27. Sweet Houris
Chapter Written by Angmar and Elfhild
After the Southern slaver had ridden away, Elfhild and Elffled lay there while the pounding of their hearts gradually lessened to a gentle thumping and their breathing returned to its usual measured pace. Too frightened to move, they remained in their hiding place long after he had ridden away. Intimidated at their close brush with capture, the sisters listened for the sound of hoofbeats and the guttural grunts of orcs, but nothing stirred the quietude of the woods.
"That was close," Elfhild whispered at last.
Elffled sat up and stretched her arms above her head, working the stiffness out of her sore muscles. "Too close. We could have been recaptured."
"We would have been, had he seen us. That fierce and terrible man is the leader of the slavers. Es-ar-ha-ddon u-Huzz-i-ya," Elfhild enunciated slowly, struggling with the long foreign name. "I think that was what he called himself. Doubtless he would have taken especial delight in capturing us!"
Elffled shuddered and wrapped her arms about herself. "I am frightened, Hild. What if next time we are not so lucky? The longer the slavers are forced to search for us, the angrier they will become. What little mercy they possess will be cast aside in their rage. What if they torture us? Both of us have seen how the orc officers punish unruly soldiers - by flailing the skin from their backs with the cruel whip!" She closed her eyes and squeezed them tightly shut as though to block out the gruesome memories. "Oh, I am afraid they will do that and worse to us!"
Elfhild trembled at the image. Though the orcs were fiends and murderers, still she could not help but wince in sympathy as the bestial soldiers screamed out in agony upon the whipping post. All too well she saw herself in their position, stripped naked and tied to a tree, her back bloody with crimson stripes.
"They can never harm us if they cannot catch us," Elfhild smiled weakly. "We need to flee from this place, for we can be sure that the slaver has brought men with him. What frightens me even more than his men are those part-breed orcs which he keeps in his employ. Their sense of smell is reputed to be greater than that of hounds. We need to think of some way to confuse them and get them off our trail."
"What do you suggest?" Elffled asked. She was relieved to see that her sister was thinking sensibly once more. How very disconcerting it had been to see Elfhild behaving so eccentrically just a few hours before!
"I have a plan," Elfhild replied resolutely as she rose to her feet. Putting her hand to her forehead to shield her vision from the glare of the harsh sunlight upon the barren ground, her eyes surveyed the course of the Anduin. "We must take to the River, and quickly!"
"What?" Elffled blinked in surprise, fearing that she had been wrong in her earlier estimation that her sister's mind had returned once again. Surely Elfhild did not mean to throw herself into the water, as Waerburh had threatened! Surely, she did not--
"Aye, you heard me correctly. The river is our only hope; at least the only one that comes to my mind," Elfhild repeated as she placed her walking stick on the ground and took off her cloak. Then, hoisting her dress over her head, she dropped it to the ground with a plop and then took off her underdress.
"Elfhild," her sister wailed as she rushed to her side, "you have no foolish ideas to drown yourself, do you?"
Elfhild shot her sister an incredulous stare. "Would I be stripping off my clothes if I were planning to do that? I have some dignity, you know!" She disdainfully shook away the clinging hand that the other girl had clamped about her arm. "We are going to make a small raft to hold our clothing and food. While I rip the material of my shift into strips, you gather some dry wood. Fetch only the straightest and strongest that you can find. We already have the two staves of plane wood which we found yesterday. When the raft is completed, we will bundle our clothing and put our food on top of the pile."
Elffled's eyebrows rose to high arches as she regarded the other girl incredulously. "This sounds as silly as some children's game! It will never work!" She shook her head and crossed her arms over her chest.
"Certainly it will work; there is nothing to worry about," Elfhild proclaimed adamantly. "Our tracks will be lost to the orcs and the water will wash away our scents. Seeking for us will be like trying to find turtles or fish. They will never find us this way. We can even take turns resting against the raft when we become weary." Finding a seat upon a large rock, she began to reduce her shift into long pieces of cloth.
"But it is broad daylight!" Elffled hissed through clenched teeth, her eyes wildly darting about. "You want us to travel naked?! If the slavers see us, they will be braying like jackasses!"
"They will not see us, for they will be too busy searching every grove of trees and section of woods ever to venture down to the river for a swim," Elfhild laughed quietly.
In spite of her grumbling, Elffled gathered enough sticks for the girls to lash together a small raft. When it was finished, Elfhild waded into the hip-deep water near to the shore and set the raft down upon the river's surface. "The raft floats," Elfhild exclaimed, almost in disbelief. She smiled up to her sister on the riverbank. "Now all it needs is the cargo."
"Elfhild, I do not like this!" Elffled cautiously looked around before pulling her dress over her head. She felt as though there were lustful, leering eyes staring at her from behind every rock, tree and bush. "I cannot do this! I do not know why you ever came up with this ridiculous idea!"
Completely ignoring her sister, Elfhild continued issuing orders like one of the marshals of the Riddermark. "'Fled, your shoes, stockings and shift now. Take them off and be quick; then gather all of my things. Wrap our clothing around the food and carry it out here to the raft. Do not forget to bring those two long strips of cloth that I set aside. They are to tie the bundle to our fine craft," Elfhild admonished, far too cheerfully, Elffled thought. "And hurry up!"
"Why, she looks positively happy to be out there in the water as naked as the day she was born!" Elffled grumbled to herself. Still, she waded into the water, holding the bundle containing the precious food supply far above the water's surface. "I am coming," she muttered sourly.
More to prove to her sister that it could be done than anything, Elfhild volunteered to be the first one to push the raft through the water. Holding the edge of the raft in one hand, she moved out into the water until she could no longer feel the sandy river bottom beneath her feet. Then she pushed out into the water along the bank, swimming upstream. Both girls were adequate swimmers, having spent much time over the years splashing about in streams near their house. Elffled had never liked swimming in deep water, though, and being in the unfamiliar waters of the Anduin frightened her. She tried not to think about how far her feet were from the bottom.
The river water was a bit chilly, but the golden sun was warm and the day was a balmy one. When the twins grew weary, they clung to the roots and tree trunks which grew nigh unto the water. There they caught their breath and rested their muscles, which were unaccustomed to swimming such long distances. Then after they had regained their strength, they would take to the water once again. They made good speed in spite of the current, for driving them on, like the crack of a whip, was the memory of the deep voice of Esarhaddon.
The girls had been swimming upstream for a while when Elffled began grumbling. "Oh, Elfhild, can we not rest for a moment?" she whined petulantly, her lower lip pouting. "We have put the slaver far behind us. Please, let us swim towards shore and rest!"
"I suppose there is no harm to it, but just a short rest, no more!" Elfhild admonished as she splashed closer to the bank. The water was not so deep here, and their feet touched the floor of the riverbed. No longer needing to swim, they waded through the waist-deep water, pushing the raft ahead. They were just approaching the tree-lined shore when they heard, coming from high above them on the riverbank, the strains of an instrument which reminded them of a lute.
Gasping in alarm, Elffled clutched her sister's arm. "Elfhild, what is that?" she squeaked out in a frightened whisper.
"I do not know, only that it is something which promises more trouble for us!" Her senses on alert, Elfhild's eyes scanned the bank high above them.
"We have to hide somewhere! We cannot just stand here naked in the water!"
"Over there," Elfhild whispered, frantically motioning to the exposed roots of a large tree above them. At some time in the past, the river had cut deeply into the bank, gouging away the soil and forming a small cave beneath the roots.
"You want us to go in THERE?" Elffled's hushed voice rose in alarm.
"Yes," her sister hissed back. "There is nothing in there which can hurt you. This little den might even make a cozy hiding spot." Elfhild grinned wryly, as though their desperate fight to keep out of enemy hands was all a childish game of hide-and-seek. "Now - duck under the roots! Here, let me help you with our raft," Elfhild exhorted as she struggled to maneuver the raft between two widely placed roots.
"Cozy?" Elffled grumbled as her long hair caught on a dangling root. "This awful place is full of mosquitoes, and they are already eating me alive! Ouch!" Swatting wildly at the little pests, she scowled at her sister and suppressed the urge to swat her.
His robes flowing behind him, the young rider had gradually brought his horse down from a lope to a trot and then reined the animal in under the sheltering willows along the riverbank. Dressed in a dark green burnoose, brown jellaba, tan pantaloons with brown riding boots, and a drab keffiyeh upon his head, he was easily identified as one of the accursed Southrons. Dismounting, the young man tethered his horse to a small sapling. He hummed a melody as he retrieved his waterskin from the pommel of his saddle and then fetched a wooden case from a leather bag hanging at the side.
As he took the gourd-shaped oud from its case, he brushed his fingers lovingly over the rosewood body. His eyes lingered admiringly on the mother-of-pearl and ebony inlay on the fingerboard, and he thought of the day when he had received the oud. His father had presented it to him on his twelfth birthday, six years ago, after a ceremony recognizing his passage into manhood. The creator of the marvelous instrument was a highly renowned master craftsman who hailed from the great Haradric city of Kaskal. The marvelous gift had included a pick crafted from an eagle feather. After learning to play, the young man had forsaken the feather pick for his thumb. However, on a later trip to the souks of Kaskal, his father had bought him a pick made of tortoiseshell, which he much preferred.
Strumming softly with the tortoiseshell plectrum, he began to sing in his rich baritone voice.
O, come, my gentle sighing one,
Sing a melody in the sun...
"No, still not right," he thought, the dark eyebrows over his luminous brown eyes furrowing as his handsome tawny face scowled in displeasure. He paused in his playing to think of a more pleasing arrangement of words. "Perhaps it should not rhyme," he reflected, and then tested a melody to fit his new phrasing.
Her body blossoms like the budding rose
Her face, round like the fullness of the moon
The mole beside her red lips has captivated me!
Do not be cruel to me, my swaying willow!
Turn your face to me, my budding rose!
Ah! For love of her, I am dying!
Inbir, third in command of Esarhaddon's bodyguards, was a man in love. He could not, no matter how hard he tried, drive the image of the lovely blonde houri from his thoughts. "Virgin," he thought dismally, "and possessing an unusual shade of reddish blonde hair. Maidens command the highest prices, far more than a humble man such as I am could ever afford to pay. I am lost to love, and will surely perish, my heart turning to dust like a crushed dry leaf!"
Inbir resumed the strumming of his oud with a fervor. His dark, gentle eyes were filled with sorrow and his lean face was strained, the muscles tense. His music reflected his melancholy and sorrow as he pondered the impossibility of ever obtaining the slave girl with the strawberry blonde hair. Closing his eyes, he captured her image in his mind, caressing it with his thoughts, and imagining her tender body close to his as he held her once again. Here the pick struck the strings softly, gently, causing a rippling, undulating tune, the swaying rhythm like two lovers moving in the dance of love. As his lips formed the words, the song developed an even richer pulse, sensual and erotic. "Ah! The sweetness of her mouth is like that of the peach when it is crushed, and for but one kiss of her tender lips, I would die!" his baritone voice moaned. Then his strumming grew faster, more desperate, as he angrily struck the strings with his pick, placing all of his longing and frustration into his song.
"It is hopeless. Everything is hopeless!" he agonized as his playing ended with his striking a sudden harsh note. Laying the oud across his knees, he bowed his head, sighing in despair, his heart heavy in his chest. There must be some way that he could have this girl, but what chance did a penniless man have? For some time, he sat there in silence, unable to coax the oud to sing its song. Then as he began to think of more words for the next stanza, he could not believe his ears when he heard splashing down below him.
He looked down and his disbelieving eyes caught sight of two willowy girls, their startled faces turned tantalizingly up to him. The droplets of water beading off their nude skin turned silver in the sunlight, dazzling his eyes and sending the blood rushing through his veins. "By the Gods! What has fate brought me?"
The maidens were lovely! Their high, firm breasts swelled like ripe pomegranates over delicate rib cages; their nipples were blushing pink buds; their waists slender as willow saplings; their navels cups of pearl; their hips were just beginning to show the delightful roundness of womanhood; and their thighs were graceful, curving alabaster columns. The lovely creatures trembled like frightened gazelles poised at the moment of flight. He knew in that moment that he desired them every bit as much as he wanted Aeffe! "Houris," he whispered. "Lovely blonde houris!" O, if only he were a wealthy man, he could have a whole harem filled with these breathtakingly beautiful Northern women!
"The slaves," he cried, the blood pounding in his head. Rising quickly to his feet, he rushed down the bank, stumbling, almost tripping in his haste. When he reached the water, the beautiful maids were gone! He could see nothing but the sun shining silver upon the river.
"Houris?" he shouted hopefully, his voice deep and husky. "Lovely houris, come back!" Moaning, Inbir sank to the ground, his head in his hands. "Once again, the beauties of Paradise are denied to me! Houris, come back! Please come back!"
"I do not know about you, Elfhild, but I am ready to surrender!" Elffled moaned despairingly. "There is hardly a spot upon my body above the water that has not been bitten by these accursed mosquitoes!" She made another hopeless swat at the troublesome pests which hovered in a dense cloud in front of her face. With a mutter, she clamped her nostrils shut with her fingers. Then, submerging under the water, she left the angry cloud of insects to converge upon her sister.
"Elffled, we are not going to surrender to that man! He cannot sit up there all day; he has to leave sometime. At least he is quiet now and not wailing like a woman in the travails of birth," Elfhild remarked sourly as her sister resurfaced.
"You know, I rather liked his singing," came Elffled's defiant reply. "The melody was so different, so romantic, and though I do not understand the meaning of his words, his voice was so, so--"
"Blatantly sensual," Elfhild finished, acidly.
"You make him sound as though he were evil," Elffled bemoaned, hurt by her sister's criticism. She flushed furiously behind the cloud of mosquitoes which had quickly regathered around her face.
"Oh, Elffled!" Batting mosquitoes away with her right hand, she touched her sister's forearm with the other. "You have always said you hate these people! Remember the brazen Easterling who kissed you?"
"And I still do hate them, but not their singing," she giggled sheepishly. "Hours could pass, and I would not tire of his--" One of the buzzing insects flew into her open mouth, bringing on an energetic round of choking and coughing.
"Even an ass knows when to open its mouth to bray and when to keep it closed," Elfhild replied smugly as she slapped her sister smartly across the back.
"You ninny! You are not supposed to do hit someone on the back when she is choking!" Elffled squawked, clearing her throat of phlegm. "Besides that, I had already swallowed the damn thing! And I am not an ass either!"
"There was another mosquito on your back. I was merely swatting it," Elfhild smiled sweetly, but Elffled caught the distinctive snide expression in her blue eyes. Retaliating, Elffled splashed the other girl in the face with a handful of water.
"Come on, let us get out of here," Elfhild muttered in disgust, and tugged her sister's arm. "I think he is gone by now!"
"Yes," her sister replied sullenly. "We should have surrendered to him while he was here and saved ourselves a great deal of trouble. Now he has probably ridden off to alert the rest of them to our whereabouts."
Ducking beneath the tree roots that had protected their hiding spot, Elfhild splashed through the water and heard Elffled following close behind her. "It does not matter, because we are going to outwit them yet. When he gets back, we will be far away... that is if you do not alert him with all the noise you are making! You sound like a fat old cow plowing through the water!"
"I hope the Southrons come back soon and rescue me from you! You are a worse slave master than they are! All you need is a whip!" Elffled retorted as she scratched a reddened, swelling welt on her cheek. "And I am not a cow either!"
"Temper, temper," Elfhild smiled smugly, pleased at the rise she had brought out of her sister. After she had complained so much and refused to believe her harrowing account of the demon lord who had savaged her bosom, Elffled deserved that remark about the cow, and a great deal worse.
Leaving their insect-infested hiding place, the sisters traveled along the bank by alternately swimming and then resting upon gnarled tree roots which overhung the water. As they moved upriver, they passed a small tributary which flowed into the Anduin. The river was deeper here, as their feet had not touched the bottom for some time.
After swimming about two furlongs upriver, the sisters saw a long wooden wharf jutting out into the Anduin. Several piers extended out into the river for loading and unloading boats. On the bank were several unpretentious structures, their unpainted sides a drab weathered gray against the bleak landscape.
"Hild! Look!" Elffled exclaimed excitedly. "There are some buildings ahead!"
"Probably full of orcs," Elfhild pronounced glumly as she swam past her sister. Elffled paddled in place against the current and gaped at the wharf.
"There is no one about," Elffled shouted. "The place appears to be deserted! I do not know about you, Hild, but I am going to investigate!" With that, Elffled swam to the wharf and lifted herself from the water.
"Elffled, come back!" her twin cried out, but her sister was already walking along the wooden quay. Muttering, Elfhild picked up the little raft and pushed it up onto the dock. Then with a fierce scowl directed at her sister, she grabbed the edge of the wharf and pulled herself out of the water. The mid-afternoon sun warmed her naked body, but the gentle breeze chilled her wet skin into gooseflesh.
"There is no one here, Hild! Whoever once used this place has abandoned it!"
"If you continue standing there like a naked, witless fool, you might find that this place is not so deserted as you might wish!" Muttering, Elfhild bent down and began to extract her garments from the bundle on the raft. "That Southron who screeched like a rutting tomcat was not all that far down the river. At this very moment, he might be on his way here with a troop of horsemen who would like nothing more than to see you cavorting naked upon this dock!"
"You do not have to be so insulting about his singing. I thought he had a truly wonderful voice," Elffled gushed, coloring slightly.
"Just put on your clothes, 'Fled! Then we will explore this miserable place. After all, it was your idea to come here!"
"And do I need to remind you, Elfhild, that it was your idea to swim naked in the river? Perhaps you like the thoughts of men seeing you in a state of undress!" Elffled smiled sweetly, a sarcastic smirk on her face.
"Oh, be quiet!" Elfhild's voice dripped with acid as she jerked her dress over her head.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.