The Circles - Book Six - Chapter 24

The Circles - Book Six - Across the Wide Hamada
Chapter Twenty-four
Diwan of Public Audience
Written by Angmar

Esarhaddon had awakened that morning in a cold sweat, a horrible taste in his mouth. All of that had happened hours ago, and the slaver's main concern now was his breakfast, which had been placed on the table before him. As the slave boy lifted the cover from the soup, the savory fragrance wafted up to Esarhaddon's nostrils, and he felt hot bile rising in his mouth. His throat burning, he gagged into a napkin and pushed the food away.

"Master!" The slave boy rushed to him, kneeling by his side. "Is Master unwell?" The excited boy's voice was trembling.

"No, I am just not hungry this morning," Esarhaddon muttered hoarsely. "Give the food to the servants." He rubbed his sweating forehead. "I will now see those who have appointments with me."

Captain Ubri was the first to be admitted to the slaver's pavilion, and from the doleful expression of melancholy in the man's eyes, Esarhaddon guessed that he sensed what was to come. Surprisingly, though, Ubri took the news of his dismissal fairly well, only expressing sadness that he would no longer be with the caravan. Esarhaddon reassured his former bodyguard that there was still a place for him at the main business establishment in Nurn, and that he trusted that Ubri would remain with the business for a long time to come. Ubri had been pleased with the gifts which the slave trader had presented him - a fine shield and sword, both of Gondorian make; a jambiya dagger with a wooden hilt inlaid with mother-of-pearl and a wooden sheath; a gold-plated amulet of the Goddess of Love carved in carnelian and rimmed with malachite; and a hefty purse which caused Ubri's eyes to light up with greed.

"My lord, with your permission, I will continue to travel with the caravan." Ubri rose to leave.

"Certainly, my friend. It is an honor to have you." Esarhaddon rose to his feet. "Peace be upon you." He put his hand to his heart and bowed slightly.

"And upon you be peace, my lord," Ubri returned, touching his forehead and then his heart.

Watching his former first lieutenant walk away, Esarhaddon felt a sense of relief and sank back into the cushions, signaling for a servant to refill his goblet of water. As Ubri strode from the tent, Carnation caught the look in his eyes. The eunuch frowned. Behind Ubri's smile lurked pure hatred. Should he tell his master? Esarhaddon had so much on his mind already. The matter could wait.

When Inbir visited Esarhaddon's tent, he was rewarded with similar, though not quite so costly, gifts. He had hoped that his employer would present him with Aeffe, for he burned for the girl with an unquenchable fire. The best that he could get from the avaricious merchant was a vague intimation that obtaining the slave girl lay within the realm of possibility. The young man was frowning when he left Esarhaddon's tent, and Carnation, ever mindful of his master's interests, noted that.

As the morning wore on, Esarhaddon began to wish that he had eaten, for his stomach was growling as though a pack of dogs were fighting inside his entrails. The next person on the morning's list of appointments was Ganbar. That meeting went better than the first two, for Ganbar was overjoyed to be promoted to first lieutenant, and thanked the slaver profusely before leaving.

Khaldun was next to be ushered into the pavilion. As the brawny black man from Far Harad straightened after bowing in greeting, their eyes met, and Esarhaddon felt that he had made the best choice by appointing him as third lieutenant. Though Khaldun had not been long in Esarhaddon's service, he had performed admirably in helping to quell the orc rebellion, slaying a number of the rebels. Khaldun had been awed that Esarhaddon had enough confidence in him to promote him to the responsible position of third lieutenant. After that, the two men had talked together at length, both of them expressing concern at how undermanned the caravan had become.

After Khaldun departed, Esarhaddon felt exhausted. For a day of repose, this morning had seemed more restive than restful. Esarhaddon groaned inwardly when he thought of the others with whom he had granted an audience. The rest of the morning was spent talking with his other captains and listening as they gave their reports. At last it was time for the midday meal, and Carnation ordered the tent closed to the public.

"How many more are scheduled to see me this afternoon?" Esarhaddon asked Carnation as a light meal of lentil soup was served to him.

"My lord," Carnation replied regretfully, "almost as many as this morning."

"Those men who were left to finish off the impaled uruks... have they returned?" Esarhaddon asked as he tore off a piece of flat bread and dipped it in his soup. The meal was surprisingly good, and he felt the warm, thin liquid settling his stomach.

"No, my lord, though we expect them at any moment," Carnation answered, glancing down at his hands, which were folded across his middle.

"They should have returned by now," Esarhaddon growled. "Probably all drunk."

"Yes, my lord, most likely. After a battle is over, soldiers are charged up with a sense of triumph and wish to celebrate," Carnation replied politely. "It is a natural reaction."

"Well, they are celebrating too long," Esarhaddon muttered. "Send a messenger out and tell them to get their arses back here! We will need every man to guard this caravan when we set off tomorrow!"

After Carnation had gone to send a messenger, Esarhaddon finished his meal in peace. Telling his slaves that he wished to see no one for the next hour, he retired to his private chamber, where he lay down on his couch and fell asleep.

***

Followed by two of his slave boys, Hibiz and Aban, the physician made his way to his master's tent as the afternoon sun cut a bloody streak through the heavy gray clouds which hung over Mordor. He had left Aziru and their other servant boy behind to care for the sick and wounded. There had been so many injured, both guards and slaves, on the night of the earthquake and orc mutiny that the number overflowed the physician's tent, and Esarhaddon had allocated a large pavilion to house them. Most of the patients had been discharged, but there were still a few who needed the doctors' care.

Tushratta chuckled to himself when he thought of his high-strung assistant. Aziru was overjoyed that he had so many upon which to try out his theories of the salubrious qualities of various foods and potions. "Master Physician, the universal restorative agent exists, and when it is discovered, it will not matter whether a man is of a sanguine, choleric, melancholic or phlegmatic temperament; there is no disease that cannot be cured! Even old age, that scourge that renders man feeble of mind and body, will be a thing of the past! Men in ages to come will look back and wonder that such illnesses as plagues, pox, ague, quinsy, consumption, and all the other ills that beset man ever existed. We are on the threshold of a new age for mankind!"

"Perhaps you will be the one, my friend, who will find this marvelous boon that will benefit all the peoples of Middle-earth," Tushratta had told him before leaving. Of course, he was humoring the little Khandian, but he considered that encouragement was a positive force.

"My lord Esarhaddon." Bowing from the waist, Tushratta touched his fingers to his heart and then his forehead. "You look well this afternoon."

"Was distorting the truth one of the subjects they taught you in that fine medical school in Bablon that I hear so much about?" Esarhaddon watched as a slave boy brought a decanter of wine and another of water and placed them on the low table.

"My lord, if I had perceived any indications of pathology in your features, I would have so informed you," Tushratta replied drolly, his placid expression showing no hint of his amusement.

"Tushratta, you have the most irritating ability to lie with style," the slaver grumbled as he looked up, watching the physician unwrap the bandage from his head.

"I am sworn by the Healing Goddesses of Khand to do whatever necessary to facilitate the healing of the sick." After tossing the old bandage in a basin held by Aban, Tushratta peered at the stitching on Esarhaddon's wounded forehead. "I see no sign of mortification," he morbidly pointed out to Hibiz, who knelt by his side.

"Yes, Master," the boy replied eagerly. "The wound appears to be healing quite well, and there are no fiery streamers of red anywhere around it." He leaned closer. "As you, my master, have told me, the greatest danger comes between the third and fifth days," he remarked proudly, showing off his knowledge.

"Very good, boy," the physician nodded approvingly.

"And since this is only the second day, I might add, I am not safe yet... or is the patient permitted an opinion, Tushratta?" Esarhaddon muttered as the physician placed a foul-smelling herbal concoction upon the wound and then covered it with a pad before bandaging it up again.

"Patients are permitted that, my lord." Tushratta allowed the slightest smile to turn up the corners of his lips. "However, even though this is only the second day, I see no indications that there will be any troubles with this wound. If this herbal compress works as well as I expect it, the scarring will be so slight that it will be hardly noticeable."

"That is some consolation... I do not suppose you could promise that the wound will not scar?" Ever vain, Esarhaddon worried about his appearance, and wondered what his women would think if he returned to Nurn scarred and mutilated.

"My lord, I could promise anything, but then indeed I would be the basest of liars, deserving to be relegated to the charlatans and fakers," Tushratta replied. "Now have the pain, dizziness and blurred vision reoccurred?" He looked into his employer's eyes and was pleased to see that all looked well.

"Yes, unfortunately," Esarhaddon returned, taking a sip from his goblet of wine.

"My conclusions lead me to believe that you have suffered a mild concussion, which should heal itself in time." Tushratta stroked his beard thoughtfully. "It would be beneficial if you rest as much as you can. Therefore, I recommend you ride in a wain for a few days." Esarhaddon began to protest, but Tushratta raised his hand to silence him. "You pay good coin for my opinions and treatments, and in my judgment, I feel this is best for your health. Now, my lord, I need to inspect that wounded leg of yours. If you will just take off your pantaloons so that I can get a better look at your wounds."

After the physician had examined Esarhaddon's injury and changed the dressings, he seemed pleased. "In spite of the fact that your wound reopened, it seems to be healing now. I had concerns that I might have to cauterize it, and should it become infected, I still do not rule out that possibility." Tushratta signed to his servants to discard the old dressings and then pack up his medical box. "My lord, I will leave some more of the poppy draught in case your many injuries cause you to suffer. I have already instructed your servant Carnation in the administration of the draught."

Though Tushratta knew the slaver was well-versed in the dosing of the poppy and no doubt had plentiful stocks of his own, he felt it was his duty to advise Esarhaddon and his servants on how best to use the substance for medical purposes. It was common knowledge that the slave trader often used the poppy for his own amusements, or to subdue frightened or unruly slaves. Tushratta abhorred these practices, knowing all too well how addictive the drug could be, and how its stupefying effects dulled the mind into nothingness.

"Your instructions will be carried out, physician," Esarhaddon told him as a servant helped him dress.

"Now, my lord," Tushratta rolled to his knees, "if there is nothing else, I need to be going."

"Stay a while, Tushratta, and have a goblet of wine with me." Esarhaddon's invitation was more of a command.

"I would be honored, my lord." Tushratta sat back down and signed to Aban and Hibiz to dispose of the dirty bandages. The boys bowed their way to the entrance and then went about their chores, but Hibiz soon returned.

"There is something, Tushratta, which I am quite sure is a minor thing..." Esarhaddon began.

"What is it, my lord?"

"Would it be possible to be poisoned from an orc bite?"

"While I have never heard of it, Shakh, when I consider the foul state of the mouths of the creatures I have examined, there could be a possibility. Their oral hygiene is deplorable, with broken teeth and rampant abscesses," Tushratta replied, shaking his head. "I do not recall, though, that one bit you. Perhaps I am mistaken."

"No, physician, I bit the orc."

"Hmmm... I do not imagine that this is a very common circumstance. Open your mouth and let me examine it."

Esarhaddon looked worried as the doctor peered into his mouth.

"Now stick out your tongue... yes, yes, like that. Hmmm... interesting."

"What is it, physician?" Esarhaddon asked anxiously.

"Indeed, you have a mouth infection."

"Is it serious?"

"That depends. Any infection can prove to be serious, but I have some medicine that should take care of it quickly. You will have to gargle with it three times a day and every time you eat or drink anything other than water. Before I go, I will leave instructions for Carnation." Tushratta turned to Hibiz, who had just brought a bowl of water for the physician to use in cleaning after the examination. As he dipped his hands in the fragrant, rose-scented water and then dried them, he pondered the slaver's plight. "An unknown disorder... possibly contracted by accidentally ingesting foul orcish blood. Just as likely, though, Esarhaddon's mouth was infected by touching the beast's filthy skin." He looked towards his master, who seemed to be preoccupied by his own thoughts.

"Tushratta, there is another matter of which I wish to speak with you, a matter of some importance to me." Beneath hooded lids, Esarhaddon's eyes bored into those of the physician.

"Yes, my lord?" Tushratta asked as he took a goblet of wine offered by a servant. He inhaled the aroma, and realized it was a full-bodied Khandian vintage. He allowed himself a small smile.

"The lady Goldwyn... Has her condition improved, or is she still convinced that she is an elven lecher?" His face an unreadable mask, the slaver studied Tushratta. He tried to keep from laughing at such an absurd notion, but he could not contain the little quiver at the corners of his lips.

Tushratta's expression did not change, but his body stiffened slightly. He had been expecting this moment, and was prepared for it. "My lord, for those whose minds operate normally, it is often difficult to understand the delusions of those who are troubled." He thoughtfully stroked his mustache. "While the lady has not suffered one of her violent fits for a while now, her condition remains a serious one. Sometimes she talks to herself, as though she were carrying on a conversation with an entity that cannot be seen."

"The last time I spoke to you about her condition, you informed me that at times her mind departed her, and she thought she was a male elf." Esarhaddon stared at the physician, his stern expression demanding answers.

"Yes, my lord." Tushratta nodded, clasping his hands together. "Unfortunately, while she has not had a seizure lately, I believe that she still harbors this bizarre delusion."

"Then what can you do about it?" Esarhaddon slowly tapped his forefinger on the table.

"My lord, I will be honest with you. My training is in the healing of diseases of the body, not diseases of the mind." Tushratta humbly bowed his head. "The poor woman is so hostile and aggressive that it is difficult even to talk with her unless she is sedated. Aziru and I have tried kindness with her, but she flaunts her hatred in our faces, often cursing us in her own language. She is seldom even civil, although she is more tolerant with the other servants. Even then, she seems to consider that she is of a much higher rank than they, treating them arrogantly and in a haughty manner. If she had not found favor with you, she would be marching with the condemned slaves now, her fate to be sent to the orc breeding pits."

"That is not an option, Tushratta. You must come up with some treatment that will heal her." Esarhaddon was having difficulty keeping his patience with the irritating doctor.

"My lord," Tushratta looked up, "I might suggest that upon arrival in Nurn, she be taken to the Bimaristan of Turk├╗rzgoi, where she can be admitted to the section which deals with diseases of the mind. An excellent hospital, it is situated in a pleasant, peaceful area away from the noise and bustle of the city, where the quietude so necessary to facilitate healing is in abundance. The hospital is operated by a board of eminent men headed by a colleague of mine, who is a highly renowned physician. As you might recall, I am on the governing board." A genuine smile of pride lit up Tushratta's usually emotionless face.

"Tushratta, I should recall that you are on the board, since every year you pester me to donate a hefty sum for charity." By this time, the slaver was more than annoyed at Tushratta, but he had long been skilled at hiding his emotions behind his heavily hooded eyes.

"Yes, my lord. You have been quite generous in the past." Tushratta nodded.

"Physician, it is the responsibility of the wealthy to donate to the upkeep and betterment of the poor, and I shall continue to do so. However, what you are suggesting is to put Goldwyn in a cage!" The only sign of Esarhaddon's anger was his clenched fist around his goblet.

"No, my lord," Tushratta replied in a calm voice. "Only the most violent are restrained in such a manner, and even at her worst, the lady is not that destructive in her rages. She would be given the kindest of care and allowed to walk in gardens filled with flowers whose fragrances soothe mind and spirit and please the eye. The grounds are replete with lovely fountains that cascade in the sun, splashing harmoniously. To help in the healing, there are musicians who play gentle melodies that comfort the patients, and storytellers who keep the patients captivated with their engrossing tales. The healers and their assistants are trained to ask questions which unlock the hidden secrets of the mind and enable the patients to overcome their illnesses. All patients are encouraged to develop any talents and skills which they might possess that would offer constructive outlets for their restless spirits. Some are instructed in weaving, while others learn music and dance. Some work in the making of miniature paintings that express their inner emotions. Those who are literate pen their turbulent thoughts, and from some of these literary endeavors, the doctors can learn more about what bothers them. The food is of the best quality and can only improve the patient's health..."

"No matter how you describe the place, Tushratta, it is still a cage, and I will not have her set foot in it!" Esarhaddon slammed his fist on the table so hard that the goblets shook. The physician had always been an exasperating fellow, but he had outdone even himself by recommending that the beautiful Rohirric slave woman be sent to the insane asylum! Esarhaddon's head had begun to throb, pulsing with a steady rhythm of pain. He was on the verge of calling an end to the audience when Carnation returned from the entryway, where he had been talking with a messenger who had just ridden into camp. An expression of worry furrowed deep wrinkles in the eunuch's broad forehead.

"My lord, the messenger has returned with news... terrible news. I hardly know how to speak of it!" Carnation's voice wavered, and he kept his hands folded tightly together to keep them from trembling.

"What is it?" Esarhaddon demanded tersely, feeling a sudden premonition of doom.

The eunuch took a deep breath to calm himself and settle his nerves. "Master, the guards who were left to dispatch the dying orcs have been slaughtered to a man. They were butchered like cattle, their bodies hacked to pieces so that many could not be recognized! It appears that some of the corpses were partially eaten!"

"By the Gods!" Esarhaddon exclaimed as he made the sign against evil. While the slaver did not actually believe in the gods or the sign against evil, somehow the gestures seemed like appropriate ones. He noted that Tushratta had blanched with horror. "Only orcs would leave such atrocities behind!"

"Yes, Master!" Carnation looked directly at Esarhaddon, a privilege that very few slaves could claim. "And the bodies of the dead orcs have completely disappeared! Not a sign of them, as though they had vanished by magic!" The eunuch felt his stomach lurch, feeling close to vomiting at the thoughts of the mutilated bodies of the guards.

"Carnation, I doubt it was magic. The ones who perpetrated this heinous act must be the orcs who deserted after the execution!" The slaver's face blackened with rage, though his voice was steady. "Summon my lieutenants immediately! We must take counsel upon this matter."


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