19. A Tempting Dish
Chapter Written by Angmar and Elfhild
Sitting down cross-legged as gracefully as she could, Goldwyn was certain that the slaver was laughing at her awkwardness. She was terribly conscious of the scarcity of material that barely covered her breasts. The wide, deep cleavage plunged almost to her waist, and the tightness of the bodice hurled her breasts upward, spreading them into broad, prominent globes. Esarhaddon sat down beside her on the carpet, and she could feel his heated gaze burning into her exposed flesh. Across the table from them, Fródwine scowled gloomily at the slaver while Frumgár looked with curiosity at the man. Fritha, his gaze cast down, was miserable as his eyes threatened to mist over again with tears. Goldwyn averted her gaze from the slaver's and concentrated her attentions upon her sons across the table.
Servants with trays of food soon made their entry into the tent, placing platters of round, flat bead; cheeses; strange jars of oval-shaped green fruits pickled in brine; and other preserved vegetables upon the table. As the slaves quietly went about their tasks of serving the main dish of stewed beef, rice and lentils flavored with pungent, aromatic spices, the slaver commented dryly, "The beef was provided by the Gondorians, and there are but a few of the cattle left to be slaughtered. Enjoy the meat while you are fortunate enough to have it."
Breaking off portions of the flat bread, they set to work dipping their pieces into the fragrant stew. The captives grudgingly admitted to themselves that the food was quite savory, but the meal would have been much more pleasant if it were eaten in some other circumstance.
Frumgár, ever curious, could no longer hide his puzzlement at the strange, small pickled fruit. Gulping slightly, he mustered his courage and asked, "Sir, what is this green thing?"
"Olives," the slaver replied. "Perhaps you consider them quite sour. You must develop a taste for their unique flavor."
"Sir, they are quite good actually, though a little bitter," Frumgár affirmed, his lips puckering slightly.
Fritha sampled one, but found the taste set his teeth on edge. Unsure of what to do with the unchewed fruit, he looked all about him before holding his cupped hand to his mouth. Pretending to cough, he spat the pulp out in his palm. When he was certain that no one was looking, he furtively tossed the fruit unnoticed under the table, where it rolled across the cream-colored carpet and bumped against the toe of Esarhaddon's slipper. As Esarhaddon reached across the table for a piece of goat cheese, he moved his foot and, unknown to him, his sole came down upon the olive, smashing its juices into the fine rug.
The main meal completed, the servants cleared away the dishes and brought in the dessert of dried fruits, raisins, figs, and light, flavorful confections. Goldwyn had already heard about these delicacies from the women that morning. Though she was suspicious that the food might have been drugged, still she was curious and sampled several of the light cakes. She noticed that Fritha was gorging himself, his mouth barely able to hold all the food which he had forced into his bulging cheeks.
"Fritha, stop stuffing your mouth with food," Goldwyn chided.
"Mmmfh," he struggled to speak with a too-full mouth, but was halted by his mother's disapproval in Rohirric.
"Do not speak with food in your mouth!" Goldwyn stifled a nervous titter as Fritha forced down his mouthful.
"Lad, are you trying to imitate a snake swallowing a whole frog?" the slaver chuckled. The deep, rumbling sound was a harmless one, reassuring in its normal, everyday manner. Still, Goldwyn's pride and hatred strove against any inner admittance that the men of the enemy might possess hearts that were the same as those from the Western branch of the race of Men.
"Sir, not understand," Fritha flushed as he felt all eyes upon him. The boy struggled to comprehend such a long sentence in the unfamiliar speech. His face reddened even more as his mother translated the words for him.
"Sorry," he grinned sheepishly at the slaver.
Leaning over closer to his brother, Frumgár cupped his hand over Fritha's ear and whispered, "Pig!" Fritha's mouth opened to counter his brother's insult, but a warning look from Goldwyn silenced both boys.
"Most satisfying," the slaver praised the pastries as he brought a white linen napkin to his lips, wiping off the excess crumbs. The last round of the meal finished, the servants cleared the table. The slavers' guests were surprised when the slaves held basins under their hands and then poured rosewater over their fingers to cleanse them. Small glasses of sweet tea were next served. The slaver rested his lower back against the piled cushions and smiled in satisfaction as he drank from his glass of tea.
Goldwyn felt the heat of the slaver's body as he sat close to her, a proximity which seemed shamelessly intimate. To ease her distress, Goldwyn resolved to make an attempt at conversation with the rude Southron. If nothing else, the sound of her own voice might provide a distraction for her unsettled nerves.
"Sir, do you have any children?" she ventured, a safe subject in any culture or society, she presumed.
"Aye, Madame, there are two still living, and seven in the tomb."
"Oh, sir, I am sorry to learn that so many of your children have died!" Goldwyn murmured apologetically, wondering if she had committed some breach in Southron etiquette by bringing up such a solemn matter.
"More died than have survived." Though the man's lips still held a smile, pain and deep hurt flickered in his eyes.
"Sir, I did not mean to cause you pain!"
"Certainly, talk of this brings me sadness, but you asked the question in ignorance, and not with the intent to cause me grief."
"Please speak no more about it, sir!"
"No, Madame. It is good to mention the dead, for this is another way to keep their memories close to us. Perhaps, as some say, they listen from a far distant paradise and wish to hear their names spoken by the living."
"Please, sir, I should like to hear of your sons," spoke up Frumgár. "Were they riders in the cavalry?"
"Nay, lad. The Dark Horseman came for them when they were only children."
"How sad, sir!" exclaimed Frumgár, a kind-hearted boy who found it difficult to dislike anyone, save for the vilest and most cruel. His tender years made him far more tolerant of new customs and ideas than was his elder brother. "I should like to hear something about them, that is... if you do not mind telling, sir."
"Since you take an interest, young man, aye, I will tell you of their fates!" Esarhaddon gave the boy a benevolent, fatherly sort of smile and began his tale. "When I was a youth of seventeen, upon the advice of my parents, I chose a young maiden named Ninashme as my bride. When, in the course of time, it was determined that she was carrying my child, great was the rejoicing.
"We lived in Harad at that time, where my family had been slave traders for untold generations. We left everything to come north with my elder brother, Zannanza. He and I had decided to leave our kith and kin and establish a slave merchandising house in Nurn, where the opportunity to make wealth seemed far more promising than in our own country." A sad look came over the Southron's face, and his eyelids drooped dolefully. "On the journey from Harad to Nurn, Ninashme became ill with the desert fever and lost the child. They are both buried in Harad."
"Such a grievous loss, sir! I am sorry!" Goldwyn wished that she had never inquired about his children. She was relieved that Fritha knew little of the Common Speech, for surely the subject of more death would only bring added grief to his already troubled dreams. Frumgár would turn a sympathetic ear to any and all, while Fródwine hid any compassion behind eyes that smoldered in deep, internal rages. Perhaps the eldest was the most fortunate of her three sons, for he had found a certain strength and resolve in dwelling upon his festering hatred.
"A year after my first wife died, I sent a courier with a message to my parents in Harad and requested them to find a wife to my liking. Two met their approval and after deliberations between the families, a bride price was settled and the papers were signed. After a wedding in Harad by proxy, my wives were sent by caravan to me in Nurn."
"Two wives?" Goldwyn started to put her hand to her bosom in shock, but restrained the urge, for the gesture would only call more attention to her barely covered breasts.
"Aye, two! The custom in Harad allows men to take as many wives and concubines as they can afford to keep. My second and third wives were sisters. Surely even in Rohan it is known that it is better for a man to marry sisters?" He turned and looked at her, a questioning expression in his dark brown, almost black, eyes.
"Surely, sir, not at the same time!"
"Ah, yes, sometimes it is easy to forget that the customs of the North do not allow for the marrying of more than one wife at a time. Men of the South have long known that marrying sisters makes for a satisfactory arrangement. On account of their close kinship, it is unlikely that one sister will become so jealous of the other that she will raise her hand against the other woman or her children. The whole arrangement can prove most felicitous.
"These two wives were excellent in all their ways, modest, diffident, and very loving. Their satin skin was as white and soft as the breast of a dove; their exquisite faces were as round as the full moon shining; their hair was as dark as a raven's wing, luxuriant, and hung almost to their knees; and their eyes - ah! their eyes - they shone like the brown of amber and their depths held only love for me! Their young breasts were set high, full and rounded like the richest of Khandian melons; their navels were like jeweled cups set within their plump and tender stomachs; the fruits that nestled between their sculpted thighs were as succulent as peaches moistened with the freshest of dew; their legs were like columns of alabaster; their ankles were slim and their feet were tiny, their toenails colored with deep amber henna." Esarhaddon fell silent, a look of deep pain upon his face. "How beautiful they were! I can see them even now...
"Upon the wedding night, I summoned them both to my couch and enjoyed the elder first, then the younger in her turn. Each night thereafter for thirty nights - the circuit of the moon - I would have no other woman in my bed save these two, for I wished to plough their fertile fields and plant my seed within them. They quickly became treasured jewels in my household, and many were the gifts I bestowed upon them - fine carpets, bolts of satin and silk, beads of glass, coins of gold, inlaid boxes of tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl.
"Within the first year of the marriage, my second wife bore me a son, and shortly after, her sister gave me a daughter. My joy was complete when, the following year, my wives again conceived. My jubilation was not to endure, however. My second wife's next child was stillborn, and she followed him in death a short time later. The next year and the year after that, my third wife wreathed my life with sweet smelling incense and garlands of gladness when she gave birth to two sons.
"Alas! My bliss and happiness were again turned to ashes when the spectre of plague fell across the land, and the dark birds sang dirges from the cypress and plane trees. My remaining children perished, and my third wife fell gravely ill. Fate had not decreed that she should perish, though, for she slowly recovered and later bore me two more sons in the fullness of time. But again, the black clouds gathered overhead as the death birds shrieked their shrill cries and my third wife perished only last year in the throes of childbirth! After these great losses, all that was left to me were her two sons."
"How old are your sons, sir?" Frumgár asked, genuinely interested.
"One is six and the other is eleven."
"I suppose you have remarried?" Goldwyn ventured to ask, almost afraid to hear the answer, for she expected to hear yet another unfolding tale of tragedy upon tragedy.
"There are two concubines who dwell in my harem. One - a sulky vixen of Harad - I have had for seven years, but in all of the time that I have possessed her, her womb has remained as resolutely closed as a barred door. The other, an ebony beauty of Far Harad, has greatly pleased me in the scant time that I have owned her, for her womb has already quickened with my seed."
With these last comments, the slaver again turned his dark, sensual eyes upon Goldwyn, and, dropping to her exposed bosom, their smoldering inner fires began to glow. She felt her cheeks coloring in an uncomfortable blush. In an attempt to conceal her growing embarrassment, she would push the conversation back to something not so intimate. "Well, sir, I trust that sorrows will stay far away from you, and the ravages of the plague have ended."
"Madame, the plague is common in the lands of the South and East, afflicting the people with misery and death. Often there are many years between each plague, but pestilence will come, as surely as fate has decreed that they will. Many times, the disease is worse during the military campaign season from April until autumn. My suspicions are that since there is more travel then, pestilences from other lands are carried in by the soldiers and the sailors."
An sudden unsettling thought clenched at Goldwyn's heart, filling her mind with worry and dread. "Sir! Then we are in the midst of that season!"
Esarhaddon laid a firm, strong hand on her arm. "No need for alarm, Madame. When we were in the conquered city, there was no word from the dispatch riders of any outbreak of the plague, and so we can at least feel safe that there has been nothing worthy of report."
"Mother, what did he say?" asked Fritha as he observed the furrowed lines of concern etched on Esarhaddon's forehead. The expressions on the faces of Fródwine and Frumgár, who understood more of the Common Speech, turned grave, but neither boy spoke his misgivings.
"Nothing you should be concerned about, son," Goldwyn smiled as she attempted to reassure him that there was no cause for alarm. "Even more reason to escape," she silently reasoned.
"Sir, your words do little to lessen my fears," she told the slaver. "You tell me now that you are taking us into a land that is oft wracked with plague! Would it not make more sense to release all the children before they become exposed to these diseases and send them back to Rohan where they would be far safer?"
"Madame, surely you cannot be serious!" Esarhaddon's startled eyes gaped at her in dismay. "You are distraught, and your reason has failed you! The idea is absolutely preposterous! Lest you are unaware, a policy of total war is in effect in your country! Doubtless, battles are still being fought, the outcome hanging in the balances. Would you let the slight possibility of sickness fill you with such dread that you would send your sons back into a wasteland, there to perish of starvation? You saw the appearance of the conquered lands, the blight and devastation. Much of your own country is a mirror of what you have seen! Your sons are fine, brave lads, and I would not have the crime of sending them to meaningless deaths upon my soul! Enough of such nonsense! You must curb your agitated emotions, my lady, and use reason!"
Esarhaddon's words stung Goldwyn, for she knew deep within her heart that he was correct. In her perverse stubbornness, though, she refused even to acknowledge the shadow of doubt. She truly believed that fate was with the righteous people of the West, and that the escape attempt was meritorious, if for no other reason than to give their children the opportunity to grow up in a free land. The women and children would find sanctuary in the mountains, and there wait until life came back to the lands.
Even though the favorable outcome was as good as assured in her mind, Goldwyn had allowed the tension of the setting to unsettle her emotions, and thus she had spoken amiss. She must say nothing to anger or upset this powerful man! All her plans would be for naught if the slaver had the slightest of suspicion that perhaps the captives might be planning an escape. She must keep his thoughts from drifting in that direction.
"Forgive me, sir, it was a foolish thing to say," Goldwyn offered in false regret, her eyes not meeting those of the slaver. She refused to believe that her country lay in such hopeless devastation as the slaver would lead her to believe.
"Now, my lady, I see that the eyes of your sons grow heavy with sleep, and I shall keep them no longer." Esarhaddon looked across the table at the three boys. "I have observed that they have found great enjoyment in partaking of the sugary delicacies of the South. Before your sons leave, I will see that my servants supply them with parcels of dried fruit, candies and cakes."
In sign language, the slaver conveyed his orders to a nearby servant boy. The boy signaled his understanding, and with a bow, he was quickly away. Soon a guard appeared at the open flap of the pavilion and waited quietly.
Esarhaddon rose to his feet, a signal that it was time for his guests to depart. "Good night, lads. May your sleep be both pleasant and strengthening."
Goldwyn cleared her throat, preparing to say the expected courteous things that guests are supposed to say to their host in gratitude for a good supper. "Sir, thank you for this most pleasing of meals. My sons and I are grateful for your generous hospitality. I see that you have provided a guard to see us back."
Fródwine, his mouth set in a tight line, offered curtly, "As my mother says, the meal was good."
"Fruit and candy, sir?" Frumgár exclaimed excitedly. The slaver nodded. "Thank you, sir!"
"Mother? Did he say cakes?" asked Fritha.
"Aye, son, that he did," Goldwyn smiled at her son and then turned to Esarhaddon. "Now, sir, we are quite ready to leave."
"Your sons are excused to depart, but you are to remain here. There are things of which I wish to speak."
Fródwine and Frumgár's eyes darted questioningly to their mother. Fritha was confused, able to understand only a portion of the words which the slaver had spoken.
"Fródwine and Frumgár, do as he says and do not argue with me!" Goldwyn felt her hands trembling as an icy shiver of fear raced its way up her spine. Her hot-blooded elder son's temper was beginning to flare, and she wished, above all things, to avoid another altercation such as the one earlier. "Fritha, go with your brothers back to the camp. I will soon join you there."
"Lady, you are speaking in your peoples' language," Esarhaddon admonished her. "I prefer that you do not do that, but I fully realize that your sons do not comprehend much of the Common. I will allow this mistake to be overlooked for now, but in the future, your sons will learn to speak in Common Speech, Black Speech, and varying tongues of Harad and Khand! Finish whatever you have to say!" The slaver walked to the dividing curtains between the two sections of the tent.
"Yes, sir, they will learn all that is needed," Goldwyn lied.
"Mother, we will do as you say now, but if this barbarian lays a hand upon you, I will tear out his heart with my bare hands! Mother, Mother, I dread to leave you in his keeping!" Fródwine's face was turning red with rage and Goldwyn prayed that he would keep his tongue silent. "This man is evil! I hate him and fear him for your sake!"
"Fródwine, my son, I will be safe!" Goldwyn walked over to her sons and kissed each one. "Good night, sons. I shall return to you soon." She held the gaze of each with her eyes, hoping they would feel confidence and encouragement there, even though she herself did not feel any. Her gaze lingered long upon them until the guard insisted that they leave the tent with him.
The slaver signed to the servants that he wished seclusion, and soon he and the woman were alone.
"Madame," his voice was a raspy whisper, "I have waited all afternoon for this moment..."
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.