The Circles - Book Six - Chapter 10

The Circles - Book Six - Across the Wide Hamada
Chapter Ten
Planning and Consultation
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

To celebrate his return, Esarhaddon had ordered that the caravan cook prepare a sumptuous banquet just for him and his men. He was greatly pleased with the spread that was laid out upon the large table in the public chamber of his tent. There were dishes of spicy stewed beef; rice with pine nuts, almonds and pistachios; flatbread with herbed olive oil; pickles and condiments; and an assortment of cheeses, dried fruits and nuts accompanied by mint tea. When the main course was over, servants brought in trays of delicious almond cakes coated with sugary frosting. The high point of the meal, however, came at the conclusion, when Shakh Esarhaddon as the host performed a special coffee-making ceremony, serving his guests the strong, hot, frothy beverage. An honored custom of both the Southern and Eastern cultures dating back to time immemorial, such hospitality set them apart from other peoples of Middle-earth, contributing to their feeling of distinctiveness, and also to their unity with others of similar values.

Gathered with Esarhaddon around the low table were Tushratta, the physician; Aziru, his assistant; Ubri, Ganbar and Inbir, his three captains; and Khaldun of Far Harad, who had recently joined up with the caravan. During the journey from Nurn, Esarhaddon had been impressed with both Khaldun's administrative abilities and his skill with weaponry, and had elevated him to the position of one of Tushratta's bodyguards. The Shakh was considering removing the hot tempered and unstable Ubri and replacing him with Ganbar, who had consistently proved steadfast and loyal. Khaldun would then step into Ganbar's place.

The servants had been dismissed to their own tent, for their tongues were often loose, and Esarhaddon did not want anything that was said that night to pass beyond the walls of his pavilion. Carnation and Rose Petal, both high ranking eunuchs, kept silent vigil at the closed tent entrance, barring any intruders from entering.

Spread over the table were a number of maps, charts, and sheets of paper, all written in exquisitely beautiful Haradric calligraphy. "While we still have an adequate supply of water, we should continue to use it sparingly," Esarhaddon pronounced as he studied a map of Mordor. "Between us and Turkûrzgoi there are over ninety leagues, with the first half of the journey through harsh and arid wasteland. Without water, men and animals die quickly under the scorching sun." The men nodded their heads in agreement.

"Now here is where we are – on the outskirts of Utot-Dalbutot." Esarhaddon tapped his finger on the small dot which represented a settlement located east of Cirith Ungol on the Plateau of Gorgoroth. "Our next stopping place will be Stazmûlkrak." He pointed to a settlement about thirty miles northeast of Utot-Dalbutot. "After that, we travel southwest until we come to Doraz Uzg-u Bhoghâtug-ob Turu, the Gate to the Land of Many Blessings, as the wide gap that separates Nurn from the Plateau of Gorgoroth is called by the Lord of Mordor. This road here," he pointed to a bold line, "takes us to the Fortress of the Setting Sun which guards the gap, and then goes on to Turkûrzgoi." He traced his finger along the line which extended from the small dot representing Utot-Dalbutot to a tiny drawing of a great fortress situated on a huge prominence extending from a spur of the Mountains of Shadow. "Here, you may see for yourselves." He slid the map over to Ubri, who sat to his right.

"While we all know that the Fortress of the Setting Sun is a military stronghold which guards the trail below as well as the citadel's water supply, the commander has been authorized by the Lord of Mordor to allow caravans to have water, for a price, of course." A flicker of animosity flared in Esarhaddon's eyes for a moment, but so skilled was he in hiding his true emotions that none of the men caught it. "While I envision no problems with General Favarti, still he is a devious bastard who charges the merchants whatever he wishes for providing them with water and supplies." As they listened to his words, the men concurred with low, angry murmurs.

"My lord," Ganbar spoke up, "we have had dealings with General Favarti before. The man is totally unscrupulous, a scoundrel, a robber baron who wears the uniform and insignia of an officer of Mordor and is totally without honor. However, that seems to make no difference to Mordor, for he remains high in that Lord's affections."

"Aye, that he is," Esarhaddon nodded, "and he knows he has us by the balls, for the fortress is the only place where we may obtain supplies in that area."

Their voices rising, the other men added their opinions, each one mingling with the other until the sound rose to a loud cacophony. "Yes, Shakh, the man is a master of connivery and cunning... He is mad to boot... Smokes the sap of the poppy as well as hash, and the wine goblet is never far from his hand... They say he prefers boys to women... No, that is not the way I heard it at all; he prefers animals... Sheep? No, donkeys! Even swives camels! ...By the gods! The vile bastard!" The tent soon became filled with excited, angry voices, with some starting to argue about the commandant's carnal preferences.

Esarhaddon signaled for silence, and the hubbub slowly subsided. "There are many tales about General Favarti; some are true, while some are exaggerations. One thing is certain, though. The prices he sets are above even that which is demanded by the Dark Lord. However, the least of our problems might be the Fortress of the Setting Sun." The Shakh had the men's full attention. "The rest of the trail has other dangers, almost as threatening as shortages of water," he continued, his voice grim, his tawny face set in a scowl.

"There a few bands of renegade desert orcs and goblins who roam the trail from the wastes south of Mount Doom to the Gap of Nurn. Many of them are deserters and shirkers from the Dark Lord's armies, who have mingled with the indigenous population to form their own clans. They owe allegiance to no one save their own chieftains. They are some of the most savage of the savage." Esarhaddon shook his head. "Our caravan is heavily guarded, and I think that we shall be safe enough. We do need to exercise even more caution when passing through their territories, though."

Khaldun, who had been silent up until that point, cleared his throat politely and interjected his own voice into the conversation. "Shakh Huzziya, I am newly come to the service of your house, and I am the first to admit that I am no expert on these matters. However, it would seem sensible to me that the commander of Utot-Dalbutot would agree to send an armed escort with our caravan." Khaldun's ebony face was filled with concern. "All of us know the orcs' incredible appetites when it comes to women. They would consider our caravan a rich prize, and if possible, would drag the women off to their mountain lairs, where they would rape and torture them. I have been told that there were several attempts against a caravan last spring," he added, hoping he had established his point.

"You worry too much, my young friend!" Ubri gave Khaldun a condescending look. "Even if Utot-Dalbutot offered an escort, we do not need one. All contingencies have been considered, including an attack by the uruks, and every precaution will be taken." Ubri's eyes beneath the bandage wrapped about his head had a hint of the feral about them. "The forward guard, composed of excellent men, armed with bows and mounted on prime horse flesh, will proceed the caravan. Outriders will be guarding both flanks of the caravan, and making up the rear will be some of our fiercest uruks. At night, we have uruk guards, veterans of many a battle, watching the periphery of our camp. Who better to fight orcs than other orcs?" He laughed, a somewhat disturbing sound, and put his hand firmly on the other man's shoulder, perhaps squeezing it a little harder than was necessary. "Khaldun, you should have no fears."

"Then I have no worries, Captain Ubri." An unreadable expression in his dark eyes, Khaldun turned to look at Ubri.

"The only change in my plans would involve you, Khaldun... if you are interested," Ubri smiled.

"What would that be, Captain?" Khaldun asked. All heads turned to look at the two men. Everyone in camp had heard of Ubri's unpredictable behavior while on the journey to recapture the escaped slaves. His actions at Cirith Ungol had been erratic, bordering on madness. Though there had never been words between them, Khaldun sensed that Ubri did not regard him highly. While Khaldun realized that he was new to Esarhaddon's service and was yet untested, he wondered if Captain Ubri's disregard for him went beyond a mere difference of personality. He wondered if perhaps the man harbored a hatred for the men of his tribe, or perhaps the people of Far Harad in general. He had met bigots and fools before, and while they had rankled him when he was younger, he had learned to consider their words as being of no more import than the braying of wild asses. His true friends were all that counted anyway.

"I have heard that you are skilled with the bow. I am considering having you and a few men of your choosing scout ahead of the caravan. Would you be interested?" The Captain looked him in the eyes.

"Yes, Captain. I would consider it an honor." Khaldun met the other man's gaze without blinking.

Esarhaddon shifted his position on the cushions. "Lieutenant, that seems an excellent plan. Khaldun has proved a forthright young man and is good with the bow. Since he is eager to accept this responsibility, I say he should be given it." He glanced down at his maps and then back at the men. "Gentlemen, this has been a most profitable meeting, and if no one has anything more to say, I call this council to an end." He rose to his feet, his guests soon following. "May all of you have peace and good health." He inclined his head and accepted the others' farewells.

As the men filed out the tent, Esarhaddon lay his hand upon Tushratta's arm. "I wish a word with you about Lady Goldwyn, my good friend, before you leave. Take a seat, and we will talk." He gestured towards the table. "Would you care for some wine?"

"No, my lord, not tonight, but thank you," Tushratta replied as he lowered himself to the cushions. "A little water will suffice." All day he had dreaded the moment that Esarhaddon would ask about Goldwyn. He was not confident that he or anyone else possessed an answer that would satisfy the slaver. The truth was too bizarre to relate.

"The poets tell us that there is no greater joy than raising the cup in good fellowship. Surely you are not planning to forsake the fruit of the grape for lesser substitutes, are you?" Esarhaddon asked as he sat down at the table.

"No, my lord. I doubt that I will ever forego that pleasure entirely," Tushratta returned politely, remembering the saying, "Wine eases all sorrows," but allowing the adage was far from true. "However, after I leave tonight, I plan to do some extensive reading, and I find that at this hour, wine is far too relaxing."

"Then I can understand. Nothing like work to spoil a man's pleasure, is there?" The slaver gave a low chuckle. Turning to Rose Petal, he signed for him to send for a carafe of wine, a pitcher of water, and two glasses. After the men were served their drinks, Esarhaddon quickly got to the point.

"While I was gone, I often thought of the Lady Goldwyn, whom I find quite a remarkable woman," Esarhaddon related. "Now that the business of the day has come to a halt, we can talk in confidence. My mind would be greatly relieved if you could tell me that there has been some improvement in her condition. When last I saw her, she was in a deathly slumber." He leaned forward slightly, concern in his dark eyes. "I trust that she has recovered?"

"She awakened shortly after you left to search for the escaped slaves," Tushratta informed him. "As for her recovery? Only time will tell."

Esarhaddon's brow furrowed in alarm. "What do you mean?"

Tushratta sighed heavily. "Ever since the lady wandered into the tomb in Osgiliath, her spirit and mind have been... troubled. I have questioned her about her experience, but she evades my questions."

"Certainly the woman is troubled, and was long before she ever saw Osgiliath!" Esarhaddon snorted derisively. "During the past few months, she has lost everything she held dear - her country, her husband, her home, and now her sons. Only someone who is callous with a heart hardened beyond redemption would not be troubled at such tragedies." He eyed the physician suspiciously. "Are you withholding something from me, Tushratta?"

"No, my lord, I withhold nothing. It is simply that this case is so complex and involved that it almost defies a diagnosis." How could he give an answer that could ever satisfy the Shakh? Tushratta wondered. His own perceptions had changed so dramatically in the past week that if he answered honestly, Esarhaddon would only laugh at him.

"Make an attempt, Tushratta." Esarhaddon's voice was cool as he leaned his chin on his knuckles and stared at the man. "Explain to me her malady." Absentmindedly fumbling for a strand of tasseled amber beads tucked away in his sash, he began rolling them between his fingers. Somehow stroking the resin nuggets always calmed him and brought him a feeling of tranquility.

Tushratta was silent for a moment as he collected his thoughts. He knew that nothing in his face or voice must betray him as anything other than the calm, detached healer whom Esarhaddon had always known. Tushratta acknowledged that he had changed greatly since his employer had left on his journey to recapture the runaway slaves. He had seen the very core of insidious evil and triumphed against the horrors of the dark. If he even hinted at his newfound arcane prowess, Esarhaddon would only subject him to ridicule.

"When Goldwyn fled into the tomb to escape her pursuers, something happened to her, and neither her body nor her mind have fully recovered from her ordeal. For several days, she passed between clarity and confusion, her moments of lucidity interrupted by violent fits followed by deep stupor. She would call the name of her husband, and proceed to carry on a conversation with him as though he were in the wain. Other times, she acted as if she thought that Aziru or I were her husband. This sort of confusion is common in those experiencing delirium, and usually resolves once the patient's condition begins to improve. However, there were times when her mind would be seized by a strange delusion, and she no longer regarded herself as Goldwyn of Rohan, but as a cursed elf lord of the Elder Days. Never in all my years of practice have I witnessed anything so bizarre."

"An elf?" Esarhaddon leaned back, twisting his mouth sarcastically. "You say she thinks she is an elf?" His heavy lids drew up, revealing the amusement in his eyes. "Why an elf? Why not a camel?"

"They do not have camels in Rohan, my lord," Tushratta pointed out, somewhat superciliously. "Judging by the names of many of these slave women, elves must figure prominently in their culture. Perhaps they worship them... I know little of the beliefs of the Northerners."

"I think a camel might prove more interesting. I could have a nose peg put in her nose, throw a saddle upon her back, take a camel goad and have some sport with her that way!" Esarhaddon threw back his head and laughed uproariously, silencing the physician for the time. "But if she fancies she is a male elf... no, my tastes do not run in that direction." Wiping the tears from his eyes with the back of his hand, he looked at Tushratta, whose usual emotionless expression seemed more than slightly affronted.

"She could just have easily imagined she was anything, my lord, but for some unknown reason, she believed that she was an elf," Tushratta told him coolly, his dignity clearly insulted. "She seems to be free of this delusion now, but I worry that if her health were to start to deteriorate again, she might slip back into this perilous state."

Disturbed by these tidings, Esarhaddon's face turned serious, and he considered fingering his beads once again to relieve his tension. "Tushratta, what can you tell me about this illness? What is its cause?"

The physician sighed heavily. "I believe that there are multiple factors that contribute to the lady's malaise. She has been a slave for only a month and five days; before that, she had been the wife of a prosperous woodworker, with servants of her own. For a proud woman such as she, accepting her fate as the thrall of her enemies is a sore challenge. She mourns for her husband, whom she believes has fallen in battle, and she longs to join him in death. In an attempt to save them from a life of slavery, she sent her sons away to fend for themselves in the wilderness, and now she knows not if they are alive or dead. Although she says little about herself, it is obvious that she is racked with guilt over this decision, and she frets constantly about her sons."

Esarhaddon frowned as he pondered Tushratta's words. "So her malady is one purely of the mind, then?"

Tushratta shook his head. "No, my lord. While Goldwyn's heart is weighed down by many sorrows, her body has been stricken by a grievous malady of unknown origin. This illness is the reason why she lay in a death-like slumber for two days, only to awaken to an intermittent state of delirium which robbed her of her senses. Even though her mind has been restored to sanity, she still suffers from bouts of confusion. Her condition is very weak, and she becomes short of breath at the least exertion. She suffers from intense fatigue, often sleeping well into the afternoon; she complains of severe headaches, aching joints, and vague pains all over her body. It is my belief that breathing in the foul air of the tomb – a miasma of death and decay – is the cause of the lady's sickness."

Yes, indeed the tomb was the cause of Goldwyn's ailment – but it was not the musty air of the crypt which had sickened her. Rather, it was the fell spirit which had tried to claim her body. In his studies of the occult, Tushratta had read that the body could be severely injured in the contest between the rightful host and the houseless spirit. He believed that Goldwyn's malaise was caused by the wounds she received in this desperate fight.

"Is there any hope for her?" Esarhaddon asked, his voice filled with worry.

"It is my personal opinion that with time and care she will recover. However – and I cannot emphasize this too much – she must avoid undue stress." Appearing very scholarly, Tushratta folded his hands in his lap.

"What would you recommend, Tushratta?"

"My lord, I advise that she no longer march with the other slaves, but instead continue riding in the wain. While their companionship might be beneficial, I fear the physical strain might cause another episode of her malady. I also feel that someone should be with her at all times during her recovery," Tushratta continued. "While you were gone, I assigned first Sang-mí and then Barsud as her maid." He saw Esarhaddon's thick eyebrows arch. "Unfortunately, Sang-mí was not able to continue her duties, for both she and her infant came down with dysentery. A regrettable matter." The physician shook his head. "However, you need not worry, my lord. There was no possibility of contagion, for the girl and her son were soon removed and sent back to the tent of the prostitutes. Barsud, a mature and steady woman, was put in her place, and will both see to Goldwyn's needs and advise me if her condition should suddenly worsen."

Esarhaddon pondered Tushratta's words for a moment, and then resumed speaking. "I know that the lady has been ill, but still I want to see her tonight, if only for a short while."

Tushratta looked down at his hands with their long fingers, skillful hands which excelled in surgery and healing the sick. Raising his head, he leveled his calm brown eyes at the other man. "Shakh, I am afraid that you cannot see her tonight, for she rests now in deep slumber." He felt Esarhaddon's eyes studying him. "I consider that great harm might come to her if she were disturbed at this time."

"What harm could there be in seeing her?" The heavy brows above Esarhaddon's hooded eyes creased in deep furrows.

"As I recounted earlier, Goldwyn is having difficulty accepting her role as a slave," Tushratta explained patiently, trying to keep his words as neutral as possible. "Outside of her fellow captives, there are few here whom she does not consider an enemy. She is barely civil to Aziru and me, and we have done nothing but see to her health and comfort. I am afraid that the mere sight of you could cause her great distress, for the sight of her master would remind her of her slavery."

"Perhaps it would do her good to be reminded of that fact," Esarhaddon stated gruffly. "I am considering taking her as my concubine, and if she is to become a member of my household, she should become accustomed to my presence."

Tushratta was surprised at the sudden surge of resentment he felt boiling up from deep within himself. The thoughts of Goldwyn lying in the slaver's arms angered and disgusted him. Could the fool not understand that the lovely Northern woman was a delicate creature whose mind and body were so frail that almost any strain could cause them to shatter? Why could he not be satisfied with some other woman among the captives? Why must he have Goldwyn! He must attempt to protect her from his master's lusts as long as he possibly could.

"My lord, I ask you to be gentle with the lady, for she is unwell." Tushratta's tone was respectful but firm.

"Tushratta, you need not worry. I am fully capable of controlling myself." Esarhaddon chuckled, but his gaze held an unspoken warning. "Now I will see the lady with my own eyes."

A short walk took Esarhaddon to the healer's tent. Passing into the inner section, he saw Goldwyn resting upon a sleeping mat, deep in slumber. The light of lanterns reflected upon the pale canvas of the tent walls, casting an amber glow upon the chamber. Barsud, who was sitting on a cushion beside the lady, hastily rose to her feet and bowed before the two men. The slaver nodded to her, far more interested in the Northern woman than he was in the dumpy prostitute who served as her maid.

Tushratta knelt down by Goldwyn and laid a gentle hand upon her shoulder to awaken her. Her dark eyelashes fluttered open, and Tushratta felt his heart leap inside his chest.

"My lady, you have a visitor," he told her as she sat up and rubbed her eyes. "Shakh Esarhaddon has returned from searching for the runaway slaves in Anórien."

"So he has come to torment me," Goldwyn muttered, glaring at both the healer and the slaver for having disturbed her rest.

"My lady, I am glad to see that your health is improving," Esarhaddon remarked, smiling down at her. "I know that you are still recovering from your illness and need your rest, so I will stay but a few moments." He paused, his voice taking on more tender tones. "I thought about you often while I was away. There was some trouble at Cirith Ungol, and I feared that I might never see your lovely face again."

"That would have indeed been a shame," Goldwyn remarked with sullen sarcasm. "I do not know how I could have lived without the pleasure of this reunion."

Esarhaddon tensed; her bitter words had struck a nerve. But he resolved not to retaliate, for he knew that she was still ailing, and might not be in full command of her faculties.

"I fear that I allowed my ardor to control me that evening in Osgiliath, but do not let this taint your opinion of me. I desire you greatly, Goldwyn, and wish to make you my concubine. While you may hate me now, one day you will learn to love me."

"I highly doubt that, but we shall see," she stated coldly.

"Goodnight, my lady," Esarhaddon told her as he gave her a nod of farewell. "When your health permits and my schedule allows, I shall visit you in the coming days. Until then, it is my command that you rest and regain your strength."

He turned and departed from the inner chamber of the tent.

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