The Circles - Book Seven - Chapter 26

The Circles - Book Seven - Land of Treachery
Chapter Twenty-six
And Back Again... Again
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

It was late in the afternoon when the vanguard of the great slave caravan neared the Oasis of the Solitary Cedar. A blare of trumpets heralded the arrival of the caravan, and Shakh Zarkfir rode out to greet the host of newcomers who had journeyed to his humble village. Beside him was Ganbar, who stepped in to take over the management of the caravan while Esarhaddon was convalescing. The great procession of people, animals, and wagons was directed to a flat area near the salt lake. Workers hastily began setting up tents, unloading necessary supplies from wagons, tending to the pack animals, and making preparations for the evening meal. Since the caravan would be staying at the Oasis for a week, a corral made from thorny branches was set up around the camp, both to protect the caravan's precious cargo from orcs and bandits, and to keep the captives from attempting to escape into the desert. 

Only that morning, Shakh Najor had summoned all the people who were present at the Oasis to the large well at the center of the village, where he announced that his eldest son would be marrying Özlem. The villagers were abuzz with excitement and gossip concerning the upcoming wedding, and the arrival of the slave caravan only added to the carnival air which had descended upon the Oasis. With the exception of Elfhild, the Dolrujâtar had never seen people from Rohan before. Many villagers ventured out to catch a glimpse of the Rohirric captives, intrigued by these curious pale-skinned, yellow-haired foreigners.  

Elfhild had spent the day with Lady Shabimi and her handmaidens as she eagerly awaited the arrival of the caravan. She was filled with excitement at the thoughts of seeing her sister again. The morning and afternoon seemed to crawl by at the pace of an elderly snail, with each hour that passed seeming more like a week. Lady Shabimi had put her to work weaving a beautiful striped blanket upon the loom, but Elfhild's mind was not upon her labors, and her selvedges frequently became uneven. Whenever she was given leave to rest, she would wander off to the village gates, where she would look towards the west. She hoped to catch sight of dust clouds upon the horizon, which would announce the approach of the caravan.

At last those telltale clouds came into view, and the clarion cries of the sentinels' trumpets rang out from the village's watchtowers. It was all that Elfhild could do to restrain herself from rushing out to meet the caravan, and the remaining time that she would have to wait was agonizing torture. She watched from a distance as the captives were unchained, but she was too far away to discern Elffled's face in the crowd. Reluctantly she turned away from the gate when Kaira came to fetch her and return her to Lady Shabimi's tent.

Elfhild was hunched over the ground loom, using a batten to push the threads of the weft into place, when Shakh Najor's servant came into view. Following behind him was Akil, the young eunuch who served the household of Esarhaddon uHuzziya. Elfhild's eyes lit up with a smile when she saw his familiar face. 

"Greetings, Lady Shabimi of the Dolrujâtar." Pressing his hand to his heart, Akil bowed low before the chieftain's wife. "May your house always have health and happiness. I am Akil, a servant of Shakh Esarhaddon. I have come to return Elfhild to the caravan of the House of Huzziya." 

"Welcome, Akil," Lady Shabimi greeted, rising to her feet. "It is my hope that you and the rest of the caravan enjoy your sojourn at the Oasis. If you have any want or need, you have but to ask." She smiled at Elfhild, who had gone to stand beside Akil. "If Shakh Esarhaddon approves, Elfhild is welcome to attend any of the wedding festivities. She also has permission to bring her sister, whom we have all heard so much about."

Akil nodded. "I will pass your message along to the master."

Bidding her farewell for the time, Lady Shabimi took Elfhild in her arms and embraced her, with Özlem and the five handmaidens lining up for hugs and goodbyes. Given Esarhaddon's interest in establishing an alliance with the Dolrujâtar, Elfhild suspected that the shrewd merchant would give her permission to attend at least some of the wedding festivities to keep the chieftain's wife happy. However, each farewell felt like the last one she would ever get to say. She had gotten a bittersweet taste of parting that night when she and Özlem were convinced that Captain Khaldun was planning to steal them away from the Oasis under the cover of darkness, but it had been a false alarm. Now, though, it was only a matter of time before she would be leaving for real.

As Elfhild followed Akil towards the village gates, she paid close attention to her surroundings as though seeing them for the first time. She wanted to remember everything she could about the Oasis of the Solitary Cedar and the people who dwelt there. She smiled wistfully when she saw a group of musicians who were practicing near the center of the village. The drummer seemed perturbed that the pipe players could not keep pace with his beat. A young boy dashed by them, and right on his heels ran a group of laughing children. As the village dogs took up the chase, the merry little group disappeared behind a line of tents. When she had first been brought to the Oasis, Elfhild was terrified, but she had been won over by the kindness and hospitality of the Dolrujâtar. She felt a pang of sadness, and she realized how much she would miss these generous hearted people. She would miss Özlem, with whom she had endured many woes; the kind Lady Shabimi, who had taken her under her wing; and Kaira, Nadrói, Zahôf, Larnîz, and Azul, the five handmaidens who had shown her kindness and friendship. 

The walk to the caravan camp was a short one, and soon Elfhild found herself within the confines of the thorn corral which surrounded the temporary settlement. Since the caravan would be staying at the Oasis for a week, the camp resembled a nomadic village, with orderly rows of tents for the caravan workers and a large pavilion which would house the Rohirric women and children. Throughout the journey to Nurn, the captives usually slept in the open, unless a halt had been called and the caravan remained camped in the same location for several days. The air was filled with the mouthwatering aroma of cooking food wafting up from the camp kitchen, the slightly sulfuric odor of burning coal from the blacksmith's shop, and the smoky smell of many campfires. A soft evening breeze stirred the air, stirring up clouds of dust which rolled over the dry ground and causing the fronds of the nearby palm trees to sway gently back and forth.

"Here is where I leave you, little mistress," Akil told her as he delivered her to the slave pavilion. "I will return after supper to take you to the blacksmith's shop so that you may be fitted with a new collar."

"Not that!" Elfhild gasped, touching her hand to her neck. Was there no way to escape the hated mark of slavery?

"Little mistress, you must bear its weight with patience and grace for a little while longer," Akil advised her sympathetically. 

"That does not mean that I like it." Elfhild sighed.

As Elfhild walked into the pavilion, she felt the eyes of everyone upon her, and her face lit up with a grin when she saw the smiles and waves of friends and acquaintances. Then she saw Elffled running out of the crowd towards her, and she rushed forward to embrace her and shower her with kisses.

"Oh, Hild, it is so good to see you again!" Elffled exclaimed, stepping back to look at her sister. Elfhild was dressed in the style of a Dolrujâtar maiden, in a long blue gown with narrow red panels on the sides and a striped orange and yellow sash about her middle, and her hair was braided in several thick plaits.

"I missed you so much." Tears of happiness welled up in Elfhild's eyes. "I feared I would never see you again."

"I never gave up hope." Elffled smiled as she squeezed her sister's hands. "I… just had a feeling that you would come back to me." There was an air of mystery in her words, and she gave her twin a knowing look.

Elfhild glanced around at all the curious onlookers pretending not to be watching them or eavesdropping upon their conversation. "Let us go somewhere more private where we can talk in peace."

The return of the missing girl caused quite a commotion among the Rohirric captives, and the pavilion was abuzz with gossip and rumors. Elfhild found all the attention quite overwhelming, especially since the only one with whom she wished to speak at that moment was her sister. Weaving their way through the crowd and attempting to avoid as many greetings, inquiries, and conversation attempts as possible, the twins found a quiet spot along one of the cloth walls of the tent. Large strips of cloth had been spread over the ground so that the women and children could sit and sleep in comfort.

Elffled felt somewhat uncertain what to ask her sister. She wanted to know all about her captivity amongst the orcs and how she came to be rescued by Dolrujâtar tribesmen, but she did not want to say anything which might upset her. She did not know what horrors Elfhild had experienced in the days following her abduction from Shakh Esarhaddon's tent, and she did not want to force her sister to relive the nightmares she had experienced. She did not notice any bruises upon Elfhild's face, just a few fading scratches, so that was cause for hope… but clothing could hide many wounds, and then there were the wounds that left no mark upon the body.  

"I would like to hear all that has befallen you these past few weeks, both good and ill, if it would not grieve you to speak of it." Elffled cringed at the sound of her own words; they felt so stiff and formal. 

Elfhild sighed and gave a humorless chuckle. "It seems that my adventures have given me a degree of renown, for I have told my story so many times that I have lost count. However, I would much rather discuss my tale with you than with strangers." Whether it was through interrogation or polite inquiry, it seemed that she had told some variation of her tale to half the people in Gorgoroth. Now that she was back with the other captives from her homeland, she suspected that they, too, would demand that she give an account of her captivity and rescue.

Since it would soon be time for the evening meal, Elfhild gave a hurried summary of all that had befallen her over the past two weeks… the harrowing night of her abduction; her moment of despair in the wastes of Gorgoroth; how Özlem insisted that she play the part of a madwoman to fool the orcs; her experiences as a kitchen thrall in Kafakudraûg Cavern and her explorations of the Sand Orcs' lair; how Özlem slew the goblin overseer and their daring escape through the desert; their rescue by the Dolrujâtar; Özlem's whirlwind romance with Shakh Zarkfir; and how Shakh Najor had requested that she make a map of Kafakudraûg Cavern and rewarded her handsomely for her artistic endeavors.

"You have had quite the series of adventures," Elffled remarked, a note of awe in her voice. "But I cannot believe that you kissed an orc!"

A furious blush spread over Elfhild's cheeks. "That is not an experience I would like to repeat!"

Elffled giggled mischievously. "It is no wonder Durraiz thought you were insane! No one in their right mind would kiss an orc, except another orc!"

"If you tell anyone about this, Elffled, I swear I will—"

Elffled waved her hand dismissively. "Have no worries, dear sister. I will not tell anyone about your... curious tastes."

Her eyes narrowed into slits, Elfhild glared at her twin. "While I have given you an account of my adventures, you have told me nothing of what has transpired in the camp while I was gone."

"I am afraid my tale is nowhere near as exciting or horrifying as yours," Elffled remarked, becoming more serious. "The caravan camped for over a week at someplace called the Dâltgund Cistern to give Lord Esarhaddon time to recover from his injuries. Then, just a few days ago, we started marching again."

"Are you still working in the kitchen?" When Elfhild had last been in the caravan camp, both she and Elffled had been assigned kitchen duty as punishment for fighting with Tove.

"No, thankfully those days are over," Elffled laughed.

"What of Leofgifu and Hunig?"

"They have been worried sick about you, but other than that, they are both doing well," Elffled told her. "Leofgifu had wanted to be among the first to welcome you back, but her duties prevented her from doing so. She did tell me that she plans to invite us to her tent after the evening meal, however." 

"I know she takes her position as overseer very seriously." A little too seriously, Elfhild thought, remembering the time that her aunt used the flail on both Elffled and her. 

"Leofgifu and Hunig will be greatly relieved when they see you at last," Elffled smiled, anticipating a happy reunion.

"Tell me of our troop," Elfhild requested. "Have you had any problems with Tove and Cyneburh?"

"Ugh, those two." Elffled rolled her eyes. "They are as horrid as ever, always trying to lord over everyone else because they happened to be daughters of noblemen back in the Mark. Well, they are slaves now, just like us, and whatever positions they once held have no weight in Mordor. Mildthryth and Hereswith try to keep the peace, but it is difficult at times."

Since they were the eldest of the ten young women who made up the troop, Mildthryth and Hereswith had fallen into the role of unofficial leaders, and as such, they felt it was their duty to keep order and help resolve disputes. This was a daunting task, for Tove was constantly causing dissension with her haughty bearing and surly attitude, and her friend Cyneburh was always swift to come to her aid. Tove would not let anyone forget that she was the daughter of Thane Redwald of Horscelde, a distant kinswoman of King Théoden, or that she had been betrothed to Lord Sigbert, a knight of the Mark. Although Cyneburh sang Tove's praises more than she talked about herself, she would occasionally remind her fellow captives that she was the daughter of Coenred, Thane Redwald's steward, who bravely fell in the Battle of Redwald's Keep. Truth be told, no one in the troop really cared who her father was or how he died, for they had all lost loved ones and felt little sympathy for the two arrogant daughters of the nobility.

Sunngifu only fanned the fires of animosity, for she and Tove had been enemies back in their village, and they had brought their quarrel with them into Mordor. In happier days before the war, Lord Sigbert had been having an affair with Sunngifu, and she claimed that the child she carried was his. However, Tove insisted that her betrothed had remained faithful to her. "The whore of Horscelde," she would say mockingly. "You rolled in the hay with so many men, that I doubt you even know which one is the father of your child!" There was truth in Tove's hateful words, for indeed Sunngifu had frequent dalliances with the men who came to her family's inn. All of Tove's insults rolled off Sunngifu like water from a duck, however, for Sunngifu did not care what anyone thought of her. "I might have what some would consider loose morals, but at least I do not go around acting as though I am better than everyone else," she would retort, and the quarrelling would start up again.

Wulfwaru would then join the fray to defend Sunngifu, who she looked up to as one would an older sister. At thirteen summers, Wulfwaru was one of the youngest members of the troop, but she could be quite feisty at times. She and her uncle were shepherds of the White Mountains, and they had become acquainted with Sunngifu when they came to Horscelde to sell wool. Then the Dawnless Day arrived, and Wulfwaru's uncle had been so dismayed by this omen of war that he had sickened and died. Unable to return to her home in the mountains, Wulfwaru had been forced to remain in Horscelde, but at least she had found a true friend in Sunngifu. The pair forged a strong bond, for they were both outcasts. Many looked down upon Sunngifu for being unwed and expecting a child, and people whispered behind Wulfwaru's back because she was of Dunlending descent.

The remaining two members of the troop, Beorhtwyn and Burghilde, tended to avoid confrontations with Tove and Cyneburh if they could. However, if the unpleasant duo started something, Beorhtwyn was more than willing to finish it. She hated how Tove and Cyneburh looked down upon her and her sister because they were lowly peasants. To add insult to injury, the horrid shrews frequently ridiculed her appearance, calling her fat and pointing out the fact that her face was covered with pimples. Beorhtwyn suspected that Tove was jealous of her bosom, which was quite large. Sometimes she found it difficult to make friends with other girls, because of all their petty jealousies, and their annoying obsession with her chest. She had heard these sorts of insults many times before, and tried to ignore them as she always did, but the words still hurt. Although Beortwyn bore most of the scorn of the two so-called "ladies," occasionally Tove would make a snide remark about the enormous purple birthmark upon Burghilde's face. That would instantly send Beorhtwyn into a rage, because she could not stand anyone being rude to her little sister. Burghilde was only ten, and did not deserve to be the recipient of mockery from a pair of entitled fools.

Indeed, with so many different temperaments and conflicting personalities, it was often a great challenge for Mildthryth and Hereswith to play the role of peacekeepers. They tried to protect the other girls from the wrath of the guards, but many times their words of warning went unheard. However, the guards demanded order in the camp, and the threat of the whip always loomed over the captives, even if they temporarily forgot this fact amid all their petty squabbling. The lash had a way of swiftly resolving arguments and making one forget everything but the stinging pain.

"While I am glad to be back with the caravan, I cannot say that I missed either Tove or Cyneburh." Elfhild's gaze roamed over the crowd, seeking a glimpse of the unpleasant pair, for it was always best to know where one's enemies were lurking. When she did not see them, she breathed a sigh of relief. "Let us talk about more pleasant things. How fare the rest of the troop?"

Elffled was about to fill her sister in on all of the latest gossip, but the blast of a horn rang out over the camp, signifying that the evening meal was approaching.

Elfhild started to rise to her feet, but Elffled laid a hand upon her arm to halt her. 

"You know, several times while you were gone, I dreamed about you," she remarked quietly.

"Oh?" Elfhild raised an eyebrow.

"Yes," Elffled nodded. "Once, I dreamed that I saw you lying in the shade of a tall stone. You were very ill, but whenever I tried to come to you, the winds whipped up the sand and hid the rock. Such a frustrating dream!"

Elfhild's eyes widened. "That really happened! After Özlem and I escaped, we wandered through the desert for several days before we were found by Shakh Zarkfir and his men. For a while there, I worried that we might die in the desert." Shivering, she tried to push the memories from her mind. The tent seemed to have grown smaller, suffocating her.

"I am very glad that we are together again." Elffled reached over and squeezed her sister's hand.

"And so am I!" Elfhild exclaimed, hugging her sister close. She paused and looked imploringly into the other girl's eyes. "But, please, if we are ever parted again, keep me company in my dreams!" 

"I will," Elffled promised softly.


"Elfhild!" Beorhtwyn ran up and embraced her as they joined the other captives making their way towards the cooking tent. "I missed you so much!"

"So did I," cried Burghilde, who wrapped her arms around both of them.

"You are crushing me!" Elfhild giggled as the girls gave her a final squeeze and then released her. "Oh, Beorhtwyn and Burghilde, I have missed you so much! I was afraid I would never see you again!"

"We had doubts, too," commented Beorhtwyn. "Thank the Gods that you are safe and sound!"

The return of Elfhild had created quite a sensation among the girls in the twins' troop, and the other eight members walked up to welcome her back. Some were more sincere in their greetings than others, but all were genuinely curious as to what had happened to Elfhild when she was abducted.

"Oh, Elfhild," gushed Tove as she hugged her, "you do not look any worse than you did before you were kidnapped!"

"And I see that your pleasant, charming personality has not changed one bit." Her eyes narrowing slightly, Elfhild flashed her the sweetest smile.

"Tove is charming, is she not?" commented Cyneburh. "But, of course, Tove was bred to nobility."

"But of course." Tove tossed her head arrogantly.

"And she is just a slave now," Elfhild remarked smugly. "I hope both of you are bought by the Mordorian Army Officer of Latrines, who will keep you busy shoveling dung. If you do not do your work with a song and a smile, the men will throw you in the sinks!"

"Ohhhh, you little peasant!" Tove hissed. "I could not expect something like you to have any respect for your betters! Come along, Cyneburh!" She took the other girl by the hand. "We do not have to listen to this!"

The other girls burst into giggles as the two antagonists flounced away towards the kitchen tent, where the guards had just begun ordering the captives to form up into lines.

"I refuse to let them ruin my appetite," Sunngifu stated sharply. "I must keep up my strength for my little one." She smiled as she rubbed her rounded belly. "Why, the babe is almost royalty; after all, he is a nobleman's bastard."

"Please, let us just go eat," whined Burghilde, who always disliked being late for meals.

Laughing and joking, the five girls quieted when they approached the kitchen tent, where they received a light meal of bread, cheese, and dried fruit. As they settled down to eat, they were joined by Mildthryth, Hereswith, and Wulfwaru. Much to everyone's relief, Tove and Cyneburh had decided to take their supper elsewhere. As they ate, the girls bombarded Elfhild with questions about her captivity among the orcs, her escape across the desert, and her rescue by the Dolrujâtar. By this time, Elfhild had perfected her story and had several versions for different audiences. Only her sister was allowed to hear the full, unabridged version of the tale, however. Elfhild did not tell the girls of her troop about Özlem's torment at the hands of the orcs, or how she had been forced to watch helplessly as her friend was raped. Burghilde was too young to hear about such horrors, and Elfhild knew Özlem wanted what had happened to her to remain a secret. She did not wish to do anything which would compromise her friend's reputation or her happiness. 

"What an exciting tale," Burghilde exclaimed, wrapping her arms tightly around her legs and resting her chin upon her bony knees. "You were off having adventures, while the rest of us were stuck camping in the desert for what seemed like forever."

Elfhild gave the younger girl a gentle smile. "Believe me, that was an adventure I did not want to have, and I am very glad to be back." Yet there was little comfort to be had in being returned to the caravan, for once again she would be forced to march in chains to a destination which she had no desire to go. But what choice did she have? Her family was dead, her home had been destroyed, and her land was in ruins. Like it or not, her only hope for the future lay in Nurn. 

"You have returned with both fame and fortune," Beorthwyn remarked, a note of envy in her voice as her gaze went to the coin purse at Elfhild's belt.

Elfhild blushed a little. "Shakh Najor was quite generous."

A mischievous glint in her gray eyes, Sunngifu leaned in closer to Elfhild. "What do you plan to do with all that money?" she asked conspiratorially. 

Elfhild thought for a moment. "I am not sure. I have never possessed any wealth before."

"Well, we did have those silver coins that the Seneschal of Minas Morgul gave to us," Elffled remarked. "But the guards of Cirith Ungol stole them."

Beorhtwyn's eyes widened. "The Seneschal of Minas Morgul gave you coins? Oh, I must hear this tale!"

The girls listened with rapt attention as Elfhild and Elffled took turns relating their encounter with the terrifying and mysterious Lord Kalus. Everyone was so invested in the story that they were not aware at first of the presence of Akil, and the eunuch had to clear his throat to capture their attention.

"Little mistress, it is time to go. The blacksmith does not like to be kept waiting."

With a heavy sigh, Elfhild said farewell to her sister and her friends and then rose to her feet. As she followed Akil through the camp, her hand tentatively went to her throat, now bear, but soon to be shackled by a cruel band of iron. She hated the slave collar with every fibre of her being. While it was not tight, it was still uncomfortable, constantly chafing against the sensitive skin of her neck. Even worse than that, though, was the fact that the collar was a constant reminder that she was considered a piece of property, like a horse or a cow. It would be difficult to go back to being just another thrall in the coffle line after enjoying ten days of relative freedom among the Dolrujâtar. True, Lady Shabimi had regarded her as a slave, but she had treated her like a member of her own household, and never bound her in shackles and chains. 

When they arrived at the blacksmith's tent, the man was working at his portable forge outside, repairing a broken kettle. For a brief moment, Elfhild feared that the blacksmith would be the dirty old lecher who had assaulted her sister and her back in Minas Tirith, but then she remembered that the loathsome reprobate had been severely punished for his misdeeds and released from the service of the House of Huzziya. She had not met this man before, but her eyes liked what they beheld: he was lean and handsome, with dark skin glistening from the desert heat and fires of the forge; massive, bulging biceps as huge as tree trunks; and a chest as thick and wide as a barrel.

"What can I do for you this evening?" the blacksmith asked them cheerfully, wiping his grimy hands upon his apron.

"This is Elfhild, the slave whom I told you about," Akil informed him. "She needs a new collar. This will be her third one."

"Third collar, eh?" the blacksmith remarked, glancing towards Elfhild.

"Inferior craftsmanship, Master," she mumbled. "They just keep falling off."

"I will make sure this one stays on," he chuckled.

"Well, then, I demand that it be made of gold."

The handsome young blacksmith shook his head and clucked his tongue. "I am afraid I am completely out of gold."

"How about silver then?"

"Sorry, I just ran out today, but I have an abundance of iron ones." He grinned at her. "I prepared this one just for you earlier; it bears your name and information. Now if you will just sit down on this stool in front of me, I will have this pretty little trinket around your neck in no time."

With the collar locked in place, the blacksmith gave Elfhild leave to go, and she followed Akil back to the slave pavilion. There, an overjoyed Leofgifu and Hunig were waiting for her, along with Elffled. Smiling, Elfhild rushed forward to meet her family. There had been many times in the past seventeen days that she feared she would never see them again.

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