The Circles - Book Eight - Chapter 16

The Circles - Book Eight - A Mordorian Bestiary
Chapter Sixteen
A Dire Prognosis
Written by Angmar

"What a strange letter!" A perturbed expression on his face, Tushratta looked up from the parchment that he had just finished reading. Shortly before, a messenger from Lug Aanzaabr had arrived with the missive, and there was something very suspicious about the whole affair. "What do you think of that, Aziru?" the physician asked as he handed the letter across the low table to his assistant.

Holding the stem of the waterpipe between his teeth, Aziru perused the parchment. He enjoyed the sweet smell of the smoke as he drew it deeply into his lungs, and the blissful feelings it produced. Exhaling, he watched as the smoke twisted its way through the air like a languid serpent slowly uncoiling. Until the messenger arrived, Aziru had spent a peaceful evening. He had savored winning a game of chess against the master physician, and when they had finished playing, the two discussed a new treatise on boils which Aziru had purchased before leaving Nurn. Why did it seem that some botheration always came along to ruin a perfect evening?

"What do I make of it, Master?" Aziru thoughtfully rubbed his bulbous nose. "It is obvious to me that the Shakh would never write such a letter unless it were under duress."

"I agree with you, Aziru." Tushratta nodded his head. "Did you notice how he writes, 'Great sadness has come to the fortress of Lug Aanzaabr. General Favarti's most beloved ferret has been brought low and now lies upon his deathbed. I, too, am grieved, for you know how highly I regard the dear little fellow.'"

Aziru placed the stem of his waterpipe on its silver tray and skimmed over the letter again. "Yes, Master Physician, I noticed that strange statement. My guess is that with each stroke of the brush on the paper, our master was cringing inwardly. The Shakh cares nothing for the General's ferrets; in fact, he has always ridiculed the General's love for the animals, considering it more an obsession than a fancy, and one unbecoming a man."

"My thoughts exactly. Another thing I cannot understand, Aziru." Tushratta's brow furrowed in consternation. "While Esarhaddon loves eating almost to the point of gluttony, he is a very clean man by nature, and he would never leave food stains all over any missive that he wrote. However, I have no doubt that the handwriting on this letter is indeed his, for I have seen enough of it."

"Seems to be some sort of sauce containing apple and honey, from the smell of it," Aziru remarked, bringing the parchment back to his nostrils. "It is my guess, Master Physician, that the Shakh is in some sort of trouble, and needs our help. But for the life of me, I cannot discern what his plight might be."

"Aziru, the letter becomes even stranger." Tushratta took the missive from the table where Aziru had placed it and began to read out loud. "'General Favarti is almost beside himself with grief, and if his darling little pet does not recover, I fear that the ramifications might be tragic for all concerned.'" Tushratta looked up. "What could the Shakh mean here? Does he think the General's grief is so great that he might take his own life? Or perhaps by 'tragic,' the Shakh means that he fears that the General might kill him."

"Impossible to say, Master Physician. He is rather vague." Aziru shook his head. "But from everything I know about the General, both outcomes are entirely possible. However, I think that Favarti might be more likely to vent his sorrow upon others than upon himself."

"I do not doubt that, Aziru." Tushratta's lean face was pinched with worry. "Something else troubles me further. Whether we like it or not, somehow we are involved. Shakh Esarhaddon goes on to say, 'While I know that you are a healer of men, not animals, I am still hopeful that with your wide knowledge of medical practices, you may be able to cure General Favarti's ferret. With that possibility in mind, I ask you to return with the messenger under escort as soon as possible.'"

Tushratta placed the letter back on the table and tapped the sheet with his forefinger. "And right here, Aziru... Here is another section that does not sound as though it were anything that Shakh Esarhaddon would say. He writes, 'My heart would indeed be heavy if the poor creature perished.'" Tushratta peered across the table at Aziru, who once again was puffing on his waterpipe. "The Shakh would never write such sop as that! You know how he frowns upon maudlin sentimentality. What is Shakh Esarhaddon trying to tell us?" Tushratta tapped the tips of his fingers together. "Considering General Favarti's tendencies towards insanity, I suspect that his pet's illness has driven him over the brink. For all we know, he is holding Shakh Esarhaddon prisoner until the ferret has recovered."

"Master Physician, that is my fear." Aziru's voice shook slightly. "What are we to do! Esarhaddon has requested that you journey up to the fortress and endeavor to treat the little beast!" He slowly exhaled the pungent hookah smoke, wishing that this whole business about the ferret was already concluded, and he could give himself over to the euphoric pleasures of the pipe. "We know nothing about ferrets! We do not even have a book that describes the diseases of these creatures." Aziru fondly stroked the stem of his waterpipe and took a long, sweet draw of smoke.

"There is only one thing that we can do, Aziru. The master has asked for my assistance, and I must go." The expression on Tushratta's usually emotionless face was resolute, his thin lips set in a firm line.

"You cannot go alone, Master." Aziru reached over to touch the physician's arm. "I will go with you. Let me prepare your medical case with herbs and potions which might prove beneficial." Putting down the stem of the waterpipe, Aziru carefully rose to his feet and started for the cabinet where the two doctors kept their medical supplies.

"I cannot let you do that, Aziru." Tushratta held up his hand. "Although the letter appears perfectly innocuous, I sense danger in all this. Besides, someone must stay here to tend to the patients. Instead, I will take Aban. He is a clever lad, and his tongue is no stranger to deceit. While seldom a good quality in a slave, in this matter, it could be an asset. Hibiz and Naqi are much too forthright, and mayhap their candor could get us all killed."

"Killed?" Aziru's bulging eyes grew wide. "How dangerous do you think this venture is?" He was secretly relieved that the physician would not require him to go with him, but he hid his relief under an expression of concern.

"With Favarti, one never knows," Tushratta remarked gravely. "A madman has no morality."

***

Guided by an escort from the fortress, Tushratta and Aban made the long and winding trek up the mountain. As soon as they had reached the fortress, they were met by a lanky young corporal who showed them down one long corridor after another until they came to an oaken door carved in twining patterns of vines and leaves. Two brutish-faced orcs, their scimitars sheathed, surveyed the physician and his assistant. Regarding them with his usual cold detachment, Tushratta looked the orcs directly in the eyes.

"Lads," the corporal addressed the orcs, "this is the healer who has come to treat the General's ferret. The boy," he nodded to Aban, "is his assistant."

"The healer has been expected," one of the orcs told them. "But the boy..." The guards looked Aban up and down suspiciously. "We will have to search him first before we can admit him." The orc's slanting yellow eyes lit up with murderous anticipation.

"It will be all right, Aban." Tushratta laid an encouraging hand on the boy's shoulder. "You have nothing to hide."

"Yes, Master," Aban replied, managing to keep his voice strong, though the bestial guards with their sneering faces and clawed hands terrified him.

The orc made quick work of the search and nodded to his fellow. "He has no weapons on his person." The two orcs looked disappointed. "If you will both go inside, you will find the ailing one in the room just past the antechamber." The door was opened for the physician, and he and his assistant were ushered inside.

The first thing Tushratta and Aban noticed when they stepped into the antechamber was the sweet, cloying smell of incense. With the lamps turned down, the room was somber and dim. As the two of them walked across the floor, they could see statues in niches along the walls, the candles that framed the apertures casting ghostly shadows on the images inside. "Ferrets in every possible pose," Tushratta noted grimly. "The man worships them." As he studied a statue depicting the writhing, serpentine bodies of ferrets engaged in coitus, he wondered if Favarti had a darker interest in the creatures. "If his statuary is any indication, his tastes certainly go in strange directions," he mused to himself.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Aban gawking at the statues. When he felt the physician's gaze upon him, the boy quickly looked away, a flush of embarrassment coloring his cheeks. "Do not be surprised by anything you see here, Aban," Tushratta whispered, touching him on the shoulder. "You will see far stranger things than that."

In the center of the chamber, a marble bier was set, draped with black cloth. Grat-Durgund and his brothers, the musicians, and a group of paid mourners wailed and moaned for the tiny figure which lay upon the bier. The sick ferret lay limply upon the cloth, its once fine coat dull, its eyes glazed with sickness.

As Tushratta and Aban entered the room, the three trolls rose to their feet, while the musicians muted their mournful playing to a soft dirge. The paid mourners, who were writhing in a frenzied dance of lamentation, paid scant attention to the newcomers. Tushratta and Aban watched in silent amazement as the mourners moaned and wailed, their hands tearing at their loose white robes.

"We were wondering if you were coming, healer," Grat-Durgund stated sourly, his eyes narrowing to green slits. "You do not look like much of a healer to me, but I guess we will have to wait and see. I have a piece of advice to give: whatever you do, the ferret must live!" The huge troll gave Tushratta a searing glare, barely hiding his hatred.

"I will do all I can for him. Now if you will just step aside and take a seat, we can begin the examination," Tushratta replied, his irritation concealed under his usual mask of studied indifference.

"As you will, healer." Grat-Durgund gave Tushratta a quick bow and then sat down upon the cushions between Willie and Noodle. Cupping his hand to Willie's ear, the troll whispered some secret which neither the physician nor his assistant could hear.

"Thank you. Now I must examine the patient." Tushratta moved to the bier. He wondered why Favarti was not present. "Perhaps he is so overcome with grief that he is unable to leave his chamber," he thought to himself. "Whether he is here or not, I have to determine what is wrong with a creature about which I know very little."

Looking down at the small beast, Tushratta took pity as he would for any other living thing that suffered. When he felt its chest, he could barely discern a heartbeat in the animal's cool body. He lifted up the ferret's eyelids and then opened its mouth, noting the bloody froth at the corners of its lips. Seeing no sores or lesions in its mouth, Tushratta concluded that the little beast was hemorrhaging internally. He felt its neck, noting that its glands were swollen and there was a hard, swollen lump on one side. Gently he probed the animal's belly, feeling for lumps or other abnormalities. He knew nothing about these creatures, but to the untrained eye, no one would have ever guessed from the way he conducted himself.

As he continued his examination, a thin sheen of perspiration began to coat his forehead. He nodded to Aban, who took a clean cloth from the doctor's medical chest and mopped off his forehead. There, just under the animal's fore and hind legs, he found more lumps. Tushratta took a quick intake of air. "This little creature is filled with cankerous tumors," he thought grimly. "There is no way that it can be saved." He felt the eyes of the trolls and orcish musicians upon him, observing every move that he made. He tried to ignore them, hiding his discomfiture behind a cool, detached expression of medical competency.

"Master," Aban whispered softly, too low for any except Tushratta to hear, "the little animal is dying, is he not?"

Tushratta nodded, again pressing on the lumps under the animal's front legs. The ferret winced feebly.

"What shall we do?" Aban asked, his voice frightened.

"I am thinking on it," Tushratta whispered back.

"Can you save him?" Grat-Durgund snarled. The troll had taken out a long knife, studying the rippling damask patterns on the sides.

A chill went down Tushratta's spine, and he braced himself for the lie he was about to tell. "I have every reason to believe that this ferret might live." His voice steady, the physician looked into the loathsome face of Grat-Durgund.

"'E's lyin', Boss, 'e is!" Noodle jumped to his feet, drawing a sharp dagger and running his finger over the edge. "Let me gut 'im right now, and save the executioner the trouble!"

"Shut up, Noodle!" Willie banged his brother over the head with a cudgel he drew from his belt. "General Favarti will decide if 'e lives or dies, not us! And by the way, you stupid oaf, did anyone ever tell you that you have a mouth that is far too big for your ugly face?"

"Oh, me 'ead!" Noodle wailed, gingerly feeling the raised lump on his skull. "You didn't have to do that! I was just trying to be helpful!"

"Silence!" Grat-Durgund bellowed, looking up from the inspection of his knife. "So you say you can cure him, Physician. I'll tell you what I think. Noodle is right, and you are a lying knave. The poor beast is too far gone to save."

"Believe what you want." Tushratta regarded Grat-Durgund coldly. "But get this through your thick skull. I am probably the only one who can save General Snuggles!"

"Oh, har har har," the troll roared in laughter, holding his huge stomach as peals of hideous laughter echoed throughout the chamber. "Just how are you going to do that?" Willie and Noodle added their raucous guffaws to the din. Grat-Durgund's laughter finally died away as he wiped the moisture from his beady eyes, and then he glared at Tushratta.

"To effect a cure, I must have privacy," the physician answered in a clear, calm voice. "All this noise is not beneficial for the patient. Already, I fear that this incessant racket has been harmful to the little beast."

"Why do you need privacy, healer?" Grat-Durgund demanded.

Tushratta looked into the troll's loathsome face, revolted by his mottled, greasy skin; the rolls of fat on his belly barely disguised by his robes; the twisted black braid on the back of his head; the nose ring connected by a silver chain to his ear; and the jeering, arrogant expression on his fat, twisted face. This brute was the most obnoxious creature which he had ever seen. The protruding lower tusks barely disguised by his lips made Tushratta's stomach knot in revulsion. If he were a violent man, Tushratta thought, he would run a blade of good honest steel through the fat troll's gullet. He was not given to violence, though. He was a man of healing, and he pushed away the dark thoughts which swirled in his mind. Though every word he was about to say would be a lie, he felt no guilt.

"Before I can do anything, I must purify myself, for I am under the most stringent of vows to the Goddesses of Healing. These vows, which I have taken on peril of my mortal soul, require that I perform these rituals with no others present, save those who are also dedicated to the worship of the Goddesses, such as Aban here." He gave Aban a quick penetrating glance that the boy would know that he was meant to keep his silence.

"Well, then start purifying yourself. We will leave you be for that," Grat-Durgund replied grudgingly. "As soon as you are finished, though, see that you turn your attentions back to your patient."

"There is a problem," Tushratta added quickly, stalling for time so that he could think. "When I was called to the fortress, I could not foresee that this would be a case of such severity, and so I did not bring the purifying incenses and other materials with me. I must send my servant to fetch them. They are necessary for me to invoke the spells I must perform before healing can commence."

"Gather whatever you must, Physician," Grat-Durgund told him. "But if you are lying..." He made a slicing motion across his throat with his hand. "You will regret it! Now send the boy to get what you need."

"Do not be so hasty," the physician smiled. "I must have privacy in order to tell my servant exactly what I need, and no one but the initiated can hear what I must tell him."

"Whatever you want, physician," Grat-Durgund snarled as he rose to his feet, summoning Willie and Noodle to follow. He clapped his huge hands together and the musicians gathered their instruments and filed out of the room, the mourners following behind them. Before turning to leave, Grat-Durgund and his two brothers gave the physician looks of utter malicious hatred.

***

"Listen closely, Aban. There is no time to waste, and I have much to tell you." Tushratta had waited until the door behind the trolls had closed before hastily whispering his instructions to his servant.

"Yes, Master, I am listening," Aban replied, a tremor of fear in his voice. He touched the prone body of the ferret, shuddering at the coldness of the creature's skin. "The beast will not live, will he?"

"No, Aban. I fear not," Tushratta answered, shaking his head. To Aban's surprise, Tushratta walked over to the opposite wall, which had been decorated in a pattern of intricate mosaics. Though the artistry had been superb, the scene reflected a recurring theme. More copulating ferrets. Tushratta ran his finger over the mosaic and felt somehow dirty. He quickly returned to the boy.

Aban's expression was one of puzzlement. "Master, what were you doing?" he asked, wondering if this strange place had somehow unbalanced his master's mind.

"Aban, I thought I saw a spy hole in the wall, but fortunately I was mistaken," Tushratta answered. "Still, though we do not appear to be under surveillance, we must keep our voices low."

"I will, Master." The boy nodded.

"Now the beast is dying, and there is no mistake in it." Tushratta's tone was grim, only his eyes giving a hint of his apprehension. "Cankerous tumors have taken over his small body. If General Favarti's little pet dies, it is safe to say that we will all die, including Esarhaddon. We must obtain a replacement as quickly as possible."

"But, Master, how can we do that?" Aban's eyes grew wide. The thoughts of dying filled him with fear, and he licked his lips nervously.

"My boy," Tushratta smiled grimly as he put his hands on Aban's shoulders, "if you and Aziru cannot find one, I would be very ashamed of you. When honesty fails, deceit prevails."

"Oh, Master, I understand." Aban's eyes grew shifty, holding a slyness which he seldom revealed. When he had been much younger, he was a petty cutpurse in Turk├╗rzgoi until he was apprehended and sold into slavery. He was lucky that his hand was not chopped off, but because of his young age, he was spared that fate. For one so young, he was well skilled in subterfuge, trickery and deceit, and was a good choice for the task the physician had planned for him.

"Now go, Aban. Tell Aziru everything which happened here, and between the two of you, I am sure that you can find an appropriate substitute for the General's dying pet."

"Yes, Master." The boy bowed his way from the chamber.


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