The Circles - Book Seven - Chapter 13

The Circles - Book Seven - Land of Treachery
Chapter Thirteen
Melancholia and Memories
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

Elfhild lay upon the low, thin mattress and gazed up at the tent ceiling. Their heads together, Özlem and the other girls were gathered in a cluster across the tent from her, speaking softly in Black Speech and occasionally giggling at something humorous. Elfhild sighed. She felt so out of place around these exotic desert maidens. They were so beautiful, the way she wished she could be. She thought about her lank, lusterless yellow hair, comparing it with their thick, glossy tresses of dark brown and black, and knew that she was woefully lacking. How could the men of the South ever desire women from Rohan when the women of their own lands were so beautiful?

Elfhild discovered that the woman in whose custody she and Özlem had been placed was Lady Shabimi, the first wife of Shakh Najor, chieftain of the Dolrujâtar. The lady and her four handmaidens had done their best to see to the comfort of the two newcomers, heating water over the brazier to give them a warm bath, tending to their many cuts and bruises, and giving them fresh clothing to wear. Even though Shakh Najor's family had already eaten, the handmaids quickly assembled a light meal for Elfhild and Özlem. During the late supper, Shabimi had asked the two girls about the circumstances which brought them to the Oasis of the Solitary Cedar. Elfhild and Özlem took turns relating their tale, describing the attack on Esarhaddon's tent, their days amongst the Sand Orcs of Kafakudraûg Cavern, and their daring escape.

"I was forced to be King Thaguzgoth's wine taster, and Elfhild was put to work as a scullery maid in the kitchen," Özlem had told the lady and her handmaidens. "We were able to escape when one of the overseers took us above ground to gather wood. I had stolen a knife from the kitchen, and I was able to stab the brute in the back when he was not paying attention. That is how Elfhild and I were able to escape."

Elfhild noted that Özlem left out certain details, such as her torment at the hands of the orcs. Sensing that Özlem did not want to go into detail about all of the horrible things which had befallen her, she resolved to keep her friend's secrets safe. Elfhild let Özlem do most of the talking, corroborating her account when questioned or asked to comment. She knew nothing about these Mordorian tribespeople, and she felt it was wise to let the Haradric girl navigate through such unfamiliar territory. She did not feel much like talking anyway, for her body was weary, and her heart was filled with pain and sorrow. So much had happened in the past week that she felt numb, and it took almost all her energy to behave in a manner which would be deemed socially acceptable. It had been difficult enough to act as though she were insane; would it be even more of a challenge to pretend that all was well?

Elfhild had barely picked at the trays of bread, cheese and sweetmeats that Shabimi's servants had served them, feeling no appetite in spite of the fact that she had eaten very little in the past two days. The only thing that piqued her interest was a bowl of strange looking, brownish purple fruit that resembled teardrop-shaped onions. The fruit had been quartered, revealing a plum-colored, seed-filled interior surrounded by a pale rind. How long had it been since she had eaten anything fresh? A wave of melancholy as deep as the grave of a loved one swept over her, and she wished her sister was there with her.

How Elffled would have loved the delicious taste of these exotic figs, with their sweet flavor and crunchy texture! The aching pain of separation plunged Elfhild into a deeper despondency, and she wondered if she would ever see her sister again. Her family had been devastated by the horrible war, and she had lost her mother, her father, her brother, and now her sister. At least she had not lost her sister to the grim spectre of Death, as she had all the others. Somehow, Elffled had managed to escape all the carnage, for Özlem said that she was nowhere to be seen during the raid on the slaver's tent. Then a wrenching pain twisted Elfhild's heart, and she thought of Esarhaddon, her beloved master.

She rolled over on her side, her back turned away from the merry girls, and stared at the wall of the tent as tears began to well up in her eyes. Esarhaddon was gone, dead, ushered into the shadowy world of the spirits, never to return. She remembered his face, handsome in spite of a certain cruelty in his eyes, and she remembered his arms, so powerful, so strong as they held her. Perhaps she should have told him of the affection she held for him, but she did not even like to admit those emotions to herself, much less to a man of the enemy. Now she would never be able to tell him how she truly felt, for he was dead.

Everything that had transpired over the past week seemed dreamlike, surreal. She shuddered when she thought of the nightmarish caverns of Kafakudraûg, where Özlem had been the only connection to her past life. She had gone from the gloom and squalor of the underground city, reeking of unwashed orcs and goblins, to starving in the desert, and then finally to a richly appointed tent in a settlement of desert dwellers. Though her body was tired and weak, her mind was reeling, spinning away into dreary recollections.

She tried not to think about wandering through the dark, labyrinthine corridors, or the many times poor Özlem had been raped on their journey to the cavern. She had been forced to keep up a facade of insanity, laughing and gibbering senselessly while her friend was subjected to horrible pain and degradation. Perhaps it was not an act after all, Elfhild mused; perhaps she really was going mad. Maybe it would be better to descend into such a state, where the agonies of life were dulled by the blissful stupor of insanity. A vision slithered its way through the corridors of her tortured mind – she was deep in the caves of Kafakudraûg, poised at the brink of a dark pit filled with the phosphorescent glow of decaying corpses. She heard someone call her name, and then opening her arms in a wide embrace, she flung herself into the abyss to meet death.

"Elfhild?" Özlem bent down beside Elfhild's pallet. The girl was momentarily silent, gazing into her friend's face, and then she shook Elfhild by the shoulders. "Were you dozing?"

"I am not sure," she replied, sitting up to face her friend. "Perhaps I was. Sometimes I can no longer tell."

"Do you feel well? You have been so quiet." Özlem sat down beside her. Smiling, she fussed over Elfhild like a mother hen with only one chick. "Your quilt slipped off your lap," she told her as she replaced the covering.

"I am a little chilly," Elfhild answered, her shoulders involuntarily shivering. "It becomes so cool in the desert after nightfall. In Rohan, the nights would be warm this time of year." She felt a wave of homesickness wash over her. She remembered the warm days of mid-July in the Riddermark. Father and Eadfrid would still be cutting hay, and soon it would be time to harvest the grain. Neighbors would help each other, men going from farm to farm to harvest the hay and grain, while the women brought picnic baskets of food, which the workers and their families would share after the work was done. There would be no harvest this year, she thought somberly. She sighed, and sadness darkened her eyes.

Özlem noticed her friend's change of mood, and touched Elfhild's arm consolingly. "What is it, Elfhild? What is bothering you?"

"Memories." She looked into Özlem's face. "Memories that will not go away. They stick to my mind, sucking out my happiness the way leeches suck blood."

"Memories, Elfhild?" Özlem exclaimed, her voice taking on the authority of an older sister. "Everyone has bad memories; you just have to replace them with good ones."

Elfhild would have considered Özlem's mild reproach as nothing more than a homily, one of those pieces of unwanted advice which people always say when they want to cheer up someone, but she knew that the Haradric girl meant what she had said. Özlem's life had never been easy, Elfhild learned over the brief time that she had known her, and she admired her courage and strength. The daughter of a prostitute, Özlem's childhood had been stolen from her when her master forced her into the same profession as her mother. Fortunately for Özlem, her master was impressed by her skills as a musician, and her talent with the dulcimer saved her from a life of constant degradation. In spite of her past, she had never stopped being cheerful and kind, her bright, pleasant nature tempered with a realistic outlook on life. Özlem was a good friend.

"Elfhild," Özlem's voice broke into her reverie, "did you hear what I said? You seem like your mind is an eternity away."

"Yes, yes, I heard you," Elfhild replied softly. "I know you are right, but sometimes bad memories just will not go away."

"You know," Özlem replied, stroking Elfhild's hand gently, "I think Kangtar likes you."

Elfhild looked at her in surprise, the complete change in the conversation taking her aback. "I do not see what Kangtar has to do with any of this," she stammered.

"Memories, my friend, memories," Özlem chuckled. "You forget an old love by getting a new one."

"I have no old love!" Elfhild retorted hotly, her cheeks flushing.

"Oh?" Özlem smiled devilishly. "What about Shakh Esarhaddon uHuzziya?"

"I – I never loved him!" Elfhild sputtered. "I do not know what you are talking about! He was a horrible man, and I hated him!" No one must ever know how she had shamed her ancestors by loving an enemy.

"Elfhild, my dear," Özlem returned, "you are not good at acting when your heart is not in it. I know you are a natural born actress; you even convinced the orcs that you were mad. I do not think that many could do that."

Elfhild turned away from Özlem and fingered the edges of the blanket. When she looked back, her expression was defiant and her fists were clenched. "I do not care if you believe me or not; I never loved that man!"

"Hush now, hush," Özlem replied soothingly. "We do not have to talk about that. The poor man is dead. It is never good to stir the spirits of those who have been taken by the Black Horseman to the land of the dead." She saw the tears streaming down Elfhild's cheeks, and knew that she should not have upset her friend. "Please do not cry. I am sorry I mentioned him. Now let us talk about something else." She took a handkerchief from the sleeve of her caftan and dabbed at Elfhild's tears.

"It is quite all right." Choking back a sob, Elfhild took the handkerchief and blew her nose hard.

"Kangtar..." Özlem began again. "I have seen the way he looks at you, those fierce dark eyes softening when he sees you." Speaking more quickly, she tried to ignore Elfhild's loud sniffling. "He is around your age, and he is quite handsome and brave. He would make a good husband for you; you would never want for anything." Elfhild glared angrily at her, but Özlem spoke even faster. "Of course, Zarkfir also seems interested in you, and he is the one who has first claim to both of us."

"I do not care who has first claim!" Elfhild spat out angrily, dabbing faster at the tears that were flowing like torrents of rain down her cheeks. "I do not want a husband! I do not think I shall ever marry! Perhaps I will find a place with these people and milk their goats... or something." Her voice almost cracked as the floodgate of tears was thrown wide open. "It does not take much to keep me. I do not eat a lot."

"Elfhild..." Özlem put her fingers to Elfhild's lips. "You are speaking foolishness. We are slaves. These people will do whatever they want with us. It is not for us to decide. It is best that we think of the future with hope and not with despair. Ah!" She looked up as Kaira, Lady Shabimi's chief handmaiden, set down a pot of fresh tea and some earthen cups. "Just what we need!" Özlem exclaimed, a bit too exuberantly. "Kaira, please," she told her in Black Speech, "come and sit with us, you and the others, and share our tea."

Soon Kaira and four other young women sat down at the small table with Özlem and Elfhild. The eldest of Lady Shabimi's handmaidens, Kaira was in her mid-twenties and often acted like a big sister to the younger girls. As their leader by right of seniority, she served as mentor and peacekeeper, giving directions and advice, as well as interceding in quarrels and trying to help the offended parties resolve their dispute. Despite her limited knowledge of Westron, she was trying her best to make Elfhild and Özlem feel welcome. It was not often that the Dolrujâtar entertained visitors, so the arrival of the two foreign girls had everyone bursting with excitement and curiosity.

As they watched Kaira pour the tea, the servant girls talked amongst themselves, all of them eying Elfhild shyly. Elfhild could catch the meaning of a word only every now and then, and she felt uncomfortable. She was the alien, the foreign outsider, whose fair skin, blonde hair and blue eyes set her apart from all the others. Almost absentmindedly, she picked up her cup of tea and then winced as she felt the hot surface. The cup slipped out of her hand and struck the table, the scalding liquid splashing on the floor and barely missing her leg.

"I am so sorry," she mumbled almost incoherently.

"You should not worry," a soft-spoken young woman named Nadrói told her in broken Westron. Directly below Kaira in seniority, Nadrói was in her early twenties and had a mild temperament which was polite but reserved. Elfhild blushed furiously as the girl sopped up the liquid with a napkin and then wiped off the cup. "More tea?" Nadrói asked gently.

"Yes, please," Elfhild replied, eager to forget that the whole incident had ever happened. "I am not usually so clumsy."

"You are so pretty." Azul, a chubby maid of twelve summers, touched Elfhild's hair almost reverently. "Is it real?" she asked wonderingly. "I have never seen such glorious hair!" Azul could not seem to take her eyes off Elfhild's hair, and Elfhild felt more and more out of place.

"Yes, it is very much real," Elfhild remarked indignantly, taking a lock and tugging on it to show that the hair was indeed growing on her scalp. Perhaps it was due to the language difference, but Elfhild thought that this girl seemed less intelligent than the others, all titters and little tact. She often found herself becoming annoyed with Azul's silly, bubbly personality, but she reminded herself that the girl was little more than a child.

"Oh," Azul gasped, "it is your own! I can see why Shakh Najor's sons are wild about you!" She saw one of the other servants give her a disapproving stare. "I am so sorry! Please forgive me! I was rude!"

"Think nothing of it," Elfhild returned sourly, and then sipped her tea as Özlem and the nomad girls chattered and giggled, speaking in broken Westron for her benefit. "I feel such a fool," she thought as she stared into her tea glass. She tried to find something pleasant to fill her thoughts as the girls teased her about the three handsome sons of Shakh Najor. All she could think about were Esarhaddon's full, sensual lips as they kissed her, his demanding tongue plundering her mouth, his hands caressing her body. What would have happened between them had the uruks not raided the camp that night? She would never know. She fought against the tears that began to well up in her eyes.

"Neither Shakh Zarkfir nor Shakh Kangtar have ever had a wife or concubine," Kaira explained matter-of-factly. "Shakh Kangtar has recently come of age, and Shakh Zarkfir is very particular in his tastes. A man is not truly happy if he has sired no sons to make him proud. Our mistress Shabimi would love to have grandchildren." She turned her soulful dark eyes on Elfhild. "Perhaps Shakh Zarkfir will take you as his concubine, or maybe," her voice turned shy, "he will give you to his brother."

"What if Shakh Zarkfir and Shakh Kangtar take Elfhild and Özlem as their wives? A double wedding would be wonderful!" With a dramatic sigh, Azul pressed her clasped hands to her cheek.

"Silly girl, do you know nothing?" chided Zâhof, another one of the handmaids, a tall, haughty girl of seventeen summers. "It is against tribal custom for a man to take a slave as a wife. Slaves are concubines; wives are free women."

"Still, it is not unheard of," spoke up Lârniz, a petite girl who wore her outrageously curly hair in three fat braids. If Elfhild had to guess, she would assume that Lârniz was around the same age as Zâhof. "Shakh Najor's own grandfather freed his favorite slave girl and married her."

"There are always exceptions to every rule, and love can change them entirely," Kaira smiled. "And even though concubines do not hold the same status as wives, such unions are still occasions for celebration."

"Elfhild!" Lârniz exclaimed suddenly, taking the other girl's hands in hers. "You would love a tribal wedding! There is feasting that goes on for days!"

"And singing and dancing," Azul added exuberantly, a joyous smile upon her face as she imagined the grand event. For a moment, Elfhild wondered if the girl would leap to her feet and spontaneously burst into song and dance.

"And many, many people! Shakh Najor and Lady Shabimi's kin for miles around would attend," remarked Nadrói, thinking upon her own wedding in the autumn. "It would be such a grand celebration with many beautiful and expensive gifts presented by the bridegroom's kinsmen, friends and retainers!"

"I am not going to marry anyone! Can you not understand that?" Elfhild exclaimed angrily as she gripped her head tightly between her hands. All these silly girls were like chattering magpies, their persistent voices splitting her eardrums and causing her head to pound furiously.

"Oh, Elfhild, I am sorry," Kaira murmured sympathetically. "We have been giving you a difficult time." She felt guilty that she and the other handmaidens had been rude to their guest, for any show of bad manners was highly frowned upon among the Dolrujâtar.

"Perhaps our teasing was a bit too nettling. Please forgive me," Özlem remarked sympathetically. Embarrassed, the other girls expressed their regrets.

"I accept all of your apologies," Elfhild replied, more than willing to be agreeable if it would silence their constant talking.

Özlem rolled to her knees. "It is past time that we all should go to bed." She looked to Kaira. "We do not want to be chattering away when your mistress Shabimi returns."

"Oh, I doubt that she will return tonight," Kaira remarked knowingly. "She was honored by a summons to Shakh Najor's bed, and I doubt she will be back to her own tent before dawn." She could not resist adding, "How fortunate is the woman who becomes the wife or concubine of a son of Shakh Najor!" Her eyes were sparkling mischievously as she looked to Elfhild, who returned her smile with a savage glare.

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