The Circles - Book Seven - Chapter 28

The Circles - Book Seven - Land of Treachery
Chapter Twenty-eight
Money Matters
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

At last all the birds were plucked, gutted, and prepared for cooking, and the captives who had been impressed into service were dismissed to return to their quarters. However, Elfhild and Elffled would not be joining the others just yet, for Akil came to escort them to the tent of Rose Petal. While all the Rohirric slaves in Esarhaddon's control were being instructed in the rudiments of Black Speech, those who showed especial promise received private tutoring by the servants of the House of Huzziya. Both Elfhild and Elffled felt honored at this distinction, although they often found Rose Petal to be far too strict, as well as monotonous at times. Elfhild could not say that she had missed him overly much during her absence. She had found Lady Shabimi and her handmaidens to be far more understanding and helpful, and she felt that she had learned a lot more about the language of Mordor during her brief sojourn at the Oasis of the Solitary Cedar than she ever had with the dour eunuch.

When the twins arrived at Rose Petal's tent, they found him preparing tea on the nearby campfire. "Greetings, little mistresses. Please be seated inside," he told them as he rose and gave them a stiff, formal bow. "The tea will soon be ready. It is especially flavorful today with the addition of mint."

The front of the tent was open to allow the fresh afternoon breeze to circulate through the sun-warmed interior. Much to Elfhild's surprise, several new students had been added to Rose Petal's class during her absence. The small group of women was seated around several communal trays of pastries and sweets which had been set upon the colorfully woven carpet. Elfhild was delighted when she saw her old friend Aeffe sitting amongst the newcomers, and she felt her heart leap with joy in her chest. The two girls waved enthusiastically at each other and exchanged hasty greetings; they would have to wait until after class to have a proper reunion.

After taking a seat upon the carpet near Aeffe, Elfhild leaned in close to her sister and whispered accusingly in her ear. "Why did you not tell me that Aeffe was Rose Petal's student as well?"

Elffled giggled mischievously. "I wanted it to be a surprise."

Elfhild recognized another familiar face, that of Hrothwaru, the young woman whose sister had been sacrificed by the uruks the night of the mutiny near Stazmûlkrak. Esarhaddon had taken an interest in Hrothwaru after hearing her sing at her sister's funeral, and the lovely singer had entertained him with her ballads upon several occasions. With her lilting voice and long, wavy hair of white gold, it was easy to see why Esarhaddon was so charmed by her. The other women Elfhild only knew in passing, but she surmised that they had been chosen for their beauty, talent, knowledge, or a combination of all three. She had heard rumors that Esarhaddon planned to claim a select number of the most promising slaves and have them trained in various skills before selling them for a higher price, but she did not know if these rumors were true. The guards tended to be taciturn when it came to the ultimate fate of the captives, unless it was to taunt them with the threat of the brothel or the orc pits.

"Here we are." Rose Petal seemed almost pleasant as he carried the tray with its teapot and glasses and set it down upon the carpet. "There are no superlatives to describe the joy that I felt when I heard that you had been rescued and were to be returned to us, Elfhild, fair flower of the North. Tales of your abduction from the camp had filled us with trepidation, but fate has smiled upon you, and you look as fresh and lovely as a dew-kissed rose on a spring morning." He beamed at Elfhild as he poured each of his students a glass of tea. The other women smiled and politely murmured their agreements.

"Thank you, Master," Elfhild replied. "I am glad to be back." She had learned by this time never to take the sweet, flattering hyperbole of Esarhaddon's eunuchs seriously. Still, their exaggerated compliments could be quite soothing to one's vanity, especially after hearing endless abuse from guards and other ruffians.

"While you were gone, Shakh Esarhaddon entrusted several new students into my care." Rose Petal gestured around at the other women, introducing each one by name.

"It is good to meet all of you." Elfhild briefly lowered her head in greeting. She wondered if Rose Petal would be as strict now that he had a larger class to divert his attentions. She certainly hoped that the presence of the other students would keep him distracted and not so focused upon the mistakes that she and her sister made.

"Elfhild, since you have missed three weeks of your schooling, I believe that you need a little review before we proceed," Rose Petal informed her as he set his glass upon the carpet. For the next ten minutes, he listened intently as Elfhild recited the few simple sentences that he had taught her. He seemed pleasantly surprised at the knowledge in Black Speech which she had acquired from her sojourn with the nomads.

"Star of the North, your ability to learn from those around you is astounding," he congratulated her, giving her a rewarding smile. "Given the understanding of Black Speech that you have displayed, I feel confident that you can keep pace with the rest of the class."

For the next hour, Rose Petal instructed the class in the basics of Black Speech, rattling off a list of new vocabulary words, as well as many new phrases which one would find useful in Mordor. As the eunuch droned on, Elfhild found her attention wavering. She kept thinking about Laskohki and her offer to tell their future. She would give anything to know what the fate of her and her sister would be. Whenever she thought about the future, all she saw were clouds of the deepest gloom obscuring the horizon. It was so easy to dwell solely in the present where there was woe enough, to survive each day as it came without giving heed to the looming darkness of the not-so-distant future. The long, weary marches usually left her too exhausted to contemplate the utter hopelessness of her situation, and when the course of each day was determined by her superiors, it was easy to fall into a lull of resentful complacency. But the journey would eventually come to its end. And what then?

Her brief sojourn with the Dolrujâtar had been a pleasant respite from the inevitability of her doom, but now that was over, and soon she would be marching with the caravan once again. Elfhild understood that once the captives arrived in the Nurnian city of Turkûrzgoi, they would all be sold upon the auction block to the highest bidders. After that, who knew what would befall them? Would mothers be allowed to keep their children, or would families be divided? The House of Huzziya cared naught how much sorrow and heartbreak were brought about by the auction, as long as a profit was made. And who would purchase all the women and children who had been stolen from their homeland? Since the bidders hailed from enemy lands, it was easy to assume the worst, and that lives of misery and suffering awaited all the captives.

Over the course of the journey, Elfhild had often entertained the possibility that Esarhaddon might decide to keep her and her sister. While the man could be harsh and demanding, sometimes even cruel, he could also be charming and kind as well. He was also quite handsome, and whenever she caught a glimpse of him, she found it difficult to tear her eyes away. Often she wished that she possessed the power to command the sands of the hourglass so that she could halt time and gaze indefinitely upon his countenance. But he cared little for her, so it was useless to harbor such fantasies. However, he had selected her and her sister for private tutoring in Black Speech, so it was obvious that he had at least some interest in them. Most likely, he was only interested in the coin they would bring him, but as long as he considered that they were worthy for special privileges, there was a shred of hope that he might take more of a personal interest in them. The thought of being purchased by a stranger terrified Elfhild. While her new master might be a far kinder and compassionate man than the slave trader, he might be a heartless monster who would brutalize her and Elffled, subjecting them to all manner of violence and abuse. When faced with the unknown, Elfhild considered that it was far better to deal with the enemy that one knew, and over the course of the journey, she felt that she had developed a familiarity with Esarhaddon.

Elfhild thought she could get through any situation, no matter how dire, if her sister were there with her. The past eighteen days had been very difficult for her to bear, but at last they were reunited. However, there was always the possibility that they would be split up and sold to different buyers, never to see each other again. The very thought was enough to send Elfhild into a state of dread that momentarily rendered her unable to think, and once again she felt the peculiar urge to rock back and forth and claw her flesh with her jagged fingernails until streaks of blood ran down her arms. Ever since that night when she was forced to watch the orcs rape Özlem, Elfhild had been troubled by strange compulsions and gruesome visions whenever her feelings of entrapment and helplessness became too great to bear.

But if she had some hint as to what would happen in the future, she could better prepare herself for the inevitable, or, if it were possible to fight fate, perhaps she could try to avert a potential calamity. That was where Laskohki could be useful, if indeed she could divine things that had yet to come to pass. She knew that many would consider her a fool for seeking out the council of a fortuneteller, or say that she was dabbling in things better left undisturbed. Others would say that she was heading down a dark path that would only end in ruin. 

When Elfhild had been a small child, there had been a quiet little hut in a swamp near the village. People mentioned it seldom, and when they did, it was in low, hushed tones. Rumor had it that a witch dwelt there in that lonely cottage. She was said to be a young woman of extraordinary beauty, with silver hair as fine as cobwebs and a face as lovely as an elf's. Others hinted that her beauty bewitched men and she fed upon their blood, preserving her ill-gained eternal youth. Unmarried women or unfaithful wives who found themselves with child often went to the witch to rid themselves of the burden of their shame, and those who had grudges sought her services to smite their enemies with curses. Whenever someone was stricken by a mysterious ailment, or crops withered and died for seemingly no reason, or there was a spate of livestock deaths that could not be explained by mere bad luck, the villagers would start muttering about the witch, suggesting that her mischief was to blame for all their woes.

Elfhild's mother always enjoyed telling dreadfully frightening tales about the swamp and the witch who dwelt there. "Mark my words," she had warned her children as they sat around the brazier at night, "the swamp is a murky place of evil creatures, strange things that have no name, and she is in league with all of them. Stay away from her!"

Elfhild had always been curious about the swamp witch, but the thought of venturing into that gloomy fen had never even been a temptation in her mind. When she was little, she had nightmares enough about the place, strange dreams in which she was wandering aimlessly through the fen. Above the reeds and cattails, a wisp of smoke rose lazily from a chimney, and overjoyed at the prospect of finding food and safety, she rushed to the cottage. The door was of rugged oak, and as she touched its rough exterior, she hoped it would be a bulwark against the terrors of the swamp. Her breath coming in ragged gasps, she knocked on the door but all was silent. When she glanced over her shoulder, she saw mists gathering beneath the trees, swirling and seething until they had obliterated all but the misty outline of the swamp withered trees. Gathering courage from desperation, she pushed the door open, and there, standing at the bubbling cauldron on the hearth, was a woman with long, spiraling tresses of silver. The witch suddenly spun around to face her, but Elfhild, terrified by what she might see, always forced herself to awaken before she could catch a glimpse of the woman's face.

Elfhild wondered if Laskohki might be something like the swamp witch. What sort of mysteries were contained within the fortuneteller's wagon? Would it be filled with jar after jar of potions, extracts of plants and herbs, and the grotesque dried body parts of animals and birds? An impish thought teased her mind: what sort of ingredients might go into a love spell? Perhaps she could purchase some sort of romantic charm which would make Esarhaddon fall madly in love with her, and thus she would be able to ensure a comfortable future for both her and Elffled. To bewitch Esarhaddon and force him to love her would be horribly wrong, but yet she could not deny that it would be quite convenient.

Elfhild did not even know for a certainty if any of Laskohki's grandiose claims were true, or if the woman was a fraud who made her coin with false promises and idle prophesies. She had witnessed true sorcery in action, wielded by the Seneschal of Minas Morgul; she highly doubted that the head cook's wife possessed such abilities. But Elfhild was desperate enough to take a chance that this strange woman might be able to reveal some secret about her future.

However, there was just one problem. The fortuneteller's prices had been in copper coins, and Elfhild's reward consisted of silver ones. Though her family had always bartered for goods in the village market and had seldom used coins, still Elfhild knew that a silver piece would have an equivalent in coppers. However, she was uncertain how one would go about converting silver to copper and then making up the difference. She did not know if she could trust Laskohki with her money; in fact, she was afraid to show the fortuneteller even a single shiny coin, lest she demand the entire sum. Perhaps she was being overly distrustful, but she was afraid Laskohki might try to take advantage of her innocence. After all, she was a captive from a foreign land and knew little of the economics of Mordor.

If only there were a way to get one of her silver coins converted into copper ones. That way, Laskohki would never know exactly how much money she truly possessed. But how would she go about such an unknown process? Perhaps she could ask Esarhaddon. No, no, that would be far too awkward after her emotional declaration that she wanted to be his slave. Besides, he might ask too many questions, such as what she intended to purchase with the coins. He disapproved of anything remotely connected with magic, and would probably whip her for even considering going to a fortuneteller. No, Esarhaddon must know nothing about her dealings with Laskohki.

Was there anyone else she could ask? Her thoughts turned to Aunt Leofgifu. Perhaps she knew something about the currency of Mordor, given the fact that she was an overseer for the House of Huzziya. However, asking her aunt carried the same dangers as asking Esarhaddon. After interrogating them about why they needed copper coins, Leofgifu would be utterly horrified at the prospect of her nieces visiting Laskohki's wain of questionable secrets, and would give them a sound tongue lashing, or perhaps even a lashing with the flail.

Who, then, would be able to help her?

As Rose Petal droned on, Elfhild wondered if she could find out the information she needed from him. Could she trust him, though? There was always something about him that seemed peculiar, and she found it difficult to get a sense of his true nature. Whenever he smiled, the smile never quite reached his eyes, and she found that disconcerting. Perhaps she could ask about the coins in a roundabout way. She began scheming for possible solutions. If she could broach the topic in a way that made it seem like his lesson had inspired her curiosity, then most likely he would be flattered and respond in a positive manner.

"That concludes today's lesson," Rose Petal announced after he had made the class review everything they had learned that afternoon. "Are there any questions or concerns?"

"As a matter of fact, I have a question, if you would be so kind as to answer it," Elfhild stated brightly. She had rehearsed the script in her head; now it was time for the first phase of her plan. Her heart began to pound as she sensed the other students' eyes upon her.

"How wondrous it is when students desire enlightenment!" Rose Petal waved his long, slender fingers gracefully in the air as he gave her a smile that seemed somehow forced and insincere. "Is it a question about pronunciation?"

"No… I am curious about currency," Elfhild replied, choosing her words carefully. She felt a little thrill of satisfaction when she saw the surprise on his face, for she knew he always looked down upon her, considering her ignorant and foolish. "Shakh Esarhaddon paid Shakh Najor twenty-five silver zûbardh for my safekeeping."

"That is the customary amount one receives as a reward for returning a lost or escaped slave to their owner," Rose Petal explained. "Some owners offer a higher reward, if the slave is especially valuable."

"What would this sum be worth in coppers?" Elfhild inquired, attempting to sound studious. "I am trying to understand the values of Mordorian coins." Pretending to be curious about the reward seemed like a clever way to ask about money conversions without revealing her secret hoard, or Laskohki's offer.

"It is most rewarding to see that you have taken an interest in numismatics." Rose Petal smiled at her and then turned back to the rest of the class. "In order to answer Elfhild's question, I must briefly tell you all of the various coins used in Mordor and their values," he explained, warming up to the topic which he had been asked to discuss. "The smallest denomination is the copper rim. Ten rim equal a bronze zoshk; fifty zoshk equal a silver zûbardh; and one hundred zûbardh equal a gold lûr. With a handful of rim, you could buy any number of inexpensive items, such as hair pins, sewing notions, a loaf of bread, a draught of cheap beer, or a meal from a vendor's stall. If you had a purse filled with zoshk, you could purchase a week's supply of vegetables, fruit, meat, and cheese, as well as fabric, dry goods and other necessities. Most ordinary purchases are made with copper and bronze, but merchandise of higher worth is acquired with silver and gold. If you were lucky enough to possess a purse of zûbardh, you could purchase a bolt of quality material, a pair of shoes, a leather bag, or other fine goods. A horse of reasonable quality would cost several hundred silvers; one of exceptional breeding is worth even more. Slaves are often worth more than their own weight in gold, with skilled artisans, strong laborers, and beautiful maidens being the most expensive."

"I shall try to remember that." Her mind reeling, Elfhild reflected upon all that Rose Petal had told her. Both she and her sister could get their fortunes told, as well as buy as much jewelry as they wanted, for a single coin from her hoard. "If a man had, say, a silver zûbardh and wanted to convert it into coins of lower denomination, how would he go about doing so?" At last she had finally come to the question she really wanted to ask.

"A worthy question, little flower," Rose Petal told her encouragingly. "He could go to a trustworthy merchant and exchange his zûbardh for copper or bronze, or he could seek the services of a money changer. Every city has such men whose profession is converting foreign currency into the coinage of that land."

"Ah, I see. Thank you for telling me of these things." Elfhild wondered where she could find a money changer in the caravan camp. She certainly did not trust her precious coins to the mysterious Laskohki.

"If there are no more questions, then this class is dismissed." Rose Petal rose to his feet, a sign that his students should do the same. Bowing and thanking him for the lesson, the women began to file from the tent. Elfhild started to join them, but hesitated. Though she had learned of the value of Mordorian coins, she still did not have any way to change a silver coin into copper ones, and thus her dilemma remained. 

Her gaze went to Rose Petal. She hated telling him anything about Shakh Najor's reward, but what choice did she have? She desperately needed coppers to pay the fortuneteller.

"Master, if you will allow me a word before I leave."

"What is it?" Rose Petal inquired, regarding her curiously.

"While I was sojourning with the Dolrujâtar, I provided their chieftain and his men with information about their enemies, the Sand Orcs. I described all that I saw within Kafakudraûg Cavern in great detail, and Shakh Najor instructed me to make a map of all the rooms and corridors I explored. As reward for my services, the chieftain gave me ten zûbardh."

Rose Petal chuckled. "Ah, it all makes sense now. Given all of your questions about currency, I perceive that those coins are about to burn a hole in your pocket. What do you want to know about them?"

"Could you convert one of them into copper and bronze?" she asked meekly. "The marketplace in the village is bustling with merchants who have wares such as my eyes have never before beheld. I would like to give my sister some coins to spend and keep some for myself."

"I can change one of your silver pieces to copper and bronze, but I would strongly advise against keeping that much silver in your possession. Carnation acts as the caravan's treasurer, and you can entrust your coins to him for safekeeping. Whenever you need money, go to him. He will be your banker."

"Thank you, Master." Elfhild bowed gracefully. "My sister was afraid that someone would rob me." She looked over at Elffled and gave her a gentle smile.

"There your sister might not be too far from the truth," the eunuch nodded. "There are some scoundrels in this camp who would think nothing of cutting their own mother's throat to steal her purse."

At that moment, Akil appeared at the opening of the tent. "Forgive me for interrupting," he bowed his head, "but the Master has sent me to fetch Elfhild and Elffled and bring them to his tent."

Rose Petal nodded to the younger eunuch. "Very well; I turn the care and safekeeping of these girls over to your capable hands. Give my regards to Shakh Esarhaddon."

Their eyes wide with questions that they dared not ask, the twins exchanged glances. Why had the Master summoned them to his quarters?


Soon the twins were standing before Esarhaddon, anxiously waiting for him to reveal his purpose for them. He lazily regarded them from beneath heavy lids as he sat upon a low divan and reclined against the heavily brocaded cushions which supported his back.

"As you both know, the caravan will be camped at the Oasis of the Solitary Cedar for the duration of the wedding celebration," Esarhaddon began, his voice sounding slightly annoyed. He would have much preferred to be on the trail again, traveling towards the auction house in Turkûrzgoi. "Elfhild, the Lady Shabimi has invited you to visit with her and Özlem over the course of the next four days, and she has extended her invitation to your sister as well."

The two sisters looked at each other with excitement. "We would be most grateful for the privilege of seeing Lady Shabimi and Özlem again," Elfhild replied, exuberantly clasping her hands together.

"I have heard so much about the Lady and her handmaidens," Elffled spoke up. "I look forward to meeting the women of the Dolrujâtar."

Esarhaddon scowled slightly at their enthusiasm. "There are those who would consider that I am bestowing too much generosity upon a pair of lowborn slaves from an enemy land. The two of you should fall upon your hands and knees in gratitude for this boon." As the twins began to do just that, he held up his hand, signaling for them to halt. "I give my permission for the two of you to attend the wedding festivities, but there are conditions you must obey, or these privileges will be withdrawn."

"What… what are they?" Elfhild asked hesitantly. What sort of price would he demand of her? And, more importantly, would she be willing to pay?

"Elfhild, you made a favorable impression upon the Dolrujâtar while you were in their keeping," Esarhaddon began. "As you know, the House of Huzziya has recently entered into an alliance with the Dolrujâtar, which will soon be solidified by the marriage of Özlem to Shakh Zarkfir. Since the chieftain and his wife hold you in high regard, it would cause great offense if I denied them your company. Therefore, both you and your sister will serve as ambassadors of a sort, helping foster felicitous relations between the House of Huzziya and the Dolrujâtar."

"Master, what is an ambassador?" Elfhild asked, an expression of confusion crossing her face. She hated when these educated men of the South and East used such big words around her, for she always felt like an ignorant country bumpkin when she did not understand their meanings.

"An ambassador is one who represents another in a positive light," Esarhaddon explained. "During these visits with Lady Shabimi, both you and Elffled will be representing the House of Huzziya, so the two of you must be on your best behavior. Always be polite and respectful, deferential to your superiors and obeying their commands with both joy and speed. Use wisdom and discretion when speaking; avoid discussing politics and religion at all costs; and say nothing ill about the Lord of Mordor or His allies. At all times you are to bring honor to the House of Huzziya, and to me, your master."

Elfhild bowed her head and pressed her hand to her heart. "I am honored by your trust in us, Master."

Esarhaddon gave a little snort of derision. "I pray that I am not making a mistake to allow you to have these privileges. After all, only a month ago, the two of you tried to escape and return to your homeland."

Shifting nervously, Elfhild felt the heat rising in her cheeks. "That – that was a mistake, one which I gravely regret." She harbored no regrets for trying to escape a life of slavery in Mordor, but she felt deeply remorseful that her attempt to run away caused the deaths of a good man and his animals.

"We will never run away again," Elffled solemnly promised. "Our only hope lies in Mordor; we know that now."

"The proof of your repentance lies in your actions, not your words," Esarhaddon told them, thoughtfully stroking his beard as he held them under scrutiny.

"I promise that we will be good, Master, and not do anything which would embarrass you in front of the Dolrujâtar," Elfhild assured him.

"If you do, the punishments will be more severe than any you have received so far." The slaver's voice was deadly serious, and he gave the girls such a stern look that they shrank away like withering leaves before a raging wildfire. "But if I am pleased by your performance, I may consider you for bigger and better things. Loyalty and excellence in service is always rewarded. Now you are dismissed for the evening meal."


Mordorian Currency System for The Circles
Copper Rim - Lowest denomination
Bronze Zoshk = 10 Copper
Silver Zûbardh = 50 Bronze
Gold Lûr = 100 Silver

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