Hot glasses of mint tea in their hands, Tushratta and Esarhaddon faced each other across the low table. Sang-mí, a concerned expression upon her face, sat at her master's side.
"Why so pensive, wench?" the slaver inquired as he turned to admire her dark eyes, her gently rounded nose, and soft, full, sensual lips. He watched the jutting points of her nipples press against the thin material of her gossamer blouse as her breasts rose and fell with her breathing.
"Master, my heart is heavy." She inclined her head, her eyes soft behind her fluttering lashes.
"You will miss me that much while I am away?" the slaver laughed as he traced over her lips with a tip of a forefinger.
"Oh, yes, Master!" Sang-mí exclaimed as she turned her exquisite brown eyes upon him and lay her hand on his shoulder. "I will miss you desperately and long for you constantly! But I am sad for other reasons besides your leaving..."
"What is the cause of these other distresses, Sang-mí?" Esarhaddon doubted that she would miss him very much. There would be many of his men left behind to solace the heat that seemed to rage perpetually in her belly like a furnace. Yet he was curious as to what else troubled her.
"The woman, Master, the beautiful lady from the North! My heart is full of dread for her!" Her left hand clutched his shoulder tightly as her right made the sign against evil. "Last night, I could feel a presence hovering about her, something dark and wicked!"
Though Esarhaddon dismissed the girl's sincerity with an indulgent glance, the physician watched her intently, as though he expected some new revelation. As she felt the doctor's steady gaze upon her, the girl shifted uncomfortably and blushed as she looked down.
"Forgive me, Masters," Sang-mí murmured. "I am only a foolish slave woman."
"Women's mouths are much better used for kissing... and licking... and other pleasant things... than they are for expounding upon matters of which they know nothing," Esarhaddon reminded her before leaning his head down and nuzzling the back of her ear.
"Yes, Master... You are always right. I will confine my lips to better things." Taking the slaver's hand, Sang-mí brought it to her lips, kissing his fingers as a show of submission and adoration.
"Wench, when you accept the true and natural place of women, you will be on the path to true wisdom," Esarhaddon chuckled deeply as he lifted his tea glass to his lips and then ignored the girl. He looked across the table to Tushratta. "Physician, I have received one piece of good news this day - a dispatch by a courier that informed me that two more of the ten remaining runaways have been caught. They were not able to get far before they became confused in the darkness. My men found them hiding in a wood on the outskirts of the old city. Unfortunately, though, the good news is minimized by the unpleasant information that another one of the missing women was found drowned, her body caught in the tree roots along the shore down river."
"Oh, how terrible!" Sang-mí gasped, bringing her hand to her mouth. "What a dreadful way to lose one's life!"
"A needless waste," Tushratta sighed as he clasped the side of his face with his hand.
"Master Physician, obviously she chose death rather than submit to a life of slavery... May her spirit find peace," Aziru opined sadly as he refilled their glasses from the teapot.
"Those who take their own lives never find peace, but are condemned to reenact their own deaths over and over again in the spirit world," Sang-mí murmured dolefully as she once again made the sign against evil. She turned frightened eyes to Esarhaddon, who scowled at her.
"Or they are cursed to wander the earth forever in misery," Aziru shuddered.
"Words can do many things, but they can never bring back the dead," Esarhaddon muttered as he stared moodily down at his tea. "Now with this last accounting, we know that, of the three women who leapt into the Anduin, one has been found dead. The fate of the other two is unknown. Counting these two women, there is a total of seven slaves who have not been recaptured. Still remaining at large are the two foolish women who tried their chances in the river; two young maidens, twins, whose names I cannot remember; and Goldwyn's three sons. We will find them all, if they still live!" His voice rising higher, he lifted his head and shook his fist for emphasis.
"May they all be found safe and unharmed!" Tushratta exclaimed.
Finishing his tea, the slaver signified that he wished no more by shaking the glass back and forth. "I cannot stay much longer, for I must ride out again today, and I do not know how long I shall be gone. Tushratta, remember what I told you; you are to be in charge while I am away. Should I have further orders for you, I will be in contact by messenger. While I spend my time on the chase, you are to lead the train towards Utot-Dalbukot, the first crossroads of Gorgoroth."
Pensively stroking the pointed tip of his beard between his thumb and forefinger, Tushratta meditated upon his employer's statement before speaking. "I do not foresee any trouble. We are at a distance behind the lines and the trumpets of war are far to the north of us."
"That is where you are wrong, Physician, and I do not give a damn that the official word says that Mordor and its allies are winning!" The slaver's voice rumbled in consternation. "While it may seem unlikely, I believe there is every possibility that our foes are planning a counter-offensive, perhaps even carrying out attacks by stealth even as we speak. I will not feel confident until we have put leagues between us and the Gondorians and Rohirrim!"
Aziru's hand trembled slightly as he refilled Tushratta's glass. Glancing towards the tent opening, he whispered, "Shakh, do not let the orcs hear you! You know how zealous they are! Regular fanatics! If they suspect your lack of enthusiasm for the war, they will report you. You know what happens to those who are taken away! They never return!"
"You do not need to remind me of that, Aziru. I know there are ears everywhere, but they cannot hear me from this distance. Now do not interrupt me again." His dark eyebrows furrowing, he scowled at Aziru. "As I was saying, the enemy, though weak, is not utterly destroyed. While the armies of the West have had some of their teeth broken, they retain their claws. There is still power behind that army!"
"Possibly you over-exaggerate the threat, Shakh," Aziru offered humbly.
"A lion humbled is still a lion, but be that as it may, Physician's Assistant, you should remember this. Should any of the enemy come upon the escaped slaves, they will retake them and laugh all the way back to Rohan."
"They would certainly have something to boast about if they did reclaim any of the slaves, Shakh," the physician's chief assistant affirmed with a shake of his head.
"My friend Tushratta over there," Esarhaddon lifted his chin in the direction of the physician, "would advise me to let the escapees go and not spend the time looking for them. Is that not true, Physician?"
"Aye," Tushratta nodded. "Seven slaves, and three of them children? What do seven slaves matter? Let them go, Esarhaddon! You risk much in traveling north to look for them, and venturing so close to enemy territory is a damn good way to get killed."
"This is a matter of business, Physician. The twin girls are probably untouched virgins, and as such are worth fifty of the other women. There are many who would pay much to have the Northern houris in their harems. The other two women are also valuable, simply because there are few fair skinned, blonde-haired women in the South and East. And the boys? Since I plan to take Goldwyn into my household and keep her as my concubine, I feel she would be much more content if her sons were with her. You see, it is a great kindness for us to bring her sons back."
"Shakh, I know you are correct. I know the passion that some men have for such exotic women. The sums they would pay for them would be quite large," Tushratta reluctantly capitulated to the other man's logic.
Esarhaddon rose to his feet and waited for the other two men to join him. "I can put it off no longer... I must be leaving. You two will have all the enjoyment while my men and I will have all the danger." Turning his head towards Aziru, who had spilled some of his tea in his haste to rise, Esarhaddon gave the man a joking insult, "Aziru, you perverse little prick, do not burn your eyes out gawking at all that naked female flesh that will be bathing in the river this morning!"
"No harm in looking, Shakh," Aziru laughed politely.
"Master, I am devastated at your going," Sang-mí murmured timidly as she kept her eyes downcast.
"Sang-mí, let me gaze upon your pretty face once more before I leave. Wench, look up at me," Esarhaddon demanded as he pulled her to her feet and held her against his chest.
"Master, I will be praying to the gods for your safety. I shall also burn incense to placate them," she whispered as she trembled against him.
"At this moment, Sang-mí, I would much prefer a kiss," he murmured huskily as he bent his face down and brought his mouth to her upturned lips. She sighed and wrapped her arms around his neck as he passed the moist portal of her lips with his eager, probing tongue. Tushratta and Aziru looked politely to the side as the slaver's hands boldly explored her body. Sighing, Esarhaddon reluctantly drew his lips from hers and rested the side of his face against her cheek. "Do not worry, flower of passion. There will be enough of my men left behind to keep your fires stoked, but perhaps unquenched," he chuckled roguishly. "Your desires will still be burning hot when I return."
"Oh, Master," she whimpered and began to weep, "there will never be any other who makes my heart leap in my breast like a gazelle! My love belongs only to you!"
Pushing her away from him, Esarhaddon laughed and winked at her. "The heart of a strumpet is always tender. A clever whore makes every one of her customers think that while he is with her, he is the lion whom she loves more than all the others!"
"Oh, Master," Sang-mí giggled, "another kiss before you go, please!" Her dark, soulful eyes pled with his.
"One more lusty kiss before I leave," he laughed as his lips crushed down on hers in a hungry kiss. His hand slipped into the cleft of her deep cut bodice and grasped one of her swollen breasts. Sang-mí moaned as her hips arched forward, pressing her mound of love against the swelling knob between his legs.
"Now, Sang-mí," Esarhaddon's voice rumbled in a husky growl, "if I must feel much more of your eager, heated body against mine, I might be delayed here much longer than I had planned."
"I love you, Master," the girl wept as she stroked the back of his neck.
Turning to the physician who had been averting his eyes and studying the top of the tent, the slaver admonished him, "I am trusting the care of the slaves, horses, and other property to you. I can trust you to guard them well. Keep them all safe until I return, and you will be generously rewarded." His fingertips lingered upon Sang-mí's soft cheek before he pulled away from her. Walking over to Goldwyn's couch, he looked down at the sleeping woman. "How I wish that she had awakened before I left!" He glanced back at Tushratta. "Physician, if you can find a cure for her, I promise that you will be paid tenfold as a token of my esteem. Now farewell and peace be unto you all."
Taking a final look at Goldwyn, the slaver turned to leave. Before any of the others could say farewell, he had passed through the entrance of the tent.