The Circles - Book Seven - Chapter 16

The Circles - Book Seven - Land of Treachery
Chapter Sixteen
The Goblin Vizier
Written by Angmar

Esarhaddon uHuzziya, the wealthy Nurnian slave merchant whose hunger for beautiful women was exceeded only by his hunger for gold, stared solemnly into his wine goblet that evening of July 17th. Before him, a dark-haired, doe-eyed beauty danced, her sensuous body writhing to the beat of the drums and reed pipe. The heady, intoxicating aroma of incense burning in brass censers wafted through the richly furnished tent. Outside, the Sun was low in the sky, although Arien had not yet made her disappearance below the western horizon. Jeweled rings of mixed stones, both precious and semi-precious, cluttered the merchant's fingers, and his robes were of fine silk spun far away in the lands of the East. Surrounded by beauty and possessing riches far beyond the hopes of most men, the slaver lived a luxuriant life, which was one experienced by only the most wealthy.

Fortune had smiled abundantly upon him. Though he had almost been killed in the orc attack eleven days ago, he had been saved by the talented skills of his learned physician Tushratta. Indeed, Shakh Esarhaddon uHuzziya had been favored by fortune. Still, though, he was restless and unhappy. He took another sip of wine and found it bland, no more appealing than the cheapest vintage sold in the basest of waterfront taverns on the docks of Umbar.

Tushratta leaned towards him as they sat together on the extravagantly beautiful cushions made of silken damask. "I was highly gratified that your wounds are healing so well, my lord. All of your wounds were serious, but the one in your side was exceedingly grievous, bringing you perilously close to the point of death. Though I have studied under the great master healers of Khand, I confess that I feared your injuries were beyond my powers as a healer." He bowed his head humbly. "But you survived, my lord, and we are all glad. Still, after experiencing such good fortune, you seem troubled. May I ask what is amiss?" he inquired, truly concerned for his patient.

Tushratta's solicitous questioning did little to lighten Esarhaddon's dark mood. In fact, his gloom seemed to deepen. He informed his healer that his wine was flat; the food was poorly cooked and unimaginative; the dancer was clumsy and he had paid far too much for her; the musicians were poorly trained, their music discordant; and though his wounds were healing, they still pained him. Furthermore, Tushratta's insistence that the caravan remained camped until Esarhaddon regained his strength was unreasonable, unnecessary, and costly. The slaver had raged at the physician's preposterous orders, for he was impatient to resume the journey south.

As vexing and frustrating as these concerns were, there was one even worse; Esarhaddon feared that the injuries to his male member would render him forever impotent.

Tushratta was shocked. "But, my lord, you are still alive, and in time your wounds will all heal, even those suffered by your verge."

"Look at the dancer, Tushratta," Esarhaddon told him, apparently unmoved by the physician's reassurances. "Do you think she is beautiful?"

"Yes, my lord," Tushratta replied slowly, confused by the change in conversation. "Her body is worthy of praise, and her face is quite lovely. She is graceful and talented. I fail to see any fault in her."

"Though her eyes glow like the stars and her lips are as full as rosebuds, she fails to arouse my manhood," Esarhaddon replied sorrowfully. "I am ruined forever!"

"My lord, you are too impatient. An injury as serious as yours will not heal for at least six weeks," the physician returned encouragingly.

Esarhaddon's heavy lidded eyes were barely open as he languidly watched the girl dance closer and closer to him, her eyes pleading for his approval as she shook her hips and undulated her stomach. The tempo of the music increased, and the girl began to shimmy, the fringe on the scarf about her hips flying wildly. The drums beat frantically, racing to keep time with the girl's pounding heart. When at last the music stopped, the dancer collapsed gracefully before the slaver. Panting for breath, her face drenched with a sheen of perspiration, she dared turn her eyes to look up at her master and prayed that he would summon her to his bed that night.

"You do not please me!" Esarhaddon snarled, and with a wave of his hand, he dismissed her, caring nothing that the girl was on the verge of weeping. She kissed the hem of his sleeve and backed away three paces on her hands and knees. Rising, she bowed low, and then, tears streaming down her face, fled from the tent. The slaver signed to the musicians to play louder.

Tushratta frowned at his employer, but his next words were tempered with caution. "My lord Esarhaddon, while it is not for me to say, I thought she danced very well."

"Tushratta, can you not understand?" Esarhaddon's voice was strained, but he did not launch into a torrent of anger at his physician. "It would not matter which one of my dancers I called to entertain me. My member is mangled and ruined! I fear that in time it will shrivel, and my bollards will dry up!"

"My lord, there are remedies, aphrodisiacs, herbs and potions, even dietary regimens, all of which can help to restore a man's potency, but I feel that none of them are necessary. It is simply a matter of giving your injuries time to heal." Tushratta struggled to control his irritation, for he had been through this same discussion with the slaver far too many times during the past week. While it was understandable that Esarhaddon's pride had been dealt a serious blow, still he was behaving in an irrational manner.

Tushratta was reminded of one of the patients in the hospital in Turkûrzgoi. The poor wretch was convinced that djinns had stolen his member, and in spite of the fact that the appendage was perfectly healthy, he had remained unconvinced. When the healers repeatedly tried to persuade him that he was entirely whole and fully functional, the man had accused them of being in league with the djinns. A sad case, Tushratta mused, recalling that the man was still delusional and confined to the section of the hospital for those with mental troubles. Surely his own employer was not heading for the same fate!

"It is not only the devastating fact that women can no longer arouse me that troubles me." His dark eyes mournful, Esarhaddon turned to stare at his healer. "The accursed Durraiz and her scoundrels have robbed me not only of my sensual appetites, but they have stolen two valuable slaves!"

"My lord, you must not continue spending all your strength and energy in dwelling upon your misfortune!" Tushratta replied in his calm, disciplined voice. "Things are not quite so bleak as you paint them. Though Özlem is marvelously skilled in playing the dulcimer, there are many others equally or more talented among your musicians. The blonde girl, now," he tapped his fingertips together, "is impossible to replace, I warrant, but you still have her sister."

"Her sister!" the slaver bellowed, slamming his fist down on the table, causing some of the wine to spill. "Without Elfhild, Elffled is just another blonde-haired slave wench. There are other girls far more beautiful and talented than her. Together, though," his voice became softer, almost dreamy, "I could sell them as a pair of exotics, twin maidens from the conquered land of Rohan, the like of which is not known in Nurn." He took a sip from his wine goblet. "This is just between you and me, Tushratta. As you know, I am permitted to keep a small number of slaves as part of the reward I receive for my invaluable service to Mordor. I had planned on claiming the twins for myself and having them trained at my villa. They would have brought the House of Huzziya a great fortune! But now I no longer have a matched set of twins! All is lost!"

Tushratta was about to reply when Carnation, who had been guarding the entrance to the tent, burst into the chamber. Bowing deeply, the eunuch begged his master's indulgence for the interruption. "Slay me if you will, Master, for disturbing you, but the news that I have cannot wait!"

"You are a loyal and sensible man, Carnation. I know you would not interrupt me without cause." Esarhaddon smiled. "What is this news that is so important?" he asked casually, opening his heavy-lidded eyes a little wider.

"The scout Khaldun and his men have returned with a goblin they captured in the desert." Carnation could barely control his excitement as his voice rose higher. "He begs an audience with you, and if you should allow it, leave to bring the prisoner before you."

Esarhaddon studied Carnation's face and then clapped his hands. "Go," he ordered the musicians and the other servants in the tent. "You will be called back when I want you." After the servants had fled the pavilion, Esarhaddon turned thoughtful eyes upon the eunuch. "A goblin, you say?"

"Yes, my lord," Carnation replied, keeping his eyes respectfully lowered and his hands clasped across his middle. Usually calm and unruffled, he seemed almost ready to burst with his news.

"After the recent killings of my guards by the uruk-hai, the hatred for all such folk is strong. As you know, the few remaining uruks in my employ have requested dismissal from my service." Esarhaddon scowled at the eunuch as he picked up his wine goblet and toyed with it. The physician watched in silence. "As much as I would like to sever their employment, I need all the guards I can muster, for we are severely undermanned."

"Master, you need not fear. Captain Khaldun assures me that this goblin poses no danger. In fact, he is running for his life." Carnation smiled slightly, his brown eyes amused.

Intrigued, Esarhaddon gave the eunuch his full attention. "Then by all means show in Khaldun and his honored guest. However, I think it best that the servants are not present for this meeting, for sentiment against uruks is high in the camp, and we do not want a loose tongue to cause a riot. Instead, you will serve us wine yourself."

"Yes, Master." Carnation bowed his way out of the tent.

"Interesting," Tushratta thought dryly. "At least Esarhaddon is no longer moping about his manifold losses."

A short time later, Khaldun strode into the pavilion. Beside him walked a short, squat figure wrapped in a dun-colored cloak, the hood of which was pulled down so low that none could discern the features beneath. Two guards followed the pair and then moved away to stand at the sides of the tent in case trouble should brew.

"My lord Esarhaddon," Khaldun began, "may I introduce Ulimaghûlb, a former vizier to the late King Thaguzgoth of the Kafakudraûg Clan."

"Welcome to my abode, Ulimaghûlb Vizier." Esarhaddon inclined his head slightly.

"Shakh Esarhaddon uHuzziya, it is a great honor to meet you," the goblin replied, bowing from the waist. "My humble thanks for allowing me to appear before you this evening." Straightening himself, he pulled back his hood and unfurled his cloak, revealing finely woven but trail-worn garments. A gold-plated belt adorned with green stones hung low about his pudgy middle.

"Be seated, Captain Khaldun and Ulimaghûlb Vizier." Esarhaddon gestured towards the cushions spread around the low table. The two bowed again before sitting across from the slave trader. "Now, Captain Khaldun, perhaps you can explain why Ulimaghûlb is your prisoner."

"Not my prisoner, my lord, no, not that," Khaldun explained. "Ulimaghûlb begs sanctuary, at least until the caravan has passed far beyond Kafakudraûg Cavern."

"Why do you need sanctuary, Shakh Ulimaghûlb?" Esarhaddon looked from his captain to the goblin.

"My lord Esarhaddon, I was a high ranking noble before the trouble began, but since then my fortunes have plummeted," Ulimaghûlb replied sadly. "First Prince Shakop was assassinated, and his father, the King, was wounded. Then that very night, King Thaguzgoth succumbed to the injury that he had suffered from the assassin's arrow. The King's eldest son, Crown Prince Ashpar, declared himself as king by right of the firstborn, never consulting the Council." The goblin became more excited, his rasping voice speaking rapidly as he gesticulated with his long arms. "Shortly after that, all of Prince Ashpar's brothers were mysteriously murdered. Such terrible times! Now Kafakudraûg Cavern is in chaos." The goblin looked up as Carnation brought a tray of goblets and a carafe of wine and placed it on the table. He took a sip of the wine and beamed. "Never have I tasted wine such as this, my lord!"

"Shakh Ulimaghûlb, I like to know that my guests have the finest that I can provide," Esarhaddon remarked, a slight smile curling around the corners of his lips. Such a waste to squander good wine upon a goblin! Either this was a poor jest, or Captain Khaldun had lost his mind. The slaver did not believe that any orc who ever lived could be anything other than a treacherous scoundrel. Everyone knew that they were nothing more than bloodthirsty, flesh-eating animals at worst, and uncivilized barbarians at best. He would endure this audience, though, and try to reserve his judgment until the goblin had said his say. "Please continue with your story," he urged.

"Yes, my lord, I will," Ulimaghûlb returned politely. "After Prince Ashpar took the throne, he called a great assembly. His first order of business was to blame the assassination of his brothers upon King Thaguzgoth's viziers. He condemned the whole council to death. The slaughter was horrible!" He passed his hand over his eyes, shivering. "I barely escaped with my life!"

Esarhaddon stifled a yawn. The goblin was proving to be tiresome, his hoarse voice grating on the eardrums. Khaldun should have killed the little bastard when he found him, instead of imposing him upon his employer's good nature.

Apparently the goblin sensed Esarhaddon's growing impatience, for his next words almost burst out of his mouth. "Durraiz and her band of outlaws killed our most noble King!"

"What?!" Esarhaddon's eyes opened wide and he stared at the goblin. "I find this all quite incredible. Ulimaghûlb, now if you are lying to me, so help me, I will have you flayed alive and use your skin to sole my boots!"

"Great Shakh, I do not lie!" the goblin cried, close to panic.

Khaldun reached over and touched Ulimaghûlb's shoulder. "It will all go well, Vizier," he reassured the small creature. Turning to Esarhaddon, Khaldun told him, "My lord Esarhaddon, while I cannot vouch for Ulimaghûlb's story with absolute certainty, my scouts have reported to me that they have found corpses of dead goblins scattered in the sand, cut down by arrow, spear and sword."

"They hunted us down like dogs!" Ulimaghûlb shook his fist, his face livid with anger.

"Yes, Shakh Esarhaddon," Khaldun agreed. "From the tracks, it did seem as though the goblins had been hunted down and butchered. When I was informed of this by one of my messengers, I determined to find out the veracity of this story myself, and so I rode to the scene. Indeed, my lord, I saw many dead goblins – the young, the old, male, female – many of them mercilessly hacked to pieces." Khaldun shook his head.

"But Durraiz!" Esarhaddon's voice rose in exasperation. "What does Durraiz have to do with any of this?"

"My lord, forgive me, please," Ulimaghûlb apologized. "When I think of the slaughter, it is hard to control my fury!" He took another drink of wine, pausing as he struggled to master his anger. "Durraiz and her band came to King Thaguzgoth, begging his protection and offering to serve as mercenaries. The King accepted them, but took Durraiz' slave girls away from her. She became enraged, and during a feast, she and her outlaws attempted to assassinate both King Thaguzgoth and Prince Shakop. The assassins were apprehended and later executed, just before the King succumbed to his wound." By the time the goblin had finished talking, he was out of breath and shaking in fury at the memory.

"Then you are telling me that Durraiz killed the King and his son as an act of vengeance?" Esarhaddon asked, studying the vizier's face intently. "That is not surprising; the she-orc was never one to forget a grudge. As a matter of fact, her motive for trying to kill me was revenge. She was bitter because I had ordered the execution of a uruk shaman for killing a slave girl."

"Shakh Esarhaddon," the goblin's rasping voice lowered as though he expected one of his enemies to be close by, "it is only my personal opinion, but I suspect that Prince Ashpar paid Durraiz and her band to assassinate the king and his second son."

Esarhaddon would not have cared if all the orcs at Kafakudraûg Cavern had fallen upon each other and slaughtered themselves down to the last imp, but the mention of Durraiz' slave girls had been an interesting piece of information. "Now, Shakh Ulimaghûlb, you say that King Thaguzgoth incurred Durraiz' wrath by taking two of her slaves for his own?" His eyes narrowed, his expression hard. "What were the names of these women?"

"Özlem and Elfhild, Shakh."

"Those are the names of the girls that Durraiz kidnapped from my tent!" Esarhaddon bellowed, his face convulsed with rage. "Did King Thaguzgoth harm either of them? If he did, it is good that he is already dead, for I would hunt him down, cut him to pieces and throw him to the carrion birds!"

The goblin's eyes darted to Khaldun, who nodded to him. Taking a deep breath, Ulimaghûlb carefully chose his words before he said them. "My lord, I cannot say for a certainty what he might have done to the one named Özlem, but I do know he made her one of his wine testers. In addition to sampling the King's wine, these maidens also amuse their lord in his private chambers."

"The bastard!" Esarhaddon cursed, his fists clenching and unclenching. "No doubt he raped her every chance he got!" He reached into his sash and pulled out a string of beads, which he toyed with angrily, counting them off one by one between his fingers. The beads usually had a calming effect upon him, and helped soothe his anger. In this situation, at least it gave his hands something to do, for he was on the verge of throttling the goblin.

Ulimaghûlb was close to complete panic, his eyes flicking first to the slaver and then to Khaldun. The captain patted his shoulder encouragingly. Khaldun had developed a liking for the small, ugly creature. The goblin, strangely enough, had exhibited much more honor than any others of his kind whom Khaldun had ever encountered. Ulimaghûlb could often be witty, making the solemn Southron smile when others could not.

"What of the other one, the blonde girl? Did the King defile her, too?" Esarhaddon's face was dark with fury, his eyes mere slits as he ticked off another set of beads.

"My lord, I sincerely doubt that. When the girl came to us, she was a raving madwoman. Our Shaman said that she had been marked by the Lord of the Void, and she was not to be touched, lest great misfortune befall the Kafakudraûg. Knowing our late King, he would have accepted the Shaman's pronouncement and left her alone."

"At least there is that," Esarhaddon muttered, having great difficulty controlling his fury. "But what does it matter now? With my limited numbers of men, a rescue attempt would be impossible. It would be suicide to try."

"But my lord," Ulimaghûlb brightened, "the slave women escaped six days ago. They may have been recaptured, but perhaps there is still hope."

"Ulimaghûlb," Esarhaddon arched an eyebrow, "how do you know they escaped? I thought you were supposedly fleeing for your life. How would you know their fate?"

"My lord, I confess that I ran like a dog in fear of my life, but I concluded long ago that it is better to be a living dog than a dead hero." The goblin colored slightly, embarrassed by his cowardice. "The reason I know the women escaped is this: they had been taken out beyond the fortress to gather firewood. When they and their overseer failed to return, a search party was sent to look for them. They found his body stabbed through the back, and the women nowhere in sight, their tracks leading away into the desert."

"So then there is a chance that they may still be alive?" Esarhaddon asked.

"Yes, my lord, a very good chance that they could be alive. But you must remember that the desert is a harsh place with many perils, and while the slave women stole the dead goblin's provisions, they had only a few days' supply," Ulimaghûlb explained. "If their food and water run out, their only hope of survival is if they are found by a Mordorian cavalry patrol, or captured by Dolrujâtar tribesmen."

Esarhaddon frowned. "After the attempt on my life, Tushratta sent a messenger to the Mordorian soldiers guarding Dâltgund Cistern, informing them of the abduction of Elfhild and Özlem. It was his hope that a cavalry patrol would find them and return them to the caravan, but so far neither the Mordorian cavalrymen nor my own search parties have been able to find any trace of the stolen women." In truth, he had given up on ever finding Elfhild and Özlem, assuming that they were lost forever to the wastes of Gorgoroth. It was most unfortunate, but it seemed that this entire journey was plagued by misfortune.

"Although you say that six days have passed since their escape, there is still a possibility that the women are wandering through the desert," Esarhaddon continued, his brow furrowing in troubled contemplation. "If that is the case, I wish to find them before the tribesmen do. While I have never had any dealings with the Dolrujâtar myself, I have heard tell that they are suspicious of outsiders, and I would rather not treat with them if it could be avoided." He turned to the captain. "Khaldun, have my horse saddled. We will ride out in two hours' time. There is not a moment to be lost!" He started to roll to his knees, but a wave of dizziness passed over him and he sat back down heavily.

"I think not, my good lord," Tushratta interjected. "You are still far too weak even to consider such a thing. If you insist on embarking upon such a foolhardy mission, I will not be responsible for your health. As you must realize, just the mere act of trying to get up weakened you."

"Damn you, Tushratta!" the slaver hissed, again trying to rise to his feet. "I am perfectly fine! You are not to meddle in my affairs!"

"Well, then, Shakh, I will grant you leave to go, but only if you prepare a parchment stating in detail where you want your body buried when they bring you back dead!" Tushratta exclaimed, hoping to shock Esarhaddon into reason. He had no intention of allowing his employer to go; if necessary, he would drug him with a sleeping potion.

"I will stay, but only because my injuries might slow down the others." Esarhaddon groaned and lay back against the cushions, blinking his eyes to try to clear his vision. He knew that he was very weak; his many injuries had drained his strength, and he found it difficult to sleep. He had not fully recovered from the wound in his leg and his head injury before Durraiz and her band tried to kill him. He had never felt so wretched in all his life, and though he did not believe in magic, he was beginning to wonder if he were cursed.

"My lord, if you will give me permission, I will take six men and search for the missing slaves." Khaldun looked at the shakh, his eyes glinting in resolve, his jaw set in a hard line.

"You have my permission," Esarhaddon grunted, taking a stout drink of wine to ease his pain.

"Shakh," the goblin sat up straighter, his long arms still for once, "I beg your permission to go with Captain Khaldun as his guide and tracker."

"You?" Esarhaddon laughed scornfully. "You are a goblin, not a uruk, and your kind cannot tolerate the sunlight. You would be worthless as a guide in the daytime! Besides, even if one of the caravan's horses was willing to carry you upon its back, I doubt your feet could reach the stirrups. You will stay here where you will not impede my men in their search."

"I have no intention of requesting a horse." Ulimaghûlb sat up straight as an oak tree. "I doubt a horse could keep pace with me anyway," he remarked boastfully. This overbearing merchant knew nothing of his kind! "And you need not worry that I will melt in the sun, for I will smear mutton fat on my face and hands to protect my skin from the harshness of the light."

"And what will you do should the Dolrujâtar scouts intercept you?" Esarhaddon asked, his voice mocking. "I understand that there is much enmity between your people and theirs. Most likely they would kill you for being a goblin, and my men for associating with you."

"He could dress up as a woman, my lord," Khaldun suggested.

"A woman?!" Ulimaghûlb exclaimed, quite indignantly.

An uproarious chuckle rumbled from Esarhaddon's throat. "Khaldun, surely you jest. Only a blind man would mistake this goblin for a fair maiden, even if he were adorned in the frills and finery of a princess." It was said that one could not make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, and this ugly little goblin most definitely resembled a pig.

Khaldun patiently waited until Esarhaddon's laughter and Ulimaghûlb's sputtering protests quieted. "My lords, I do not mean to suggest that the Vizier dress as for a theatrical performance, but rather cover his face and body in veils, as do the wives of certain noblemen. In addition to safeguarding his identity, the veils would also provide protection from the sun."

Stroking his chin thoughtfully, Esarhaddon contemplated Khaldun's proposal. Among some tribes in Harad and Khand, wealthy women would cover their faces with veils as a symbol of their elevated status. The lower classes were not deemed worthy enough to gaze upon the faces of the women of the higher classes, and it was forbidden for commoners and slaves to veil themselves. In other tribes, married women, both rich and poor alike, wore veils to show that they were taken, while maidens wore no such coverings. The type of veil, its fabric and its adornments depended upon the culture. Some veils covered only a woman's hair, while others also hid the lower half of her face.

"There is some merit in your suggestion, Captain," Esarhaddon finally admitted, trying to drive away the unwanted vision that had come to torment his mind: Ulimaghûlb dressed in a diaphanous scarlet gown, his ugly face painted with eyeshadow and rouge, one hand thrust seductively upon his hip while he beckoned with a taloned finger and winked with a come-hither stare. Yes, yes, the goblin would most definitely need to wear one of those veils which completely concealed the face.

"Shakh, the Vizier could prove of inestimable value to us," Khaldun continued, ignoring the sulking goblin. "He knows these lands far better than we do. I am sure he could manage to keep up with us on foot, for goblins can be quite swift. If he tires, then he can ride with me on the back of my mount."

"If you have everything already figured out, then why are you wasting time here talking?" Esarhaddon growled. "Draw provisions for five days' travel, take spare mounts and be prepared to ride within two hours!" He glared at Captain Khaldun and the goblin vizier. "And if he—" the slaver jabbed a finger at the goblin, "—betrays you, kill him!"

"I had planned to do that already, my lord," Khaldun remarked grimly. He started to rise to his feet, but the slaver held up his hand, signing for him to stay.

"Based upon the tidings that you and Shakh Ulimaghûlb have brought, I have made the decision that the caravan will leave this place tomorrow and continue on its journey towards Nurn." Ignoring the disapproving look upon Tushratta's face, Esarhaddon commanded Carnation to fetch a map of Mordor, which he then spread out on the low table in the middle of the tent. "The Oasis of the Solitary Cedar, the nearest Dolrujâtar settlement, lies approximately fifty miles to the southeast of here. Though I would wish it otherwise, I fear that we will be forced to have dealings with this tribe ere all is over. Barring the caprices of fate, the caravan will travel swiftly for three days, arriving a day's journey west of the Oasis on July 21st." He pointed to a place along the Nurn Road. "Here we will camp until Khaldun's search party returns. If the two slave women were found by the Dolrujâtar and taken to their village, this will put us in a good location to treat with the nomads, but if they are found in the desert by Khaldun, then the House of Huzziya cannot be accused of trespassing in Dolrujâtar territory."

"My lord, you are in no condition to travel by horseback—" Tushratta began, but was cut off by Esarhaddon.

"I was planning on riding in the healer's wain," Esaraddon muttered sullenly. "But only to silence your constant complaining! I swear sometimes, Tushratta, you are like a broody old hen!"

The physician shook his head. "Someone has to look after you."

Calling the council to an end, Esarhaddon gave Khaldun leave to depart and organize a search party. Khaldun rose to his feet and signaled for Ulimaghûlb to do the same. Bowing, he left the tent with the goblin vizier and the two guards behind him.

After they had gone, Esarhaddon turned to his physician. "It grieves me to think that Özlem may be with child by an orc. Her music and singing could soothe me as few others could." He looked Tushratta in the eye. "If she is found alive, I want you to make sure that there will be no offspring."

"I understand, my lord." Tushratta nodded. "It will be as you have said."

"Now the Rohirric girl..." Esarhaddon studied one of his rings, a band of silver set with an aquamarine stone. The color of the gem reminded him of the missing blonde maiden's wide blue eyes. "Do you think the orc spoke truth and she is truly mad?"

"My lord, that is impossible to say, not having examined her." Tushratta tapped the tips of his fingers together. "But even if her wits have left her, there is still hope that she can be treated. If you wish to keep her, I can find a place for her in the hospital in Turkûrzgoi, where she can rest and regain her strength." He studied his employer's face as he waited for his reply. Only once had he talked with the twin sisters, and that was after they had come back from Cirith Ungol, drugged with a belladonna-based truth potion. He had found Elfhild slow, but attributed that to the drug and her backward upbringing.

"You have my complete confidence, Tushratta," Esarhaddon sighed mournfully. "Let it be as you have said. If you deem her unsound of mind, I will turn the girl over to your care."

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