The Circles - Book Seven - Chapter 35

The Circles - Book Seven - Land of Treachery
Chapter Thirty-five
Romanced by the Jewels
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

Elfhild and Elffled spent the second day of the wedding festivities accompanying Lady Shabimi and Özlem as they attended the grand celebration which signified Shakh Esarhaddon's initiation into the tribe. They had been thrilled by all the grand parades, mock battles, and horse races that had been held throughout the morning and afternoon. How magnificent the Dolrujâtar warriors looked upon their swift steeds as they galloped across the desert! The twins had always enjoyed watching races and other feats of horsemanship at the midsummer fair back in Grenefeld, but never had their humble little village hosted such an impressive spectacle. Experiences like this one always gave them hope, for though they were in the land of their enemies, perhaps these people were not all that different from their own. Of course, then there was the gory ritual of animal sacrifice to placate the Dark Lord and beseech His favor, and the twins were reminded once again that they were in Mordor.

While the third day of the wedding festivities was not as eventful nor as exciting as the first two, Elfhild and Elffled enjoyed it just the same. Though a great feast was held that night, it was business as usual during the daytime, and the twins accompanied Lady Shabimi's handmaidens as they tended to the sheep and goats. Elfhild savored these bittersweet moments, for she knew that it was unlikely that she would ever return to the Oasis of the Solitary Cedar. Elffled was becoming better acquainted with her sister's friends, and she felt the same pangs of sadness when she thought how soon she would be taking her leave of them. These might be the only pleasant days they would ever spend in the Land of Shadow, and the twins tried to remain in good spirits and keep the grief of parting at bay.

As they helped the Dolrujâtar girls with their chores, Elfhild and Elffled took delight in exploring the desert. While Lithlad was not a beauteous land by any stretch of the imagination, this region of Mordor was far more pleasing to the eye than the barren wastes of Gorgoroth. During her stay at the oasis, Elfhild's favorite place to visit had been a high hill which offered a spectacular view of the rocky countryside, and she wanted to show this special spot to her sister. What a peculiar sight it was to see the sharp contrast of colors around the oasis from a distance: the deep green palm trees which sprung up around freshwater springs looked very much out of place against the reddish-brown rocks and sand of the desert. It felt good to be able to walk around as they pleased, free of shackles and chains and the stinging lash of the slavedrivers.

Since the twins would be leaving the oasis in the morrow, Lady Shabimi had assigned them only a half day of chores, and they spent the rest of the afternoon in the company of Özlem. Lady Shabimi had suggested that they bathe in the salt sea, for it was believed that the mineral-rich waters possessed beneficial properties which could help heal a variety of ailments. Accompanied by Azul and Larnîz, the lady's two youngest handmaidens, the trio found a secluded area along the bone white sands of the beach. The servant girls expressed concern that the intensity of the sun would scorch the twins' white skin, and insisted that they coat their bodies with several layers of an herb infused oil that they had brought along for the benefit of the group. Larnîz and Azul were very protective of their three charges, cautioning them to be heedful while walking barefoot, for the salt deposits along the shore were often crusty and sharp. They also warned the foreign girls that, while the water of the lake could help heal skin conditions, it would also cause any cuts to burn and sting.

Bathing in the lake was an incredible experience. The crystalline waters were as blue as the turquoise jewelry worn by the Dolrujâtar women, standing out in stark contrast to the white salt deposits which ringed the shores and the ruddy brown earth of the desert landscape. Wading out to the deeper part of the lake, Elfhild, Elffled, and Özlem soon found themselves floating in the cool, dense water. They were astonished at the sensation of weightlessness that the dense water imparted, and felt as though they were floating on clouds without ever leaving the ground. After spending the better part of the afternoon splashing about in the lake, Larnîz and Azul led their charges to a nearby freshwater spring so that they could wash the salt from their bodies. Elfhild and Elffled thought that the fine white crystals which covered their skin resembled a dusting of snow, but Özlem, who was born in Harad, did not understand the reference.

After returning to the village, Elfhild and Elffled ate their fill at the last feast of the wedding celebration, for in the morrow they would be back to eating trail food. Because the caravan would be setting out at the crack of dawn, the twins were not permitted to stay the night with Özlem and Lady Shabimi. When they saw the arrival of Akil, who had come to fetch them and return them to their troop, the girls felt their hearts welling up with sadness and disappointment. The eunuch gave them a few minutes to say their farewells, politely waiting as Özlem, Lady Shabimi, and the five handmaidens surrounded the twins to give them their blessings and well wishes. There was much hugging and kissing of cheeks, spontaneous bouts of weeping, tear-filled declarations of friendship, and prayers for good health and good fortune. "May the Great Eye watch over your paths, and the Giver of Gifts bless you with abundance," Lady Shabimi told them, passionately imploring Sauron for His blessings and protection. The twins tried to keep from shuddering at such disturbing sentiments, but they did appreciate the benevolent thought behind them.

When all goodbyes had been said, Akil bade the twins follow him from the pavilion. The village streets were filled with revelers - many of whom had imbibed far too much wine - and they sang and shouted with noisy abandon. There would be more than one black eye and cracked skull before the night was over, the aftermath of spontaneous fights which broke out between men whose wits had temporarily been lost to the wine that had flowed freely all evening. A boisterous group of village men jostled into the twins, knocking Elfhild into her sister. Gasping in dismay, Elffled grabbed her arm before she fell to the ground.

Akil bristled indignantly at the men. "You clumsy dolts!" he shouted in his high-pitched voice. "Do you not know that these women are under the protection of Shakh Esarhaddon uHuzziya? Go to your homes and stop making an indecent spectacle of yourselves! Begone! Begone!" Akil put his hand on the hilt of his dagger, but the men only laughed at him. Still, they had no desire to insult the House of Huzziya, and, without apologizing, they launched into another song and staggered drunkenly down the street.

Sputtering, Akil led his disheveled charges between two tents, careful to guide them around ropes and stakes. Past the tents, they came to another street. Here, the merrymaking was much more subdued. Akil paused, putting his hand over his hammering heart. He had been terrified at the prospect of fighting a band of drunkards, but he would never show his fear to his charges.

"Thank you for coming to our defense," Elffled told him with a grateful smile. "Since this is the last night of the wedding feast, I suppose that some of the villagers are doing as much celebrating as they can ere life at the Oasis returns to its usual pace."

"Wine sots," Akil muttered. "They mean no harm, little mistresses, but some men have no sense when they start drinking. Although Shakh Najor and the Council of Elders have guards patrolling the streets, I will feel much safer when we are away from the traffic."

"Akil, we still have not visited the wain of Mistress Laskohki, and tomorrow we go back to being chained up and guarded all the time," Elfhild spoke up, her voice plaintive.

"I had hoped that you had forgotten or had changed your minds about visiting the cook's wife," Akil sighed as he led them along a long row of darkened tents. "Very well, I will take you to see Mistress Laskohki. But you are not to purchase any of her more dubious merchandise!"

"You can trust us," Elffled replied sweetly, lying through her teeth.

The music of the wedding pavilion grew fainter as Akil took them towards the village marketplace. Very few of the stalls were still open, the awnings pulled down like shrouds over a corpse. No longer was the market a place of bustling activity, for the shrill cries of hawkers and the heated haggling between merchants and customers had been silenced for the night. Only a few lanterns still burnt in the darkened shops, their lights a feeble flickering yellow. The torches that lit the market had burned low, and now the shadows in the almost abandoned street seemed dense and thick as black smoke. A silver humpback moon hung in the sky, but the light provided little comfort. The cool chill of the desert night had descended, and Elfhild and Elffled shivered as they pulled their cloaks tightly around themselves.

The twins could not shake the feeling of guilt which seemed to weigh both of them down. They were lying to kind, trusting Akil, consulting with a witch, breaking their master's rules, and doing a deed which would have horrified their parents, but a chance to know their destinies was too strong an enticement to resist. Would their souls be jeopardized by this venture into the unknown? Would they sicken and die? Would their disembodied spirits be condemned to wander forever through the misty spirit realm, their only companions those equally blighted with sin?

When the girls heard a low moaning sound coming from deep in the shadows between two of the stalls, they jumped and clung to each other. The torchlight reflected from two yellow eyes which gleamed savagely in the darkness. Was it some sort of fell spirit sent to punish them for betraying Akil and daring to seek knowledge of the forbidden occult?

"Afraid of the dark?" Akil's sarcastic voice cut through the night, and the unseen spirit howled louder. Bending down, he picked up a loose rock and pitched it in the direction of the noise. The surly cur raced away, barking and snarling at the indignity.

"Of course not," Elfhild protested, recovering from her fright. "The Rohirrim fear not the darkness."

"Only mangy dogs," Akil chuckled. "You need not be afraid. He will not return; his pelt is too sore."

"Are we almost there?" Elffled asked, somewhat petulantly. "I did not know that it was so far."

"You are letting your fear of the darkness cloud your perceptions. Everything seems different at night. You have not walked so far as you might think. We are almost there," Akil reassured her. "If you will stop trembling, you will see that Laskohki's wain is just up ahead."

"Our perceptions are quite all right, Akil, and we certainly are not trembling!" Elffled angrily kicked a stone. Sometimes the eunuch could be so supercilious.

"Stop fussing," Akil muttered as they approached a wain set off at a distance from the other merchants. The windows shuttered, the wagon was shrouded in darkness, except for two dim lamps which burnt on either side of the door. "The hour is late, little mistresses," he pointed out. "Perhaps they have gone to sleep, and we should leave. Tonight is not a good night."

They could hear the soft, indistinct sound of childish laughter which seemed to echo in the stillness of the murk. As they listened to the musical peals of mirth, they became aware of a glowing amber orb floating through the air. The light grew brighter as it came closer, and they could see hanging above it the disembodied head of some spectre, the ruddy flames sculpting its face into dark crags and hollows. At the sight of this apparition, Elffled opened her mouth to scream, but Akil clamped his hand over the yawning portal.

"Be still, little mistress," Akil ordered. "You have been deceived by a very naughty prankster. It is only Laskohki's daughter who fancies playing a trick upon us tonight." When he felt Elffled relax, he took his hand away from her mouth and turned to the grinning girl who stood before them, holding a smoking candle in her hand. "Children should not play tricks on their elders!" He shook a finger sternly at her. "Does your mother know that you are out this eve?"

"My mother knows that I lit a candle to chase away the evil spirits," the musical voice replied softly.

"And were you successful?" Akil cocked an eyebrow.

"We will just have to wait and see," the child giggled mischievously. "But you must come with me now, for my mother and sister are waiting."

The wagon was stuffy and smelled of sweat, onions, and the pungent aroma of patchouli mixed with the delicate, earthy fragrance of sandalwood. The twins blinked, their eyes adjusting to the sudden light of the brass lantern hanging from its chain on the ceiling. They surveyed the chamber, but when they could not see Laskohki, they turned to the small girl who had led the way into the wain.

"Where is Mistress Laskohki?" Elfhild asked uncertainly.

"She is right there," the child giggled, pointing to what appeared to be a mound of clothing piled on the floor. The mound stirred, and a woman lifted her head, staring at them through eyes white and sightless. The face was motionless and twisted, as though the paroxysm of rictus had turned it into a death mask.

Elffled gasped in alarm. "What is wrong with her?"

"Is she sick?" asked Elfhild, who was unable to take her eyes from the catatonic seer. "Probably caught the festive mood and drank too much wine," she thought resentfully. She felt disappointed, and wondered if Laskohki would be in any condition to tell their future. Perhaps their trip had been for naught.

"No," the other daughter smiled mischievously from her perch upon a stool along one side of the wain. "Before the two of you arrived, there was a seeker here – a very important man – and our mother once again breached the divided worlds. The strain of that experience exhausted her, and only now she returns from her entry into that other realm."

"Ohhh," Elfhild nodded in solemn understanding.

As her fingers touched the dried saliva on her mouth and chin, Laskohki looked about questioningly. Taking a moistened cloth from the hand of one of her daughters, she wiped the spittle from her face.

"With a loud roar like cresting waves, the veil was parted!" Her eyes rolled sightlessly as she tried to focus them, a tremor rippling over her body. She shook herself fiercely, as though attempting to free herself from the clutch of some unseen presence. "I have beheld much!" she gasped, panting heavily. "But my strength has been sapped, and I must rest! It would be disastrous to penetrate into the astral consciousness so deeply for some time!"

"What did you see, Mistress?" Elfhild was almost afraid to ask, but curiosity demanded that she pose the question anyway.

"Where is the eunuch?" Laskohki demanded harshly, apparently not hearing her question. "Does he know why you are here?"

"Akil? He waits outside," Elfhild assured her, puzzlement written on her face. "We told him that we came here to buy jewelry."

"Good! When I was in the trance, I could perceive his physical manifestation only as a nebulous entity, for I was far beyond the body in the other world. Such a pity that he ever came with you tonight! The eunuch is a negative influence upon the beneficial energies of the spheres! The presence of naysayers such as he disturbs the delicate link with the spiritual plane, and makes it difficult to seek beyond the seen." She sighed deeply, wiping her hand across her sweating forehead and sinking back upon the floor. "Now I must regain my strength before I can read your fortunes." She looked up at her daughter. "Prepare an elixir of refreshment for me."

"Yes, Mother." Scampering away, the little girl drew a key from her dress and unlocked a cabinet mounted on the wall. Returning, she handed Laskohki a clear bottle filled with a milky white liquid.

"Thank you, little one. Your assistance is vital for my work." Laskohki put the mouth of the bottle up to her lips and drank deeply of the reviving liquid. "While I am still regaining my strength, I will not attempt to part the veil of the unseen. In the meantime, my daughters will show you some of our incomparable merchandise. Children, place the box of amulets upon the table and let these seekers behold them!"

Lowering themselves to the cushions, Elfhild and Elffled took their places around the low table. Holding their breath, they watched as Laskohki's daughter opened the wooden box and turned it around to face them. An assortment of colored gems met their eyes, some suspended from lanyards of hemp or braided thread, some suspended from cords of leather. Most of the stones had only been roughly polished, and many were pitted and marked with impurities, but to the twins the collection was as fine a treasure trove that was ever found in the lair of a dragon.

Laskohki shook her elegant head, the dangling golden orbs in her ears glimmering in the light. She slowly drew herself up to a sitting position. "Strength has now returned to my body, and I am ready to describe to you the attributes of these stones. My stock is considerable, but I will show you neither the most powerful nor the most expensive charms and talismans, for I know that slave girls such as you would not possess the coin to buy them." She chuckled, eying the twins haughtily. "The ones I will show you are modestly priced, but you can rest assured that even the least of them has power, and according to their innate properties, will bring good luck, health, prosperity, love, or protection." She ran her fingers over the amulets, as though absorbing their powers into her body.

"Ah, here is one that may be of interest to you... a talisman made of aventurine." Laskohki held up a small pale green stone upon a leather cord. "Good fortune and prosperity seek out those who are wise enough to wear it. Aventurine attracts wealth, and with this stone in your possession, your master is sure to reward you with many coins and baubles." Next she pointed out a bright orange stone. "This is red jasper, which is a stone of protection. Favored by entertainers, it bestows upon its bearer both calmness and courage. However, it may not be the best stone for a slave girl to possess, for an excess of bravery can cause her to become too bold." Returning the jasper to the box, the fortuneteller smiled at the twins. "The cost of a small amulet on a leather cord is two copper coins. If you want a larger one, the cost increases."

"Look, Elffled, a turquoise necklace!" Elfhild pointed to a bright blue stone with brown speckles running through it. "That stone is very popular among the Dolrujâtar women."

"Turquoise, a good choice for amulets of protection!" Laskohki remarked knowledgeably. "The stone of friendship and good fortune, it brings its wearer peace, strength, wisdom and protection." Her smile gradually faded and her tone grew serious as she gave them a warning. "Beware, though, should turquoise ever fade or turn color, for this is a portent of impending doom! Then you should consult a healer, for it is said that the color of the stone mirrors its owner's health. This stone is also two copper coins."

"They are all so lovely, Mistress!" Elffled exclaimed, admiring the rainbow of gemstones contained within the box. "I also am fond of this darker, striped jewel." She pointed to a tiny green stone.

Laskohki held up a stone which was banded with stripes of lighter and darker emerald, the candlelight reflecting upon its muted luster. "This is malachite, the protector of children and travelers. Besides aiding divination, this stone will deflect the evil intentions of others and grant its bearer peaceful slumbers. Take care, though, for essence of malachite can penetrate into the inner core of the soul and mirrors what is there, whether for good or for evil. A small amulet of malachite costs three coins."

"Maybe if you slept with it, Elfhild, it would rid you of your nightmares," Elffled remarked helpfully, casting a glance towards her twin, who was equally as fascinated with the mysterious green stone.

"Any stone which might free me from my night terrors would be powerful indeed," Elfhild added grimly, remembering some of her more fearsome dreams.

"Perhaps this will help you." Smiling patronizingly at the twins, Laskohki held up a purple crystal suspended from a leather cord. Cooing with delight, Elffled touched the stone, marveling at the milky lines running through the deep purple surface. "Here is a small amulet of rough amethyst," the fortuneteller explained.

"It is beautiful, Mistress," Elffled murmured in awe.

"Perhaps you can feel the benevolent vibrations flowing from this stone, which is prized by mystics and healers." Laskohki slowly swung the pendant back and forth, smiling as Elffled's eyes followed the soft purple blur. "Amethyst stimulates the body, mind and spirit, soothes anxiety, and brings clarity of thought. Many are the virtues of this beautiful purple crystal. It protects the traveler upon his journeys and acts as a shield against dark magic. Goblets made of amethyst will ward against intoxication and cure drunkards of their desire for the fruit of the vine. If you are troubled by a headache, place this stone upon your forehead and you will find the pain vanishes. Sleep with it under your pillow and you will have sweet slumbers and pleasant dreams. Meditating upon amethyst will open the door to the Other Realm, strengthen your powers of prescience and intuition, and help you discern truth from illusion. Only the trifling amount of four copper pennies will place this stone in your possession."

Elfhild's gaze was drawn to a milky stone the color of pale pink wildflowers. "What is this one, Mistress? It is so soft and pretty."

"Ahh, the love stone," Laskohki remarked, obviously pleased by her choice. "It will attract the love of others, but most importantly you will love yourself and know that you are worthy of being loved. Your heart will be at peace and you will be filled with gentle happiness and a sense of contentment. Wear it to your master's bedchamber and you will find that your romance will blossom like a fragrant rose!" She spread her long, ebony fingers, as though a flower were contained within their palms. "I ask only two copper coins for this powerful talisman!"

"The love stone..." A vision came to Elfhild as she stared at the rosy crystal. She was in a meadow filled with beautiful flowers; the air was thick with their heady, intoxicating fragrance. Esarhaddon was kneeling before her, his hands clasped before him in a lover's entreaty. "Elfhild, you are my one true love. I will forsake all others for you! Will you be my wife, my darling?" he asked her, his voice filled with sincerity. "Oh, yes, my lord!" she cried, almost weeping with joy. "I thought you would never ask!" Sinking to her knees, she brought his entwined fingers to her lips and softly kissed each knuckle. Above them, butterflies danced giddily and birds warbled merrily, as though nature itself rejoiced in the love they shared.

"Will... will the stone really make a man fall in love with me?" Elfhild asked shyly, tearing her gaze from the milky depths of the pink stone.

"Do you doubt the power of the crystal?" Laskohki asked, somewhat indignantly. "As I said before, all of these stones possess great powers which bring many blessings to their owners."

"It would not hurt to wear it, I guess," Elffled offered, noticing that the fortuneteller evaded her sister's question.

"I perceive that you seek a talisman which will bring love into your life," Laskohki remarked, her full lips curling into a smile when she saw the flush on Elfhild's cheeks. She held up a silver amulet set with an opalescent white stone touched with flashes of shimmering blue. "This, too, is a stone of romance. Blessed by the Goddess of Love and imbued with the power of the moon, this marvelous gem will ignite the passion between you and your lover. If you wear this amulet to your master's bed – and surely you will be called, for this stone also brings good fortune to its owner – your joining will be filled with such passion that you will soar to the heavens in ecstasy!" A shiver of pleasure coursed through Laskohki's body and her eyelids fluttered closed for a moment.

"What does it cost?" Elfhild asked breathlessly. If Esarhaddon would not love her, perhaps this stone would attract the attention of a man who would.

"Doubtless this particular amulet would be far too much for you to afford, but a small pendant of rough moonstone will cost you two copper coins. However, I think perhaps I have something which would be of more interest to you." She held up a scarlet cord from which hung a small moonstone flanked by two tiny beads of rose crystal. "This amulet is a powerful love charm, utilizing both stones to bring its bearer tender love and ardent passion. With such concentrated magic, you will not only attract your true love, but keep his interest for as long as you are both together!"

"How much is it?" the twins demanded, surprising themselves when they both spoke in unison.

"Eight copper coins, a pittance for such a charm!" Laskohki shook her head, marveling at her own generosity. "But it is my most popular item, so I can afford to be charitable." She laid the necklace back in the box. "Now I can show you many other amulets made of obsidian, agate, lapis lazuli, jet, obsidian, coral, crystal, and peridot, but the hour grows late. If you find you are not interested in these mystic gemstones, I also have a number of beaded necklaces and bracelets for a few bronzes. I also have sundry perfumes and oils. What are your choices?" Laskohki eyed the girls with an avaricious zeal that would rival that of a camel or carpet seller... perhaps even that of a slave trader.

For the first time in their lives, the twins possessed coins, and the feeling was an exhilarating one. Acting as their banker, Carnation had allowed them to take only twenty-five coppers to the marketplace, and they had already spent five coppers for the pillow cover and one for the baklava. Should they indulge themselves and spend the rest of their money with Laskohki? Whatever they bought, they still had to save enough coin to pay her for reading their futures.

Soon the twins had purchased matching love amulets, which they had managed to persuade Laskohki to sell them for four coins each. Elffled also bought the amethyst necklace, not because of any supposed magical properties, but because she fancied the color, which she thought resembled violets in spring. When the girls expressed curiosity about the inexpensive jewelry, Laskohki had her daughters bring out another casket of wonders. This chest held a gallimaufry of necklaces and bracelets made from a variety of beads – wood, clay, glass, bone, shell, brass, some painted or carved, some plain, but all unique and fascinating. Though the choice was a difficult one, at last Elffled chose a string of green and purple beads. Elfhild picked a necklace of soft blue and another of yellow and white. Their new purchases were quickly about their necks, and each girl fondled the cool stones with an admiring fingertip.

"Thank you, my dears. Perhaps when you have more time, you can come back and peruse my other wares." Laskohki smiled as she scooped fourteen copper coins into a small wooden box and handed it to her daughters. "Since you have purchased so much, I will read your fortunes for no charge. You are very lucky that you came here tonight. The deep fastness of the spiritual plane is clearing, and the veil will soon be lifted. Before I can advise you upon the course of your future, however, I must consult my star charts." She saw the look of disappointment on the twins' faces. "Do not fret, my dears. I will not be gone long. My daughters will keep you company until I return." Rising to her feet, she glided to the curtained off inner chamber of the wain.

"We are very good company." The two smiling children turned to look at the twins, giggling softly to themselves.

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