Elfhild awoke to find herself lying upon the hard, rocky ground of Gorgoroth. Above her, the stars shone faintly through the heavy haze of the polluted atmosphere. Where was she? What had happened? It was as though her head were filled with cobwebs, and nothing seemed quite real. She heard low voices, both male and female, and sensed that others were close. Turning over onto her side to get a better view, she instantly recoiled when she saw that a small band of uruks had set up camp nearby. As her frightened gaze took in their savage features, their glinting eyes and sharp fangs, suddenly memories came flooding through in crystal clarity.
Knives ripping through the wall of the tent… the glint of the lanterns reflecting off the wicked blades… the advance of the uruk attackers into the room… their feral eyes gleaming, their slavering mouths gnashing with rage, so worked up were they in their lust for blood and vengeance… So much like that night back in May… the night her home had been raided, her mother murdered… the night when she had been forced to embark upon this journey of the damned…
She and Lord Esarhaddon had been sharing an intimate moment, their unclad bodies revealed to each other… She had decided to surrender to him that night, both out of fear and the emotion that she dared not name, the feeling she was afraid to feel, for it would make her even more helpless than she already was. Though he did not love her, Esarhaddon had proven that he could be a tender lover if he wished, and his kisses had left her feeling breathless and wanting more. He had commanded her to kneel before him and worship his body… She had never known that such practices existed, but she, an unwed maiden, knew little about the act of love and all its myriad variations.
It was in that embarrassing and vulnerable position that the uruks found them. She had tried to escape, but a huge uruk seized her and held her fast. The slave boy who had been in attendance attempted to defend his master, but the fiends sliced off his dagger arm with as much ease as a butcher slicing through a slab of beef. The blood sprayed from the severed stump, splattering upon the walls of the tent. Then one of the fiends thrust his scimitar into the boy's chest and then kicked the dying boy away from him to land upon the blood-stained carpet. The ill-fated servant's death… so much like her own mother's death… and that of poor old Tarlanc the Miller… all three of them unfortunate victims of the barbarity of the uruks…
Elfhild tried to push these dreadful memories into the back of her mind and focus solely upon the present. Where was Elffled? Had she managed to escape somehow, or had the uruks murdered her? Dread clenched Elfhild's heart like an icy, taloned hand, and panic rippled through her body, causing her stomach to churn and roil. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she felt like sobbing out her anguish in loud, piercing wails. Clenching her fists, she tried to regain control over herself. She could not imagine a world without Elffled, and did not know if she wished to live in such a bleak and deary place. Losing her twin would be like losing a part of herself, like having her heart ripped from her chest, like having her very being hewed in twain. Such a devastating loss would be too great to bear, the desolation as black and empty as the Void beyond the light of the glittering stars.
And what of Lord Esarhaddon? Was he dead as well? That had been the purpose of the attack on the slaver's tent, so that the uruks could have their bloody revenge. Though she had only known Esarhaddon for a short time, Elfhild felt bound to him by bonds of both servitude and affection. Yes, she was his slave, and though she might resent it, she owed him her loyalty… and her love. After all, if it had not been for his timely intervention, she would have died a slow and agonizing death from torture at the hands of Sharapul. He had saved her life a second time when he pulled her back from the Morgulduin, for the river's spell had compelled her to leap to her death in the treacherous waters. Together they had traveled through an enchanted valley that was bewitched by dark sorcery and haunted by spirits, both falling prey in different ways to the magic spells which lay over their surroundings. Then they were taken prisoner by the garrison of Cirith Ungol, and she and her sister would have died along with Esarhaddon and his men had it not been for the Seneschal of Minas Morgul. Yes, Elfhild and her master had been through many ordeals together. But was he still alive? Or had the cruel uruks murdered him, just as they had murdered the servant boy? Tears now streamed freely down her face, and she swallowed hard against the painful lump in her throat.
She must have fainted after she had witnessed the gruesome murder of the slave boy, for that was all she remembered. Trying to move as little as possible lest she attract the attention of the uruks, Elfhild looked around at her surroundings. The caravan was nowhere to be seen, and she was surrounded by miles and miles of bleak, rocky wasteland and the endless Mordorian night. She caught a movement out of the corner of her eye, and saw a girl lying upon the ground near her. Though her head was covered by her cloak, the girl's shoulders were shaking softly from quiet weeping. Elffled! Had those fiends hurt her sister?
"Elffled, are you all right?" Elfhild whispered, her hand reaching out across the rocky desert sand towards the other girl.
The girl lifted her hooded head and Elfhild saw the light brown face of the santur player who had been providing musical entertainment for Esarhaddon. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. Elfhild squeezed her hand comfortingly, and the girl gave her a tiny tremulous smile.
"What is your name?" Elfhild asked.
"Özlem," the girl replied.
"I am Elfhild."
"Ooo, so the little beauty awakens!" Her wide hips swinging with each step, an enormous she-orc sauntered over to Elfhild and leered down at her. Whimpering with fear, Özlem cringed upon the ground and thrust her arm over her face, as though to protect herself from a blow. Elfhild had seen the uruk before from a distance; she was Durraiz, one of the caravan guards.
"Where... where are we?" Elfhild looked up fearfully at the big she-orc.
"Why, you're in the desert with me, dearie!" Durraiz squatted down beside Elfhild and picked up a loose section of her hair in her taloned hand. The uruk sniffed the golden strands and then used them to pull Elfhild closer so she could bury her nose in the girl's thick, unbound tresses. "You might be a strawhead, but your hair certainly doesn't smell like straw! Thank the Mighty Melkor in the Blessed Void, for if it did, I would start sneezing!" Chuckling, the she-orc nuzzled her cheek against the side of Elfhild's face.
Elfhild's heart pounded frantically in her chest as Durraiz pawed and sniffed her hair like an animal. The Rohirric girl's own nose stung with the stench of orc, and she took in shallow breaths to avoid breathing in the loathsome smell. Once again, her body was being defiled by an enemy. She wondered if the unwanted touches of a woman were preferable to the unwanted touches of a man, for perhaps a woman would be more gentle in her rapine. However, this was a female orc, and Elfhild suspected that she would be just as cruel and heartless as her male counterparts, if not more so. The race of Orcs was a barbaric one, in which the weak were brutalized while the strong survived, and if a female sought power and respect, she had to bite, claw, and kick her way through life. Perhaps there really was not that much difference between the races of Orcs and Men after all…
Elfhild pushed herself away from her abhorrent admirer. "Where is my sister?"
"The little wench must have hidden herself away or slipped out when we were paying a visit to your master earlier this eve." Scowling, Durraiz grabbed Elfhild's shoulders and roughly pulled her into her lap. "'Tis a pity, for two strawhead girls are better than one! If me mates and I had been able to nab your sister and a couple other Rohirric wenches, I could have started me a harem!"
A surge of relief washed over Elfhild. Her sister had been able to escape these fiends! There was hope after all! Well, hope for Elffled at least. Elfhild did not see much hope in her current situation.
"I am Durraiz, your new mistress," the she-orc rasped into Elfhild's ear as she swirled her tongue around the pink shell and then playfully bit the lobe. "I killed your old master, so you're mine now!"
"Lord Esarhaddon is… dead?" Elfhild's mouth suddenly felt as dry as the desert around her, and she perceived each heartbeat thud dully in her chest like a hammer striking a coffin nail.
"Aye, I stuck him in the gut and put a maggot hole in his belly, but not before I had a little fun with my knife," Durraiz chuckled menacingly. "Carved up his prick real good, I did… although I daresay he didn't have much wood to whittle… just a measly little twig!" The she-orc howled in laughter.
Durraiz' revelation struck Elfhild like a punch from an iron fist, and she felt stabbing pangs of dread slam into her chest and stomach as though she had been pierced by a barrage of arrows. Tears obscuring her vision, she began to gasp frantically for breath, as though she were fleeing from an enemy.
"No, no, it cannot be," Elfhild moaned as her body began to rock back and forth, seemingly of its own accord. "The brave Esarhaddon uHuzziya cannot be dead!"
"He is deader than a three-day-old corpse molderin' in the sun," Durraiz chortled triumphantly.
Holding her head in her hands, Elfhild sobbed wildly. Esarhaddon, her beloved master, was now dead, yet another victim of the treacherous orcs! It seemed as though the grim spectre of Death followed her around, claiming both friend and foe alike, but yet always sparing her. Her father and brother had been slain upon the Fields of Pelennor, and then her mother had been murdered by orc raiders. Then Tarlanc, the kindly old miller who had tried to help her and her sister escape to Rohan, had been murdered by Sharapul, along with his dog and two horses. Sharapul, too, would soon join him in death, preceded by his catamite Âmbalfîm, whom he had accidentally killed in a vicious lover's quarrel. Then there was Corporal Bekir, who was brutally executed by an angry woman whom he had tortured and abused, and almost all of the garrison at Cirith Ungol was hung from meat hooks from the fortress walls for their treachery against Mordor. Esarhaddon and the servant boy who had given his life trying to protect his master were just the latest two victims in a long line of hapless souls who had the misfortune of meeting Elfhild. Yet it seemed that she was cursed always to survive, and to suffer…
"There, there, don't cry, dearie." Durraiz cupped Elfhild's chin in her hand and forced her face up to look into hers. "I'll make you forget all about your old master!"
While Elfhild was unconscious, the uruks had removed the iron slave collar about her neck and thrown a loose cloak over her shoulders to protect her unclad body from the thorny desert scrub brush. Unclasping the garment and pulling it aside, Durraiz gasped in anticipation when she saw the girl's naked body revealed once again to her gaze. Grabbing Elfhild by her hair, she pulled her close, crushing her lips beneath hers as her hand groped over her back to grasp her buttocks. Elfhild struggled against Durraiz as the she-orc raped her mouth with her tongue. Finally pulling away, Durraiz looked at Elfhild and laughed. "You might fight now, little she-cat, but I'll make you purr soon enough!"
So this was to be her fate… the whore of an orc woman who had slain her master in cold blood… dragged off to some orc den and raped repeatedly… tormented for cruel sport and forced to be the thrall of her master's murderer. But though her situation certainly appeared bleak, perhaps there was hope! After all, she was the bringer of death and destruction, the instigator of calamities, the maiden of doom. Soon Durraiz would be just as dead as Esarhaddon, just as dead as her parents, her brother, Tarlanc, Sharapul, Âmbalfîm, Corporal Bekir, and all the other random men and orcs who had been slain shortly after making the acquaintance of Elfhild daughter of Eadbald. Somehow the whole situation struck Elfhild as amusing, and she started laughing hysterically.
Taken back by the girl's laughter, Durraiz released her from her embrace. "Why do you laugh, wench?"
"Because… because…" Elfhild gasped out, her body shaking from a fit of giggles, "I am cursed! I bring death to all those whom I meet! Soon you, too, shall die, just like Lord Esarhaddon. Whether it is by the hands of Esarhaddon's men, or a treacherous comrade, or even a sand viper buried beneath the ground, doom will surely find you, for you have had the misfortune to kidnap a cursed maiden!"
"Who cursed you?" the she-orc demanded. Perhaps the girl was so terrified that she was babbling out of her head… or perhaps she was telling the truth. Whichever was the case, Durraiz felt that perhaps she should exercise caution around this beautiful golden-haired wench.
"Oh, I do not know…" Elfhild shrugged dramatically, lifting her arms into the air with a theatrical rolling flourish of her hands. "But I suspect the Lord of Mordor has bestowed this curse upon me, for a curse so great could only be issued by someone who has great power, and do not the Dark Lord's followers call Him the King of Men and Lord of Middle-earth?"
Durraiz' face was filled with horror. "If you speak truth, wench, then truly you are damned!"
"Yes, yes, I am damned indeed!" Elfhild cried, her eyes wild and fey. "I do not know what quarrel the Lord of Mordor has with me, but I do believe that the Great Eye has gazed upon me with disfavor!" Suddenly, Elfhild was overcome by another fit of hysterical laughter which left her doubled over from mirth and pounding the ground with her fists.
The girl's erratic behavior was disturbing Durraiz, and she grabbed her shoulder and slapped her across the face. "Stop this laughter! You are talking nonsense!"
Elfhild brought her hand up to her cheek, and discovered that her face felt strangely numb. This lack of sensation amused her even more, and she laughed all the more robustly. For the first time since that doleful spring when her father and brother had ridden off to war, she felt free, liberated from all fear, giddy with a fey joy. It did not matter that an entire camp of uruks was staring at her unclad body; in fact, somehow her state of undress made her feel even more free, and the urge came over her to dance through the desert beneath the light of the stars. Was this madness? If it was, perhaps she should embrace it fully! After all, she was doomed anyway. Was it not better to die laughing, with a smile upon her face and a curse upon her lips, than it was to die as an ignoble coward, whimpering with fear and pleading for her life?
Wrenching her shoulder free from the she-orc's grasp, Elfhild suddenly leapt to her feet. "Take me to Barad-dûr," she demanded, staring down at an astonished Durraiz. "I would seek an audience with the Lord of Mordor and make a formal complaint about my unlucky fate!"
The she-orc was swiftly upon her feet and blocking Elfhild's path. "You fool!" Durraiz hissed. "One does not simply have an audience with the Great Eye!"
"And why not?" Elfhild demanded, thrusting her hands upon her hips. "It is obvious that I am very important to the Great Eye, for He has sought fit to curse me!" She tossed her head arrogantly, one hand coming up to flip her long, blonde mane high into the air. "I demand to see the Lord of Mordor right now!" She stomped her foot for emphasis.
"Be quiet, wench! You never know who's listening!" Durraiz's eyes darted around fearfully, as though expecting the Dark Lord to smite them both at any moment.
"Very well then, if you will not take me to see the Dark Lord, then I challenge Him to come here, to meet me face to face, and tell me why He has cursed me!" Elfhild flounced away and shook her fist towards the dark shadows gathered upon the northeastern horizon. "Do you hear that, Great One?" she screamed into the Mordorian night. "I demand You come forth and meet me!"
Her hands flying up to clasp her face, Durriaz moaned in horror. "You are mad! You do not know what you are saying! Only a mad fool would dare challenge the Dark Lord in His own realm! You will bring death and destruction upon us all!"
Pivoting upon the ball of her foot with a dancer's grace, Elfhild spun around to face Durraiz. "I am cursed, so what does it matter?" Impulsively she threw herself into Durraiz's arms, her bare breasts pressing into the uruk's leather brigandine. Wrapping her arms around the startled she-orc's neck, Elfhild kissed her passionately. "Kiss me, my lover, and we shall meet death together!"
Growling in rage, Durraiz thrust a giggling Elfhild away from her. The Rohirric girl landed upon the ground, shrieking with deranged amusement. Rejected by an orc! Now that was quite an achievement!
"Bloody bitch has lost her senses," Durraiz muttered, shaking her head. "A shame, she was so pretty!"
Elfhild discovered that the uruks left her alone after her wild outburst. In fact, they seemed afraid of her now. However, while the uruks ignored Elfhild, they took out their perverse lusts upon Özlem. Tears filled Elfhild's eyes as the grunting, reeking bodies of the uruks crushed the girl's frail body under their pounding haunches. Closing her eyes and pressing her hands against her ears, Elfhild rocked back and forth and whimpered to herself, trying to drown out the sounds of Özlem's screams of pain and the uruks' grunts and moans. If only she could protect the girl, rescue her from her tormentors! She wished she had some sort of weapon, but even if she had a dagger or sword, there was only one of her against a band of huge, powerful uruks. Great waves of guilt crushed down her spirit, and she felt utterly useless.
She clenched her fists, digging her ragged nails into her palms. The horrors which bombarded her senses were too much for her to handle, and she longed for escape. An inexplicable compulsion came over her, and she imagined taking out her futile rage upon her own body. She had a vision of her fingernails growing and transforming into claws, and then she saw herself raking these deadly talons down the inside of her left forearm. She watched as the blood sprung up to the surface and then trailed down her arm in bright red rivulets. Then the vision was gone, and all she saw was her pale skin in the darkness. Tears streamed down her face as she gave over to despair. She hated herself, for sorrow and woe befell everyone around her, and she was helpless to prevent these calamities from happening or ease the pain of those who suffered. She hated herself because the only reason why she was spared from the rape of the uruks was because she had frightened the superstitious creatures with her hysterical theatrics. She hated herself because she was so weak and helpless; she hated herself because she was a slave and had no control over her destiny; she hated herself because she had the misfortune to continue to live while those whom she loved were tormented or slain.
As Özlem's screams filled her ears and broke her heart, Elfhild could not help the wails of anguish which tore from deep inside her aching chest. Her fingers clawed her skull and pulled her hair in utter misery, and she longed for an escape, even if it meant death. Her breath coming in quick, short gasps, she rocked back and forth, fighting the compulsion to bash her forehead against the rocky ground until she lost consciousness. Tears streaming down her face, she began to cough and gag, choking upon her sobs. Ripping pains tore across her middle and she doubled up in agony, spilling the contents of her stomach upon the desert sand. In a delirium of pain and despair, she crawled blindly upon her hands and knees, crying out for her sister to comfort her. Then, collapsing upon the ground, she lay as one dead.
How much time had passed, Elfhild did not know. All she knew was that Özlem was kneeling over her, crooning soft words of comfort as she rubbed a cool cloth across her forehead. When her vision cleared, Elfhild saw that light was gathering in the eastern horizon.
"Oh, Özlem, I am so sorry," Elfhild moaned weakly. "I wish I could have done something to stop them, to keep those fiends from hurting you!" She tried to sit up, but the world tilted and swirled about her, and she fell back on the hard ground.
Özlem gave Elfhild a sad smile as she gently pressed the damp cloth against her face. "If you had, the uruks would have used you even more harshly than they did me. You frighten them, for they think you are mad, and thus you are given mercy."
"Perhaps the orcs are correct in their assumptions." Elfhild closed her eyes and sighed. "A fell mood came over me, and I was not acting like myself." She tried to sit up again, and was successful this time. "I should be the one tending to you!"
"I will survive," Özlem remarked grimly. "There is not a place on my body that does not hurt, but at least they gave me some orc-draught and salve to help with the pain. Besides, I have survived far worse." The girl's eyes became glassy for a moment, as though she were reliving a gruesome memory. "Now you lie back and rest a while. The uruks will be breaking camp soon. I do not know where they are taking us, but I doubt it is anywhere we want to go." A thoughtful expression came over her face. "You know, perhaps it is best that they think that you are mad."
"But why, Özlem?"
"If they perceive that you have recovered from a momentary lapse of reason, they will show you no mercy!" A horrible shudder rocked Özlem's body, and tears sprung into her dark brown eyes. "You do not want to suffer as I have! You are far too delicate, and it would destroy your mind. Make them think that you are insane, and they will treat you with a respect born of fear. Orcs are very superstitious creatures. If you are wise, you will use this weakness against them."
Elfhild considered Özlem's words. "I am not sure the orcs would believe this ruse. How would I play the part of a madwoman? I have never met one before!"
"You certainly did a good job convincing Durraiz that you were one," Özlem remarked wryly, patting Elfhild's hand when she gave her a hurt expression. "Claim that you are cursed by the Lord of Mordor. Claim that you have no memory of who you are. Claim that you are someone else. Just make up stories, the wilder the better!"
Elfhild sighed and stared into the distance, worrying her lower lip. "I just do not know…"
Özlem grasped Elfhild's hand and clutched it tightly as her frantic eyes bored into those of the Rohirric girl. "You are a good storyteller; you proved that when you told Lord Esarhaddon the tale about King Eorl and the stallion Felaróf. And your sister claimed that the two of you used to put on plays for your family. Now is the time to use those skills for your survival. Your life – our lives – might depend upon it!" Özlem's voice was filled with a desperate urgency, and she clasped Elfhild's hand with both of hers. "Perhaps if these monsters think that you are insane, they will see you as harmless and let their guard down around you, and you can escape while they are not looking. Then you could find your way back to the main road and alert the caravan so that Master Tushratta can send a rescue party back for me. Please, Elfhild! You must do this, for both of our sakes!"
Elfhild swallowed hard and then gave Özlem a brief, resolute nod. "Very well, I shall play the part of a raving madwoman. I will not let you down, my friend. Somehow we will survive – and escape!" She wondered, though, how much of the act would actually be acting, and how much would actually be real.