The Circles - Book Seven - Chapter 25

The Circles - Book Seven - Land of Treachery
Chapter Twenty-five
The Audition
Written by Elfhild and Angmar

With negotiations out of the way, all that remained were the necessary formalities to finalize the alliance between the House of Huzziya and the Dolrujâtar. A contract was drawn up, with all required parties adding their signature to the document. While the tribesmen usually drank date beer, Shakh Najor had in his possession a bottle of fine Nurnian wine which he had set aside for a special occasion. Toasts were raised, with all wishing for a prosperous future and an enduring partnership. The wedding was set for four days' time to allow Shakh Najor's family to prepare for the wedding and send out invitations to the far-ranging people of their tribe. The wedding festivities would last three more days, which meant that the caravan would be staying at the Oasis for a week. Esarhaddon was in a hurry to travel southward and come to journey's end, and he was sorely put upon by yet more delays. However, he felt obligated to attend the wedding, since it signified the alliance between the House of Huzziya and the Dolrujâtar.

Since Esarhaddon was almost a member of the tribe now, Shakh Najor took him on a grand tour of the village, with his eldest son pausing at various sites to give historical commentary. While Esarhaddon had dwelt in Nurn for some time, he mostly traveled between the city of Turkûrzgoi and his villa along the River Tornîn, or south to the Harnen Pass and then into Harad. This spring was the first time that he had ever traveled north, and he knew little about the various Dolrujâtar clans that dwelt in Lithlad. He found Zarkfir's history to be interesting, if a little dry, but he felt it was best to learn all he could about his new allies.

All during the tour, Tushratta kept glowering at Esarhaddon with silent disapproval. The slaver knew that his physician held great objections to him overtaxing himself, but the man was a chronic worrier. When they returned to the tour's starting point at Shakh Najor's tent, Tushratta finally gave voice to all his judgmental glares and much put upon sighs.

"Shakh Esarhaddon, need I remind you that your body is still healing from multiple wounds?" His voice low, Tushratta leaned in close so that only the other man could hear his words.

"Tushratta, why do I continue to pay you for giving me such worthless advice?" Esarhaddon grumbled.

"Because you were wise enough to hire the best physician you could find," Tushratta pronounced dryly. "Now, my friend, I would advise you to rest a while before the feast tonight. There will be much celebrating in the days to come, and you will need your strength. Besides, I need to change your bandages."

"You are like an old woman, Tushratta," Esarhaddon muttered. "You have become so dried up and serious that you have forgotten how to have a good time."

"Quite possibly, my shakh. The health of my patients is of prime concern to me, and that is a serious matter indeed."

"Very well, I will take a brief siesta – but only because you keep pestering me," Esarhaddon growled.

Informing Shakh Najor that he wished to retire to his tent, Esarhaddon bade the chieftain farewell for a time, expressing great anticipation for the feast later that evening. Since Esarhaddon and his men would be staying at the Oasis for several days, a cluster of tents had been set aside for them in a shady palm grove, with the grandest pavilion being reserved for the great shakh of the House of Huzziya. Shakh Najor's servant led the way to the guest tent, all the while boasting of the hospitality of his tribe and informing the slaver and his men that if they needed anything, all they had to do was ask, and all their wants and desires would be fulfilled. As Esarhaddon stepped inside the tent, he could find no fault with his accommodations, which were quite lavish for a goat herder's abode.

When the servant departed, Tushratta began his inspection of Esarhaddon's many injuries. Not only did Esarhaddon bear the wounds that Durraiz had dealt him, but he also bore the scars and partially healed wounds of his previous battles. The gash to his left calf that he received a month before in the skirmish at Cirith Ungol had taken forever to heal, but it was doing much better now. Then, only four days after the guards at the tower had laid hold of him and his men, he received a broken finger and a laceration to his forehead during the uruk mutiny near Stazmûlkrak. Five days after that, Durraiz and her band of rebels had attacked his tent. After roughing him up a bit, the she-orc had used the tip of her dagger to inflict many small cuts to his manhood before driving her blade into his side. Fortunately, his ribs had deflected the blow, but the knife plowed a deep furrow through his flesh, causing him to lose much blood. It had been twenty-two days since that fateful night, and his wounds still pained him.

"Your side is healing quite nicely," Tushratta informed him after finishing his examination. "The injuries to your member are doing well, but I cannot warn you enough that you must stay celibate for a while longer. Do not look at me that way, my friend. There is nothing I can do to speed up the healing."

Esarhaddon sighed heavily. "You have a way of taking all the amusement out of life."

"I want to see you restored to health just as quickly as you do, but you must be patient," Tushratta remarked sympathetically.

After the healer had departed, Esarhaddon was alone. He drew back the curtain to the inner chamber and saw Elfhild waiting for him in the muted afternoon light which penetrated the loosely woven walls of the tent.


Elfhild had been waiting in a state of nervous agitation, wondering what she would say to Esarhaddon. She blushed to think of their last meeting, and how close she had come to losing her innocence. "Innocence?" she then mused with a cynical scoff. "Why do people equate the act of lying with someone for the first time with a loss of innocence? Obviously, those who say such things have never seen war, for after you witness so much misery and death, you have little innocence left."

She could not think of the passionate kisses that she and Esarhaddon had shared that night, without also remembering the death of the brave servant boy who had tried to protect his master from the attacking uruks. She did not know what Esarhaddon would demand of her now that she was back in his possession, whether he would desire only conversation, or perhaps something more.

As for Elfhild, she was not sure what she desired. She always felt so confused around the handsome Southron. She resented the power he held over her, but she could not deny that there was a part of her that desired him. How could she not? Although he was much older than she, he was still quite attractive to the eyes, with his black hair and beard virtually untouched by age, and tawny skin the color of the desert sand. His roguish bearing radiated confidence, causing him to possess a combination of power and good looks that was quite tantalizing. Yet he was an enemy of her people, and she felt guilty for harboring feelings of fond regard for him, when she should hold the man in utter contempt. Then, too, he had an entirely different sense of morality than she did, and happened to have one of the most odious professions imaginable: a slave trader, one who profited from the subjugation of others. She should hate such a man! But she did not. She did fear him, though, for he held the power of life or death over her head. But whenever she thought of the future, she was filled with terror and desperation, and saw him as her only hope of survival. And then she was reminded once again of how handsome he was, and how her heart beat faster whenever she was around him. Indeed, her feelings for Esarhaddon uHuzziya were… complicated, to say the least.

Elfhild saw the curtains to the public chamber stir, and her face lit up with joy when she saw the familiar form of her lord. "Welcome, Master!" she exclaimed, instantly upon her feet, only to lower herself back down to the floor in a bow. She was so happy to see him alive again, after thinking for a fortnight that he had been killed.

"You may rise," Esarhaddon told her as he gingerly lowered himself down to the carpet along the side of the tent. His side had been hurting ever since Tushratta had bandaged it, and he suspected that the physician had made the bindings too tight.

"Would Master like something to drink?" Elfhild inquired, sitting back upon her heels. "Shakh Najor's servant left behind a jug of beer in case you were thirsty. I could also make tea, if you would prefer that instead. Lady Shabimi's handmaidens showed me how." She looked up at him inquisitively, eager to make him feel welcome. She wanted to tell him how relieved she was to learn that he had not been murdered by Durraiz, but she was not sure how to broach the subject. Slaves always had to follow certain protocols when addressing their superiors, and since she had not yet learned all the rules, she was afraid of committing some grave offense.

Esarhaddon shifted to a more comfortable position. "I would prefer the beer." Perhaps if he drunk enough, it would help numb the pain.

"As you wish, Master." Going over to a small cabinet on the opposite side of the tent, Elfhild took the clay jug and filled a bowl with the deep amber colored liquid. She was somewhat disappointed that he had not requested tea, because she had hoped to impress him with some of the cooking skills she had learned from the nomads. As she carefully carried the bowl, she took in his appearance. There were dark circles under his eyes, and he looked as though he had lost weight.

"The Dolrujâtar are very hospitable," Esarhaddon remarked after taking the bowl from Elfhild's hands. "This is the first time that the House of Huzziya has ever had dealings with the tribe. It is my hope that they will prove to be worthy allies in the future."

Elfhild smiled as she sat down cross-legged in front of him. "The Dolrujâtar have treated Özlem and me with great kindness. Lady Shabimi made us feel as though we were part of her family. In the week that I have lived among the tribe, I have learned much of their customs and ways."

"Özlem will soon become one of the Dolrujâtar," he informed her, taking a sip from the bowl. Although he preferred wine to beer, the draught was of excellent quality. "The House of Huzziya has entered into an alliance with the tribe, and as part of the agreement, Özlem will wed Shakh Zarkfir."

"Oh, that is wonderful!" Elfhild exclaimed, clasping her hands before her heart. "They make such a good couple."

"The wedding will be in four days, and the festivities will last an additional three days," Esarhaddon continued. "Though the thought of more delays pains me, it is in the best interests of the House of Huzziya that I stay for the wedding. The caravan is a day's journey south of here, and I have sent a messenger with instructions to travel to the Oasis. The caravan should arrive by tomorrow evening."

"I look forward to seeing my sister again," Elfhild murmured. She had feared that they might be separated forever.

"Elffled has pestered Rose Petal constantly in your absence, asking him if the scouts had found any traces of you."

Elfhild smiled. "Soon she will be able to put her worries to rest." At least for a while, the gloomy thought intruded upon her mind. Auction day was coming, and who knew what fresh horrors the future would hold?

"So, little flower, did you miss me?" He set the bowl down and gave her a roguish wink as he relaxed against the cushions.

"Oh, yes, Master!" Elfhild exclaimed, and then blushed, because she thought she had sounded too exuberant. Since Esarhaddon was her superior, she had to conduct herself with great formality around him. "I thought that the uruks had killed you, so I was mourning your death. I am very happy to see you alive and well."

"I am alive; I am uncertain how well I am," he chuckled, feeling once again the pain of his many injuries. "The fight with Durraiz and her band of rebels was almost my undoing. I do not know how much of the carnage you witnessed, but I suffered many severe wounds. One of the most grievous ones was in my side; fortunately, Durraiz' blade glanced off my ribs. Still, though, the gash was long and deep… any deeper, and she would have skewered my spleen." He did not mention the injuries that the she-orc had inflicted upon his manhood, for he feared that the slave girl would laugh at him.

"Are your wounds healing well?" Elfhild asked, her voice filled with concern.

"As well as can be expected," he assured her. "Although my physician seems to think that my body is made of glass and will shatter at any minute." He growled in frustration, which caused his side to hurt even more. "He insists upon applying these disgusting poultices to my wounds, and making me drink all sorts of foul potions that he claims are beneficial for healing. I doubt they do me any good, but I suppose they make him feel useful."

Elfhild giggled. "I am sure that Master Tushratta only wants what is best for you. After all your ordeals, you are lucky to be alive."

"I understand that both you and Özlem suffered quite a few ordeals yourselves."

"Yes, Master. It was terrifying to be taken prisoner by uruks, and then made to serve as a thrall in a goblin den." Elfhild looked down, not wishing to remember those dark days.

"You survived, though." Bracing his hands against the cushions, he carefully resumed a sitting position, and then studied her intently. "Why did the orcs think you were insane?"

Elfhild blushed and averted her gaze, shifting nervously. "I told Durraiz that the Dark Lord had cursed me, because everywhere I go, death seems to follow."

"Do you truly think this is so?"

"I have never made the Dark Lord's acquaintance, so I do not see why He would curse me, unless He curses all His enemies." Suddenly she felt a surge of resentment – towards Sauron, towards Esarhaddon, towards all of Mordor – and the words spilled out of her mouth with more fervor than she had intended. "In that case, all of the captives in your caravan are cursed, for the crime of hailing from Rohan."

"The Lord of Mordor desires to rule Middle-earth, not curse its inhabitants," Esarhaddon remarked drolly. "Unless you personally offended Him, I highly doubt that you are cursed. You merely have the misfortune of living through a time of great conflict." He paused, and then asked, "What else did you tell Durraiz?"

Elfhild's hands clenched the material of her skirt, wadding it around her fingers. Discussing her captivity among the goblins bothered her, and she had already given her account to Shakh Zarkfir, Lady Shabimi, and Captain Khaldun. "I – I demanded that she take me to the Dark Tower, so I could complain to the Lord of Mordor about the horrible curse which lay upon my head, and if she would not bring me to Him, then I demanded that He come to me." Just talking about the things which she screamed out in her anguish made her feel as though a shadow had descended upon the tent, and she shivered involuntarily.

"Those were dangerous words, Elfhild," Esarhaddon told her gravely. "Only a fool would dare provoke the wrath of the Lord of Mordor. It is no wonder the orcs thought you were mad."

"Yes, Master." Elfhild looked up, a sheepish expression upon her face. She would not tell him that she had passionately kissed Durraiz in a fit of hysteria; there were some things that were better left unsaid. "I did not mean any of the things I claimed, though! My heart was torn asunder with grief because I thought you were dead. I feared that I would never see my sister again, and I spoke with a fey rashness. Oh, it was horrible, Master!" She shuddered again and wrapped her arms around herself. She fought the urge to rock back and forth as she had done when she had fallen into the deepest pits of despair.

"While you have told me the reason that the orcs thought you were insane, you have not explained why they continued to believe this untruth." He regarded her skeptically, one eyebrow raised.

Elfhild lowered her arms and took a deep breath. "After hearing me… challenge the Dark Lord, the orcs became afraid of me. Özlem took note of this, and told me to continue acting as though my mind had been destroyed by all the horrors I had witnessed. She hoped that if the orcs thought that I was just a harmless madwoman, they might let their guard down around me, and I could escape back to the caravan to get help." Avoiding the intensity of his gaze, she looked down, awkwardly staring at her hands. "Nothing came of Özlem's plan, but we still managed to escape."

"You are both very clever," Esarhaddon remarked. Too clever, he mused. Such slaves could end up sticking a knife in your back, or ruling the country. "I find it astounding that the orcs believed your ruse."

Elfhild shrugged. "I suppose that, for once, luck was on my side."

"The night of the attack upon my tent, you told me that you and your sister had a small degree of acting experience, although you lack formal training in the theatrical arts. You must indeed have a natural talent if you can convince orcs that you are a madwoman." He gave her a long, scrutinizing look, as though he did not quite believe her tale, and then continued. "Though I have yet to see these amazing skills that you supposedly have, perhaps you would be well suited to becoming a performer upon the stage."

Elfhild was uncertain whether the slaver was being serious, or sarcastic. "Master, I am hardly a skilled actress. I am merely a peasant—"

"Yes, yes, I know." He brushed her protests away with an impatient wave of his hand. "But peasants can be trained in skills other than milking cows and plowing fields."

"Are… are there theatrical performances in Nurn?" Elfhild asked hesitantly.

"Mordor has many theatrical traditions, for its inhabitants hail from many different lands and peoples," Esarhaddon explained. "Most cities have a theatre; the larger ones often have several. Nobles with a love of the performing arts often keep a company of slaves to entertain them with vignettes and plays. Those who are less wealthy often hire entertainers to amuse their guests at feasts. Both men and women can ascend the stage in Mordor, although some cultures do not feel it is fitting for a woman to perform. Therefore, at one theatre, one will see a man playing a female role, while at another theatre, the same part is portrayed by a woman."

"How very curious," Elfhild remarked. She had never considered that Mordor could be so… so civilized. She felt even more backward than she usually did around the educated and worldly.

Obviously enjoying the subject, Esarhaddon continued. "You may be interested to learn of the Zrîalniz, highly skilled female entertainers who can sing, dance, and play music. Not all Zrîalniz houses feature trained actresses, but there are some that do. Some houses cater to noblemen and wealthy merchants, while others entertain noblewomen and their ladies in waiting. There are also troupes of performers who travel all over Nurn, entertaining both the peasantry and the nobility. Of course, the most talented actresses, singers, musicians, dancers, and acrobats are chosen to become court entertainers at Barad-dûr. That is an honor that few receive, however — only the most skilled and fortunate."

Elfhild was uncertain how fortunate an actor or actress really was if they were responsible for keeping the Dark Lord amused. "Most likely the price for failure is paid in blood," she thought grimly.

"I never knew these things, Master," she replied, hoping that he would not think her too ignorant.

"The people of the West are largely unaware of what transpires in lands other than their own." Esarhaddon's voice took on a gentle but patronizing tone. "Nor do they really care. They remain ignorant, some because the world for them ends beyond the bounds of their isolated villages, while others believe that their own lands are superior to all others in Middle-earth, and they have little regard for those whom they consider outsiders, inferiors, or enemies. Ignorance and apathy have many causes, some innocent, others more sinister. The more that one learns, however, the sooner that one can achieve true enlightenment. In Mordor, you will learn many things."

"I can imagine, Master." Elfhild was not so sure if she wanted to learn the teachings of Mordor, but she had little choice in the matter.

"Perhaps your future is with the theatre." Esarhaddon studied her for a long moment, his eyes seeming to bore into her soul before taking a leisurely journey along the curves and contours of her body. "The audience would certainly enjoy looking at you, although whether you have any actual talent or not remains to be seen."

Elfhild blushed hotly. "Master, I have little desire to be a stage performer."

Esarhaddon chuckled at her chagrin. "There are those who would sell their soul for fortune and fame."

"I – I would prefer a simpler life." Perhaps as your concubine, she thought as she gazed into his dark brown eyes.

"I would command you to perform for me, but I doubt that a peasant from Rohan would have knowledge of common plots and stock characters found in the theatrical traditions of the South and East." He sighed heavily with disappointment, but then his face brightened with potential hope. "By any chance, have you heard of the Lay of Leithan?"

"I have heard of the epic poem, although I do not know much about it." Elfhild remembered how Tarlanc the Miller had told her that he had been forced to recite sections of the lay to prove that he was a Gondorian citizen, but that was where her knowledge ended.

"The Lay is about a treacherous elf princess who seduced Melkor, the first Dark Lord, and stole one of the jewels from His crown. The Lay itself is very lengthy, but I will give you a summary of one of the most evocative scenes." Briefly he told her about the canto which dealt with the adventures of Luthien and Beren in Angband. Elfhild listened spellbound to the tale of the brave thieves who dared the horrors of the Dark Lord's fortress to retrieve a magic jewel for a brideprice. Of course, they were the villains in the Mordorian version of the story, but Elfhild knew that in the West theirs would be considered a tale of victory and hope. Esarhaddon paused for a moment after completing his synopsis, and his next words broke the spell that the tale had cast over Elfhild.

"Now that you understand the plot of this particular canto, I want you to prove your acting skills to me," Esarhaddon announced, a devilish grin upon his face. "The aigrette upon my turban shall be the Silmaril. You are to remove it from my turban, as Luthien pried the sacred gem from Lord Melkor's crown." He paused, and then added mischievously, "In the Western version of the story, Luthien enchants the Great One with her dancing and singing, causing Him to fall asleep. In some Mordorian versions, however, there are other reasons why Luthien left Lord Melkor in a state of exhaustion. I must say that I much prefer the Mordorian versions." He gave her a roguish wink. "Have no fear; I am only asking you to prove your acting abilities to me, not your skills in the art of love."

All the color drained from Elfhild's face, and she felt as though the carpet had been yanked out from beneath her, causing her to fall down into a bottomless pit. "But, but, Master, I cannot do this; I am unfamiliar with the Lay of Leithan; I have never had acting lessons—"

Esarhaddon sat up tall and proud, his chest puffed out and his spine stiff as a rod. "Who are you who flits around my hall like a bat, hiding in the shadows?"' he demanded in an authoritarian voice worthy of the dark and ominous character he was portraying. "Come forth and show yourself!"

A surge of panic shot through Elfhild like a white-hot bolt of lightning. This was just like that disastrous play back in Rohan, when her brother and sister kept forgetting their lines. At least they had lines; she had nothing, and had absolutely no idea what she was doing! But she had to do something, or she would look like an utter fool! She looked around wildly, her heart pounding in her chest. Seeing a sheet lying upon a large cushion, she snatched it up and threw it about her head and shoulders like a hooded cloak.

"Hail, O Great King." Her voice broke slightly, and she cringed at the sound. Closing her eyes and taking a deep breath, she tried to forget herself and imagine that she was this elven princess from the ancient days. "I am a – messenger, bearing tidings from afar." Her voice sounded more confident and less fearful this time. However, she worried that her tongue would stumble over the vampire character's unpronounceable name, so she decided it would be best to be purposefully vague and pray that Esarhaddon would not make her say Thuringwethil.

"Well, I find that rather strange indeed." Esarhaddon crossed his arms over his chest. "You see, my messenger just left, and you are not she, though you wrap yourself in her cloak. Now, liar, divest yourself of your disguise and tell me who you really are!"

Casting aside the sheet she used as a cloak, Elfhild bowed with a dramatic flourish. "I am Luthien, princess of the elven wood." All elves lived in forests, right? That was what she had always assumed, but she did not want to appear uneducated. "Well, even if Luthien lived in a city or a cave, now she lives in the forest," Elfhild mused to herself, defending her ignorance as creative liberty.

"Welcome, welcome to my hall." Esarhaddon spread his arms out wide in greeting. "Why have you journeyed to the North? Did your father send you to spy upon me? How callous he must be, to send his only daughter into danger." Propping his elbow upon his thigh, he leaned forward as he looked up at her from beneath his thick eyebrows, his gaze intense and scrutinizing.

"It was my choice, not his, to venture forth to your realm." Elfhild lifted her chin proudly. "Life in my father's court bores me, and so I have become a traveling minstrel. I have come here to offer my services to you, O Great King." She knelt down upon one knee, bowing her head and pressing her hand to her heart.

Stroking his chin thoughtfully, Esarhaddon raised his head and regarded her from beneath lazily half-lowered eyelids. "I should throw you in my dungeon for speaking falsehoods and trespassing in my domain, but your beauty is too great to be wasted amongst the orcs. Come closer, for I would gaze upon your loveliness."

My goal in this skit is to seduce the Dark Lord and bewitch him with my magic, Elfhild thought to herself as her mind raced to plan her next action. Or perhaps the goal is to seduce Esarhaddon? came the impish response in her brain. She blushed hotly, forgetting for a moment what she was doing. Then she remembered: portraying a renegade elf princess in the heart of the Enemy's lair.

Her heart pounding, she slowly crawled forward, halting just out of his reach. What should she do next? She was uncertain how to proceed. Time seemed to drag by at a snail's pace, while simultaneously racing forward like a runaway horse. She sat back on her heels, arching her back slightly and running her hands through her long hair. "And do you like what your eyes behold?" she asked, her voice velvety as she batted her eyelashes and pressed her forefinger against her lower lip. Too seductive, she thought, fighting the urge to break character and collapse into a fit of giggles. She felt absolutely ridiculous, as though she were impersonating a bar wench at a particularly unsavory tavern.

Esarhaddon suddenly felt very warm, and his fingers tugged at the neck of his tunic. "My eyes are quite pleased." His voice was low and hoarse, and his eyes glittered with barely concealed lust. "I will allow you to live – for the time. You shall be my toy, a pretty toy for an idle hour."

"An hour, perhaps, or perhaps many hours," she murmured, her voice a coquettish purr. Was that not what she, Elfhild, desired… to be the pretty toy of Esarhaddon uHuzziya … not just for the duration of this journey, but for all the days to come? She tried to pretend that she was not blushing, but her heart was pounding so hard that she feared it might burst within her chest, and she clenched her hands to stop their nervous trembling.

Damn these wounds! Esarhaddon thought angrily. This girl was exciting him far too much. "It all depends upon how well you please me," he growled. "I still have not decided whether you will live or not." He gazed upon the maiden who so freely offered herself to him. So pure, so fair… if his body were hale, he would be crushing her in his lair. Was this part of her portrayal of Luthien, or was Elfhild of Rohan trying to seduce him? He knew not, but the uncertainty added an element of mystery to her performance that was quite arousing.

"If you do not allow me to live, then how can I sing for you?" Rolling away from him, she gracefully rose to her feet. "For I am a minstrel, and I shall bring you sweet solace with my music."

The dance that Luthien performed before the Dark Lord wove a spell of sleep upon Him, causing Him to fall into an enchanted slumber. The dances of Rohan were quite lively, though, and Elfhild doubted that they could cause a spectator to fall asleep. No, a dance of the Mark would not be suitable for this scenario. Perhaps, though, she could use some of the knowledge she had learned from the Dolrujâtar women. Lady Shabimi and her handmaidens had showed her a ritual dance that was supposed to relieve a woman's pain during her time of the month. The movements were slow and graceful, although they did involve a lot of muscle isolation, a skill which Elfhild did not possess. Although she lacked training and technique, perhaps she could perform her own variation of these movements in her dance. She had to do something; standing there like a fool would simply not do.

She began to sing a Rohirric lullaby that her mother used to sing when she was a child. Since Esarhaddon could not understand her language, perhaps it would seem like a spell in some arcane tongue? Probably not, but that was the effect for which she was hoping. As she sang, she let her body sway from side to side, her hands trailing along as though they were skimming the water in a pond. She closed her eyes and tried to pretend that she was a beautiful elven princess whose powers of enchantment were so great they could subdue the Lord of Darkness Himself. Of course, if she really possessed such wonderous magical abilities, she would use them to sing and dance her way out of Mordor, although where she would go, she knew not. Were there any lands safe from the Shadow?

After she had danced a while, Esarhaddon closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep. Elfhild was surprised that he was actually playing along; she did not trust him, however, and suspected he might be planning to try to startle her by making a grab for her when she least expected it. Cautiously watching the reposing Southron, she sank to her knees beside him and carefully undid the pin in front of his turban. He looked so peaceful, with his eyes closed as though in sleep, but she knew he was only pretending. Impulsively she bent her head down and kissed him, and then leapt to her feet and spun away.

"Wonderful! Excellent!" Esarhaddon sat back up and clapped his hands.

Elfhild bowed with a dramatic flourish and then stood before him. And then she realized that she was shaking all over and could not breathe. All of the anxiety which she had tried so desperately hard to suppress during her performance came roiling up to the surface like water in a pot which has just come to a boil. The tent spun with the light of a thousand scintillating stars, and she felt the prickle of pins and needles in her cheeks and in her hands; she could no longer feel her feet at all.  

"Sit down before you faint," Esarhaddon chuckled. "Here, have a drink to soothe your nerves." He handed her the bowl of date beer and watched her finish off what was left. "I must admit that I was impressed by your performance. I never knew that the squalor of Rohan could hide such a diamond, unpolished though you may be." He reached out and tickled her under her chin.

Esarhaddon's insulting remark about her homeland hurt her, but she still smiled and giggled anyway. "I am glad that you enjoyed my performance, Master."

"With proper training, your skills will only improve, and so will your value. Who knows?" He shrugged. "Perhaps one day you shall entertain the Lord of Mordor Himself, and He shall reward me handsomely for procuring such a talented actress for His amusement." The slaver closed his eyes, imagining the coffers of gold that this pretty little trinket would bring him. Yes, yes, he had plans for this one…

Elfhild felt as though her heart had stopped beating and all of Eä had come to a sudden and abrupt end.

"But – but, Master, I want to be your slave!"

The words were out of her lips before she realized what happened, and she clasped her hands over her mouth, looking away in shame. How could she have said such a thing? How could she have uttered the words that her heart longed to say, when reason counseled her to remain silent?

"Nonsense, little flower." He patted her head as one pets a dog. "You do not wish to be the companion of a mere merchant when a far greater destiny awaits. Do not resist it!" he exclaimed emphatically. "And as you rise to the top, always remember that the House of Huzziya is the reason for your ascent."

At that moment, Esarhaddon heard a soft cough from the adjacent chamber, which was followed by the quiet, warbly voice of Udahok, Shakh Najor's elderly servant. He bade the man enter the room.

"Shakh Najor has invited you to take supper with him and his sons this evening," Udahok told Esarhaddon, and then his gaze went to Elfhild. "Lady Shabimi has invited your slave girl to dine with her and her handmaidens, if this would be acceptable to you."

Esarhaddon nodded. "It is acceptable. I also grant Elfhild permission to stay with Lady Shabimi until the caravan arrives, if this is agreeable to her."

"Very well." The servant humbly bowed his head. "I shall escort you to Shakh Najor's tent, and send word to Lady Shabimi to expect the arrival of Elfhild."

As Esarhaddon departed with the servant, Elfhild felt her eyes welling up with tears. She had only wished to impress her master, and now he wanted to sell her as an actress to some Nurnian playhouse. She felt the terror and uncertainty of the future closing in upon her, like a hangman's noose… Truly, she was doomed.

Next Chapter

Previous Chapter
Main Index