The Circles - Book Seven - Chapter 31

The Circles - Book Seven - Land of Treachery
Chapter Thirty-one
In the Marketplace
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

"Oh, I think she will like this one!" Elfhild exclaimed as she held up a buttercup yellow handkerchief which had been embroidered with tiny blue and red flowers along the edges.

"Oh, Elfhild, do not be so cheap." Elffled scowled at her sister. "I think Özlem would much prefer to have this fine purse instead." She held up a small black pouch which was embroidered with a swirl of blue, red and yellow flowers, a gift which she would have enjoyed receiving herself.

"Well, we could give her the handkerchief with some other things," Elfhild huffed indignantly. "There is no rule that says we have to buy her just one gift, just that whatever we give must be modest and not overly extravagant. Remember what Akil said – 'The greater the gift, the more indebted the receiver is to the giver.'"

"A curious custom," Elffled remarked. "We do not want Özlem to feel beholden to us. But I am still of the opinion that we should give her a more generous gift than a handkerchief, especially since she came to the Dolrujâtar with so little."

The shopkeeper smiled a snaggle-toothed smile at the two indecisive girls. She was a venerable matron whose wrinkled reddish brown skin was the color of the desert sand around them, its texture as tough and leathery as the harnesses of the prancing nomad horses. She was also quite fluent in Westron, unlike some of the other shopkeepers, which would make doing business with her much easier. Supporting her slight weight upon a cane, she hobbled around the shop, showing the girls her wares, which she explained had been embroidered by her five daughters and herself. There were ornately decorated pillows and cushions, sheets, blankets and throws, clothing for men and women, scarves, shawls, sashes, handkerchiefs, and a variety of other textile goods, some adorned with beads and metallic thread.

Elfhild picked up a thick square piece of cloth which was covered in bright orange and yellow blossoms. She wondered about the flap of material on the back and then discovered that it concealed an opening. "How about this, ah..." She looked to the shopkeeper, not knowing the purpose of the item.

"A covering for pillows," the woman explained. "There is not a pillow inside, you see."

"Oh, how unique!" Elfhild exclaimed. Given the love of pillows and cushions that the Dolrujâtar possessed, such a gift would be a sensible one.

Early that morning, after the twins had breakfasted with Lady Shabimi and Özlem, Akil had come to fetch them. He explained that it was the custom in the South and East for a bride's friends and relatives to present her with gifts on the day of the wedding. Since the twins had nothing to give Özlem, a trip to the village marketplace was necessary. The market was far livelier that day than it had been the previous evening, and the girls wandered trance-like through the rows of vendors. There was a myriad of goods for sale: fresh fruit and vegetables; dried dates, raisins, grains, lentils and legumes; breads and meat; pottery and glassware; baskets; textiles and clothing; jewelry and trinkets; intricately woven rugs of various sizes; and every other good imaginable. The air was filled with the scent of many spices, perfume, and incense.

Though they had browsed through many stalls, the twins decided to linger underneath the canopied shade of a shop which sold embroidered cloth. The art of embroidery was dear to the girls' hearts, for they had spent many long hours engaged in needlecraft with their mother. She had been very talented in her craft, creating beautiful geometric designs of squares, triangles, and stripes to adorn the girls' dresses and aprons. It had been a pleasant surprise when the twins discovered that the Dolrujâtar style of embroidery was not much different from that of their own land, incorporating a technique called couching. The threads that composed the designs were fastened by contrasting stitches upon a fabric background, creating raised designs of densely packed thread. In the Mark, many tapestries were created in this fashion.

Elfhild and Elffled were uncertain of the particular customs which surrounded Dolrujâtar weddings, so deciding upon the perfect present for the bride was a challenging proposition. Elfhild wanted to buy Özlem a worthy gift, but on the other hand she did not want to say farewell to the only wealth she had ever possessed in her life. She also wanted to get the best deal from these wily merchants, who, Akil warned, could be totally unscrupulous. The elderly shopkeeper gave the twins plenty of suggestions for gifts, although she would extol the virtues of her more expensive items over her cheaper ones.

The twins at last decided upon a gift, a black pillow cover decorated with green vines and orange flowers and accentuated with tiny beads. Paying the shopkeeper, they wished her farewell and gathered up the bundle, which had been wrapped in a scrap of cheap material. The pleased woman gave them a gape-toothed smile, and as soon as they were out of the tent, she swept the coins into a strongbox. "Such innocents," she chuckled to herself, happy that she had gotten the better of the bargaining.

Akil was waiting for them outside the tent. "Have the two of you finished your shopping?"

"No," Elfhild giggled. "We have hardly begun, but you can carry what we have purchased."

"Poor Akil," Elffled smiled indulgently at the eunuch, who looked back at her with patient forbearance.

"Such a small thing as a pillow cover, I can carry quite easily." He smiled gently at them as he tucked it under his arm. "Now if my charges are interested in perfumes, there is a merchant selling fragrant oils down that way." He motioned with his hand towards another section of the marketplace. "Now if you are interested in earthenware vessels, a potter has set up shop just up the row."

"All that sounds appealing, but I would like to go to one of the bakers' stalls next," Elfhild told him.

"A wonderful idea!" Elffled sighed dreamily and closed her eyes. "I can just taste all those delightful treats!"

"We are going there to buy a gift for the bride, not to fill your stomach, sister," Elfhild grumbled, shooting Elffled a heated glance. "Remember, I do not have much money to spend!"

"Then you want to go to the section of the marketplace that sells food. Follow me, little mistresses." Akil bowed and motioned for them to accompany him.

As they walked down the row of food merchants, the twins' mouths watered at the sight of freshly dressed chickens, quail, and partridge hanging suspended from poles in front of the butcher's shop. Another merchant offered fresh mutton, goat meat, and some beef, antelope, and other game. The merchants implored them to visit their shops, energetically boasting of the freshness and fine qualities of their meats. Business was brisk because of the wedding, with celebrations going on in all the homes from the richest to the poorest. Goods and coins quickly passed from seller to buyer.

"Oh, Akil, this is wonderful," Elffled gushed. "It is even bigger than the market in our village back in Rohan!"

Akil smiled benignly. "Ah, but this is the market of a larger village. The bazaars of the great cities of Nurn are even larger. You would not believe what they are like until you have seen them! Everything that your mind could ever envision is sold in the fabulous markets of Nurn!" A faraway look came across his face, and the girls sensed that the young eunuch was homesick. "There is no time now to talk about this." He glanced up at the sun, and his expression changed to a frown. "My mistresses should not let time slip away from them. Look at the sun." He gestured towards the sky. "Soon it shall be noon. If you do not want to buy a chicken or leg of mutton, we should go now to the sellers of baked goods."

Akil's hints at the wonders of the Nurnian bazaars whetted the twins' appetites for more. The eunuch's loquacious mood, though, seemed to have passed, and he next led them to the area where the bakers had set up shop. The smell of freshly baked bread was thick in the air, and the twins breathed in deeply. While the girls did their shopping, Akil found an inconspicuous spot where he could wait for them. As he stood there, he caught sight of another one of Esarhaddon's eunuchs, a companion of his, who was also shopping at the market. While Akil waited for his charges to finish their business, he became engaged in a lively conversation with his fellow.

There was a bustling crowd at the marketplace that day, and the dusty street swarmed with men, women, and children from the Oasis, caravan workers, and visitors from other Dolrujâtar villages. Everywhere there was noise, people talking, merchants hawking, customers haggling, even the protesting brays of a donkey somewhere in the village. As Elfhild and Elffled browsed through a selection of date pastries, a small figure darted through the crowd and sidled up to them. When they heard their names spoken in a musical little voice, the sisters whirled around, startled to see one of Laskohki's daughters standing before them, as though she had materialized from the desert sand beneath their feet.

"Favorable are the omens for tonight," the girl whispered cryptically. "Mother will be waiting for you." Then with a giggle, the child scampered off, disappearing into the throng.

Elfhild and Elffled exchanged glances, and then they shuddered simultaneously. Maybe they should forego their visit to the Haradric witch. But perhaps refusal would be more dangerous than the actual encounter. Laskohki did say, after all, that she possessed great powers... What if her anger grew so great that she cursed both of them with the soul-robbing madness? ...Of course, they would go — for their curiosity was a far more compelling force than any vague fear.

Quickly the twins selected a dozen honeyed date pastries for the bride and two for themselves, and then they realized they had nothing in which to carry their purchases. Irritated at herself, Elfhild frowned, but then she saw a small reed basket near the back of the stall. With the payment of a few coins, the basket was hers. While the baker's assistant watched the hurried departure of the two girls, he was flabbergasted that he had been able to finalize the sale with no dickering. "Silly wenches – how eager these foreigners are to part with their money," he smiled to himself as he placed the coins into his master's money chest.

When Akil caught sight of the approaching girls, he said farewell to his friend, and, after bowing to each other, the two eunuchs parted ways. Relieving Elfhild of her delectable burden, Akil led his charges away from the marketplace. "I could not help seeing you talking to the small daughter of Laskohki," Akil told them casually, although he could not hide the curiosity from his voice.

Gulping down the bite of pastry which she had just taken, Elfhild blushed furiously. "Ah, well..." She rubbed her fingers together nervously and found that they were sticky from the pastry and covered with bits of flaky crumbs. "We have been meaning to talk with you about that..."

"Oh?" he asked, an eyebrow arching.

Taking a deep breath, Elfhild attempted to seem calm and collected. "Well, you see, when we were working in the kitchen two days ago, I tripped over one of Laskohki's jars and smashed it into a thousand pieces. She promised that she would not report me to the overseers if I would repay the cost of the broken pot." She glanced at Elfhild out of the corner of her eye, and in that moment, there was instant understanding between the two sisters.

"We thought the cook's wife would be angry, but she was very understanding about it," Elffled added, nodding and trying to sound as convincing as possible.

"I do not believe you," Akil replied firmly. "Are you going to the witch's wain for a love charm, or perhaps to curse a rival for Shakh Esarhaddon's affections?"

An indignant Elfhild gasped. "Akil! I cannot believe you think so little of us!" She glared at him with hurt-filled eyes. "Why, we would never consort with conjurers, soothsayers, diviners, witches, or sorcerers!" Idly she wondered how much it would cost her to curse all of her rivals. Probably more gold than was in Esarhaddon's own coffers, she mused. It would be far cheaper to pay for a spell of illusion which made him appear hideously ugly to all the women except her...

"We are just going there to repay a debt, nothing more," Elffled told him innocently. "It grieves me that you would think otherwise!"

"You should not try to lie to me," Akil huffed and walked faster. The sisters had trouble keeping up with him as he led them from the marketplace and turned down a hard-packed street lined with tents and pavilions. Many of the dwellings were empty, for the residents were either herding their flocks, shopping in the marketplace, giving the bride their well wishes, attending the groom as he received advice from the shaman, or enjoying impromptu performances of music and dance. When they had reached the last tent, Akil veered sharply to the north. Ahead they could see the sun glistening on the water of the lake. A soft breeze stirred the swaying fronds of the date palms which ringed the crystal waters.

"Where are you taking us, Akil?" Elfhild demanded, perplexed by the eunuch's gruff behavior.

"A place where you can appreciate the beauties of the earth," he answered sourly as he halted by a huge date palm which must have been at least seventy-five feet high. "The marketplace is no place to discuss important matters. I wanted someplace quiet where we could talk." He folded his arms across his chest and looked at them sternly. "You should know that Shakh Esarhaddon does not approve of anything that remotely resembles witchcraft."

Elfhild sadly dropped her gaze to the ground and forced a tear from the corner of her eye. "I am hurt that you would ever think that either my sister or I would request the services of a witch. I must confess, though, that I have lied, but it is not what you might think." She managed to squeeze another tear from her eye.

"Ah ha!" Akil exclaimed, his boyish face exultant with triumph.

"Yes, I am afraid so," Elfhild murmured humbly. When she looked back at him, she daintily brushed the false tears from her cheeks. By concentrating, she could mask her face in an expression of repentance. "I might as well confess. There was no broken jar," she sobbed. "Oh, yes, I realize – I realize so terribly well now – that we should never have tried to deceive you, for you are far too wise."

"Little mistress, you should know by now the utter futility of trying to deceive one of Shakh Esarhaddon's eunuchs. We are trained to read the mind and heart." When he saw her trembling lips and heard her pathetic sobs, Akil felt a pang of guilt for hurting her feelings. "You might as well get it out. Tell me the real reason you wished to go to the wain of the witch."

"Oh, Akil, I know you will say it is silly, and I know we really should have told you this in the first place, but all we wanted was to buy some jewelry from the cook's wife," Elfhild gasped breathlessly, choking back sobs. She noticed that the eunuch's hand twitched, as though he were about to reach out and comfort her, but he remembered his position just in time.

"We knew you would disapprove, but we thought if we had a good excuse, perhaps you would relent," Elffled added, looking appropriately remorseful.

"At first we considered offering you a coin for your silence, but we knew that would have offended you," Elfhild continued. Perhaps bribery would not have been the best approach to take with Akil, but it did no harm to put the idea in his head. Maybe he would bite upon the unspoken offering like a fish on bait.

His face stern, the eunuch rose to his full height, his arms clasped tightly across his chest. "You judged correctly. If either of you had stooped to bribery, I would have been forced to report such an infraction of the rules to Shakh Esarhaddon. You can be sure that I would have encouraged him to administer an appropriate punishment to drive such foolishness from your minds."

"Please forgive me, Akil! Please forgive both of us! Our thoughts were impure!" Elfhild bowed her head in shame, her voice little above a whisper. She felt a great surge of relief. She knew she had played her game well, and she was pleased with herself. Maybe she was finally learning to handle herself in Mordor.

"Forgive you?" Akil refused to let any emotion cross his face. "Of course, I forgive you! I am proud of you. An evil idea crossed your mind – the possibility that I might take bribes – but your innate goodness drove it far from your thoughts." He allowed a faint smile to show at the corners of his mouth. "For this I have decided that you should be rewarded for your honesty."

"You have!" Elfhild batted away more tears with her long eyelashes. Once you got the knack of it, willing yourself to cry came easily as lying, she realized.

"Yes!" the eunuch exclaimed, a broad smile settling over his face. "If you wish no more than to buy some baubles from Laskohki, I will escort you to her wain one evening before the caravan leaves the Oasis. But," he held up a restraining hand, "remember that you are to shun all the gallimaufry of sorcery that she sells – amulets, charms, scraps of parchment or cloth with spells written upon them, powdered horns of beasts, the mummified parts of anything that ever lived, or mandrake or any other roots that resemble body parts. In other words, you will restrict yourselves to nothing but jewelry. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Akil," Elfhild replied humbly. "We will not fail you." She wondered why Akil knew so much about Laskohki's merchandise, but felt it was best not to ask…

"I am sure you will not," he smiled. "I am convinced that you have learned your lesson."

Next Chapter

Previous Chapter
Main Index