The Circles - Book Eight - Chapter 2

The Circles - Book Eight - A Mordorian Bestiary
Chapter Two
A Draught of Water
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

As Aeffe made her rounds that afternoon, the strap of the heavy water bag dug into her shoulder despite her protective leather vest, and its bulk bounced against her hip. She could hear the water inside the skin sloshing about, beating out a rhythm in time to her steps. Pushing a lank strand of coppery blonde hair from her sweating forehead, Aeffe paused, breathing deeply of the bone-dry air. She shifted the strap to a more comfortable position on her shoulder and stared at the long column of captives that seemed to stretch on forever into the distance. Though she had been a water bearer for several weeks, she had never become accustomed to waiting on so many people. "Beasts," the supervisor had called the captives as the water bearers stood in line waiting to fill their containers from the water wagon. "Like animals swilling from the trough," he had added, with a smirking grin.

Piercing blue eyes stared at her from wan, pale faces; thick tongues darted out, flicking over dry, parched lips. The captives were all tired and thirsty from the march beneath the sweltering desert sun on what seemed to be one of the hottest days of the summer. The usual impatient ones were starting to mutter in sullen whispers about how they were on the verge of dying of thirst because of Aeffe's slowness, while those who truly needed relief the most suffered in silence. There did not seem to be enough water to slake the captives' thirst, and the task of assuaging their needs seemed insurmountable. Oh, how Aeffe wished she could throw the damned water container to the sand and run with all her might far from this demanding, pleading mass of humanity and disappear somewhere far away where it was safe! "Soon, soon," she thought, remembering Inbir's desperate plan to escape. She wondered if they would be successful, or if she and Inbir would be captured ere they ever left the camp.

It would be easy enough for Inbir to ride off without bringing suspicion to himself, for he was one of the caravan guards and they often went on scouting missions into the desert. However, she was one of the precious Rohirric slaves, and her every movement was watched by the guards. If she were to disappear for any length of time, the alarm would be sounded, and searchers sent out to hunt for her. Inbir had a plan, though, which would allow Aeffe to escape the watchful eyes of the overseers for a time. Whenever a slave became ill, they were taken to the healer's wain, and if their condition was dire enough, they remained there overnight to rest and recover. Incidentally, the healer always set up his tent on the western periphery of the camp. If one were planning to escape, this would be one of the easiest points from which to do so.

"Besides the fact that all the guards and caravan laborers will be exhausted from the day's march, there is another reason why tomorrow is the most auspicious evening to escape," Inbir had told her, his eyes gleaming with conspiracy. "You may already be aware of this, given how everyone in this camp loves to gossip, but Tushratta's assistant has become quite enamored of Goldwyn's maid. Unfortunately for their budding romance, Aziru can only spend one evening a week with his lady love. Fortunately for us, tomorrow just happens to be that evening. With Aziru and Barsud occupied, the physician's tent will not be overly crowded. Of course, all that could change if there is an injury or illness, but hopefully it shall be a quiet night, and when I come to fetch you, there will be little trouble."

"But what if there is trouble?" Aeffe had asked, her eyes filled with fear. "I dread to think what terrible punishments will befall us should we be caught!"

"Just do a convincing job of acting, and I will do the rest," Inbir had assured her. "When darkness lies over the camp, I will come for you."

"It is still so risky," Aeffe had sighed, giving voice to her fears.

"The risks may be great, but so is the reward."

With those words, he had gathered her into his arms and silenced her concerns with a kiss. His lips had felt like fire lighting up the night, and all her fears had been forgotten. Now, though, in the harsh light of day, they had returned with a vengeance. Any number of things could go horribly wrong, and their escape attempt could end in disaster. Goldwyn had tried to escape just the month before, but all her plans had come to naught, and two women had died because of it. Why would their attempt be successful, when hers had ended in ruin?

Concentrating upon her own worries and doubts, Aeffe had not noticed that the nozzle on the water bag was dripping slowly. She heard her name being called and glanced back over her shoulder. To her horror she saw a dark trail of droplets which were quickly disappearing into the thirsty earth. She clamped one hand over the opening, but the water only ran between her fingers and dripped onto the ground. Whatever she did, she must remain calm, for if she showed the slightest hint of alarm, the other slaves would cause a commotion and alert the guards. Scowling, she fumbled with the brass spigot, gripping it with her hand and trying to twist it tighter. Nothing worked, and if anything, the water only dripped faster.

If one of the guards happened to notice her dilemma, they would whip her soundly for not reporting the problem sooner. Few of the Rohirric captives were ever whipped so severely that the lash drew blood, but when the guard was finished with the beating, the victim's legs would be covered with bruises. The sweat was pouring down Aeffe's forehead, and her armpits were dark with perspiration. She glanced up at the blazing sun, the fierce glare a stabbing pain in her eyes. Her heart pounding, she began to breathe harder. She wiped the sweat from her forehead with a trembling hand and tried to smile convincingly into the entreating eyes of the other slaves who strained forward in their chains. From the wild expressions on the faces of some, she knew that if they were unfettered, they would rush her, trampling her under their feet in their frenzied need for the life-giving liquid. Aeffe had heard tales of thirsty Mordorian soldiers on desert duty who had charged hapless water bearers, plummeting them with harsh blows and kicks, or trying to strangle them. Only the whips of the guards could beat back the desperate soldiers.

Turning her back to the caravan guards, Aeffe gave the valve a twist, resisting the urge to bolt as she filled the dipper halfway with water. The woman she was serving drank the liquid like a thirsting dog, and when Aeffe moved the dipper away, the woman cursed her with her eyes. "Oh, be that way, you ungrateful shrew," Aeffe cursed to herself and vowed that she would not be so generous to the next woman in line. After all, she was the one who carried the water bag, and could bestow as much or as little water as she wished. A prickle of guilt touched her mind. It was wrong to think this way! What was this life doing to her, to all of them? Had she imperiled her soul by agreeing to carry water for the enemy, accepting only a pittance as payment, an extra ration of food, a pair of shoes, and the promise of further advancement? Perhaps escaping with Inbir would be her only hope of redemption, even though it meant fleeing to a land which was allied with Mordor. Maybe she could persuade him to defect to the West instead… Surely, there was still some place which the war had not yet touched!

Struggling, Aeffe closed the tap on the water bag, but if anything, the leak was worse than before, drizzling out a constant trickle. She looked around in desperation, knowing that she was the center of attention as the halted line of captives stared at her. Many silently cheered her on, both for her sake and their own. However, others, who believed that she had been awarded the position of water bearer for collaborating with the enemy, smirked at her discomfiture and hoped some misfortune would befall her. When a shadow passed over her path, Aeffe froze, already anticipating the inevitable blow to her legs.

"Squanderer of the precious water!" a sour masculine voice barked, every word as sharp as the bite of the whip. "What is wrong with you, you simpering fool?"

The water bag was torn from her grasp, and the terrified girl bowed her head, tears springing to her eyes. The overpowering memory of the she-orcs beating her crashed into her mind. She could see their huge, muscular bodies as they raised the whip over and over again, slicing into the flesh on her back. The scars stung as they once had, their fury burning holes through her skin. Already anxious about the escape attempt, this unpleasant situation with the leaky waterskin had her close to screaming.

"Please, Master! Do not beat me! I am sorry!" Aeffe begged, instinctively flinging up her hands to protect her face. "I never meant to waste the water, but the valve is broken!"

"Only fools waste water in the desert," Ali hissed. "Here!" He roughly slung another waterskin over her shoulder, an unfeeling smile on his face as the heavy bag slammed painfully against her hip.

"Thank you," she murmured as she rubbed her aching hip and pushed the strap higher on the winged collar of her vest.

"Here, let me help you with that." His voice turned to honey as he moved closer and put his hand on her shoulder. "You should be more grateful to your friends, those who will help you, those who are concerned about your welfare."

"Yes, Ali, you are a friend." Aeffe managed an ingratiating smile, hiding the revulsion she felt inside.

"Aeffe, did you ever realize that if you do your work well and show any degree of promise, that you might be promoted to better things?" he stated, stepping close enough to her that she could smell the scent of sweat and spices. "Leofgifu – I am sure you know her – has now attained a position of authority, and achieved it in a very short time. You could be like her, you know."

"By betraying my friends?" Aeffe wondered to herself, but she never said that. Instead, she forced herself to use her sweetest tone of voice. "While I would like to have extra rations as much as anyone, I do not see there is any future in this. All of the Rohirric slaves will be sold as soon as we reach Nurn."

"Aeffe, Aeffe, you are still so naive." He gave Aeffe such a winning smile that she could almost believe he was sincere. "Shakh Esarhaddon needs many slaves to tend to his own household as well as work in his training school and auction house. Women and girls are needed for dressing hair, applying cosmetics and scents, working in the baths, tending to the wardrobe, mending clothing, advising new slaves on how to array themselves to be most appealing to buyers – there are so many opportunities that I cannot even name them all."

"Then I shall never be bought by Lord Esarhaddon, for I am good at none of those things." Aeffe humbly bowed her head, her expression sorrowful.

"You will be taught those things, Aeffe. You should have no worries there," Ali replied, lifting up her face to look at him. "But first you must show yourself to be more cooperative, and it is always helpful to have friends who can put in a good word for you."

"I thought I was cooperative." She met his gaze without wavering. "I hoist this heavy water bag on my shoulders and bring drink to the other slaves whenever I am called upon to do it. What else can I do?"

"Sometimes it takes nothing more than a keen ear and an observant eye to bring you to the attention of the supervisors," he answered, his voice a whisper as he lightly stroked his finger over her chin. "I think you understand what I mean."

"Yes, I do," she nodded, her voice as sincere as she could make it. "I will take your advice to heart, truly I will. Thank you for being my friend. It means a great deal to me." She gave him one of her sweetest smiles. "Not only does he want me to lie with him, but he also wants me to spy on the other slaves," she thought with horror. "And if I betray them, perhaps my lot will be better, but I cannot do it! Arrogant fool! You think I am as cunning as you are! Well, perhaps I am!"

"My duties call me elsewhere. Now if you have any more trouble with this water bag, you send someone to find me, and I will see that it is fixed or find one to replace it." Ali raised his voice, making sure that it would carry to the slave women nearby. "We do not want anyone to go thirsty now, do we?" He grinned at her, pausing for a while to let his eyes fondle her breasts before turning and walking away.

"Insufferable toad! I hope the bastard finds himself lost in some scorching inferno of a desert and thirsts to death," Aeffe thought spitefully as she watched him saunter down the line of slaves. "No, it is wrong to think that way. I will let him off with crawling on his knees through the hot sand and begging some slave girl to give him a few drops of stagnant water from her waterskin. Would serve him right!"

While Ali had been talking to Aeffe, the other captives had been forced to wait patiently for the water girl to go down the line and give them drinks from her dipper. No longer having to fear the consequences of wasting water, Aeffe was able to be more cheerful, managing winsome smiles and encouraging words. As was the rule for the water bearers, she drank none herself until her water bag was empty, and she had returned to the wagon to replenish her supply. Some of the other water carriers were already there, and she moved to the end of the line.

Soon the newly filled waterskin rested heavily upon Aeffe's shoulder, its weight making her give to that side. The desert sun beat down mercilessly upon her as she made her rounds, and she felt like an egg in a frying pan. Though she had drunk her fill back at the wagons, she was already thirsty again. Sweat stung her eyes and dripped off her cheeks. It had never been this hot in Rohan, and the heat left her wrung out like a dishrag. One could collapse from the heat on a day like this, succumbing to the rigors of the harsh desert clime. It would be a most unfortunate circumstance indeed, but one that was all too common in the brutal wastes of Gorgoroth.

Aeffe took a step and stumbled; then righting herself, she plodded on ahead as though her legs were as heavy as iron weights. A low murmur went up from the column of captives. It seemed as though the water bearer was struggling to walk upright, for her legs faltered and her feet dragged the ground. All of the women and children were looking at her now, their murmurs growing louder. She stumbled and fell to her knees, crashing to the ground and landing on the waterskin.

"Sick slave!" a nearby guard shouted. "Someone see to that girl, and whatever you do, get that waterskin off the ground!"

Astride his horse, Inbir saw Aeffe collapse. Kicking his mount forward, he cantered down the line of slaves to the fallen girl.

"Make way, make way, for Shakh Inbir!" shouted the guards as they cleared a path for him. When he reached Aeffe, he slid off his horse and knelt beside her lifeless body. "This girl is deathly ill and needs medical attention!" he announced. "Send for the stretcher bearers," he ordered one of the guards who had gathered around them.

"Yes, Shakh, it will be done!" The guard signed to one of the Haradric slave boys, and the lad was soon dashing away.

After Aeffe had been loaded on the stretcher, two brawny caravan laborers lifted up the litter. "Careful with that girl," Inbir admonished them as he rode beside them. "She is worth much gold and will bring a fine price on the market. If you value your lives, you surly dogs, you will see that she reaches the physician safely!"

Feigning being in a swoon, Aeffe forced herself to lie motionless upon the stretcher as the servants rushed her to the healer's tent. It seemed that she had played her role convincingly, for both the captives and the guards believed that she had succumbed to the heat. She prayed that this good fortune would continue to last, and that her performance would be believable enough to fool the healer. Inbir's plan depended upon it!

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