The Circles - Book Seven - Chapter 27

The Circles - Book Seven - Land of Treachery
Chapter Twenty-seven
Under the Wide Skies
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

Since the caravan would be staying at the Oasis for a week, Esarhaddon had been granted temporary hunting rights by Shakh Najor, and so the next morning ere dawn, the hunters of the House of Huzziya set out to scour the surrounding lands for game. When the men returned later that morning, the bounty was so plentiful that Head Cook Muhaldim had to put out a call for additional help in the kitchen. Fortunately for him, there were plenty of workers to be found among the Rohirric captives. After all, what use were slaves, if they did not work?

As they had previously had kitchen duty, Elfhild and Elffled were among those chosen to help pluck and dress the birds. Neither sister was filled with joy at their return to the cook tent, but it was better not to complain. Besides, laboring in the camp kitchen was a good way to sneak a bite or two to eat when no one was looking.

"Well, Elfhild, I see that you are finally back," Muhaldim remarked sarcastically, glancing up at her as she entered the tent. "Thought maybe you liked it so well that you planned to stay." Raising a heavy cleaver, he brought the blade down and deftly chopped a bloody chunk of mutton in two. "Did you enjoy your holiday?"

"I would not call living in a goblin cave a holiday, Master Cook," came Elfhild's sullen reply as she and Elffled stood before the butcher's table. Skinned and gutted carcasses of sheep and other animals hung by their hind legs from large racks. The strong smell of blood assailed their nostrils, and they tried not to breathe deeply as they watched flies crawling over the fresh, bloody meat.

"Worked you hard, did they?" The cook quickly quartered the two sections of meat. "A lazy girl like you would not like that."

"No... they thought I was insane."

"And are you? Maybe I should be afraid." Raising the bloody cleaver, he turned to look at her.

"I suppose we will just have to see, will we not?" Elfhild smiled mysteriously. Crossing her eyes, she flipped her lower lip up and down with her finger, flapped her elbows like a chicken, and stomped around in a circle.

"A jester, eh? Well, let us see how humorous you are when you pluck and clean the birds that the hunters take in the field. As you can see, the other slaves have been working while the two of you were idling." He motioned with the cleaver to a group of men and women in the adjoining tent. The slaves squatted around a blood-stained canvas, plucking and gutting quail and other birds. "Now report to Hanksar, who is in charge of that tent today. I expect you to do a good job!" Muhaldim went back to his labors and then looked at the girls again. "Oh, and another thing. Be careful with those feathers! We save them all. They will bring a good price at the market in the village."

"Yes, Master Cook," Elfhild quietly demurred, bowing her head. "I promise not to let the elves make away with the birds or their feathers." She ignored the cook's grunted laugh.

As the twins left the butcher's tent, Elffled eyed her sister reproachfully. "Stop that silly thing with flapping your arms now, will you? I do not think he was amused. If you get on his bad side, he will keep you here all night doing nothing but shelling fava beans!"

"I never saw much difference between his good side and his bad side," Elfhild muttered. "Whatever side he is on, he is a spiteful man and takes his pleasure in lording it over us all."

"I take it you did not miss the chief cook while you were gone," Elffled remarked dryly.

As the girls walked into the food preparation tent, Hanksar, a tall, lanky boy with tawny skin and green eyes, looked them over and did not seem impressed with what he saw. "There is plenty of work for the two of you to do. The caravan quartermaster purchased several crates of vegetables from the Dolrujâtar, and these will need to be prepared for the evening meal. You, Elffled, I want you to go assist the other slaves in cutting up the vegetables."

"Yes, Master." Elffled bowed and went to a nearby table, where she joined other kitchen laborers who were hard at work.

Hanksar walked over to a rack of plucked quail and pheasants. Choosing two, he shoved them into Elfhild's hands. "Are these not fine looking birds? After they are roasted with herbs, they will make an excellent dish. First, though, they have to be gutted, and that will be your job, my fair lady."

With a sigh of resignation, Elfhild set to work at her task. Preparing birds for cooking had always been one of her least favorite tasks. Drawing a deep breath, she sliced off the bird's neck and head. She tried not to look at its closed, pallid eyelids as she tossed the discarded pieces into a bucket of scraps. Next she drew out the gullet, crop, and windpipe. The day was a hot one, and it was even hotter in the kitchen tent. Her hands bloody and foul smelling, she cursed herself when she absentmindedly wiped the sweat from her forehead, leaving behind a streak of blood. She did not repeat that mistake.

The work was hot and fatiguing, and the tepid water the slaves were given to drink did little to satisfy the thirst. The sun beat down like a blazing orb of fire; the hours dragged on in endless tedium. After Elffled had finished with the vegetables, she returned to Elfhild to help her prepare the fowl for cooking. Elfhild was grateful for her company.

The only relief to the monotony came nigh late afternoon, when a visitor paid a call upon the twins. Intent upon their work, the girls barely noticed the tall, ebony-skinned woman who glided gracefully into the tent. Sensing eyes upon her, Elfhild glanced up to see an amused smile upon the woman's face. Though she had never spoken with her before, she recognized the woman as Laskohki, the head cook's wife. She was about to greet her when the lady's two small daughters raced into the tent, laughing and chattering. They appeared to be around eight years of age, and were near identical in appearance: their hair was arranged into two puffs on either side of their heads and secured with white ribbons, and they wore the same sleeveless dress made of pastel blue and yellow fabric. Elfhild and Elffled could only stare in astonishment as these two little girls, who looked so sweet and innocent in their pretty dresses and charming ribbons, squatted down, dipped their fingers into the jar of entrails and blood, and began tracing patterns onto the canvas. The skinning knife still poised in her hand, Elfhild opened her mouth to shoo the girls away, but she did not know if a slave was allowed to scold the children of her superiors. Gazing up at Laskohki, the children started gesturing towards Elfhild and Elffled and speaking in a lilting, melodic tongue which resembled the song of some exotic bird.

"My daughters ask about you two... they have never seen twins from the Northern lands before," Laskohki remarked in a deep, throaty voice. "They are curious."

"We are really quite ordinary," Elfhild replied shyly. She gazed enviously at the large golden disks which dangled from each of Laskohki's ears; she longed for a pair of her own, and wondered if the silver that Shakh Najor had given her was enough to purchase such jewelry. To Elfhild's unsophisticated eyes, the statuesque woman resembled some ancient queen from legend. Across her full bosom fell strand after strand of colorful beaded necklaces. Adding to the impression of height, her jet-black hair had been coiled high atop her head, the plaits interwoven with beads and golden wire. Her shift-like garment of green linen tapered downward until it clung tightly around her calves. Under finely plucked and arched brows, her eyes regarded Elfhild with amusement.

"No, you are different, very different." The cook's wife pressed her full lips together as she cocked an appraising eyebrow. "In my land, the birth of twins is considered a gift of destiny, for twins are believed to possess magic powers. I myself am a twin, as are my daughters." The little girls bounded over to stand in front of their mother, who laid a gentle hand upon each of their shoulders.

"In the Mark, there are no such beliefs concerning twins," Elfhild replied politely. "There is nothing special about my sister and me, other than the fact that we happen to look alike." She had heard rumors from the other kitchen workers that Laskohki was a witch, and she was beginning to suspect that those rumors were true…

"So you say." Laskohki gave her an enigmatic smile. "Play it as you will, but remember that like always attracts like."

Both Elfhild and Elffled were feeling increasingly awkward at the peculiar situation in which they found themselves. As she cut through another bird's vent, Elfhild accidentally sliced her finger. Wincing, she clutched her injured finger for a moment and then wiped the blood off on her skirt. She tried not to stare at the strange symbols which the children had painted on the canvas, for she knew instinctively that they had arcane meanings. Gritting her teeth, she drew out the bird's intestines in one piece and then began to wash out the gaping cavity.

"Be careful," a young slave beside her whispered, then turned back to the quail that he was eviscerating.

Elfhild felt trapped. She considered claiming that she had to go to the latrine. Perhaps while she was gone, the cook's strange wife and her equally bizarre children would move on and pester someone else. As she deliberated upon an excuse, Elfhild wondered what the boy had meant by his warning. Probably nothing. He was simply referring to her carelessness with the knife – or did he mean that she should beware of Laskohki and her daughters? Elfhild dried the carcass and pushed it aside, reaching for another bird.

"You have labored long enough for a time," Laskohki admonished her. "The two of you will wash your hands now and come with me."

Elfhild thought desperately. She did not want to be alone with this strange woman who seemed to be implying that she and her sister possessed some sort of mystical powers! "But, Mistress, we were assigned to prepare these birds—" she began, but her words were cut off.

"Others can take care of that." Laskohki turned to look at Hanksar. "I wish to speak with these two girls, and as soon as I have finished with them, they will be returned."

"Yes, Mistress," Hanksar answered humbly, averting his eyes from her intense gaze.

As Elfhild and Elffled followed Laskohki from the tent, they looked anxiously at each other, wondering where she would take them, and more importantly, what she would do with them. With her statuesque height and regal demeanor, the cook's wife made a very imposing personage, and the girls were greatly intimidated by her. They were terrified of her retribution if they accidentally offended her, and prayed to the Gods that they would be able to survive this meeting unscathed.

When they were out of hearing range of the other slaves, Laskohki turned to face the twins. "I thought perhaps you would wish to continue our little discussion in private. Not everyone who has the Gift wishes to discuss it in public."

"I – I do not know what you are talking about, Mistress," Elfhild protested. "As I told you before, neither my sister nor I possess any arcane knowledge. We are the daughters of a farmer, not the scions of sorcerers."

"We are quite tedious, really, unless one wishes to discuss crops or livestock," Elffled tittered nervously.

"Nonsense!" Laskohki scolded them, crossing her arms over her bosom. "You are both more interesting than you might suppose. After all, you are twins – a rarity in all the lands of Middle-earth." Slowly walking in a circle around the sisters, she scrutinized each girl with an intensity so great that they were forced to avert their gaze in submission. "Tell me, are you able to sense each other's pains, both those of the body and those of the mind, and experience them as though they are your own? Do you find that you can often divine each other's thoughts, or share the same dreams whilst you sleep? When one of you is in danger, does the other have premonitions of impending doom, or dreams or visions in which you witness whatever calamitous event has befallen the other?"

"Well," Elffled began shyly, "when my sister escaped from the Sand Orcs, I had a dream in which I saw her fleeing across the desert. And sometimes I can hear her voice in my thoughts, even when she has not said anything aloud."

Laskohki's face lit up in a broad grin. "Ah! There you see, indeed you do possess magic. All twins do."

"Well, I guess if you want to call it that," Elfhild muttered. What foolishness! What Laskohki described was not magic, but rather the bond between two sisters who greatly loved each other. If she actually possessed magic powers, she would have used them against the orcs who attacked her home, thus saving the lives of both her mother and her dog. She would certainly not be a slave, forced to toil for her enemies!

"Perhaps you were unaware of this – although I doubt it, given how rumors fly about the camp – but I am a diviner of the future," Laskohki informed the twins, her voice filled with pride as she pressed a graceful, well-manicured hand to her chest. "As you know, the wedding of Shakh Zarkfir and Lady Özlem will be held in two days. While the caravan is camped here at the Oasis of the Solitary Cedar, I have been granted permission to set up my wagon in the village marketplace. If you were to attend the wedding festivities, you could pay a visit to my wagon and browse through the wares I have to offer."

"What sort of things do you sell?" Elffled asked innocently.

"Oh, all sorts of pretty baubles, jewelry and charms… But my specialty is reading fortunes and offering council on life's mysteries." She smiled when she caught the surprise upon the girls' faces. "I suspect that you are like many of the other girls in the caravan, and wish to know if the handsome and wealthy Shakh Esarhaddon uHuzziya is in your future...?" She caught the intense blush which flamed up on Elfhild's face and laughed lightly. "Ah, I see I was correct in my assumptions. Perhaps you would be interested in a love charm or potion to win his undying affections. An amulet, perhaps, to ward away the evil intentions of others, or a fertility talisman to ensure that you give birth to fine, strong sons."

"I do not need the services of a seer to determine whether or not Shakh Esarhaddon will make me his wife or concubine," Elfhild stated emphatically. "I already know that his intention is to sell my sister and me. We are naught to him but gold in his coffers." She felt tears welling up unbidden in her eyes, and she blinked furiously to drive away the sensation. She could not break down and weep in front of this strange woman!

"Ah, but you do not know that for a certainty." Laskohki's dark brown eyes lit up in triumph. "But the answers may be found in my scrying stone." She uttered a great, dramatic sigh, her graceful shoulders sagging. "I would gladly give you a reading for no charge – as I have for so many other penniless girls – but, alas, I am almost destitute. Sometimes my generosity gets the better of me! If you were to come upon a few coins, though…"

Laskohki's eyes bored into Elfhild's, as though attempting to break into her mind and steal her thoughts. Did the cook's wife know about Shakh Najor's reward? Perhaps she had heard rumors of the Dolrujâtar chieftain's generosity, or perhaps her sharp ears detected the jingle of coins coming from the pouch at her belt. Elfhild felt a sudden urge to clutch her coin purse and hide it from Laskohki's gaze, but that would only draw more attention to the treasure hidden within.

"How many coins?" Elfhild's eyes narrowed slightly. She did not believe for a minute the fortuneteller's shining praises of her goodwill, but her curiosity had been piqued and she was willing to take the bait.

"Oh, only a few coppers, my dear. The cost is next to nothing when you consider the benefits," Laskohki told her, pleased with her interest. "The fee for divulging your future is only five copper coins apiece, and I assure you that I am seldom wrong in my divinations! If you give me another five coppers, you will have a wooden amulet as well. Of course, if you wish to purchase a painted amulet, the price is ten coppers. For twenty coppers, the amulet will be of brass, and the fortune will be included for no further cost! There are also beads of bone and glass which cost one coin, but their mystical powers are much less."

"Our Master has never given us any money," Elfhild replied quickly before her sister could mention Shakh Najor's rich reward. She was uncertain if she wanted to have any dealings with this strange fortuneteller, and even if she did, she did not want her to know that she was considerably richer than the other slaves. Besides, her words were the truth – Esarhaddon had never given her any coins.

The woman gently patted Elfhild's cheek. "That is your own fault! With beauty such as yours, your master will give you anything you wish if you know how to approach him."

"How do we do that?" a curious Elffled asked, having a good idea what Laskohki was implying, but maintaining the role of the naïve country girl. She knew Elfhild was clinging to those coins like an old miser, and she would try her best to maintain her secret. If some of these louts in the camp even had a hint of how rich Elfhild had become, they would beat her up and rob her. If a girl ever wanted to get ahead in this cruel world, she had to learn to be clever.

Laskohki put her arms around the shoulders of both girls and gave them a benevolent smile. "With words of flattery upon your lips, seduction in your eyes, and avarice in your hearts! My dears, have you not yet learned how to handle men?"

"N - no, Mistress," Elfhild stammered, blushing. "I guess not." At least that part was true.

"Follow my advice, and coins will soon be spilling from your fingers like falling rain!" She laughed merrily. "Oh, you poor little birds! You are both lost, are you not?" Hugging both girls to her scented bosom, she gave them each a pitying smile. "I feel sorry for you; you need someone to watch over you, someone who is wise and experienced."

"I suppose so," Elfhild remarked, trying to keep her misgivings about the fortuneteller from creeping into her voice or mannerisms.

"Obtain those coins, and after I have divined your futures, I can better advise you." A thoughtful expression crossed Laskohki's dark, piercing eyes. "By the way, I must know the date of your birth before I can cast your horoscopes."

"We were born on Midsummer Eve," Elffled replied.

"Ah, the Cusp of Magic, between Danposhak and Krulalu, the Great Twins and the Crab. How blessed you are!" Flashing them a lovely smile, she clasped the girls' hands in her own. "Remember what I said... seduction always prevails when begging fails. If you please your master, perhaps he will give you many coins for your efforts. Do not tell him that you want your fortunes told or that you are buying magic charms. Only say that you wish to purchase baubles to enhance your beauty. It will be our secret!"

"Mistress, we are indebted to you," Elfhild remarked, torn between the urge to laugh and the urge to run away. Even though she knew that it was wrong to dabble in the arcane arts, still the allure of the unknown was bewitching. Besides, what was the worst that could happen?

"Until we meet again." Laskohki bowed slightly, touching her hand to her heart. "Now you may go back to your work."

As the girls walked back to the mundane tasks of plucking and gutting birds, Elffled turned to Elfhild. "Do you have any idea of what you are getting us into?"

"No, but I am sure it will be interesting."


Born on June 20, Elfhild and Elffled would be considered Geminis, although this day falls in the cusp period between Gemini and Cancer. I tried to come up with words in Fan Created Black Speech dialects for these astrological signs.

"Ah, the Cusp of Magic, between Danposhak and Krulalu, the Great Twins and the Crab. How blessed you are!"

Danposhak - Crab (Poshak = fish, MERP; Dan = pincers, MERP)
Krulalu - Twins (Hudh = Soul, HORN; Krul = two, LOS; -u, plural adjective ending)

Next Chapter

Previous Chapter
Main Index