The Circles - Book Three - Chapter 21

The Circles - Book Three - To Escape A Dark Destiny
Chapter Twenty-one
The Mysterious Malady
Written by Angmar

Before the dawning sun of June 19 ever touched the tents of the slavers, Esarhaddon's strident bellows had driven Tushratta from a dreamless slumber into surprised wakefulness. Too impatient to wait until his arrival had been announced by a servant, the slaver burst into the tent while the occupants were still in the land of dreams.

"Did the lot of you plan to lie in bed all day?" Esarhaddon's voice thundered accusingly as his eyes roved around the tent's inner chamber. Customarily arising before dawn, the slaver prided himself on never letting the sun's rays touch his sleeping face. He regarded those who lounged in bed until noon as moral degenerates who had completely given themselves over to vice and debauchery. Only the weak lay under the blankets when the sun had risen above the horizon.

"Shakh, is something amiss? Are you ill? Have the slaves attempted another insurgency?" Clearly alarmed, Tushratta rose from the bed, pulled his caftan over his head, and slid his feet into his slippers.

"No, everything is in order, and as you should surely know from the last time you examined me, I am as healthy as a bull. I have come to inquire after the northern woman."

"Shakh, as you can see for yourself, she still sleeps," Tushratta replied dutifully as he motioned to the couch where Goldwyn lay. As Esarhaddon turned to look, the attention of both men was immediately diverted by a loud groan from Aziru.

Rolling onto his side, the bleary-eyed doctor's assistant reached out his arms to clutch the concupiscent sprite of his dream. Moaning in his passion, he cried out, "Maiden of Ishtar!" Unfortunately for him, his joy quickly turned into embarrassment. As his vision gradually cleared, the houri's lovely body transformed into the stocky, muscular shape of Esarhaddon.

Groaning, Aziru considered going back to sleep. Perhaps he could recapture the beautiful dream. "What am I thinking!" he chided himself as he came fully awake. "The great shakh would be offended if I did not welcome him!" Snatching up his caftan, he slipped it over his head and arms and let the brocaded material fall to his ankles as he rose to his feet.

"Shakh, may peace be upon you this morning," Aziru managed to stammer as he bent to kiss the hem of the slaver's sleeve.

"Silim. Peace be unto you, Aziru son of Shamallû." Though the greeting was polite and filled with the customary hospitality, Esarhaddon's irritation with his servant was evident in his voice.

"My apologies, Shakh!" Aziru hastily tried to explain his breach in manners. "I was negligent in greeting you when you first arrived, but I did not wish to embarrass myself by my state of undress. If you will excuse me, I must cleanse myself and do my morning oblations."

"Do whatever you need to do," Esarhaddon remarked gruffly. "I did not come here to see you."

"By your leave, Shakh," Aziru replied as he bowed away. Turning to a small table, he filled a basin of water from a red earthenware jar.

Having fallen asleep beside Goldwyn's couch, Sang-mí came to her senses when she heard the slaver's voice. Quickly rolling to her hands and knees, she groveled upon the carpet before her master. Nib, rudely awakened from his slumbers, protested the disruption. Squalling a vengeful wail, he strained until he turned red-faced and voided his bladder and bowels.

Scowling at Sang-mí, Esarhaddon exclaimed in annoyance, his nostrils wrinkling at the unpleasant odor, "Arise from your belly, woman, and attend to that wailing suckling of yours! He sounds as though a cheetah had dug its teeth into his arse and was dragging him off to his lair!"

"Yes, Master! To hear your word brings instant and joyful obedience!" Sang-mí murmured as she backed on her hands and knees to the mat where her kicking, howling baby lay. Then with an apologetic glance towards Esarhaddon, she stripped the soiled cloths from the outraged Nib. After cleaning the child, she bundled him up again and attempted to pacify his anger by pushing a plump dark nipple in his mouth.

"Now that the confusion has abated, perhaps we can get to the purpose of my visit," Esarhaddon growled, his eyes boring into those of the physician.

"Shakh, while I understand your concern for the Northern woman, I am unaccustomed to being honored by your presence so early in the day. Might it not have been more convenient for you to send a servant to inquire about her?" Tushratta asked, his voice iced with cold formality. He was irritated that he had been given no prior warning before the slaver had burst into his sleeping chambers.

"Apologies, Physician, but in spite of the company of my lovely companion of the night, my slumber was not peaceful. I tossed and turned, much like one in the throes of the kapurdri, and my dreams..." The slaver shook his head, his brow furrowed at the unpleasant memory. "Those I do not wish to expound upon, but they concerned the woman." He stroked his beard thoughtfully. "I have never had such disturbing dreams as those which tormented my slumber last night!"

"Shakh, I could not help overhearing what you said,” Aziru remarked as he ambled back to the small group. “Possibly I might have an explanation for your unsettled dreams. Would you care to hear it?" At a disinterested nod from Esarhaddon, the physician's assistant continued. "Thank you, I shall explain. Did your cook prepare peas for your evening meal last night?" Aziru smiled as the slaver nodded. "I thought so! Those are wicked little devils, enemies to digestion! If flatulence is disturbing your slumbers, might I suggest chickpeas as a substitute."

"Chickpeas?!" Esarhaddon bellowed. "I did not come here to discuss chickpeas!"

His face contorted in an expression of pain, Tushratta's voice was strained. "Aziru, your sage advice would be more appropriate at another time!"

"Certainly, certainly, Master Physician!" Aziru's head nodded up and down diffidently. "No offense, no offense meant! A wise man knows when to speak and when he should remain quiet! I will make no more comments."

Esarhaddon directed a long, stony glare at the small man before his hot temper got the best of him. "You bray like a jackass, Aziru! If you can give no better advice than that, perhaps it is time that you sought other employment!"

"Shakh, a thousand apologies! My place was not to speak this way. Forgive your humble servant for his fervor, but I could not restrain my enthusiasm. My concern is only for your well-being, my lord, and nothing else!" His head bowed, Aziru waited for the rebuke which he was sure would come. When the slaver showed no opposition, only polite aloofness, Aziru rushed on to the point which he wished to make. "I have a number of theories regarding the beneficial effects of certain foods upon the health. Though it would be unthinkable of me to suggest discussing them with you at the present, perhaps you would care to listen to them sometime in the future when you have more time."

"Aziru, the great shakh did not come here to listen to your treatises upon chickpeas and their effect upon the treatment of disease." Tushratta's usually calm, dignified voice was impatient.

A reflective expression upon his face, the slaver looked first at Tushratta and then to Aziru. "Though I have little interest in this subject, I will give you leave to speak on, but make it short, Aziru! I have concerns far more important than my bowels."

"Thank you, shakh, a thousand times, thank you!" Aziru beamed with excitement. "My lord, besides their salubrious effect upon the digestive tract, chickpeas - especially the wild variety - have many other medicinal uses. A diet abundant in chickpeas will stimulate a man's potency, causing his seed to be lively and plentiful." He noticed the slaver's thoughtful expression, and felt relieved that he no longer seemed angry.

Thoroughly warming to his subject, Aziru's nasal voice took on the zeal of a lecturing physician in a great university. "Beneficial to the man, they are equally so to the woman. Those females who have difficulties and are sluggish in the commencement of the monthly flow of blood can find restoration of their health through the amazing benefits of chickpeas. A diet rich in these wondrous legumes can also increase the milk of mothers, making the sustaining substance rich and wholesome, and providing nourishment to help the sucklings grow strong and robust." He cast a knowing glance towards Sang-mí.

Taking a deep breath, Aziru's voice rose with increasing passion. "But there is more, much more!" he cried out excitedly, waving his arms to add emphasis. "The consumption of chickpeas can cause the painful stones which lodge in the kidneys to be dissolved and thus passed. There is no end to the therapeutic uses of chickpeas!" His words at last slowed down, and he took a deep sigh. "I was merely trying to be of assistance! Now, my lord, I shall cease my speaking." Aziru bowed his head differentially and looked down at the carpet.

"We will talk no more of this," Esarhaddon replied gruffly. The room was uncomfortably quiet as the slaver glared over Aziru's head. Then he reflected a moment. His expression mollified as he asked quizzically, "Hmmmmm... Chickpeas actually multiply a man's seed and increase his vigor?"

"Aye, Shakh! They can turn a lethargic man into a lion!" Aziru's small eyes glittered brightly with his own lascivious yearnings. "Men still praise the illustrious stalwart who is said to have deflowered eighty virgins in one night. This feat was accomplished after he had strengthened himself by eating chickpeas and drinking camel's milk mixed with honey! His vigor was boundless!"

"Hmmm... Eighty virgins, you say?" Esarhaddon stroked his beard thoughtfully. "An admirable feat! Then not only the quantity of a man's seed is enhanced, but his passions are also magnified. I am familiar with many nostrums which improve virility and heighten congress, but never before had I heard of chickpeas as one of these remedies... Aye... We will talk of this matter soon."

"Yes, Shakh, it is said that he strove all night in never-ending love battles. Strengthened in the loins by the consumption of chickpeas, he neither rested nor partook of food and drink before he stirred to deflower maiden after maiden. As remarkable as this was, just as astounding is the fact that no matter how many times he spent himself, his organ never faltered, and his seed continued to be copious." Aziru paused for breath. "Ah, but, my lord, we shall speak of this matter another time. Now I must supervise the slave boys as they prepare breakfast and tea." Bowing, Aziru excused himself, backing his way towards the arras.

"Aye, we will speak again, but no breakfast for me, Aziru. I have already eaten. Tea would be appreciated, however." The slaver tried to push the thoughts of the eighty virgins from his mind, but it was a difficult task.

"A joy forever to serve you, my lord," Aziru replied enthusiastically.

Esarhaddon waited until Aziru had left the room before walking over to Goldwyn's couch. "Has the woman ever stirred?" he asked as he lightly touched her cheek.

"No, Esarhaddon," Tushratta answered. "She has remained exactly as you see her now."

"Damn, Tushratta, can you do nothing for her?"

"All that is possible to do is being done," the physician replied quietly and moved over to stand by Esarhaddon. "If there were a definable physical reason for her stupor, possibly Aziru and I could arrive at a remedy, or at least something that might help. There are many possibilities... I have even considered the chance that she is in the later stages of the sleeping sickness of Far Harad--"

"That is absurd!" Esarhaddon exclaimed testily as he toyed with a strand of Goldwyn's tangled blonde mane. "So golden... her hair is like sunbeams," he mused wistfully.

The physician cleared his throat and clasped his hands behind his back. "As I had been about to say, the likelihood that a woman of Rohan could contract a disease of Far Harad is almost impossible. There are many other diseases or injuries that could render a person insensible, but she shows none of the signs of any of them and appears to be in perfect health."

"Then what is wrong with her?" His face reddening in annoyance, a muscle twitched in the slaver's cheek. Releasing the lock of golden hair, he watched as it floated down to the pillow.

Tushratta unclasped his fingers and began to gesture with his hands as he spoke. "Excluding physical causes, we are left with the possibility that the woman is afflicted with some malady of the mind. Many learned men swear that these emotional aberrations - characterized by extreme confusion, delusions and randomness of thought, and sometimes violent behavior directed towards other people or the victim himself - are the work of vile, obscene djinns who have possessed the body of the victim. Then there are beneficial manifestations that are thought to be visitations by the gods upon that person. I might mention as examples of the latter, the Blessed Ones who are used as oracles in the temples of Khand."

Tushratta's almond-shaped brown eyes stared directly into the slaver's dark, dubious ones. Steepling his fingers at chest level, Tushratta droned on in an emotionless voice. "However, do not be misled. There are some conditions - brought on by terrible injuries to the body or by the witnessing of horrors and sorrows - that can mimic both the bewitchments by evil spirits or duplicate the elevated state exhibited by the Blessed Ones chosen by the gods as their prophets and soothsayers. Those who have suffered shocks to the mind can fall into deep melancholy or suffer fits of wild temper, or fall into a lethargic torpor, much in the manner of this unfortunate woman."

His dark eyebrows arching in scorn, Esarhaddon folded his arms across his chest and impatiently tapped his right foot upon the carpet. "Physician, how much longer must I listen to this drivel?"

More than a little uncomfortable in the scorching glare of the slaver's contempt, Tushratta smiled politely. "I was under the impression that you wanted to hear my theories... yes?"

Letting out a sigh of frustration, Esarhaddon snapped, "Continue, Physician, but remember that I do not have all day!" His foot drummed more strenuously on the carpet.

Taking a deep breath, the physician touched his fingertips together again and gazed at the ceiling of the tent. "The wise take into consideration the sufferer's past and present history. You will recall the account that I gave you of the fisherman whose kinsmen perished in the river, yes?" The physician glanced to the slaver, and at his nod, he continued. "The wretched man suffered such a shock to his emotional facilities that he went quite mad. Quite likely his brain could not accept such a shock, and to explain what had happened, his tormented mind invented a bizarre tale of a monstrous djinn in order to soothe the horrors of reality. The onlookers who swore that they had witnessed some supernatural manifestation were merely influenced by his persuasive words and caught up in his delusion."

The physician grew silent and began pacing around the room, speaking as he went. "The mind is amazingly strong, but sometimes," he stopped suddenly in mid-stride and turned to face Esarhaddon, "it just snaps!"

He discovered that Esarhaddon was not even looking at him, but was staring down at Goldwyn. The whole point of his dramatic gesture lost, the physician held his pose for a moment and then let his hand slowly drop to his side. "Knowledge comes slowly, if at all, to some," he mused. "But," his mood brightened at the concept and he smiled enthusiastically, "scientific advancement must go on!"

"Yes," Tushratta went back to his pacing, musing out loud and not really caring if anyone listened to him or not. "Now what happened to the woman when she was in the tomb is impossible to ascertain. All we know for certain is that we heard her scream. We must assume from that, of course, that she was in some distress."

The slaver's head jerked up at that remark, and he turned to stare incredulously at the doctor. "I would think that should be rather obvious," he commented dryly.

The physician held up his right hand, imploring silence. "If you will be so indulgent as to let me continue, Shakh..." Tushratta saw that the slaver was nodding his head slowly up and down in resignation. "When we found the woman, she was lying upon the floor and mumbling in her own language, her arms reaching out as though to grasp something that we could not see. Whether this was a real entity of some kind or a hallucination that she was experiencing, we have no way of knowing." Tushratta noted with satisfaction that the slaver had closed his eyes and was softly groaning. "That will teach him never to wake me up so damn early," he thought triumphantly.

"Now from what the orcs have told me, it seems that the woman was making a conscious attempt to lure them away from her three sons. Perhaps she instructed her sons to run or to wait for her... we have no way of knowing. Certainly she would have been susceptible to an overwhelming guilt from having made such a grave decision, or perhaps she felt overpowered by the responsibility and subconsciously rejected her sons..."

"Damn it, Tushratta! Are you saying that the woman is mad?"

"No, I never made such an allegation. You misunderstand me, Shakh. If you will only be patient for a little while longer..."

"I have been patient too long!" the slaver spat out.

"Please bear with me just a while longer." After his soft-spoken plea for forbearance, Tushratta wove his fingers loosely together again. "Perhaps it was the guilt from leaving her sons that was the final load that was placed upon the figurative camel's back and broke the beast's spinal column. Doubtless the woman had already seen many horrors and experienced much grief. She had no way of knowing what had become of her family in this damnable war. The experience of seeing her village captured and sacked by the orcs would drive all but the strongest into despair. Then there was the grueling journey to Minas Tirith. One woman's mind was crushed when her baby died along the way. The sight of the bone field has already destroyed the minds of several of the captives and the memory certainly will affect others in the future. The mind cannot be subjected to such terror and remain unscathed," the physician explained matter-of-factly, though Esarhaddon thought his voice had an accusatory ring to it.

"Physician, I am no lover of war!" the slaver added defensively.

"No, Shakh, but while you do not prosecute war, you profit by it," Tushratta quietly rejoined.

"It is an honest living!" The slaver's eyes flashed a warning. "But you say all this just to prove that she is mad, or to imply that I had something to do with causing this war?"

"No, Shakh. I imply nothing about anyone's involvement. I am merely saying that I have no way of knowing whether the woman is mad or not until she awakens and I can question her."

"Physician, you tax me sorely!" His tawny face darkened with anger, Esarhaddon stopped tapping his foot on the carpet and clenched his knuckles until they were almost white. Tushratta wondered if he had provoked the slaver too far and that the man might strike him. Clenching his fists tighter, Esarhaddon glared fiercely at the doctor. A wide range of emotions flickered in his eyes, and he struggled to control his anger. Masking his emotions behind half closed eyelids, he exhaled slowly in a deep sigh. Moving closer to the physician, he clasped Tushratta's shoulder with his right hand, a gesture of conciliation.

"Forgive my bad manners, Physician. My anger was unwarranted. I fully realize that you were giving me a professional appraisal of her condition and nothing more. I confess that I find the woman of great interest to me and that has distracted my reason. What, if anything, can be done for her?" The slaver stared intently at the physician.

A grave look on his face, Tushratta sighed heavily. "Well, there are always the nebulous treatments which are sometimes employed in such cases... Trepanning the skull with a drill; bleeding with either the leeches or the knives; cupping her skin with hot glasses; purging her bowels; and scorching her flesh to drive out demons are some of the many. However, I strongly advise against the application of any of them, unless - and this would only be utilized if it were the last resort, mind you - it would be trepanning her skull. My opinion is that usually these treatments do far more damage than good."

"No, not trepanning." Esarhaddon's fingers tenderly stroked the top of Goldwyn's hand. "Not unless there were no other way to retrieve her mind from this dark chasm into which it has fallen. Then is there nothing you can do for her?" he asked, the exasperation evident in his voice.

"I believe I have already answered that question several times, Shakh. Of course, if you are dissatisfied with our care and feel that it is inadequate, you could try inquiring for a shaman amongst the military," Tushratta replied with unruffled dignity.

"You already know the answer to that, physician. I believe that these men are all quacks, charlatans, deceivers, whose only purpose is to filch every last penny they can from the pockets of the gullible."

Quietly slipping through the arras, Aziru cleared his throat before announcing, "Masters, tea and a light breakfast are waiting for you in the outer room. If you would be so good as to follow me..."

The slaver gazed down at Goldwyn's serene face, bowed his head and closed his eyes, praying, no doubt, to some god of the South. After squeezing her small hand in his large one, he relinquished it and laid it upon her breast. He then looked over to Sang-mí, who had finally pacified Nib by filling his stomach with her rich milk. "Wench, you will join me for tea."

"Master, you honor me." Smiling gently at him, Sang-mí lowered her head and watched from beneath long lashes as the slaver bent down and kissed Goldwyn's pale lips. Silently, he turned from the couch and strode into the public area of the tent as the others followed him.

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