"Master! Two riders ahead!" The broad-faced, sallow-skinned part-orc gestured with his hand. The physician's attention was drawn to two barely discernible figures moving towards them through the fog of early dawn.
The physician narrowed his eyes and squinted into the trees that sheltered the ruins of Osgiliath. "Fûshfra, I can see them, but not so well as you."
"Master, can you not see Shakh Esarhaddon's chestnut mare and Shakh Ganbar's roan gelding?" The superior tone of the part-orc's voice did nothing to conceal his scorn for the limitations of the Khandian.
"Aye, even I can tell that they are horses!" the doctor replied irritably.
With a shout of "Hail!" the horsemen cantered up to the small group and halted their horses a short distance away. Accepting the extended obeisances of his servants with a perfunctory nod, the slave master was quickly off his horse. Giving his mount's reins to Ganbar, who led the animal aside, Esarhaddon strode over to the stretcher which held Goldwyn. Frowning in consternation, Esarhaddon looked down at the still form of his new favorite and then turned to the part-orc.
"Fûshfra, what have you and your louts done to her? If any serious harm has befallen this slave, you and your devils will soon have to squat down to piss because I will order your stinking, foul members cut off and shoved up your hairy arses!" Though his tawny face was suffused with an angry, ruddy flush, Esarhaddon's voice was calm and deadly cold.
Terrified of the slaver when he was in a rage, the mixed breed orc crawled on his knees to the man and groveled at his feet. Lifting up Esarhaddon's foot, the uruk placed the boot sole on his head, showing his total submission to the slaver. "Master, none of us has laid so much as a finger on the woman! Just ask the physician! He will vouch that I am telling the truth!"
Esarhaddon turned to the physician. "Tushratta, is this true?"
He nodded. "Fûshfra is not lying."
His questioning of Fûshfra not completed, Esarhaddon went on, his foot keeping a light pressure upon the uruk's bowed head. "What took you so long to find her?"
"The woman is clever, Master!" the frightened part-uruk whined. "When she bolted and ran, she took us by surprise. She is as swift as a deer and quickly outdistanced us. Her scent was mixed in with that of other escapees, and we had quite a time sorting hers out from the rest. We almost had her after that, but she evaded us yet again by wading into a stream where we lost her scent in the water. She traveled down the stream for a long distance, but we eventually picked up her trail again." Knowing that the slaver had the power of life and death over him, Fûshfra was terrified. He was sweating heavily, his body reeking with the stench of his fear.
"And her sons? Obviously, you lost them, too!"
"There weren't enough of us to look for both the woman and her sons. Since a choice had to be made, I assumed that you would rather we searched for the woman." By the sweaty balls of the Black Master, would this man crush his skull?
"Fool! I wanted them all!" Jerking his foot from the sniveling Fûshfra's head, Esarhaddon pivoted and turned to a gaping part-orc nearby. "When we return to camp, you will see that Fûshfra receives one hundred lashes for his impertinence and his gross incompetence, and he should be grateful for each stroke!"
"Thank you, Master, thank you! Your mercy is without end!" Bowing his head up and down, Fûshfra crawled backwards away from the slaver until he thought it was safe to rise.
Esarhaddon turned back to the still unmoving woman upon the stretcher. Reaching down, he touched her pallid face. Then looking questioningly at Tushratta, the slaver spoke in a calmer voice.
"Physician, suppose you tell me what happened."
"My lord, as Fûshfra has related, the woman was difficult to track, losing us upon several occasions," Tushratta replied. "As we drew near to a ruined tomb on the northeast of the city, we heard screams. When we ventured inside the vault, we found her as you see her now. The orcs searched the crypt, and there was no evidence that her sons had followed her. There were no visible marks on her body, save a few scrapes and bruises, probably incurred during her flight. I did not discover any broken bones or head injuries upon first examination," the physician explained with a detached, unemotional formality.
"Then how do you account for her condition?" Esarhaddon demanded, scowling. "She has a strange, sickly pallor, and her skin has the coolness of a person who is close to death!"
A concerned furrow between his brows, Tushratta shook his head. "My lord, I have already explained to you that there seems to be nothing physically wrong with her. From all indications, she appears simply to have fallen into a deep slumber." The physician glanced down at the woman, who was breathing slowly and rhythmically. "I do not feel that it is beneficial for her to stay out here in the chill of early morning. With your permission, Shakh, we will take her back to the camp."
"By all means, she should be moved to a more comfortable location!" the slaver affirmed. "I cannot tarry long, but I will walk with you a while. Tell me everything that you observed when you reached the tomb." With a command from Tushratta, the small procession shuffled into step and set off towards the camp, the slaver on one side of the stretcher and the physician on the other. "Possibly you have some theories that would explain what we see here. When you came upon the woman in the tomb, was she like this?"
The physician's mind went back to the bizarre scene which had met him in the tomb. He had reservations about telling the slaver of the woman's condition when he had found her - her skirt bunched up around her waist, her thighs spread wide apart. Esarhaddon would never understand, and would be convinced that the woman had been pleasuring herself in the house of the dead, an act so base and depraved that it would carry the penalty of a severe flogging in the South. Tushratta did not think that Goldwyn could survive such a brutal beating, and so he tempered his reply.
"When we found her, she was lying upon the floor of the crypt, her arms outstretched," Tushratta told the slaver, revealing only a part of the truth. "She seemed to be reaching out for some unseen presence, but whether she did this to embrace it or drive it away, I know not which. She cried and moaned in her own language, and then fell back unconscious. It was as though she had seen something so terrible that the horror of it caused her to swoon."
"My good physician, I feel that you are letting your imagination make more of this than there is," the slaver laughed derisively. "When the woman was with me in my tent, it was obvious that she was of a nervous temperament. Such females are given to outbursts of intense emotion over the slightest of things. This type of woman is difficult to manage, but often they make the best of all lovers. What you witnessed was probably no more than a fit brought on by hysteria."
"Perhaps you are correct, Shakh, and her affliction is nothing more than nervous exhaustion." Tushratta shook his head, a thoughtful expression on his face. "However, in all my years of experience as a physician from here to the Land of the Two Rivers, I have observed only one other case that even remotely resembles hers! That situation, too, was equally baffling."
"What was it?" the slaver prodded, eager for the physician to get to the point.
Nervously, Tushratta cleared his throat. "My lord, if I should give you an account of that other matter, you would only be offended. You will dismiss it all as nothing but ignorant superstition, much as you are wont to dismiss other such matters."
"Whether I become angry or not, I suggest you explain to me the situation to which you refer," Esarhaddon demanded impatiently.
"Aye, Shakh, if you would hear of the matter involving that which I speak..." Tushratta paused, hesitating. He eyed the other man questioningly.
"I already told you that, Tushratta. Speak on!"
Pursing his lips in thought, a pensive expression on his face, Tushratta looked away from Goldwyn and into the face of the slaver. "When I was still a student in the Great City of the East, Bablon, that jewel of a city..."
Esarhaddon had heard the physician's glowing accounts of his native land many times before, and the topic always wearied him. Frowning, he cut the physician short with a curt interjection. "I know you take great pride in being a Khandian."
"Aye, and not without justification," the doctor remarked dryly.
"Get on with the story, damn it!" Esarhaddon had almost run out of patience.
Tushratta allowed a small smile to creep over his face. "The physician under whom I studied was a highly skilled surgeon whose reputation was known far and wide. In addition to his mastery of medicine, he was also a great healer of the woes of the spirit, a shaman - or, as they are called in my language, an ashipu." He thought back to his days as a student at the great bimaristan of Bablon, and of the long, difficult years of study under the great masters. The Haradric slaver, though, was not a man of science or metaphysics. An ignorant man, the physician thought derisively, but least he paid well.
"In this great school of learning, there were many other talented physicians, who sought to learn all the skills and arts of healing," Tushratta continued, but he was not certain if Esarhaddon was still listening. "Patients with illnesses of all kinds, both of the mind and the body, were gladly admitted to the bimaristan. The majority of the diseases were those commonly known - fevers; sleeping disorders; palsy; leprosy; tumors; blindness; the wasting disease; and many others. No one was turned away, not even those who suffered from the 'love diseases,' the poxes that eat at the privy parts - and in that city, unfortunately - or fortunately, depending on how one sees it - there are many brothels."
"Aye, I know the pride you people take in your famous houses of pleasure," Esarhaddon muttered irritably. "The people of Khand delight in praising their temples of fleshly delight almost as much as they do in extolling the wonders of the ziggurats. But we are discussing neither at this time." He glanced down at the woman on the stretcher and thought that her color might be a little better.
Deep in thought and paying little heed to the slaver, the physician ran his tongue over his lower lip and absentmindedly tapped his finger to his chin as he walked along beside the stretcher. "Sicknesses of the mind, heart and soul could often be assuaged, and occasionally even cured - or, at least, lessened by the salubrious usage of various potions and narcotics..."
"I am aware of all these things!" His patience at an end and thoroughly tired of the subject, the slave master's voice rose crossly.
"I beg your indulgence, my lord," the physician replied quietly. "I reiterate these things merely to show you the nature and diversity of the ailments that were treated and the variety of methods that were employed in deriving their cure. Even though most of the cases were quite routine, there were sometimes unusual cases which were brought to the master physician's attention - for he was indeed an ashipu of considerable power and repute. For these particular diseases, he would call upon the aid of the gods and goddesses and make sacrifices in their names to heal the afflicted. Sometimes the Powerful Ones took pity, while at other times, they did not deign to do so. Who can know the minds of deities!" Tushratta shrugged his shoulders.
"Physician, I thought you were going to tell me about some unusual experience that reminded you of the lady's illness." Esarhaddon, his mouth a tight, thin line, his expression one of resentful long-suffering, rhythmically thumped his riding crop against his thigh as they walked along.
"Yes, my lord, I was just getting around to that." The physician smiled. "I can remember it as though it were only yesterday." His eyes took on a dreamlike quality as he pictured the scene in his mind. "Near dawn one morning, the people heard the great alarm gongs being struck in the towers, and then the warning trumpets were sounded. There was a great tumult along the riverbank. People seemed devoid of their senses, running to and fro or hiding in their houses. Many thought that the city had been attacked, or some great natural calamity was about to befall us. Many even feared that the dread Day of Doom that would signal the Last Battle Between Good and Evil was upon us.
"By the Gods in their palaces of pleasure," Esarhaddon thought, "I think I have heard this story before!"
"Of course, it was nothing at all like that," Tushratta chuckled. "For most of the night, a group of fishermen had cast their nets unsuccessfully. When it was near dawn, they were so disheartened that they were about to give up, but they decided to cast their nets one more time. Almost as soon the weighted net sank into the water, the fishermen felt a great tug and rejoiced that finally their efforts had been met with success. With great joy and strong resolve, the men set their muscles to the task and strained to draw up the hoard of fish. Though they hauled and tugged with all their might, the net would not budge!" Tushratta paused. Even the uruks were listening to his tale!
The physician cleared his throat. "Their captain - a great, brawny man of unsurpassed courage and strength, whose thick arms were veritable timbers of bulging muscles - put his own shoulder to the task. Exhorting his men to the greatest of exertion, he reminded them that enough profit would be made off this one vast load of fish to feed their families for many days to come." Tushratta's voice became more excited. "The men lay into the work with greater zeal than even before, and as they drew up the net from the water, they began to sing. However, the song soon stilled in their throats," he added for dramatic emphasis. "As the net broke free from the surface, up with it came a great seething and a foment of the current. Then with a mighty churning and foaming, the water swirled and rose into a waterspout which spun, boiling over the sides of the ships like the tide and threatened to submerge the two rivercraft.
"Chaos broke out among the fishermen, for none among them, not even the eldest, had ever seen such a storm upon the river. Some became so terrified that they lost their senses. Plunging over the sides of the ships, they attempted to swim to shore. Ere any of them ever neared the farther bank, the water boiled up about them and swept them screaming down into the depths of the river." A look of sadness came over the physician's face, as he thought of that terrifying morning so long ago.
"The weight in the net was so heavy that the cording was stretched taut between the ships. Some on the shore swore later that they saw some huge form struggling in the net and heaving itself up out of the water in an enraged fury. As the men worked to save the ship, a fierce wind sprang up, buffeting the waters until they formed great waves which lashed against the sides of the ships. The maelstrom became so violent that it turned the water into angry billows which slammed against the ships which were moored at the dock, dousing onlookers who pressed too close." The physician paused, hearing in his mind once again the screams.
"Then from the heavy black clouds that lay from horizon to horizon, the lightning raked down from the clouds as the squall roared and snarled. In the brightness caused by the bursts of lightning, many swore they could see a great, white shape in the midst of the water. The monster had long, streaming hair that blew wildly about its head. Savage, gleaming eyes it had, which shot out white sparks. The phantasmagoric being thrashed in the water, spitting and hissing like some great serpent. Its long, gnarled claws grasped the nets at the sides of the ships and dragged the vessels down with it into the heart of the river." Tushratta fell silent, looking down at the woman.
"And the point of all this, Physician - other than to prove once again that the Khandians spend far too much of their time indulging in the delights of sauma, kapurdri, poppies, harmal, and kannabis, and the other drugs and potions which they love so well - is what?" Esarhaddon asked dryly.
"If you will bear with me, Shakh--" the physician exhaled in a long sigh.
"Tushratta, I believe I have been listening patiently for quite some time. I am baffled, though, as exactly what all this has to do with the slave woman."
"Aye, Shakh, you have been most gracious in hearing me out, and I will soon conclude my tale," the physician replied apologetically. "When I have finished, perhaps you shall see the parallel between the two situations. All the fishermen perished either when the ship sank beneath them, or when they tried to swim across the river. The only one who survived was the captain, and his grief was too much to be borne. Besides losing all his crew, he also lost six of his sons, two of his brothers, and many other kinsmen." Tushratta shook his head sadly.
"Before this strange happening, he had been a stalwart, robust man who was only in his mid-years. His beard had hung down his chest and was thick, black and curly. When he was pulled naked and senseless from the river, his hair was as white as a grandfather's, his face was wrinkled as a man twice his age, and he was howling like a dog struck with madness. He soon succumbed into a stupor and lay for days, pale-faced, his skin dry and cold to the touch, almost like ash."
"And what was offered as the cause of this calamity?" The slaver was certain now that he had heard this same story at least once before, but he was not about to admit it.
Knowing the cold skepticism with which his words would be viewed, Tushratta inhaled deeply and then let his breath escape in a resigned sigh. "Many of the witnesses swear the source of the evil was a river djinn."
Esarhaddon snorted, his nose wrinkling in revision. "Are you trying to say that this woman has seen a djinn? Damn it, man, if this matter were not so grievous, I would think your idea was accursedly humorous! However, I am in no mood for levity. The woman has grown to be of some importance to me."
"I say nothing, shakh. I judge nothing. I merely tell you of a similar occurrence, which, quite possibly, has nothing whatsoever in common with whatever befell her." The physician's eyes did not waver as they met those of Esarhaddon.
"Surely you do not expect me to believe such a far-fetched tale as you have just told. Whatever happened must have an explanation that holds true to natural law. But a djinn!" Esarhaddon exclaimed skeptically. "By the golden globes of Ninanna's perfect tits! You cannot be serious!" He wished he had not left the wineskin on his horse's saddle. A drink might make this story more bearable.
Flushing slightly, Tushratta cleared his throat and blandly droned on. "Aye, certainly, there was a very natural explanation for the capsizing of the ships, offered by men of scientific bent. A sudden storm was driven inland from the coast and swept up the river. The learned men of science maintain that this phenomenon, and no other, was the true cause for the sinking of the ships." He smiled, knowing that the slaver would approve of the logical explanation.
"But here is where the parallel may be drawn between the unfortunate end of the ship's captain and this woman," Tushratta announced, his voice taking on that dry, professional quality which always bored the slaver to frustration. "During the long night, the captain had drunk himself almost to oblivion, and so when the storm came up, he was lying senseless on the deck. The physicians at the bimaristan theorize that after he sobered up and his wits returned to him, the captain was driven mad by the accumulation of the malignancy of his thoughts. Just as you maintain, the best scholars and natural philosophers give no credence to the existence of evil djinns."
"That was a long, roundabout and rather redundant way of explaining that you think that the slave woman was driven mad by something she saw in the tomb," Esarhaddon muttered in disgust.
"Not necessarily something which she saw, Shakh, but more probably what she thought she saw." The physician thoughtfully tapped his finger on his bearded chin. "Here is my explanation. Since her sons were not with her when she was found, either they were separated, or, more likely, she sent them away. For a mother to part willingly with her sons would be a great strain upon her mind and heart. Perhaps the total realization of what she had done dawned fully upon her while she was in the tomb. Possibly the combination of that frightening place and her guilt has upset her emotions to the extent that she cannot face reality for the present."
"Then suppose that you are correct, physician. What do you propose as the cure to her illness?" Esarhaddon asked skeptically.
"As you know, my lord, I am only a surgeon and physician. My skills lie in the administering of medicines, the applying of compresses and the treating of wounds, not the maladies that claim the soul," Tushratta returned humbly. "If you believe in such things, you should consult a shaman, an ashipu, to appeal to the gods on her behalf."
"Damn it, Tushratta! How often do I have to reiterate that I do not believe in magic, soothsayers, fortune tellers, sorcerers, and all their assorted rubbish! It is all superstition substituting for religion in the minds of the ignorant! I am not about to spend good money to consult a damnable shaman!" Esarhaddon growled, angrily slapping the riding crop against his thigh. He winced slightly as he felt the leather sting his leg. "Treat her with what means and methods as you have available at your disposal and spare me the burden of chanting and wailing magicians! This incessant mention of the occult is wearying, and I have many serious concerns upon my mind. Take the woman back to the camp and examine her more thoroughly in your tent! Treat her for any injuries that you may find upon her, and do not tax her mind with mentions of demons and djinns!"
"Aye, Shakh. I will do all that I can for her." Tushratta paused and then added, "Perhaps it was amiss of me not to inquire as to whether any of the other runaways have been found, but my mind was occupied with concerns for the woman. How goes the hunt?"
"Not so well, physician, I regret to say," Esarhaddon replied sadly. "Certainly most of the women and children were caught soon after they attempted to escape, but others were as fleet as gazelle. According to the reports which I received, there were still fifteen or twenty left uncaught. And then those three foolish wenches who plunged into the Anduin! We do not know whether they survived or not. I have sent men to search for them down river. Perhaps they all drowned; perhaps we will never know. Part of the risks we accept in this business." The slaver shrugged.
"Shakh, hold a moment while I see to the lady's pulse." The physician signaled to the stretcher bearers to halt. "Perhaps a little steadier." Nervously, he moistened his lower lip with the tip of his tongue.
"She is in your care, physician, and I trust you to find a cure for her malady." Esarhaddon had decided that it was useless for him to listen to any more of the physician's tedious dialogues. "I will rely upon your advice in her treatment, for while we do not always agree on everything, I trust your abilities as a surgeon and your honor as a man."
"Will you be going back with us to the camp?"
"No, not for the meantime in any event. Master Ganbar and I will be riding upriver to search for any escapees who may be hiding in this vicinity. If there is nothing else to discuss, we will be leaving you." Esarhaddon signaled to Ganbar, his second-in-command, who quickly brought up both his master's mount and his own.
"Shakh, I will consult my parchments and scrolls. Possibly some of the ancient books can direct light on ailments of this type." The physician looked away, cautious of the reaction that his next words might have. "Why do I always have to be so differential?" he wondered. "Does the profession of physician lend itself to the guise of humility? At times I am no better than the most dependent of sycophants! Might as well be out with my advice, whether he likes it or not!" Clearing his throat, he added, "If I feel that a shaman should be called in for consultation, I will recommend one. If at all possible, I will find a reputable shaman - not a fraud like that old fool in Turkûrzgoi!"
The slaver stared at his physician. "Your quest will be in vain, for none exist. All are charlatans, deceivers of the gullible, and unscrupulous purveyors of worthless amulets, trinkets and potions!"
The physician grinned wryly. "Shakh, that is not always true, for in Bablon, they say--"
"They say a lot of things in Bablon! Damn Bablon anyway! No good has ever come from there!" Giving the physician a look of utter disgust, Esarhaddon mounted his horse, touched his heels to her flanks, and rode away at a fast clip, Ganbar hard pressed to keep up with him.
Yes, the ancient city of Babylon was in Middle-earth, which is, of course, not at all surprising, since Middle-earth is our real world, set in an alternative fantasy pre-history.
"Glory dwelt in that city of Gondolin of the Seven Names, and its ruin was the most dread of all the sacks of cities upon the face of the Earth. Nor Bablon, nor Ninwi, nor the towers of Trui, nor all the many takings of Rûm that is greatest among men, saw such terror as fell that day upon Amon Gwareth in the kindred of the Gnomes; and this is esteemed to be the worst work that Melko has yet thought of in the world." - The Book of Lost Tales II, "The Fall of Gondolin," p. 196-197; see also note on page 203.