The Circles - Book Six - Chapter 8

The Circles - Book Six - Across the Wide Hamada
Chapter Eight
The Physician's Diagnosis
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

After journeying eight days, Shakh Esarhaddon was at last back with his caravan. As his eyes roamed around the public section of his spacious tent, a feeling of satisfaction came over him. At last he was in his comfortable home upon the trail, and everything that he beheld belonged to him! The floor of the tent was covered with luxurious carpets, pillows, and cushions. Low tables, boxes, rolled sleeping mats, and other sundry furnishings sat about the sides of the chamber. A portable brass brazier for cooking and heat stood off to the side. Unlighted at that time of day, brass lanterns were suspended from the ceiling supports. Across the back of the room was a closed arras dividing the tent into two sections - the public chamber for the Shakh and his guests, and the inner chamber reserved for the Shakh and his women.

"Physician, what sort of potion do you think was given to these girls?" Esarhaddon asked in Haradric, gesturing towards the twins, who stood nearby with heads bowed and hands clasped together. The two men sat facing each other across the low table in the slaver's tent, a decanter of wine in the center of the table and two half-filled goblets before them. Upon reaching the encampment, the physician Tushratta had dressed his master's wounded leg, and afterwards Esarhaddon invited the Khandian to share the noonday meal with him. While they ate, Esarhaddon had told the doctor all that had transpired during the long journey. After their hands had been bathed in rosewater and dried by servants, Esarhaddon was eager to probe his physician's mind on the unsettling matter of the mysterious potion which his women had been forced to consume.

"That is a difficult question, my lord," Tushratta replied as he studied the liquid in his goblet. "The wine that I drink is well-known, and I could discuss its properties in great detail. However, in the case of your slaves, I do not know what they have ingested. I am dealing with a substance completely unknown to me, and I must base a diagnosis upon my observations. To do that, I must have your permission to examine and question them."

"I give you leave to do whatever you feel necessary, physician. I trust you as I would no other man." Switching to Westron, the slaver addressed the twins. "Girls," he clapped his hands together, "step forward! You are required to answer all the questions which my physician asks of you."

Eager to retreat as far as they could from the glaring daylight which shone in through the open tent flap, Elfhild and Elffled moved closer to the low table. Both girls were glad to be inside the tent, for the brilliant sunlight and stark terrain of the Gorgoroth wasteland were a torture to their poor eyes.

As the physician studied the girls, an amused expression came over his face. "I must confess, Shakh, that though I have spent years in studying the human body in the best medical schools in Bablon, I cannot determine which sister is which. To do that, I fear that I would have to be a mystic."

"Physician, in that regard, you and I are much alike. However, I have made my specialty the study of the female form, and far more intimately, I would guess, than you did in your fine academy." Esarhaddon winked at Tushratta, whose only reaction was to allow a small smile to tug at his lips. "By fate," the slaver thought to himself, "does the man never allow himself any leeway to be merry?"

"My lord," the physician replied dryly, "mere theory cannot compare to empiric knowledge. I defer to your more comprehensive experience."

"My good friend," Esarhaddon went on, ignoring Tushratta's light sarcasm, "they are quite easy to tell apart. Even though their names are inscribed upon their collars, I do not need to consult the tags. I can tell these two apart merely by the sounds of their voices." The slaver turned his head to look at the girls. "Elfhild's voice is slightly deeper than that of her sister, which on occasion may become quite shrill." The eyes beneath the hooded lids smiled. "There are also certain markings on their bodies - moles, freckles, and such things as that - which can easily identify them. I have seen both of them without their coverings, and every detail of their bodies is now known to me." His deep chuckle broke the silence of the tent. "There are other ways by which I know them. While the elder has not quite submitted herself to me, I believe that the younger is willing to yield herself to all the demands I might make of her."

"I understand, Shakh," Tushratta replied, feeling, as he often did, a twinge of envy at the ease which the other man had in handling women. "Perhaps," he thought, easily hiding his sarcasm under an impassive gaze, "he will find the lady Goldwyn more than a small challenge."

"Elfhild," the slaver commanded, "kneel before my physician so that he may see you closer."

"As Master wishes," Elfhild replied, sinking to her knees at Tushratta's side. "May I ask what is a... physician?" she inquired softly, raising her eyes to Tushratta's chest. Not yet proficient in Westron, many times she found herself puzzled by the language of these educated men.

"In your land, I would be called a healer, while in my own country, I would be referred to as 'ashipu.' Both titles mean the same thing - a person who is trained in the practice of medicine. My father was a physician, and taught in the great medical school in Bablon, the city of my birth. As a youth, I was a student there." Tushratta smiled kindly at the girl. He wondered if she would be interested in knowing the names of some of the studies which he had pursued, such as anatomy, physiology, and urology, but he quickly concluded that the simple peasant maid would never be able to comprehend such complex terms. The girl was so ignorant that she did not even know the meaning of "physician."

"Master, I will try to remember the word." Elfhild blushed, embarrassed at her inadequate command of Westron.

"I am sure you will, my dear." Taking her hand in one of his, he patted it gently. "Now I have some questions for you, and I want you to think carefully before you answer them. Your information is very important in determining the nature of the potion which you and your sister consumed." He smiled at her again before glancing over to Esarhaddon. "Shakh, I would prefer questioning them both at the same time... in your presence, of course. Is this agreeable with you?"

"Certainly, my friend," the Shakh answered, a trace of weariness in his voice. He leaned back against the cushions, the wine goblet in his hand. "By the way, where is your assistant Aziru?" he asked as though he had suddenly remembered the fellow. "I have not seen him since I returned." Esarhaddon had never been impressed with Aziru, who seemed an unstable sort to him, his head always in the clouds. He preferred Aziru far better when he danced, for then all pretense left the man. He smiled softly to himself when he recalled the words of the physician's assistant that time when the man had twirled and whirled himself to a state of collapse - "My heart and spirit are open to divine inspiration as my body rotates, halfway between the Abode of the Gods and the Earth."

"I left him in my tent compounding some herbs for medicine and told him that after he had finished, he could join me here... if this is agreeable with you, my Shakh." When Esarhaddon nodded his approval, Tushratta smiled and turned to Elffled. "Kneel beside your sister, my dear." The physician waited until the second twin had joined him before beginning his questions.

"Please, if either of you feels that she can add something to the other's answer, you may do so. Do you understand?" He nodded as each girl gave her agreement. "I will start with Elfhild first. From what the honorable Shakh has told me, both of you were separated from your master and his men when you arrived at the fortress of Cirith Ungol. Can you remember what happened after this?"

"The orcs took us to a cell and forced us to undress." Elfhild closed her eyes and shivered at the memory.

Suddenly sitting up, Esarhaddon slammed the wine goblet down on the surface of the ebony table, sending wine splashing onto the intricate mother-of-pearl starbursts which adorned the surface. The twins cringed at the sudden noise, and Elffled threw her hands over her head to shield herself from a blow. Involuntarily the slaver's fingers touched the hilt of the curved dagger at his belt. "What did those bastards do to you, Elfhild? Did they have their way with you?"

"N-no, Master," Elfhild whimpered, terrified of the slave trader's anger. "They searched us and then gave us back our clothes. We were not harmed."

"But they kept the undertunics with all the runes on them," Elffled added timidly.

Elfhild nodded her head in agreement. "The guards seemed to think that the tunics were special."

"What happened after this?" Tushratta asked gently.

"They chained us up and gave us nothing to eat or drink, and we stayed there for what seemed to be a very long time." Elfhild tried to remember all that had happened to them while they were prisoners of the tower, but she found she had difficulty concentrating and recalling her memories.

"Then the two of you were taken to Corporal Bekir's private quarters for questioning, were you not?" the physician asked.

Both girls nodded and murmured a "Yes, Master" in response to his question. "My memories become foggy after we left the cell," Elfhild recalled, wishing that the healer would cease his interrogation and just let them rest. Her head throbbed terribly, and the light, though subdued, still tormented her eyes. "Corporal Bekir told us that he wanted to speak with us separately, so he took me to his chambers, where I was questioned by him and his scribe, Pirooz."

"The Corporal told us that if we were obedient and answered his questions, your life and the lives of your men would be spared, Master," Elffled explained, hoping that Esarhaddon would be pleased with her loyalty, and show her mercy in the future.

"I was given wine and sweetmeats to eat... I suspected rightly that they were drugged, but I had no choice but to accept them." Elfhild looked down at her clenched hands, loathing the fact that she did not even have control over what she ate or drank. "The Corporal explained that the potion would help me remember important information. However, I can remember nothing that transpired after the meal."

Frowning, the physician turned to Elffled. "Perhaps you can remember more than your sister?"

"The last thing I can remember was being given food and drink by Khosrow and Behrang, two of Corporal Bekir's men," Elffled replied.

"And that was all?" Cocking an eyebrow, Tushratta looked at her skeptically.

"All that I can remember clearly, Master," Elffled answered. "I am sorry."

"Tushratta, all this has gone nowhere, and far too much of my time has been wasted already with this useless pursuit. The senses of both girls have been addled by the drug they were given." Esarhaddon shifted his weight on the cushions. "Now it is getting late, and I have several meetings scheduled for this afternoon. If you have nothing more to add, I think we can conclude this meeting."

"Shakh, much has been accomplished." His voice quiet and detached, Tushratta looked at the man across the table from him. "There are a number of things which can be deduced from what these girls have said, but much more can be determined by the symptoms which they show."

"What do you mean, Tushratta?" Esarhaddon growled, impatient for this audience to end.

"Shakh," Tushratta lowered his voice conspiratorially, "it is obvious that these girls were considered very important by the command of Cirith Ungol. Since there has been trouble between Cirith Ungol and Minas Morgul for some time, perhaps Commandant Panturion and his cronies thought the girls were spies."

"Nonsense!" Esarhaddon laughed. "Perhaps while my men and I were being tortured in the dungeon, Corporal Bekir planned to make sport with my women!"

"But, my lord, if Corporal Bekir merely wanted to play with the girls, he would not have used the potion which he did," Tushratta explained patiently. "He would have used a simple poppy draught to sedate them and make them more willing to his advances. Instead, they were given some extract of belladonna."

At the physician's ominous revelation, the twins gasped loudly. Everyone knew of belladonna's onerous reputation! The nightshade plant was a favorite poison of assassins and murderers, and was used by witches in their dark rituals.

"Belladonna!" Esarhaddon sucked his breath in through his teeth. "How do you know this?"

"Shakh, I am well versed in all drugs and potions that are commonly used, and many that are rare. With the soporific poppy, the pupils would be constricted, but with belladonna, the pupils are dilated. While I cannot judge the exact composition of the elixir that was used, I strongly suspect that one of its ingredients was belladonna." The physician put a steadying hand on Elfhild's shoulder, for she had suddenly turned pale, a cold sweat beading up on her forehead. "My child," he quietly reassured her, "all will be well."

"Belladonna!" Esarhaddon shook his head in disbelief. "I had wondered at their dilated eyes. I have seen victims of this poison before, back in Harad. Even in death, their pupils were dilated, and blood oozed from their eyes, nose and mouth. Unless Bekir and his henchmen meant to kill them, why did they give these girls such a deadly poison?"

Horrified by Esarhaddon's gruesome description of belladonna poisoning, Elffled whimpered and clung to her twin, burying her face into the other girl's shoulder. Why would anyone want to murder them? What had they ever done to deserve such a terrible fate?

"My lord, Elfhild gave one very important clue - she said that Corporal Bekir had told her that the drugged draught would help her remember important information." Tushratta rotated the wine goblet around in his fingers. "Now, Shakh, let us hypothesize for a moment. While we know that the girls knew nothing of consequence, Panturion and Bekir were convinced that they did. The girls said that the guards took an interest in their undertunics when they searched them. Could you tell me more about these tunics, my lord?"

"They were among the garments that Shakh Awidan provided the slave girls when we arrived in Minas Tirith," Esarhaddon replied, trying not to show the bewilderment he felt. "Most likely they originally belonged to one of the slave boys in Awidan's employ. The tunics were embroidered with apotropaic runes and esoteric symbols – a lot of superstitious nonsense, but many abide by such protective garments, swearing that they bring good fortune and safeguard the wearer from enemies."

"In this case, it seems that these so-called lucky tunics actually brought the twins more harm than good," Tushratta remarked, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "Commandant Panturion and Corporal Bekir must have concluded - erroneously, of course - that the girls had been given these tunics by some powerful Mordorian lord. Since the former leadership of Cirith Ungol was at odds with Minas Morgul, the Commandant and Corporal assumed that the girls' benefactor was none other than Seneschal Kalus, and that they were spies in his service. In times of war, tensions are high, and perceptions are often clouded."

"Physician, nothing can be proved one way or the other." Esarhaddon shrugged. "We can hardly summon Commandant Panturion for questioning, and even if we could, he would deny everything." He shifted his position on the cushions and cast a glance towards the twins. "Now this potion... the girl recalls that Bekir told her that it would help her remember. That sounds more like the outrageous claim of those charlatans who frequent the souks, selling 'miraculous' restoratives to old men in their dotage."

"I suspect that the apothecaries and laboratories of the Dark Tower have developed some new devilment, a truth potion to be used by the Mordorian inquisitors," Tushratta explained, his voice lowering conspiratorially. "This potion could not be belladonna in its pure form, for its potency has the tendency to render victims temporarily insane, and thus of little use to the inquisitors. However, belladonna can have a profound effect upon the memory, causing victims to have vivid hallucinations of long dead friends and relatives. It is as though the victim has gone to some mystical plane where the past and present intermingle and combine. In such a state, it is possible that a victim could be called upon to remember the past, and relive it again in perfect clarity. With the addition of other elements, such as the juice of the poppy to counter the hysterical delirium brought on by nightshade, a tincture of belladonna might possibly be used as a truth potion of sorts." When the physician saw the twins shudder, he smiled at them sympathetically.

"An interesting theory, Tushratta," Esarhaddon remarked, "and one that quite possibly might be true." Perhaps he had been too harsh with his physician. While the man had a tendency to be tedious, endlessly drawing out his explanations and speaking in a convoluted style peppered with complicated medical terms, he was well-meaning, intelligent and gifted in the medical arts. The slaver was impressed at his conclusions. "Now is there some remedy which you can administer that will counteract the deleterious effects of this poison?"

"My lord, although some healers recommend leaching, cold effusions, cupping, sinapisms applied to the feet, and purgatives and emetics, the physicians of Bablon rely on these only in the worst of cases." Tushratta's grim expression softened as he studied the frightened, trembling girls, who clung to each other in fear and waited in nervous anticipation for his final diagnosis. "The slave maids are past the worst, though, and I expect them to recover fully. Their confusion and sensitivity to light might linger for a day or so. You should keep them out of the sun during this time, or veil them when they have to go out."

"Too much time and expense have already been expended on these two rebels, and I will not indulge them further," Esarhaddon remarked gruffly. "I plan to remain encamped here overnight, setting out in the morning before dawn. If their vision has not improved by tomorrow, I will allow them to ride in the ambulance wain; otherwise, they are going to have to work for their keep for a while. They need to learn that Fate has ordained them to be slaves for the rest of their lives."

The men turned as one of the eunuchs guarding the entrance announced the arrival of Aziru. Bowing ostentatiously, the little man walked to the table. "Greetings, my lord! May peace be upon you!"

"Upon you be peace, servant of my physician," Esarhaddon nodded, extending his hand so that the man could kiss the hem of his sleeve. "Now I give you leave to be seated and enjoy the hospitality of my tent."

"Thank you, my lord." Aziru smiled broadly at the Shakh, bowing yet again before taking a seat beside Tushratta.

"Peace, my servant," Tushratta told him. "I had expected you earlier."

"Forgive me, Master Physician," Aziru murmured, smiling apologetically. "I was delayed. One of the guards was suffering with a huge carbuncle on his neck. The pustule had reached such alarming proportions that I felt it was necessary to lance it. Such an amazing amount of putrid filth within the boil! The moment the blade pierced the skin, the corruption virtually shot into the air!"

"May his health be restored," Esarhaddon added dryly before drinking the rest of his wine.

"Yes, my lord, I expect full recovery." Aziru grinned exuberantly. "Has my lord ever been afflicted with such a malodorous malady?"

"I think not, Aziru. I have been fortunate in that regard." Esarhaddon found Aziru's morbid tales extremely tedious. If anyone gave him an ear, the little Khandian would talk all day.

"Should you ever, my lord, you can feel confident that I am an expert in their treatment." Aziru pretended that he did not notice the dark warning look that the master physician shot his way.

Esarhaddon cleared his throat loudly. "Now as much as I would like to stay and discuss this fascinating matter, I expect one of my eunuchs to be here any moment to discuss the training of these two slaves. I will order my servants to bring you some refreshments, if you care to stay."

"My lord's generosity is truly gracious, but I must ask that you excuse us. Aziru and I have patients to see this afternoon." Tushratta smiled, his face full of quiet dignity, while Aziru tried to hide his disappointment under a polite smile. He enjoyed the Shakh's table, and the little Khandian seldom had an invitation to see it. Tonight would be another one of those nights.

"Then may felicity and success be abundant in all that you do. Peace." Esarhaddon stood up and clapped his hands sharply. "Come, wenches. I have an appointment with one of my servants."

Next Chapter

Previous Chapter
Main Index