Format: Short story.
Genre: Angst, character study, drama.
Characters: Aragorn, Arwen, OCS
Creator’s Notes (optional): Tahir is the Ambassador to Gondor from Harad. He and Adiva appear in many of my stories. Errors in their speech are deliberate. Events take place before “The Stone Circle”. No racism is intended.
Summary: A kitchen maid fears her employers plan a dreadful fate for her.
Elwing trudged wearily up the mountain path behind her master and mistress. They had ridden part of the way with her clutching Master's waist for dear life but had to tether the horses to a tree as the path grew steeper. Master and Mistress were strange folks and there was no doubt about it. People turned up their noses at her working for foreigners and former enemies too. Even her Mother had been doubtful about her taking the position much as they needed the money since her father died.
Master and Mistress were kind, though. They paid her well and gave her a day off to visit her family each week. They even gave her food for her younger brothers and sisters and allowed her time off to care for them when her Mother was ill with fever last winter. Mistress took a surprising interest in the life of a mere kitchen maid.
Only last week had she asked Elwing if she were courting yet. Elwing had replied in the negative. At 16, she was far too young to think of such matters yet. She wasn't even sure if she wanted to marry, maybe one day she could become a baker and have a stall in the market and be her own mistress. Even a kitchen maid could have dreams, couldn't she? Her Grandmother always told her you have to have dreams.
At least if she were at no one's beck and call she wouldn't have to climb up the mountain behind the City. Mistress had told her they were gathering quails eggs and then having a religious ceremony of some sort. They were a devout pair, Master and Mistress, though she not make head nor tail of their religion, they were always gazing up at the moon and when it was full they would celebrate with special food and drink. These folk of Harad were indeed odd with their flowing robes and harsh incomprehensible tongue. Cook had been teaching her a few words, though and the language was no longer complete gibberish.
She had no idea why they wanted her for this ceremony. Master had collected a few quails eggs himself and Master and Mistress took turns in carrying their youngest child who had not yet been weaned, there seemed to be nothing for Elwing to do.
At length, they reached a clearing in the forest which covered the lower slopes of the mountain and Master bade them stop. In the centre of the clearing was a large boulder.
“The glorious Lord and Lady, may they ever shine upon us, will appear above the boulder at sundown,” he said in Westron. “We will rest awhile before they honour us with their presence and our guests arrive.”
Mistress took out a dark blue silken robe from within the folds of her own robe and handed it to Elwing. “I should like you wear this to honour our esteemed Lord and Lady,” she said.
Somewhat surprised at the request, Elwing nevertheless only hesitated for a moment before disappearing into the bushes to don the garment. It was a beautiful thing despite the strange design, the colour of a clear midnight sky and decorated with silver embroidery. She had never worn such a fine garment before. If she were ever to marry she would love such a bridal gown. She supposed it was like the custom to honour Lady Yavanna at the harvest celebrations. Not that anyone she knew had silk garments to wear even for such a special occasion!
She made her way back to the clearing. Her mistress was sitting on a fallen tree trunk suckling the baby and talking to her Master in their own language. Most of what they said was incomprehensible to her but she could make out her name and the odd word; innocent” and “sacrifice”.
Elwing was filled with horror as the dreadful truth dawned on her. They had brought her to this remote spot to sacrifice her to their gods! At his side, Master wore a scimitar. They were going to use it to kill her! Folk were right about her employers after all, the people of Harad were as cruel and evil as everyone had told her! She turned and stumbled back into the bushes. Then she started to run caring not where as long as they did not find her.
She was to too young to die and what of her Mother and brothers and sisters? She would never see them again if they caught her. She realised she was on the path leading back down the mountain. A small group of people were approaching, on horseback, several men and a lone woman. Much to her relief, they were dressed in Gondorian style clothing and had the pale skins of her people.
Elwing ran forward and grabbed the reins of the woman's horse. “Help me!” she screamed. “They are going to kill me!”
Two of the men who were dressed in uniforms with a White Tree on their tunics leapt from their horses and grabbed her wrists.
“Let her speak!” said the woman. “What ails you, child?”
Elwing looked up into clear grey eyes. She was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen.
A very tall man had also dismounted. He had handsome noble features and kind grey eyes. Something about him made her feel certain she could trust him and the beautiful woman.“Who is trying to kill you?” he asked.
“My Master and Mistress!” Elwing gasped. “They want to sacrifice me to their gods!” Now she felt safe, she fell to her knees, shaking and gasping from her exertions.
The man reached for a pack strapped to his horse and pulled out a small stoppered bottle. He poured a few drops of oil on to a handkerchief and handed it to her. It smelled of lavender. “ I am a healer and I want you to inhale this fragrance, “ the man commanded. “It will calm your agitation.” He helped her to her feet then led her to sit on a fallen tree trunk. He took off his cloak and draped it round her trembling shoulders, all the while studying her closely. “ A strange tale you tell, “ he said after a few minutes. “I permit no human sacrifices in my lands and you are dressed as befits a devotee of the Moon Faith of Harad, a benign belief which spills no blood.”
“Master and Mistress follow that faith,” said Elwing. “I clearly heard them say they were going to sacrifice an innocent. I don't speak their tongue well but I know those words.”
“We will go and find out exactly what you overheard,” said the man. “I am on my way to observe a ritual of the Moon Faith so we will proceed on our way and clear up this misunderstanding.”
Elwing shuddered. “Please don't make me go back!”
“Have your employers ever ill-treated you before?” asked the man.
Elwing shook her head. “Never, they were always kind to me.”
“We will not let any harm come to you, I give my word, “ said the woman. “Tahir and Adiva are kind people who would not harm anyone. Can you climb up behind me on my horse or shall my husband lift you up?”
“I fear I don't know how to mount a horse,” Elwing replied.
The tall man lifted her up behind his wife. Elwing wondered who they were. It seemed rude to ask. The man must be a landowner as he spoke of his lands. She wondered why such rich folk were being so kind to a servant.
They rode on a short way then left the men in uniforms behind. One protested but the tall man said “I have faced dangers since before you were a suckling infant and can manage a short ride unescorted.”
Elwing found his comment strange as he and the uniformed man looked much of an age.
She had little time to ponder the matter as they rode on, passing Master and Mistress' tethered horses. These beasts seemed much surer footed on the mountain pathway. When they finally left the horses behind they were but a short distance from the clearing.
She could hear her employers calling her name and took a sniff of the lavender scented handkerchief.
Mistress appeared from behind the trees and Elwing tried to hide behind the beautiful lady but was quickly spotted. “Elwing!” she cried. “We had much fear that wild beasts had harmed you or the way you had lost!” Before Elwing could reply she greeted the new arrivals with many flowery words and a warm embrace. Master appeared and did likewise.
“Your servant heard talk of a sacrifice and came to us in great fear,” the tall man said once the greetings were completed.
Adiva looked stricken. “Alas! I must not have right explained. The esteemed Lord and Lady require a sacrifice of eggs to ensure the land is fruitful. An innocent must offer the eggs for the sacrifice to be accepted. Elwing, we want you to kneel and place the eggs on the rock when the Lord and Lady appear.”
A vast wave of relief swept her. Elwing let out a sigh of relief and smiled. “Of course, Mistress.”
“The time approaches,” said Master.
Master and Mistress knelt in front of the boulder as the full moon appeared above the mountainside. They chanted many fervent sounding prayers. As soon as the moonlight illuminated the boulder, Elwing carefully placed the eggs there. Then Master and Mistress sang a haunting melody. The tall man, who had been standing nearby in respectful silence with his wife, joined in the singing in a rich, deep voice.
“The bounteous Lord and Lady shine brightly upon us,” said Master. “The land will be fruitful.”
“I hope so,” said the tall man.
The party made their way down the mountainside in the bright April moonlight. Elwing felt a deep sense of peace she could not explain. When the group neared her home in the second circle, Mistress said. “Go, child, visit your kinsfolk a few days. You too shall celebrate the festival. We sorry you were afraid.”
“Thank you, Mistress, “ said Elwing. “I will return the robe next week.”
“You may keep it,” said Mistress.
Elwing thanked her, a happy smile on her face.
The Group rode away. Elwing stared after them for a moment wondering who the tall man and the beautiful woman were. They were so high and lordly yet so kind. She wondered if she would ever find out who they were. Maybe they would visit Master and Mistress as they seemed to know them well? She would keep the handkerchief to remember them by. She turned and made her way to her front door. Overhead, the moon shone brightly.