from your hands." He smiled at Elffled as he and the other servants busied themselves with cleaning.

When Barzil and his two fellows departed the tent, Elfhild and Elffled were at last alone and free to explore their surroundings. They noticed a covered porcelain chamber pot in one corner of the tent, and were glad of their discovery, for the location of such necessary receptacles was always much needed knowledge. A ewer of water, some cups, a basin, and a stack of hand towels stood on a small table at the side of the tent, and a small bundle wrapped in a silken handkerchief lay near the bowl. Unwrapping the bundle, Elfhild gasped when she discovered a mirror, brush and comb.

"Oh, how wonderful!" Elfhild exclaimed as she picked up the looking glass, her fingers tracing over the intricate pattern of flowers and vines which had been carved onto the back and handle. When she turned the mirror over and saw her image, though, she frowned, for she was greatly displeased at her disheveled hair, ruddy complexion, chapped lips, and the dark circles beneath her bloodshot eyes.

"May I see the looking glass, please?" Elffled asked as she knelt down beside her sister.

"Here, take it!" Elfhild handed her the mirror with disgust. Picking up the comb, she tried to run it through her tangled tresses. "This will go a long way towards remedying the wretched condition of our hair. I look awful!" she admitted with a miserable wail.

"I did not want to say anything, dear sister, but you have been looking a trifle... worn," Elffled replied smugly. When she beheld her own countenance in the mirror, however, she was equally shocked, if not more so, by what she saw. Her blotchy, sunburnt skin had started to flake and peel, and her once lustrous veil of long, blonde hair now resembled a tangled thatch of dry, brittle straw. "My hair is a disaster," she groaned. "I wonder if I can ever do anything with it?"

"Maybe cut it all off?" Elfhild suggested, smirking when Elffled shot her a nasty glare.

"Cutting my hair off might help its appearance, but I cannot remedy the sorry state of my face so easily," Elffled grumbled sullenly. Then her attention was drawn to the green silk handkerchief which had covered the toiletries. The cloth was beautiful, embroidered with fine gold thread around the edges. Although she could not decipher the calligraphy stitched onto one corner, the emblem was of the House of Huzziya. "Oh, how lovely... and soft!" she exclaimed as she caressed the silken handkerchief and pressed its smoothness to her cheek.

A troubled expression came over Elfhild's face, and she lay the comb down on the table. "Why do you think that Lord Esarhaddon has assigned Rose Petal to be our tutor?"

Elffled rolled her eyes. "Do you honestly not know? We are exotic foreigners, and there are two of us. We also happen to look exactly the same, which makes us even more of a curiosity. Therefore, we are very valuable to Lord Esarhaddon, because he intends to sell us for as much coin as he can get. If we can speak the languages of our captors and are familiar with their customs, rich noblemen will be willing to spend even more coin to purchase us."

Elfhild found her fists involuntarily clenching at being reminded of her lowly status of property. "I was sure that we would be punished severely for running away, not assigned a tutor and given lessons in Haradric." Even though the notion was completely irrational, she half wished that the slave trader had subjugated her to terrible punishments, for this was the treatment one expected from an enemy.

"I am not sure, Elfhild, but perhaps Lord Esarhaddon is punishing us by giving us such a strict tutor." Elffled shook her head despairingly.

"Maybe Haradric is a difficult language for foreigners to learn. Besides, it was only our first lesson." Elfhild gave her sister's hand a gentle squeeze. "Our parents taught us Westron when we were children, and since we were so young and learned the language over time, we never considered if it was difficult or not."

"I certainly hope we can learn Haradric," Elffled sighed. "I would dearly love to understand the words of Inbir's beautiful songs…"

"Oh, you and Inbir!" Elfhild snorted in derision. "What about poor Aeffe? She also fancies your favorite musician."

"Well, maybe Inbir does not return her affections," Elffled exclaimed defensively. "If such is the case, then perhaps he will fancy me instead! And, besides," she giggled, "the men of Harad can have as many wives and concubines as they wish!" She gave her sister a naughty grin.

Staring disapprovingly at her twin, Elfhild cleared her throat. "The customs of these people are so strange! I wonder how we will ever manage living amongst the enemy."

"Well, perhaps we should stop considering them 'the enemy.'" Elffled gave her sister a wry smile. "We are just as much a part of Mordor now as the rocks and mountains that surround us. Whenever this journey ends, we will be sold on an auction block to some rich lord." A troubled look crossed her face, and for a moment it seemed as though she would cry. "Oh, I hope he is a kind man!" Knowing their accursed luck, though, they would probably be bought by some foul-tempered boar of a man with an enormous, protruding stomach which hung in rolling layers of obscene fat down to his knobby knees, and breath which reeked of onions, radishes, and sour wine. Elffled could not bear to think of what such a foul creature might look like naked, and prayed the man would be impotent.

"I, too, hope that our master is kind." Elfhild sighed. It was difficult to imagine being sold off to some random nobleman like a sack of turnips when they finally arrived in Nurn. After all, she had spent nearly a week in the company of Esarhaddon uHuzziya, listening to him talk, serving him supper, even sharing his bed at night. Although he had whipped her for falling prey to the seductive allure of the Morgulduin, he had never punished her harshly or subjected her to rape. Yes, his hands were wayward and his kisses were unwanted, but at least he had not forced himself upon her. Whether this was the slaver's form of mercy or the fact that virgins were worth more in ill-gotten Mordorian coin, Elfhild was unsure, but prayed it was the former rather than the latter.

The unknown terrified Elfhild, and she felt that perhaps it would be better to stay with the enemy she knew, rather than one who was strange and unfamiliar. What if… what if Esarhaddon decided to keep her for himself? Not to stay with him for a time while she was educated in the ways of the Haradrim and the culture of Mordor, but to dwell with him until the end of her days as his… slave? Concubine? Wife? Perhaps he would grow to love her and consider her more than a pretty toy for an idle hour. Perhaps if she could read and write, he would no longer think that she was ignorant and foolish, a simple peasant too lowly to be of any interest to such a worldly lord. Perhaps if she embraced all the customs of his people, he would think her as worthy as a woman of his own land, and forget that she was a captured enemy to be humiliated and disgraced. Elfhild thought that she could love Esarhaddon if she allowed herself to do so, but the thought of giving her heart to him and having him break it into countless pieces terrified her.

The twins' thoughts were interrupted by the sound of voices from the public chamber. Throughout their conversation, Barzil, Urin and Akil had been busy preparing for the banquet Esarhaddon had planned to celebrate his return to the caravan, and now the guests were starting to arrive. Putting a finger to her lips, Elfhild crept over to the arras and cupped her ear towards the curtain.

"What are you doing?" Elffled whispered.

"Why, I am seeing if I can hear anything worth knowing," Elfhild saucily whispered back.

"That is a silly thing to do!" Elffled gave her sister a disdainful stare. "Unless their conversation is composed of nothing other than greetings, farewells, and their names, you will not understand much."

Elfhild turned back to her twin and stuck her tongue out. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the old adage goes."

Unfortunately, Elfhild's plan to eavesdrop was doomed to failure as Elffled had predicted, for none of the men spoke in Westron. When men from the South and East did not share a common tongue, they simply improvised a mix of several languages, combined with a blend of different dialects. Even if the twins had studied the Haradric language for several years, they still would have been unable to understand fully everything which the men said. Though she listened dutifully at the curtain which divided the two chambers, Elfhild soon became frustrated and bored. She returned to the table, where she and Elffled discussed all that had happened to them that strange and eventful day.

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