The Circles - Book Eight - A Mordorian Bestiary
Chapter Thirty-four
The Last Night
Written by Elfhild and Angmar

Shortly after the five troops chosen for the next day's sale were taken to the holding chamber, the doors opened and servants came forth bearing trays of food. Few of the captives felt much like eating, however. Many openly wept, lamenting their separation from friends and family in other troops. Others paced fretfully about the room, or stared forlornly into space. Before long, the servants returned for the trays, and the women and children were taken in groups to the auction house's bathing facilities, where they could wash away the dirt from their long journey. They were returned to their prison free of grime and clad in clean but worn garments.

Though the day had been hot, the stone walls of the auction house did well to keep the heat at bay. Several stacks of blankets had been placed around the room, and many of the women and children wrapped the threadbare coverlets around themselves to keep their damp hair from giving them a chill. While the day's march had been tiring, the minds of most were too preoccupied with worry and dread to seek comfort in sleep. Friends and family members huddled together in the dim gloom, wishing to spend as much time with each other as they could ere they were violently ripped away by their jailers. The first parting had come that afternoon; the second would come on the morrow.

"This is the last night we will ever spend together," Elfhild remarked glumly as she looked around at the other girls in whose company she had marched these past few months. Absent from the group were Tove and Cyneburh, who felt they were too good to sit with peasants. The quarrelsome pair had gone off to lurk in a different corner of the holding chamber, and their absence was not lamented.

"Oh, I will miss all of you so much!" cried Burghilde, her dark green eyes welling up with tears which streaked down her ruddy cheeks. The little girl scrambled to her knees and impulsively hugged each member of the circle of friends, then returned to sit at her older sister's side. Murmuring words of comfort, Beorhtwyn pulled her close, but still the tears coursed down Burghilde's ruddy cheeks.

"I will miss you, too," Elffled replied sadly. Burghilde was only ten. How difficult it was to be a child in these dark times! Her thoughts went to Hunig, who, at seven summers, was even younger than Burghilde. What future did these children have in Mordor?

"The seven of you have been boon companions upon a journey filled with danger and woe, and I count myself fortunate to have met all of you," Mildthryth spoke up, her voice choked with emotion. "Would that we could have met in a time of peace!"

"Well, at least you and I were fortunate enough to have that privilege." A tender smile upon her face, Hereswith gently squeezed Mildthryth's hand in a gesture of comfort. Having come from the same small village, the two young women had known each other all their lives, even if they had not always been close. "As for everyone else, I share the same sentiment; it is indeed a pity that we met under such dire circumstances." She looked around at her companions, taking a moment to study each of their faces in the soft gloom.

Elfhild met Hereswith's gaze and smiled sadly. "The war brought us together, so at least some good came out of tragedy."

"Friends are the only thing which have made this ordeal bearable," Wulfwaru spoke up. "If it were not for the kindness of Sunngifu and her family, my Uncle Sebbi and I would have been stranded in an unfamiliar town with no friends and no place to stay while the threat of war grew ever closer." She looked at Sunngifu with grateful eyes. Back in March, Wulfwaru and her elderly uncle had come down from the White Mountains to trade wool with the villagers on the plains of the Eastfold. Unfortunately, the day that they had arrived in Sunngifu's village happened to be the Dawnless Day when the evil clouds of Mordor darkened the skies. The shock of seeing the sun blotted out by darkness was too much for Uncle Sebbi and he became too ill to attempt the journey back home. Sunngifu's family took pity upon the young girl and her uncle and allowed them to stay at the inn that they operated.

"My family did what we could do to help those displaced by conflict," Sunngifu stated proudly. "Many refugees stayed at our inn on their flight to safety." The smile upon her face faded. "I often lament that we did not join them. Perhaps then my baby would not be cursed with the ignoble fate of growing up in slavery." She laid a protective hand upon her swollen belly, worrying about the uncertainties that lay in store for both her and her child.

"I worry about the future of us all." Hereswith shook her head with dismay. "These people see us as little more than livestock, and they relish the prospects of their enemies being forced to serve them. On the journey, we had each other for comfort and strength, but after the auction tomorrow, we will have only ourselves."

"Oh, I pray that Beorhtwyn and I will not be parted!" There was a wild desperation in Burghilde's voice as she clutched her older sister's arm. "Surely the slavers will allow sisters to stay together! It would not be right to separate families like that!"

"Slavers care little about what is right," Beorhtwyn intoned grimly as she squeezed Burghilde's hand. "If they did, they would not be slavers. We are fortunate that we were in the same troop together, or we might have been separated this afternoon. That is why so many around us weep, for they mourn for those whom they lost."

"It still is not fair," Burghilde muttered, wiping away tears with her sleeve. "How could anyone be so cruel?"

"It seems that coin is valued more highly than the lives of others here in the Land of Shadows, and war and conquest are preferable to peace," Hereswith remarked, her words as bitter as gall. "For these reasons we suffer, so that the Great Enemy might achieve His goal of conquering all the lands of Middle-earth. It is an evil fate to live in such a time."

"Or to be born in it," Sunngifu interjected morosely.

By this point, Burghilde was sobbing in anguish and clinging to her sister as though at any moment the guards would burst into the chamber and tear them apart. Her tears were contagious, and several of the girls began crying softly. Fears for the future hung over them like the brooding clouds of Mount Doom, dark and suffocating.

"We should not be so sorrowful upon our last night together." Trying to distract her friends from their miseries, Mildthryth dabbed at her own tears and managed a shaky smile. "Let us not dwell upon sadness and uncertainty, but reflect upon our time together as friends." When she saw that she had the attention of the other girls, she felt encouraged and continued speaking. "I remember when our troop was first organized. There were only eight of us, all from the Fenmarch region. Some of us, such as Hereswith and I, had known each other before the war, but for others, it was our first time meeting. Later, after the caravan arrived at the first crossroads of Gorgoroth, Elfhild and Elffled were added to our number."

Hereswith shifted her position upon the carpet and turned to address the twins. "My heart sank when Esarhaddon and his men returned the two of you to the camp." Seeing the uncertain expressions upon the sisters' faces, Hereswith chuckled, a low, hoarse sound. "We were all hoping that those who had managed to escape would continue to elude the slavers' nets and make it safely back to the Mark."

"I remember the night of the escape attempt." Beorhtwyn thought back to the evening when she had first heard the rumors of Goldwyn's daring plan, and all of the events which followed. "All eight of us tried to make a run for it, but the guards soon had us in chains."

Feeling a sense of shame and regret, Elfhild thought back to the ill-fated escape attempt and all of the disastrous consequences that had followed. "Of all those who took flight that night, only three young boys and one woman were successful at eluding their pursuers." She sighed and shook her head sadly. "I am surprised that Elffled and I made it as far as we did ere we were recaptured."

"A kindly old man took pity upon us and aided us in our plight." Elffled thought fondly of Tarlanc, the miller from Anórien, and his great mastiff, Haun. During their brief time together, Tarlanc had regaled the twins with stories from his past. As a youth, Tarlanc had run away from his abusive father and joined the Randirrim, a nomadic people who wandered throughout Gondor. He soon fell in love with the chieftain's daughter, but their romance ended in tragedy, and Tarlanc returned to his old life with a sorrowing heart.

"It would have been better for Tarlanc had he never helped us," Elfhild lamented. "He was murdered by the uruks for his kindness." Pangs of sorrow and guilt reopened old wounds as she remembered the brutal deaths of Tarlanc and his beloved dog and horses.

"Orcs will use any excuse to partake of murder." Mildthryth's eyes flashed with disgust and suppressed anger. "I remember the dreadful night that the Mountain shook and spewed forth fire. The uruks rebelled against the command not to harm the captives, giving into their bloodlust and going on a rampage of violence and murder. They seized a girl from one of the troops and sacrificed her to their dark god. They would have sacrificed many more, had they not been stopped."

"The entire camp was gripped with terror, and everyone was running about with little heed to where they were going." Closing her eyes, Wulfwaru shivered at the horrible memory. "The other captives almost trampled me in their flight from the uruks."

"I was so frightened that harm would befall my baby," Sunngifu chimed in, considering the many ways that one might become injured or even killed in the land of Mordor.

"Up to that point, I had hated Esarhaddon with all of my heart," Hereswith confided, looking around at the other girls to see their reaction. "I still loathe the man, but I have to admit that he acted heroically that night, leading his men in a valiant charge against the uruks."

"And he allowed the family of the slain girl to give her a proper Rohirric funeral," Beorhtwyn added. "I suppose he does have some honor after all, even though he is a despicable man."

"He saved my life upon several occasions, so I cannot speak ill of him." Elfhild felt her cheeks flush when the others regarded her with surprise. Her feelings for the slaver were conflicting, to say the least. She resented the power he held over her, but she was also beholden to him. He had rescued her from the clutches of Sharapul, the renegade uruk who planned to kill her in the most brutal of ways as revenge for his lover's death. Then, after saving her from that peril, Esarhaddon had escorted her through the Morgul Vale, protecting her from a myriad of dangers and shielding her as best he could from the valley's bewitching illusions.

"If it were not for Esarhaddon, Elfhild and I would be dead," Elffled interjected, sensing her sister's discomfort.

"Many have been the dangers that have befallen the two of you upon this journey," Beorhtwyn remarked sympathetically. "I was so frightened when Durraiz and her rebels attacked the camp, seeking vengeance for the execution of all those who had been involved in the previous riot. When I learned that you had been taken captive, Elfhild, I feared that I would never see you again."

Mildthryth drew in a breath and then released it. "We all feared that you were gone forever, dragged off to some miserable orc hole."

"I do not wish to think of that night, or the horrors that came after." Elfhild tried to fight the images that came unbidden to her mind: the brutal murder of the servant boy who had come to Esarhaddon's defense; Özlem's piteous screams as she was raped repeatedly by uruks; the endless dark passages of Kafakudraûg Cavern.

"When the caravan arrived at the Oasis of the Solitary Cedar, I was overjoyed to see you alive and well." A smile spread over Beorhtwyn's face as she remembered that happy reunion. "The brief stay at the oasis is the only good memory I have of this whole accursed journey."

"When we were dragged away by uruk raiders back in the spring, never did I imagine that Elfhild and I would end up serving as bridesmaids at a wedding in Gorgoroth," Elffled mused, reminiscing upon that momentous day. While she had attended many weddings back in Rohan, they were simple peasant affairs, and nothing like the grand spectacle that was reserved for a Dolrujâtar prince and his bride.

"I wish we had been able to attend the wedding of Özlem and Shakh Zarkfir," pouted Burghilde. "But at least Beorhtwyn, Hereswith, and I helped you get ready for the bride's big party!"

Elfhild thought back to the evening before the wedding, and the festivities that were held in honor of the bride. While Beorhtwyn, Burghilde, and Hereswith might claim that they had provided valuable assistance to the twins, in truth they had been of little help, for they had been much more interested in gossiping than in actually helping the twins prepare for Özlem's party. The memory was a pleasant one, though, and Elfhild smiled to herself as she reflected upon her time at the Oasis.

"You have certainly had quite a number of adventures, Elfhild and Elffled, some good and some ill," Mildthryth remarked, her voice filled with wonder. "Why, just a week ago, you went gallivanting about upon the back of a fearsome warhorse, and then took a ride upon one of those terrible flying beasts!"

"Shhh! Do not speak of such matters!" Elfhild protested, her cheeks hot with embarrassment. "We were innocent victims of an evil enchantment, and were not responsible for our actions!" Oh, she did not want to think about that accursed stallion whose shenanigans almost led Elffled and her to ruin, nor the Nazgûl who interceded on their behalf and forced them to retrieve his satchel from the River Mormilom as recompense!

"Indeed, we were both bewitched by dark sorcery. Never by our own free will would we have engaged in such folly!" Elffled exclaimed, trying to appear as innocent as possible. While she suspected that she and Elfhild had a great deal more free will in the matter than her sister was willing to admit, perhaps it was for the best if their companions believed that they had been bewitched by the mysterious Morûk stallion and then by the terrifying Nazgûl lord. While the Rohirric captives knew that their fate was to toil in the service of Mordor, many looked down upon those who openly fraternized with the enemy or willingly did their bidding.

"I certainly hope that none of us encounter Nazgûl or their enchanted beasts in our new lives," Beorhtwyn exclaimed with a shiver. "That is one adventure that we can all do without! I cannot imagine how you tolerated being in the presence of one! They are terrifying enough when they fly overhead on their winged mounts."

"If I never see another Nazgûl again, I will consider myself fortunate." Elfhild remembered her first encounter with one of the Nine Lords. It was in the somber forest of the Firien Wood that she had seen him, riding at the head of the army of Mordor. The orcs had commanded the captives to kneel before their conqueror, but Elfhild, overcome by curiosity, had looked up at the mysterious warlord who commanded such power and dread. He had asked for her name, and she had no choice but to give it. He told her that he would remember her, and then rode onward, leading a great force of men and orcs for the conquest of Rohan. For many worry-filled days after that, Elfhild had fretted that the Kingly Rider would come for her, but it seemed that the threat had been an empty one.

"Oh, please, can we talk about something else?" whimpered Burghilde. "I am becoming frightened!"

"Certainly, Burghilde." Mildthryth gave the younger girl a gentle smile. "What would you like to discuss?"

Burghilde thought for a moment, and then her face brightened. "Our homes and families. Thinking about them is always a comfort in dark times."

The other girls expressed their agreement. If there was one thing they needed that night, it was certainly comfort.


After some time had passed, the door to the holding chamber opened, admitting Leofgifu into the room. Hunig followed at her side, looking around shyly at her surroundings. Upon seeing their approach, Elfhild and Elffled felt a combination of joy and concern, joy that they were seeing their aunt and cousin again, and concern that some misfortune had occurred. Hastily rising to their feet, the twins rushed to greet their aunt, expressing their fears that they had been separated forever, and inquiring about the reason why Leofgifu had been permitted to see them at this late hour.

Leofgifu held up her hand for silence. "There are things I must discuss with you in private," she told them in a hushed voice.

Dread growing with each step, the twins followed their aunt and cousin through a dim hallway lit by hanging lanterns suspended from the walls. After walking a short distance, Leofgifu came to a doorway on the right and disappeared inside. The twins followed her and found themselves in a small chamber which seemed to belong to a scribe or accountant. Along the walls there were numerous shelves containing what appeared to be record books, and in the center of the room was a large desk covered with loose parchments and various writing implements. Lanterns and candles were set upon side tables, illuminating the darkness with a soft, flickering glow.

Though perhaps it was inappropriate given the uncertainty of the situation, Elfhild could not help being curious about the room and its owner, and she felt her gaze drawn to the parchments upon the desk. She could not read any of the writing, of course – the little symbols looked like chicken scratches to her untrained eyes – but she still found the mysterious calligraphy fascinating, and tried to imagine what secrets might be recorded upon the parchment. Leofgifu's voice interrupted her thoughts, and she turned back to give her aunt her full attention.

"Shakh Esarhaddon has given me permission to use this room to speak with certain captives this evening," Leofgifu informed the twins, sounding quite official. As an aside, she added, much less formally, "Hunig is accompanying me because I do not want her wandering around by herself in this immense building."

"Mother does not want me to have any enjoyment," Hunig giggled.

Leofgifu cleared her throat in mild rebuke. "How anyone could find enjoyment in this miserable place is beyond me, but you are very young and the world for you holds more wonders than sorrows." With a sigh, she turned back to the twins. "Unfortunately, I cannot speak long, so I must hurry to say all I need to say."

"I understand. I am just glad for this visit." Elfhild attempted to smile, but the corners of her lips trembled, and she felt tears prickling inside her eyelids. "When we were taken to the holding chamber this afternoon, I looked around in hopes of seeing the two of you amongst the troops that had been chosen."

"My heart sank when we did not espy either of you in the crowd," Elffled added, struggling not to weep.

"Oh, this is so sad!" Hunig cried as she leapt forward and embraced each of her cousins around the middle. "I cannot stand the thought of being parted forever! It is so unfair! I wish we could all stay together!"

"That is my wish as well." Elfhild gently stroked the little girl's soft, springy curls. "For everything to be as it was before the war took everything from us."

"We all long for those days." Leofgifu smiled sadly. "However, we must consider the present before we allow ourselves to dwell upon the past." She looked from one sister to the other. "As part of my duties as overseer, I have been bidden to bring tidings to you both."

Elfhild felt her body start to tense. "Are they for good or ill?"

"Probably for ill," Elffled muttered to herself.

"In exchange for his services to the Tower, Shakh Esarhaddon has been given permission to claim a small number of the captives as his reward," Leofgifu began, recounting the speech she had been instructed to give the twins and others. "The two of you have been chosen to be among this number. Therefore, you will not be sold at the auction in the morrow. Instead, you will wait here at the auction house until the second sale of the day, when you and the other chosen ones will be taken to the slaver's estate."

Elfhild's eyes widened in surprise and her heart skipped a beat. "We – we are to be Esarhaddon's slaves?" So many conflicting emotions swirled about in her mind, each one fighting for dominance, and for a moment she felt as though she were in a daze. Here was a man whom she both resented and grudgingly respected, whom she both pined for and despised. And now it seemed that she would be living in his household. Her mind reeled; she was not sure what to think.

"Yes, that is what I said," Leofgifu nodded in affirmation.

"Do you know what fate awaits us at the slaver's estate?" Elffled asked. She was not overly surprised by Leofgifu's tidings. For quite some time, she had suspected that Esarhaddon had taken an interest in Elfhild and her. When they escaped, he had scoured the countryside in search of them; when Elfhild had been kidnapped by rebel uruks, he had spared no expense in finding her. In both incidents, he could have just accepted his losses and continued traveling with the caravan into Mordor. Elffled felt that this was evidence that he considered both her and her sister valuable.

"I am not privy to that knowledge," Leofgifu stated apologetically. "However, from what I understand, Esarhaddon keeps slaves for a time at his manor, where they are trained in different skills, and then he sells them to prospective buyers."

"Maybe Esarhaddon will take us to his manor as well, and then we will all be together," Hunig spoke up, hope filling her wide blue eyes as she looked expectantly at her mother.

Leofgifu shifted uncomfortably. "I am afraid that will not be possible, dear, for the slavers have a different plan for us."

"What will happen to you and Hunig?" Elfhild spoke with great hesitation, uncertain if such a somber topic was meet to discuss with a seven-year-old in the audience.

"Earlier this evening, Shakh Esarhaddon summoned me to the auction house's council chamber, where he gave a report of my performance as overseer to his brother," Leofgifu explained. "Shakh Erkanan seemed impressed by what he heard, and has given me a chance to prove myself by working at the auction house. Hunig will be my little helper, doing what she can to assist me."

"Oh, those are wonderful tidings!" Elfhild exclaimed, feeling relieved. She knew that Leofgifu had feared being parted from Hunig. She could not imagine how painful it would be for a mother to be separated from her child.

Elffled clasped her hands together in joy. "I am so glad for you and Hunig!"

"If Shakh Erkanan is as pleased with my performance as his brother was, he may reward me with a permanent position." Leofgifu paused for a moment, reflecting. "While never in my life would I have imagined that I would be working for the enemies of my people, at least Hunig and I will be well provided-for."

"I would rather go live with Elfhild and Elffled," Hunig pouted, crossing her arms over her chest.

Leofgifu smiled sadly at her daughter. "That would be my greatest wish as well, but, alas, it is not to be."

"Will we be able to see you and Hunig?" Elfhild asked. If she and Elffled were to be Esarhaddon's slaves and Leofgifu and Hunig were to be those of his brother's, then there might be some possibility that their paths would cross.

Sighing heavily, Leofgifu shook her head in uncertainty. "That I do not know. I would reckon that once a slave departs from the auction house, it is rare for them to return. I also doubt that the servants of one house would be permitted to visit the servants of another house, for their primary duty would be seeing to their master's or mistress' needs and not galivanting about the countryside on their own errands."

"Mayhap you are right, but I pray that you are wrong." Elfhild wondered how far Esarhaddon and his brother dwelt from each other. To be so close to her aunt and cousin, but yet so far away, was more than she could bear!

Throughout the conversation, Leofgifu had shown signs of anxiety, her gaze continuously going to the door, as though she expected one of the guards to come barging through. Now her face was tense with worry, and she looked as though she were about to run away.

Sensing Leofgifu's growing distress, a concerned Elffled asked, "Is something the matter, Aunt?"

Leofgifu sighed forlornly. "Oh, how I long to stay and enjoy your company upon this dark and sorrowful night, but I fear the penalty of being remiss in my duties as messenger for the slave traders." A look of fear flashed in her eyes, and her hands trembled slightly.

"Please, do what you must," Elfhild replied. "I would not have you punished for our sakes."

"I am just glad that we got to see you and Hunig again." Elffled felt the tears slide down her face as she stepped forward to embrace her aunt one last time.


As the captives lay upon their sleeping mats that night, many thoughts went through their minds. Sunngifu worried about the future of her unborn baby and herself. She hoped that she would be sold as a wet nurse to a wealthy family, and her child would grow up as a servant in the household. She wondered if the babe would be a boy or a girl, and how that might affect his or her prospects of happiness. She did not know for a certainty who was the father of the child. She had been carrying on a secret romance with Lord Sigbert, the knight who was betrothed to Lady Tove, but she had been lying with two other men at the time as well. Perhaps it was for the best that her child would grow up in Mordor. In a land of strangers, Sunngifu could claim that she had been married to a brave soldier who had fallen in battle, and her child would be spared the shame of being known as the bastard offspring of an unwed mother.

Wulfwaru shared many of Sunngifu's same worries about the future. Sunngifu had been an invaluable friend, and she would deeply miss her. If it had not been for the kindness of Sunngifu and her family, Wulfwaru did not know what would have become of Uncle Sebbi and her that spring. Wulfwaru's family was of Dunlending descent, and there were many who would have turned them away for that reason alone. Neither Sunngifu nor her family were burdened by such prejudices, however, and they showed kindness and respect to all those who passed through their inn, no matter their heritage. Wulfwaru prayed that fate would be kind to both her and her friend in their new lives.

Beorhtwyn stared at the sleeping form of her half-sister through the darkness. The younger girl was already asleep, exhausted from the day's march. Beorhtwyn's eyes studied Burghilde's face: the flush of dark rose upon her cheeks, the unusual birthmark which she had always hated; her light brown hair, straight as stalks of wheat upon the endless plain. Beorhtwyn's heart felt heavy; would this be the last night they would spend together? She prayed that she would be sold with her sister, but what if the slavers decided to separate them? How could she go on living without ever knowing what fate had befallen Burghilde? Tears slid down her face, dampening the bundle of cloth which served as her pillow.

Mildthryth and Hereswith lay facing each other, holding hands in the soft gloom. It was heartbreaking to imagine that this would be the last night they would spend together. If only they had been friends in the village of Dáburna, true companions, not just mere acquaintances… But, alas, fate could be cruel indeed, bringing two people of like mind and heart together only to separate them in the most brutal and tragic of ways. At least they would have the memories of the times they shared together on the journey, and those fond recollections would have to sustain them through the uncertainty of the future. Their fingers intertwining, the two young women tenderly pressed their foreheads against each other, communing in silent sorrow.

While in the holding chamber, the captives had the freedom to keep the company they chose, instead of being assigned to stay with their troops. Not wishing to spend another moment amongst the peasants that infested their troop, Tove and Cyneburh had spent the evening lamenting the fact that their days would probably be spent performing menial tasks such as washing dishes or mending clothing. Captivity had been especially rough on them, for they were not accustomed to taking orders, and it galled them even more to do the bidding of orcs and ruffians. How they missed the fine feasting halls of Rohan with walls adorned by rich tapestries and furs, shields and swords, heads of great bucks and boars!

After spending a great deal of time complaining about their shared miseries, Tove and Cyneburh decided to retire for the night. As she fought the sleep which threatened to overwhelm her senses, tears welled up in Cyneburh's eyes. Since she and Tove were not related, the slavers would most likely sell them separately, and she would lose her closest friend... Her heart felt heavy with sorrow at these grim thoughts, and soon tears soaked her pillow. How would she live without Tove? The grief seemed too great to bear. She wanted to wake Tove up and cling to her until the guards tore them apart, but she did not want to disturb her friend's slumber. With a sad little sigh, Cyneburh closed her eyes and cried herself to sleep.

Tove, though, was not really asleep. She was only pretending so that she would not have to listen to Cyneburh's mawkish weeping. She knew full well that the slavers would sell them to different owners, and that did not bother her in the least. In order to both survive and thrive in Mordor, she would have to use every bit of charm and intelligence she possessed, and she did not need competition from Cyneburh. She wanted to have only fond thoughts of her old friend, and so it was better if they were parted. Tove suspected that she would have to stab a few backs to rise up the ranks, and she was loath to bring any harm to her beloved friend.

Lying upon her back, Elfhild stared up at the amber lantern which hung from the ceiling, her gaze fixated upon the patterns of light which softened the shadowy gloom. She thought about all of the people whom she had encountered over the course of the three-month journey from Rohan to Nurn. She had begun the long march with women and children from her village, and had assumed that they would all remain traveling companions until they reached their destination. However, upon reaching the ruined city of Osgiliath, Goldwyn proposed that the captives attempt to escape before the slave caravan crossed the River Anduin. After the escape attempt ended in failure, the old troop ceased to exist. Goldwyn was stricken with a malady she had contracted in the tombs at Osgiliath, and her three sons were lost to the wastes; Waerburh leaped into the river and was assumed dead; Leofgifu was promoted to the position of overseer for alerting the slaver about the escape attempt; and Breguswith succumbed to madness after her baby died. After they were recaptured and returned to the caravan, Elfhild and Elffled were added to a smaller troop comprised of young women who hailed from the Fenmarch region of the Eastfold.

While Elfhild treasured her new friends, she missed the companionship of familiar faces from her own village. Captivity had driven a wedge between her and her old friends from Grenefeld, and long had she grieved for this sorrowful situation. Her friends had all been placed in other troops, and she could only visit with them for short periods of time during the evening meal. Over the course of the journey, she did make two new friends who were neither a part of her troop nor a displaced resident of Grenfeld – Aeffe and Özlem. Aeffe had fallen in love with Inbir, one of Esarhaddon's bodyguards. Unfortunately, their romance was a forbidden one, and the pair had fled together over the Mountains of Shadow. Elfhild prayed that they had made it safely over the mountains and were now dwelling someplace far from the shadow of Mordor and the threat of war. After enduring many hardships and woes, Özlem now looked forward to a life of privilege as the wife of Shakh Zarkfir, the eldest son of the chieftain of the Dolrujâtar. Elfhild hoped that her friend would be happy in her new marriage.

As for her own future, Elfhild wondered what sort of life she would have at Esarhaddon's estate. From what Leofgifu had related, it did not seem that Esarhaddon had chosen Elffled and her to be permanent members of his household, but rather temporary servants who were to be trained in a skill and then sold off to the highest bidder. The more that Elfhild contemplated this new development, the more uncertain she felt. While she did not have to worry for her immediate future, her ultimate fate was still a great unknown. Though she certainly had many grievances against Esarhaddon, at least she knew what to expect from him. Perhaps with enough time, his opinion of Elffled and her would change, and he would promote them to the position of household servant… or perhaps he would fall madly in love with one or both of them, and then they would live happily ever after. These were just wistful fantasies, though, and Elfhild knew that it was foolish even to entertain them. Besides, did she really want to be the concubine of a slave trader, a man who profited from war and misfortune? While journeying through the Morgul Vale, she had felt drawn to Esarhaddon, but so much time had passed since then, and the long journey had given her time to think… It was obvious that Esarhaddon's only interest in her was the coin that she would bring him, and she would be a fool indeed if she wasted her affections upon such a loathsome man.

Elffled shared many of her sister's concerns about the days to come, but she felt it was not wise to borrow worries from the future when there was woe enough in the present. She had the assurance that she and Elfhild would be sold together, and that was a great relief to her mind. They would be dwelling at Esarhaddon's estate, at least for a time, and there they would be educated and taught various skills. This would mean that their worth to the nobility of Mordor would increase, and their chances for a better life would improve. When she thought about just how fortunate they were, Elffled felt piercing pangs of guilt, for none of their friends had been chosen for such a high honor. They would be sold on the auction block on the morrow, their fates to be determined by the highest bidder. Elffled grieved for them all, and prayed that their stories would have happy endings.

There was a matter that did trouble her mind, however – the prophesy of Laskohki the fortuneteller, which spoke of treachery, war, and heralds of doom. Elffled had never gotten another chance to meet in secret with the head cook's wife and ask her if she had had any further revelations about the vision which she had seen in the scrying stone. Perhaps Laskohki had made up the entire story, expecting the twins to return to her for answers and pay her more coin. The more Elffled thought about the prophesy, the more ridiculous it seemed to her. How could war ever come to the heart of the Dark Lord's realm? Surrounded by rugged mountains, ringed about by enchantments, and teeming with orcs and ruthless men, Mordor seemed an impenetrable fortress which could not be defeated by any force upon Middle-earth. Certainly not the forces of the West – if any sad remnant of the armies of Gondor and Rohan yet remained to offer challenge. Of all the places on Middle-earth in which one could dwell, Elffled surmised that Mordor was the safest, at least when it came to the ravages of war.

Of course, there were all those slaves who had been impaled before the gates of Turkûrzgoi, and the guards spoke in hushed voices rumors of slave uprisings… Could it be that not all was well within the realm of Mordor? Such matters were far above the comprehension of a peasant girl from a foreign land, and so Elffled pushed them from her mind. Why should she waste her time worrying about circumstances beyond her control? She had her sister with her, and a meal to eat that evening, and she was certain that they would be fed again the next day. When it came down to it, these were the only things that truly mattered.

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