The Circles - Book Seven - Chapter 19

The Circles - Book Seven - Land of Treachery
Chapter Nineteen
Under the Acacia Tree
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

The feathery leaves of the acacia tree swayed gently as a warm breeze rippled through the branches. Elfhild found the shade a welcome respite from the hot desert sun which beat down with brutal intensity upon the dusty landscape. Sitting upon a large, flat boulder, she wrapped her arms around her knees and listened to the bleating of the goats and sheep. A long, floppy eared doe, more curious than the rest, frisked up to her, eying her through horizontally placed pupils. "Are you hungry?" she asked, and the goat bleated in response. Opening the bag at her waist, Elfhild took a remnant of the bread she had saved from breakfast, tore off a piece, and fed it to the goat. She laughed in delight as the dainty creature quickly consumed the bread and then nibbled at her fingers.

"Elfhild, you might regret doing that." Kaira's voice held a hint of amusement as she sat down on the rock beside her, shooing away the goat.

"I cannot understand why," Elfhild replied, a baffled expression on her face. Wiping the crumbs off on her skirt, she watched as the goat bounded away to join the rest of the flock.

"You might find out soon enough," Lârniz tittered as she walked up to Elfhild and Kaira. Trailing her were three black and brown long-haired nanny goats and their kids. The goats clustered around her as she fed them bits of dried dates, each goat trying to jostle the others out of the way. "Âmbal has a… certain reputation," her brows lifted in a knowing look, "among those who tend to the flocks. Should I tell her, Kaira?"

"No, let her find out for herself. Surprises make life more interesting." Kaira hid a giggle behind her hand.

Before Elfhild had a chance to ask, a familiar condescending voice rang out. "Who is bearing the wounds of your gossip now?" The girls looked up to see Zâhof, who had just returned from gathering figs from a nearby tree. Having no container in which to store the fruit, she held her skirt out from her body, using the folds of the material as a makeshift basket.

"We are not gossiping," Lârniz told her, indignantly lifting her nose into the air.

"A likely story," Zâhof scoffed as she tossed each girl a fig.

"If you must know," Kaira remarked good-naturedly, "we are discussing goats."

At that moment, Âmbal left the herd gathered around Lârniz and trotted over to Zâhof. With a loud "baaahhh," the goat jumped up on her, planting its hooves on her thigh and tugging at her sleeve.

"Go away!" Annoyed, Zâhof swatted the goat in the face. The startled animal snorted once, clamped its mouth down on her sleeve and tore off a small section of the material.

"And that is the reason why one must be careful around Âmbal," Kaira explained. "She has been the ruin of many a sleeve and hem."

"I see," Elfhild laughed.

"Do you not have anything better to discuss than these obnoxious goats?" Zâhof spat out irritably. "I do not like the worthless beasts!" She glared spitefully at the goat. A length of the ripped material dangling from her mouth, Âmbal bounded down the slope. Upon reaching the bottom, the doe looked back at the girls and placidly chewed the material.

"I see you are in a bad mood today," Kaira remarked as she took several leaves of dried mint from the pouch at her belt. Placing one in her mouth, she chewed it slowly, letting the strong flavor linger. "Be in a foul mood if you wish. I am in a quite pleasant one. I was just thinking that when we return to the village this evening, I will teach Elfhild how to milk a goat." She ignored Zâhof, who was silently fuming, her eyebrows furrowed and her lower lip thrust out in a pout. "Would you like that, Elfhild?" She turned to look at the Rohirric girl, smiling as she handed her a mint leaf.

"Yes, I would enjoy that very much," Elfhild replied, nodding. "My family had a milch cow, and my sisters and I took turns milking her." She put the dried mint leaf on her tongue, enjoying the way it refreshed her mouth. The disagreement between Kaira and Zâhof made her uneasy, and she hoped that the two would not let their differences disturb the calm of the day. While Zâhof could be friendly and caring, she had a mercurial temper and many opinions which she felt strongly about, and she was not afraid to let anyone around her know just how she felt. Whenever there was a quarrel between the handmaidens, Zâhof and her erratic moods were usually the culprits behind it.

Elfhild had lived among the Dolrujâtar for seven days, and in that brief time, she had gotten to know Lady Shabimi's five servants fairly well. When she had been first brought to the nomad village, she had not known what to expect. She had the fear of all women: the fear of violence and rape. But no evil had befallen either Özlem or her, and they had been treated with kindness and made to feel welcome. Yet while she dwelt with Lady Shabimi’s servants and toiled alongside them in their labors, she did not feel that she was truly a part of the lady’s household. In truth, both she and Özlem were prisoners awaiting their doom. However, while Özlem was quite content to pursue a romance with Shakh Zarkfir, Elfhild knew she would find no happiness among the Dolrujâtar, for the pain of separation from her sister was too great. She worried that Shakh Najor planned to marry her off to one of his sons, or present her as gift to an influential man from a different family. Then she might never see Elffled again! Whenever Elfhild thought of the possibilities, her spirits plunged into despair.

She had been awakened before dawn that morning and had taken her breakfast with Kaira and the other handmaidens. Lady Shabimi had already left to prepare breakfast for her husband, as was her custom. Kaira informed the girls that it had been their mistress' wish for Nadrói and Azul to stay in the village and tend to the vegetable garden, while the rest of the handmaids were to watch over the goat herd in the arid grasslands beyond the village. Elfhild marveled that anyone could plant a garden in the desert and expect it to grow, but here at the oasis, water was more plentiful, and a few hardy crops could survive. Özlem had not been feeling well the past few days, so she had been given leave to rest in Lady Shabimi's tent. The lady and her handmaidens believed that Özlem's malaise was caused by her monthly blood, but Elfhild knew the truth of the matter: Özlem had taken a potion that would ensure that the seed of the orcs would never grow and flourish. Although uruks and other half-breeds composed a good part of the Dark Lord's armies, women who had relations with orcs were often shunned. Not wanting her friend to be banished from the village and driven into the desert to die, Elfhild had sworn to keep Özlem's secret safe.

Elfhild was trying to learn all she could about the Dolrujâtar, for she did not want to say or do anything that would cause insult or offense. Özlem and the other girls had taught her a few words in Black Speech, adding to those that she had already learned from Rose Petal. They had explained some of their customs to her, but there was so much to learn. Being from the faraway North, Elfhild was a curiosity to the nomads. Their fascination with her golden hair made her feel awkward, especially when one of the children would start playing with it without her permission. During the nights when they sat in the tent and sipped tea from tiny glasses, Shabimi's handmaidens had asked her all about Rohan, wanting to know what the land looked like, how the people there lived, their stories, songs and legends.

Elfhild had told them of great warriors and legendary battles; the famed mearas, the horses of the Kings of Rohan; fire-breathing dragons and their hoards of treasure; the Elf Queen of the enchanted forest of Dwimordene; ghosts, wights, and shadow-walkers, the haunters of barrows; draugrs who ate the flesh of the living; and other terrifying supernatural creatures, as well as brave heroes and heroines who outwitted their clutches. Kaira had often been the instigator of these questions, and Elfhild had come to realize that the other girls were quiet and listened whenever Kaira spoke. As the eldest of Shabimi's handmaids, Kaira had taken it upon herself to make the Northern girl feel at home, and Elfhild appreciated Kaira's kindness.

In return for tales of Rohan, the handmaids had told her tales of Mordor… tales of Baur Tîmorsham, a mysterious canyon that was said to be filled with both vast treasure and untold horror; an enormous spider that dwelt within the mountains and filled the caves with her foul brood; an enchanted city where an undead king held court; an ancient brotherhood composed of nine immortal sorcerers, alchemists, and necromancers; a mighty Tower that was surrounded by impenetrable gloom; secluded mountain valleys where dwelt strange and terrifying creatures of an earlier age; and a great inland sea where ships sailed to and fro upon the dark waters. Elfhild let her imagination soar, imagining herself writing a great book telling of her own adventures and the stories that she had collected on her travels. If only she could read and write...

Life was entirely different among the Dolrujâtar than it had been when Elfhild and her sister had been with Esarhaddon. The slave trader had often told the twins that he planned to sell them to a rich and influential buyer. She had expected to spend her days in a lavish palace, the concubine of some wealthy Mordorian lord, but at the oasis, all she had seen was a sun-washed village of simple goat hair tents. Things were so different from Rohan, and she had been shocked to discover that there were no houses or barns. The few goats that were kept at the oasis were stabled in corrals, little more than rude wooden pens with only a cloth awning to provide shade. Since rainfall was seldom and sparse, Elfhild supposed it did not matter. Though the village might be simple, the oasis resembled a blue and green jewel in the barren wastes. She thought what a prize that water was in a land where the rainfall was scant and infrequent. Men would fight for water, for water was life in the desert.

The women told her that almost everything they used was produced from their own flocks and herds. Other essential goods had to be purchased from military outposts, other villages, or caravans. While there were few luxuries, Lady Shabimi did not lack for jewels, gifts to her from her husband and other relatives. When she had first arrived at the oasis, Elfhild was surprised to learn that Shakh Najor and his wife did not share the same tent. The chieftain had two other wives besides Shabimi, and each had her own tent and handmaidens. Shabimi was his first wife, and as such she was accorded great respect, even ruling over his other wives. Shabimi's handmaidens had confided in Elfhild that while Najor still loved their mistress, he preferred to spend his evenings with his newest wife, whom he had recently married. While Shabimi was hurt that she no longer held first place in his heart, she was too dignified and reserved ever to discuss it with anyone. Her servants were in full sympathy with their mistress, disapproving of Najor's ill treatment of his first wife. "This new wife is a she-dog," Kaira had told Elfhild in confidence. "Once he gets her with child, he will no longer visit her tent and probably will seek for another to warm his bed." Zâhof had added snidely, "That is, IF he gets her with child. From what I hear, our master's seed is no longer potent because of his age."

Elfhild and Özlem had been accepted by Shabimi's handmaidens, enjoying an easy camaraderie with the other girls. Though they were servants of the chieftain's wife, they all had to work – helping to prepare the meals, making butter, cheese, sewing, weaving, and taking care of the animals. After she had grown accustomed to the goats, Elfhild's new life was not that much different from the one she had lived in Rohan. She thought she might enjoy living with the Dolrujâtar, if she were not so grieved by the absence of her sister and the death of Esarhaddon. She tried not to dwell upon her losses, for she could fall into a depression when she thought of all the loved ones who were now dead. Her mother, her father, her brother Eadfrid, Tarlanc the kindly old miller, her master Esarhaddon… She remembered the words she had spoken to Durraiz in the desert, words spoken out of a fey desperation, outrageous words which had convinced her tormentor that she was insane. Sometimes she wondered if she really were cursed by the Dark Lord of Mordor, cursed to be a survivor while all those she loved suffered and died. But she knew that such a notion was silly, and the only reason the grim fancy had come to her in the first place was because she had given in to despair and grief. Even now, though her life was not in imminent danger, it was all she could do to keep the sorrow at bay. At night, she sobbed into her blanket, hoping the other girls would not hear her. If they did, they never mentioned it. She had told them of Elffled, and they all knew that she missed her terribly.

Lârniz's soft voice interrupted her thoughts, and when Elfhild looked over at the younger girl, she saw that she had picked up a baby goat and placed it on her lap. Elfhild reached her hand over and scratched the pretty little creature behind its ears.

"The little one's mother died when it was younger, but fate was with the poor thing. A doe who had lost her own kid accepted it, mothering it as though it were her own. The young one is thriving now, but she is my own special pet," Lârniz explained.

Elfhild smiled. "She certainly is sweet. Does she have a name?"

"Yes; it is Mâthî," Lârniz replied. "It means 'Honey.'"

A pang of nostalgia struck Elfhild, and she felt the smile slowly fade from her face. "That is my little cousin's nickname… although she is not called Mâthî, but rather Hunig in the language of my people." She wondered if she would ever see her cousin and aunt again. She tried to imagine what they were doing at that very moment; perhaps Elffled was with them, and they were trying to comfort each other. "Their hearts must be heavy with worry," Elfhild fretted to herself.

"I know you miss your family," Kaira remarked sympathetically. "But if Shakh Najor decides that you and Özlem will stay with the tribe, know that you have a home here, and that the both of you are welcome among our people." Lârniz and Zâhof nodded in agreement.

Thanking the handmaidens for their kindness, Elfhild fell silent and retreated from the conversation. The girls chattered on around her, speaking in Westron for her benefit as they discussed the latest village gossip. After rattling off a list of names of people whom Elfhild barely knew and all their assorted doings and deeds, the topic settled upon Nadrói, who ranked second in seniority among Lady Shabimi's handmaids. Nadrói had recently been betrothed to a Dolrujâtar warrior named Dhrâk, and they would be wed in September.

"Shakh Dhrâk is quite taken with Nadrói, for he has offered five sheep, five goats, and several bolts of fine cloth for her hand in marriage," Kaira told Elfhild, a knowing tone in her voice.

"A worthy brideprice," Elfhild remarked, somewhat enviously. She wondered if her father would have demanded so much for her, and concluded that he might have settled for a lot less. After all, she was the daughter of a peasant, and Nadrói was the servant of a tribal chieftain's wife.

"I cannot wait for the wedding," Lârniz sighed dreamily. "It will be such a glorious event!"

"The only reason Nadrói is getting married is because the mistress was finally able to find someone who was willing to marry her," Zâhof snorted, her sour words drawing disbelieving looks from the other girls. For many years, she had loved Dhrâk from afar, but had never possessed the courage to approach him. Then when Dhrâk had announced his interest in Nadrói, Zâhof felt hurt and betrayed, both by her friend and the man whom she fancied.

"Zâhof, you are jealous!" Lârniz retorted, coming to Nadrói's defense. "You always were envious of Nadrói, and now you are angry because Dhrâk chose her instead of you." Frightened by the raised voices, the kid on her lap woke up, and after scrambling to its feet, ran bleating for its adopted mother. "Now see what you have done!" Lârniz chided, throwing her hands up in the air.

"Please, now, Lârniz and Zâhof, do not quarrel!" Kaira admonished them, becoming increasingly alarmed at the argument. "What will our guest think of us?" She turned to Elfhild. "I apologize for the behavior of my fellow handmaidens."

"My sister and I sometimes argue," Elfhild laughed softly, hoping her words would help diffuse the situation. "We have had some quarrels that went on for days."

"Still, it is not considered acceptable to discuss differences in the presence of guests," Lârniz added, determined to have the last word. Her supercilious remark earned her a disapproving look from Kaira, and she blushed in embarrassment.

"Lârniz, you are my friend, as close almost as sisters. For my sake, if nothing else, will you try to get along with Zâhof?" Kaira pleaded.

Lârniz sighed heavily. "I will try... if she will," she muttered.

"We should all try to treat each other with respect, or our lives will be miserable!" Kaira implored, trying to keep the peace of the household. "Now if everyone will just sit down, I would be pleased to share some of the honey cakes I brought with me. Everyone seems to enjoy them, or perhaps I just like to think that." She gave a nervous laugh.

"Your cakes are delicious, and I would be delighted to have some," Lârniz exclaimed, eager to compliment the leader. She gave Zâhof a mildly challenging glance.

With Kaira's efforts at peacemaking at least partially successful, the two antagonists seemed to calm. The corners of her mouth held in a stiff smile, Zâhof gracefully lowered herself to the blanket. Lârniz sat quietly, an equally uncomfortable expression on her face.

Kaira retrieved a small bundle which she had placed under the acacia. When she returned to the other girls, she unwrapped the parcel and spread it upon the ground. Inside were some golden brown cakes, the delicate smell reminding the girls that they had not eaten for hours.

At that moment, they caught sight of a breathless Azul racing up the hill towards them. Alarmed, the handmaidens were instantly upon their feet. Elfhild sensed their barely concealed fear, and wondered what new danger they faced. Several of the girls had brought staffs to assist them in herding the goats; these could be used for defense as well, should there be trouble. Elfhild felt her hand go to the knife at her belt, wondering if she would be forced to use it.

"Azul, what is wrong?" Kaira laid a hand upon the younger girl’s shoulder to steady her while she tried to catch her breath.

"Has someone been hurt?" Zâhof asked, moving to stand beside Kaira.

"Has there been another orc attack?" Lârniz demanded, close to panic.

"No, no, everything is fine," Azul panted. "Shakh Zarkfir is going to marry Özlem!"

A collective gasp went up from the other girls, and then they all began chattering at once, uttering exclamations of surprise and asking questions concerning the upcoming marriage. Since there was no danger, the handmaidens all returned to sitting on the large boulder beneath the acacia tree.

"I cannot believe it," Kaira remarked uncertainly. "I never thought that he would ever marry." Everyone had expected the shakh's elder son to remain a bachelor until his dying days. Even though he took a woman as a lover from time to time, his preference for handsome young men was almost infamous, much to the embarrassment of his parents. She felt a sudden pang of sorrow strike her heart, for she had secretly loved Shakh Zarkfir since they were children, even though he seldom looked in her direction.

"Well, we all know how much time they spent together when she first arrived at the village," Zâhof pointed out with a knowing wiggle of her eyebrows. "And how frequently he visits Lady Shabimi's tent to inquire of Özlem's health."

"He is totally smitten with her," Lârniz sighed dreamily. "How very romantic…" She clasped her hands together and pressed them to her heart, a wistful expression upon her face.

"Could you tell us again about how this all transpired?" Nadrói requested.

Azul's golden brown eyes glittered with excitement, and she basked at being the center of attention. "He threatened that if he did not get his way, he would take Özlem with him and leave the tribe forever. Shakh Najor was outraged, but Lady Shabimi interceded, giving the union her blessing."

"Our lord is wise to respect the wishes of our lady upon such a matter," Nadrói remarked sagely, nodding to herself.

"Shakh Zarkfir is such a rebel!" Lârniz's dark eyes twinkled with the hint of scandal. "I can just imagine what the tribal elders will have to say!"

"I had heard rumors that Shakh Najor was hoping for an alliance between the Kukumak Clan and a marriage between his son and the daughter of their chieftain." Zâhof tapped her chin, looking thoughtful. "I wonder if anything shall come of that now?"

"Bah, Lady Latagúniz is fat and ugly." Azul made a face. "He is much better off with Özlem than her."

"I wish Shakh Zarkfir and Özlem much happiness." Elfhild had seen the way that Özlem looked at Zarkfir, and the way he had returned her glances with equal longing. If Özlem could find happiness with Zarkfir, she hoped that they could find a way to be together despite all the obstacles that they faced.

As Zâhof was reaching for the last remaining cake, she froze in place, listening to some sound in the distance. "A horn!" she exclaimed, rising to her feet and dropping the cake. The other handmaidens were quickly upon their feet, their eyes scanning the distance. Soon other horns sounded their warning blare, alerting the village below.

"Your ears are sharper than mine, Zâhof." Kaira shook her head. "I never even heard the first horn."

"There! Can you not see it? The dust cloud to the north," Zâhof pointed out, her voice filled with alarm. "Riders are approaching, and approaching rapidly at the rate the cloud is moving!"

"Round up the goats," Kaira warned them. "We must get back to the village at once!"

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