The Circles - Book Seven - Chapter 29

The Circles - Book Seven - Land of Treachery
Chapter Twenty-nine
A Conversation With An Old Friend
Written by Elfhild

The twins returned to the caravan camp just in time for supper, and soon they were eating with their friends from the troop and sharing the events of their day. Tove and Cyneburh did not grace the evening meal with their presence, for they believed themselves too good to break bread with peasants. Good riddance, Elfhild thought; being around that pair for any length of time was enough to spoil the appetite. Unfortunately, Sunngifu was absent as well. Her stomach had been feeling unwell all day, and so she had decided to skip supper and go to the healer's wain instead. Elfhild hoped that she and her unborn child both fared well.

When the twins related that Lady Shabimi had invited them to attend the wedding festivities which would be held over the next few days, the girls in their troop wanted to know all about the Dolrujâtar and their customs. They knew little about the various lands and tribes which were allied with the Enemy, for their only exposure to these strange and mysterious people were Mordorian soldiers whom they passed on the road, and the guards who accompanied the caravan. These men were quite intimidating, with their sharp scimitars and burnished mail and eyes which shone with the gleam of conquest. The Dolrujâtar seemed far less daunting, however. Throughout the day, curious onlookers from the nomad village had ventured close to the caravan camp to gawk at the Rohirric captives. There were young warriors and men of middle years, maids and mothers, elderly men and women whose faces were weathered by sun and sand, bands of excited children, and even the errant goat or sheep. Though some of the captives retreated further into the shelter of the slave pavilion to escape the scrutiny of the villagers, others looked with equal curiosity upon these Men of Darkness who dwelt in the heart of the Enemy's land. 

"You two are so lucky," Beorhtwyn sighed wistfully, her dark green hazel eyes alight with wonder. "A Dolrujâtar wedding sounds so exciting!"

"It is wonderful that you have been invited to all the festivities." A bright smile was upon Wulfwaru's light brown face. "Weddings are such joyous occasions!"

"You will have to tell us about each day of the celebration," Hereswith encouraged. "I am sure you will come back with many exciting stories!"

"I wish Özlem were my friend, so I would have been invited as well," Burghilde whined, pretending to pout like a little child.

"Cheer up, little sister," Beorhtwyn reminded her. "At least Lord Esarhaddon has proclaimed feasts for the slaves in the compound for the next few nights. I cannot wait to taste all the cakes and confections. These Southern desserts are so different from those in our own land!"

"Oh, Beorthwyn, you are always thinking about food!" Burghilde giggled.

As she listened to the girls' banter, Elfhild felt a sense of belonging, the warm feelings one gets when surrounded by family and close friends. She had only known her troop members for a little over a week before she had been taken by the uruks, and so she was eager to reacquaint herself with the girls with whom she would be marching for the remainder of the journey. Well, with the exception of Tove and Cyneburh; she knew that pair of shrews well enough, and that was far too much for her. 

She had been surprised to learn that both Tove and Cyneburh had been chosen for special tutoring in Black Speech. Thankfully, Rose Petal was not their teacher. His class could be challenging enough, without the additional strain of having to put up with that insufferable pair. Since they were nobility, Tove and Cyneburh were educated to a certain degree: if they chose to do so, they could conduct themselves with grace and dignity; they were well-versed in the history of their own land and knew some of the lore of Gondor; and they knew how to read and write in both Westron and the runes of Rohan. For these traits, they were considered quite valuable by their captors, for it set them above the common peasants who made up most of the captives. They were quite beautiful as well, especially Tove, with her auburn hair and green eyes, an uncommon combination in both the lands of the East and West.

Elfhild had known that other eunuchs besides Rose Petal were teaching certain captives, but she did not know the exact number of women and children who had been selected for this special privilege. It seemed that Esarhaddon had an interest in the education of the prisoners in his keeping, although it was more for his own monetary gain than their best interests. Every morning after breakfast, the captives listened as the overseers barked out various greetings and salutations in both Black Speech and Haradric. The captives were to chant these phrases at appropriate times, such as when Esarhaddon passed by the column, or the caravan encountered a Mordorian battalion or cavalry patrol. Whenever the caravan paused for a two-day rest or was forced to halt for an extended time, the guards would call a daily assembly of the captives so that the eunuchs could instruct them as a whole. Though the trail was hardly a classroom, Esarhaddon wanted his charges to learn what they could before auction day.

Although Elfhild enjoyed the company of the Dolrujâtar, being with her countrywomen reminded her of the home she had been forced to leave behind. She had more in common with her troop mates than she did with the nomads, for they all hailed from the same land and spoke the same language. Beorhtwyn and Burghilde were peasant farm girls, just like her, and it was towards them that she felt the fondest sentiments. While the other young women who comprised the troop had different backgrounds, they had all been born in the Eastfold, and had been torn from their homes by the cruel soldiers of Mordor. It was highly unlikely that she would have ever met any of these girls had war never come to the Riddermark, for they all hailed from different parts of the Eastfold, and peasants seldom strayed far from their homes. At least some good had come out of these dark days.

After everyone finished supper, Burghilde announced that she wanted to play a game of riddles. Camp life was often monotonous for the children, for what few toys they possessed had been turned to ash when their homes were put to the torch. An imaginative child could make a toy out of anything, from sticks to rocks, but these small playthings were often abandoned when the caravan set out again. Games such as tag and hide-and-seek were considered too disruptive by the guards, who wanted to keep the captives corralled in a central location where they could be more easily controlled. Therefore, any game or sport that the children played had to be relatively quiet and unobtrusive.

Since Elfhild had never been good at riddles, she felt that this would be a good time to slip away and seek out Aeffe and inquire as to how she fared. Elffled, who found Burghilde's game both challenging and enjoyable, decided to stay behind with the others. 

Elfhild had wanted to speak to Aeffe after Rose Petal's class was over, but then she and her sister had been summoned to Esarhaddon's tent. Aeffe possessed such a sweet and bubbly personality, both dreamy and grounded in reality, and she was so pretty with her pale coppery cream tresses and bright turquoise eyes with pupils ringed with gold. Elfhild had liked Aeffe from the moment she had first met her. That had been the night before the ill-fated escape attempt, back when Elfhild had been foolish enough to think that she could escape the chains of Mordor. Aeffe, who was far more wise and less hopeful, had counselled her against following through with Goldwyn's plan, but she had still been willing to help the other captives escape by creating a diversion to distract the guards. 

Elfhild found Aeffe sitting in a shady spot beneath the spreading boughs of one of the Oasis' famous cedar trees. She was looking wistfully towards the tents of the caravan laborers, and Elfhild wondered if she were hoping for a glimpse of Inbir. When she caught sight of Elfhild, Aeffe rose to her feet and beckoned for her to come closer.

"Elfhild!" Aeffe cried, embracing her. "It is so good to see you again!"

"I am glad to see you, too!" Elfhild gave her friend a hearty squeeze and then took a step back. "I thought for a certain that I would spend the last of my days in the company of orcs and goblins, never to see my sister or any of my friends ever again."

"What a horrible fate!" A shudder rocked through Aeffe's upper body, and she shook her head to rid herself of the unpleasant sensation. "Did the fiends hurt you while you were their prisoner?" Her gaze roamed over Elfhild's face and body, searching for signs of injury. "You must have been terrified!"

"Thankfully, I was spared for the most part," Elfhild reassured her friend. "The orcs did not harm me overly much, but any time spent among such foul creatures is a torment."

"You were so fortunate!" Aeffe exclaimed breathlessly. "I think that they are all mad. At any moment, they might explode like that horrible Mountain to the north of us. I remember the terrible night when they all turned into savages and tried to sacrifice me!"

Less than a month before, Aeffe had come very close to becoming another casualty of the bloodthirsty uruks. When the Mountain of Fire had erupted in an explosion of fury and violence, many of the fiends went berserk, giving in to their inner barbarity, embracing the blood lust which seized their minds and senses. Their leader, a uruk priest named Drâgh, was convinced that the Dark Lord was displeased with the race of Orcs, and called out for his followers to seize women from the Rohirric captives so that they might sacrifice them to appease the Dark One's wrath. Aeffe was one of the victims chosen for sacrifice, and Drâgh was on the verge of plunging the sacrificial dagger into her heart before an arrow from Khaldun's bow struck the uruk priest dead. 

"If it were not for Captain Khaldun's skills in archery, I do not like to think what might have happened," Elfhild remarked with a disbelieving expression and a shake of her head. 

"I would have ended up like Hrothwaru's poor sister," Aeffe proclaimed grimly. "But enough talk of such gloomy matters. You must tell me how you escaped from the orcs." She sat back down beneath the tree and patted the ground beside her. 

Elfhild gave a harrowing account of her abduction and captivity, the daring escape across the desert, and fortunate rescue by the Dolrujâtar tribesmen. When Elfhild related Khaldun's tidings that Durraiz had been executed by the Sand Orcs, Aeffe let out a little cheer of vindication. Shortly after the caravan had crossed the Anduin, Durraiz decided to make a public spectacle out of punishing the captives for attempting to escape. Even though Aeffe had never tried to run away from her captors, Durraiz had taken an especial delight in tormenting her, ordering that she be stripped, tied to a wagon wheel, and lashed with a bundle of hazel switches. She felt not an ounce of sorrow that the horrid she-orc was now food for the carrion birds.  

Aeffe was not personally acquainted with Özlem, but she expressed sympathy for all the terrible things which had happened to the Haradric girl, and satisfaction that her story would have a happy ending as the wife of a desert prince. Elfhild told her that the Dolrujâtar seemed to be good people, even if they did revere the Dark Lord. Aeffe was rather dubious that anyone who worshipped Sauron could truly be good. After all, she had seen the devotees of the Evil One at work that terrifying night when the earth shook and the Mountain erupted in flame. She had almost become the second sacrifice of the evening, and the uruks had lined up a whole row of victims to be murdered after her. One could expect such savagery from orcs, but she had heard rumors of ghastly temples and fanes in Mordor in which evil men shed the blood of the innocent to pay tribute to their Dark God. Elfhild tried to ease her fears by telling her that Lady Shabimi claimed that the Dolrujâtar only sacrificed sheep and goats, but still Aeffe had her doubts. 

After finishing her tale, Elfhild inquired about how Aeffe had been faring these past few weeks. Since the caravan had spent most of that time camped at the Dâltgund Cistern, life for the Rohirric captives had passed much more slowly than it had in the days before the raid on the camp and the attack on Esarhaddon's life. Aeffe confessed that she had enjoyed these days of relative peace, even though the landscape around the cistern was bleak and gloomy. She was one of the caravan's water bearers, so whenever the captives were on the move, she had to lug around a heavy waterskin and give water to those who needed it. She had been given a leather vest with a high collar to protect her neck and shoulders from her burden, but it was still a difficult one to bear beneath the blazing sun. Though the labor was difficult, her duty did have one benefit, however: she was allowed to walk unbound, free of ropes and chains. Elfhild always liked talking to Aeffe when she made her rounds, but there was seldom much time to speak while the caravan was traveling.

"So when did you start taking classes with Rose Petal?" Elfhild inquired.

"A little over a fortnight ago," Aeffe replied. "All of the captives who have some talent or skill are selected for evaluation by the eunuchs, and those who are deemed to have the most promise are chosen for the classes." 

"My sister did not tell me that Rose Petal had new students, or that you were among them," Elfhild remarked. "She said she wanted me to be surprised." She rolled her eyes in exasperation. 

Aeffe giggled. "I am so glad to have the same teacher as you and Elffled, for we shall see each other more often now."

"I do regret that you must suffer with Rose Petal as your tutor. He can be… challenging at times."

Aeffe smiled and gave a knowing nod. "Oh, I am well aware. He was so critical of Hrothwaru's pronunciation of a word that he made her cry."

The two girls talked about the overly strict eunuch for a while and the challenges of learning both Black Speech and Haradric. How strange it was that they were being taught the language and customs of their foes. While discovering new knowledge was always an enjoyable pursuit, there was something somewhat sinister about it all. They felt strange when speaking the tongue of Mordor, as though they were uttering blasphemous incantations. But that was silly – there was no magic in the words and phrases they were forced to repeat over and over until they committed them to memory. Perhaps their discomfiture was caused by the fear that they were severing ties with their homeland and embracing the ways of their enemies. Speaking the language of the conquerors felt like treason, especially when they were forbidden to speak their own tongue in the presence of the guards. They were being taught the ways of their enemies so that they would become more like them. But what choice did they have? It was obey and learn, or face the whip. 

After discussing their grievances with Rose Petal, the two girls began to share camp gossip. Since Elfhild had been away for so long, she knew little of the latest tidings, and so she listened intently as Aeffe caught her up to date about the various goings on in the camp. 

"Is Inbir still visiting you?" Elfhild inquired when Aeffe had finished speaking. 

A luminous blush made Aeffe's cheeks match her ginger hair, and her face lit up with an ear-to-ear grin. Pushing a lock of hair behind her ear, she tried to contain her smile, her lips quivering in protest. 

"I take that as a yes," Elfhild laughed.

Aeffe turned towards Elfhild and grasped her hands, pulling her closer. Her gaze darting around to ensure no one was close enough to understand their conversation, she lowered her voice conspiratorially. "He and I are quite the pair of rebels, meeting in secret under the guards' noses. Of course," she added with a wink, "some of those guards are his friends, and he pays them a coin or two to look the other way."

"How very daring," Elfhild remarked, titillated by the thoughts of a secret romance.

"Lord Esarhaddon would be enraged if he knew." Aeffe sighed. "The guards are forbidden from having dalliances with the captive women." 

"What the slaver does not know will not hurt him," Elfhild giggled.

Her mood turning somber, Aeffe began picking aimlessly at the leaves of a desert plant she had torn from the sandy ground. "This life of deceit does not sit well with Inbir. He is not accustomed to going against the wishes of his employer and kinsman. He wants to purchase me so that there will be no need for this secrecy, but, alas, he is too poor."

"Perhaps Lord Esarhaddon and Inbir can work out some agreement," Elfhild suggested. She wondered if the hope contained within her words was a false one, for the slave trader's love of gold was quite renowned.

"Oh, Elfhild," Aeffe cried, "I fear that Lord Esarhaddon may want me for himself! There is a rumor going around the camp that he is watching all the captives closely because he plans on selecting a small number for training. You must remember that I was one of the first captives he summoned to his tent back in the Stoneland, and now he has chosen me to be one of the students in Rose Petal's class. I fear that he is showing far too much interest in me."

Elfhild pondered her words for a moment and tried to think of something comforting to say, but she feared that Aeffe's assumptions concerning the slaver were correct. Uncertain what to tell her friend, her mind went towards the absurd. "Perhaps you could pretend to be simpleminded, or act as though you possess uncouth habits, such as picking your nose or breaking wind in public."

Aeffe giggled. "Oh, Elfhild, you are being silly!" 

A sheepish grin upon her face, Elfhild shrugged her shoulders and threw up her hands. "Well, those would be some ways to convince Esarhaddon that you were unfit for consideration."

After Aeffe had a good laugh, she grew serious again. "Since he will never earn enough to purchase me, Inbir has come up with a scheme that will keep us together. He swears he will offer himself as a slave to Lord Esarhaddon if he promises to keep both of us and allow us to marry."

"I do not think that would be so bad, although I fear that Inbir might think otherwise." A wry grin crossed Elfhild's face as she thought of the proud young Southron's chagrin at being reduced to slavery. 

"Inbir tells me that he would gladly accept servitude if it was his only chance of being with me." Aeffe's eyes shone as she told her friend of the passionate love she shared with the young lieutenant. "He is such a brave, gentle soul."

Elfhild smiled. "Of all the Southrons, Inbir was always the kindest to my sister and me."

"But if Lord Esarhaddon does not agree to this arrangement, Inbir says that he will find another way." Aeffe's voice dropped to a whisper, and she leaned closer to Elfhild. "Inbir plans to kidnap me and flee over the mountains to the West."

Elfhild's eyes widened in disbelief. "You mean you plan to escape?"

"It may be the only chance that Inbir and I can be together."

"But… but you will starve out there! The dark clouds which covered the sky in the spring destroyed all of the crops and blighted all of the plants and trees. The desert around us looks more alive than either the Riddermark or the Stoneland right now!" Elfhild gestured towards a cluster of bushes nearby, which seemed to be thriving in the sandy soil. 

"Surely there is some place where the clouds of Mordor have not touched," Aeffe remarked, her voice tense and desperate. "Oh, Elfhild, please keep our secret!" She gripped Elfhild's forearm tightly, her gentle eyes pleading. 

"I will... You know I will," Elfhild promised.

Inbir must truly love Aeffe to be willing to sacrifice his freedom in order to obtain her. He was even considering breaking all the rules and risking his very life to escape with his beloved. What devotion, what daring! "Oh, how romantic," Elfhild thought with a tinge of envy. She wished she had a man who loved her enough that he would be willing to risk it all for her. 

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