The Circles - Book Eight - Chapter 17

The Circles - Book Eight - A Mordorian Bestiary
Chapter Seventeen
Ferret Follies
Written by Angmar

"A ferret! You say the Master Physician has instructed you to bring him a ferret?" Aziru's voice was incredulous as he studied the slave boy in front of him. He had spent a miserable evening while Tushratta and Aban were away at the fortress. His mind burdened with worry, he had foregone the pleasures of the waterpipe, and now he was out of sorts. Not even the lascivious pleasure he took from staring at his erotic picture books from Far Khand was enough to soothe his mind.

"Yes, Master," Aban repeated his request for the second time. "The Master Physician must have an albino ferret and have it quickly. If he does not obtain the ferret, both he and Shakh Esarhaddon will die."

"How do you know that, Aban?" Aziru studied the servant skeptically. "Did General Favarti make such threats?"

"No, Master." Aban shook his head. "But the trolls could not have made it plainer if they showed us an execution order. Grat-Durgund, that great hulking monster, kept staring at us, his eyes gleaming like a lion about to pounce on its prey. The other two trolls took out their knives, and the simpleminded one – Noodle, I think his name was – demanded that Grat-Durgund allow him to kill us. If those were not threats, Master, I do not know what threats are."

"Grat-Durgund, you say." Aziru shuddered. "Though I have never seen him, I hear he is a bloodthirsty devil."

"Yes, Master, he is," Aban replied, wishing that the physician's assistant would hurry.

"Well, let me think where we might find a ferret." Aziru scratched his balding pate, which, bare of its usual cloth cap, glistened with sweat and oil.

"Master, there is a farrier in Ordthul who keeps several of the beasts to hunt for rabbits in their burrows," Aban answered. "I made his acquaintance when the caravan traveled north in the spring. Perhaps he would sell you one."

"Then we are in luck!" Aziru exclaimed. "But we must hurry. You told me that the fortress guards would meet you here in an hour, and we must not keep them waiting." Rising from the divan where he had been reclining, Aziru began to wind the long white strip of his turban around his head. "Now fetch the Master Physician's medical chest and take me to the tent of the farrier."


Tushratta was alone in the chamber with the ferret, completely alone in the silence with the dying beast. He wished that he had brought along one of his medical treatises to read while waiting for Aban to return. He had been pressed for time, though, and had forgotten. Now he cursed himself for his oversight. Occasionally he would rise from the chair where he was sitting near the bier and put his hand to the beast's chest and feel for a heartbeat. There was one, he was relieved to discover, but it was weak and sporadic.

He wondered how many times he had sat at the bedside of a dying patient as he wheezed out his last tortured breaths. Some men faced death valiantly, while others railed against fate or begged the Gods to grant them more time. Some saw visions, or talked with loved ones or friends long since passed beyond the pale. He always listened to the last words of the dying. Occasionally one insisted on confessing things which he did not want to hear, things so shocking that if he related them to the family, they would either be unbelieving or outraged. He always kept his silence about what was said by the dying, for to do otherwise would be to break his oaths to the Goddess of Healing.

This case, however, was bizarrely different, and instead of a dying man, woman or child, he was keeping the death watch for what? A ferret! The whole situation was ludicrous, and he felt a mixture of emotions, from anger to a feeling of foolishness. He knew that what he was doing was unethical, and the act of deceiving Favarti made him little more than a charlatan. But what could he do? The means that he had taken were the only chance to save Esarhaddon, Aban, and himself. The ways of fate were truly strange.

Once Grat-Durgund and his two henchmen brothers had come to the door and demanded entry. Tushratta had refused, putting them off with the explanation that he was deep in prayer and could not be disturbed, lest there would be a dire rupture in his contact with the beyond. Grat-Durgund's unblinking eyes had bored suspiciously into his, but glancing over the physician's shoulder at the candle-rimmed bier with the still, small form upon it, the troll had turned away with a huff.

"Praise the Goddess that trolls and orcs are naturally superstitious," Tushratta thought to himself, sighing with relief. An ironic smile twisted his thin lips. "Long have I desired to be a shaman, a healer of the mind and spirit who can walk between the realms of the Seen and Unseen, but, alas, my medical education was lacking in that respect. Now I find, though, that while not qualified as a shaman, I somehow have the power to make others think that I am one." Shaking his head, the physician walked back to his chair and began softly intoning gibberish words that to an untrained listener would sound like some arcane chant.

He wondered how Esarhaddon was faring, or if he still lived. He did not know if his employer would be impressed or offended by his ruse. The man hated all things relating to the occult, whether a simple charm worn by ignorant tribesmen or an elaborate belief system based upon the supernatural. If the deception saved their lives, surely Esarhaddon would be grateful and reward him accordingly.

Tushratta was just entertaining these thoughts when the door was thrust open and Aban was admitted to the room. He was relieved to see that the boy had brought one of his medical chests, and he prayed, this time with true sincerity, that the Goddess would be with them.

Aban glanced questioningly at the ferret, then bowed and handed the medical case to the physician. "I have obtained everything you requested, Master... the herbs, the potions, the sweet-smelling candles, the incense, the sacred incense burners, and the images of the Goddess and her maidens."

"If you neglected to bring even one thing, you will feel the lash upon your back," Tushratta stated loudly, for the benefit of any eavesdroppers. He jerked his head towards the box, his fingers moving in sign language.

"Yes, Master." Aban grinned at him. "You will find everything which you require."

"Then, boy," the physician returned solemnly, "you will assist me in removing my garments so that I may be anointed with the sweet-scented holy oils..."


In spite of the coolness of the night, Esarhaddon was sweating profusely. Though he was no longer coated with honey and turning on a spit, he was not out of the fire yet. After being scrubbed free of the disgusting concoction, the slaver had been given clean garments and taken under guard to the temple of Lug Aanzaabr. When he arrived, there was a ceremony in progress. Priests were shrieking and wailing, beating their bare chests and backs with flails. Smearing the blood over their scored flesh, they beseeched the Lord of the Void to have mercy upon the beloved ferret's life.

Seated beside General Favarti on a raised viewing stand, Esarhaddon surveyed the chamber before him. In the center of the room was a black marble altar. Torches and fire basins blazed with amber light which seemed to dance and undulate with the slow, dolorous pounding of funereal drums. Their hands tied behind their backs, five men and five women knelt nearby, their drugged gazes staring out into nothingness. Garlands of flowers were about their heads and necks, and they were dressed in loose white robes gathered about the waists with golden cords.

Ten slaves were to be sacrificed to Melkor... for a ferret.

A damned malodorous ferret!

Esarhaddon had always heard rumors that Favarti was a secret member of one of the more extreme sects that operated in Mordor. While the official state religion could be considered moderate – only calling for a few human sacrifices upon sacred occasions – there were many sinister cults that preferred to practice their bloody rituals more frequently. Now he was seeing chilling proof of that before his eyes.

Favarti turned his burning gaze from the priests to stare at Esarhaddon. "The priests are doing everything they can to attract Lord Melkor's attention. He listens most intently when His devotees scream in pain as they flagellate themselves for His glory. What an honor it is to bleed for the Great One!"

"Of course, he worships Melkor," Esarhaddon thought to himself. "Melkor, the God of Chaos, who would destroy the world if He could not rule it." While the slaver worshipped no gods, if he should ever choose a deity to worship, it would be Sauron, the God of Order, who at least kept the roads of His domain in good repair.

General Favarti ignored Esarhaddon's lack of response and continued his ranting diatribe. "Surely they will attract the Great One's attention, for see!" The General motioned with his hand to a priest who had sunk exhausted to the marble floor. "The priest's devotion knows no limits! Behold his scored back and chest and how the blood from his stripes drips to the floor!" He trembled in excitement, saliva oozing from the corners of his mouth. "Surely, Shakh Esarhaddon, this has an effect upon you?" He gripped the sleeve of Esarhaddon's robe, and the slaver turned, his heavy lids half veiling his eyes. "Yes! I see that you are moved. Moved by the pure adoration of the faithful!"

"Yes, General, indeed I am impressed," Esarhaddon replied, but thought to himself, "I am impressed with the stupidity of men who would seek out a legless god who is chained in the outermost darkness of the endless Void. How could One who could not help Himself be able to help any others?" Of course, he kept these thoughts to himself, for to speak in such a manner was instant death in Mordor.

"I am so glad you understand, my friend." General Favarti sighed. "Then if your healer cannot cure General Snuggles, what I must do will be less difficult."

"We all hope your ferret will recover, General Favarti," Esarhaddon returned, sincerely hoping that the little bastard would survive, or he, Tushratta, and ten innocent slaves would be offered up to a mad god.

"Here, enjoy some wine, Shakh," Favarti told the slaver as a servant brought two goblets of blood red wine on a tray. "It might be the last you ever drink in this life." The General brought his goblet to his lips and stared at Esarhaddon. "You will be interested to know that your healer has arrived and is in the act of purifying himself before he treats the apple of my eye... my poor little Snuggles."

"Then here is a toast to the success of Tushratta." Esarhaddon tapped the rim of his goblet against Favarti's. "Snuggles," he thought with disgust. "Of all the asinine names to name an animal! Perhaps a young child would choose such a name, but a grown man who is as important as General Favarti? Fah! The man is truly mad!"

"Let us hope that he is successful, Shakh," Favarti went on, gripping Esarhaddon's sleeve even tighter in his long, bony fingers. "If my darling pet lives, there will be no necessity to sacrifice these ten slaves to accompany him on his celestial journey... but if he perishes, they all die! And you and your healer will be fare for the trolls!" He spoke loudly enough for Grat-Durgund, Noodle and Willie to hear, and the three monsters eyed Esarhaddon hungrily, their long, lumpy tongues lolling out of their mouths as they licked their lips.

"We can only wait and see, General." Esarhaddon nodded and took a sip from his wine goblet. Favarti was sitting close enough for him to smell the wine on his stale breath... so close that he could grab the bastard by the neck and throttle him if the accursed ferret did not survive. At least there would be a chance of vengeance before he was torn limb from limb by the trolls.


Stripped to his breeches and glistening with warm, scented oil, Tushratta felt like an oil wrestler who was wrestling against the most fearsome enemy of all – the grim spectre of Death. Sacred candles flickered at the sides of the images of the Goddess of Healing and her maidens, where their sightless eyes stared out from the low table beside the bier. Sweet, pungent incense burned in pots set in a circle around the base of the bier, the smoke hanging heavy in the chamber. Tushratta assumed his position at the side of the stone, and looking in the direction of the visages of the deities, he lifted his arms in supplication and intoned gibberish words in a singsong manner before calling out loudly, "Hear me, O Goddess of Healing, and your celestial handmaidens! Shower your divine blessings upon this beast, the favorite of General Favarti!" He glanced at Aban, whose bowed head barely concealed the wide grin on his face. "Now, boy, give me the veil of the Goddess, that I may cover the General's dear pet while I invoke the name of the deity over him!"

His face an expression of utter seriousness, Aban fetched a bundle of green silk from the physician's medical chest and draped it over the ferret. The boy bowed his head, placed his hands over his middle, and waited reverently for the physician to continue.

"Hear my entreaty, O Goddess! May this poor creature's illness pass away with the placing of the veil upon its disease-racked body!" Closing his eyes and raising his arms, Tushratta tilted his head heavenward. Through the silk coverings, he placed his hand on the creature's heart and felt a slow, though strong, heartbeat. He looked to the boy and saw a hopeful expression in his eyes.

"He lives, my boy! He lives!" Tushratta exclaimed joyfully. "Now remove the veil, and with it any remainder of the sickness. We will burn the cloth when we return to the camp."

"Yes, Master," Aban replied softly as he gathered up the deep green cloth and placed it back in the medical chest.

"Go tell the wardens at the door, Aban." Tushratta sank down exhausted in his chair. "The General's ferret is totally recovered, thanks to the mercies of the Goddess of Healing and her maidens!" He sent up a silent prayer begging the indulgence of his patron deities in case he had offended them. After all, it was for a good cause.


"General Favarti, I bring excellent news!" the excited guard exclaimed as he was shown into the temple and directed to Favarti's dais.

"If you are trying to deceive me..." The General let the words dangle.

"There is no deceit, my lord," the orc bowed. "I have wonderful news! In spite of all our doubts, your ferret has fully recovered!"

"Oh, I must see him!" General Favarti sprang from the dais, his hands clutched together. He turned back to look at the high priest. "Free the prisoners, my worthy priests, and proclaim a time of celebration! Snuggles will need no one to accompany him to the celestial plane!"

General Favarti led the large group of priests, guards, trolls and orcs to the sick chamber where the ferret had lain, lingering between life and death. Esarhaddon was escorted behind the General's cortege by armed guards.

"My darling!" Favarti exclaimed. "He is not dead, but why is he still sleeping, Tushratta?"

"He has not fully recovered his strength yet, General. He was barely a hair's breadth away from death, and his peril was great. We can thank the Goddess of Healing and her maidens for restoring him." Only if one looked very close could they see the twinkle of amusement in Tushratta's eyes as he looked to Aban. The slave boy nodded, grinning.

"Tushratta, you deserve a rich reward for this, and your servant, too, should have his share!" Favarti exclaimed, gently running his fingers over the ferret's back. "My little Snuggles has been returned to me, and my gratitude knows no bounds!"

Tushratta held up a hand. "General Favarti, you are generous, but it is not necessary to pay me anything. My reward comes in knowing that your pet is healed."

"I will never forget your kindness, healer. There is only one thing that I cannot understand, though." The General looked puzzled. "Why does General Snuggles' fur now have a yellowish tint to it? He is still a young ferret, and his fur should still be snowy white."

"An unfortunate consequence of the treatment," Tushratta explained. "The disease was so virulent that it was necessary to use powerful incantations and potions to drive the poisons from the ferret's body. When the disease poured from the poor creature's skin through the hair follicles, the force was so great that the color of the fur was changed forever."

"I am in awe of your knowledge of arcane medicine, Tushratta! You have done what none other could do! You have saved my beloved General Snuggles!" General Favarti picked up the limp body of the ferret, and after gazing for some moments into its red eyes, he kissed the little beast on the forehead. "Here," he told one of the guards as he handed him the ferret, "put little Snuggles in his cage. He is so happy! Look how his eyes dance! He has been through so much suffering. Tell my servants to give him everything he wishes to eat when he wakes up, and he is to sleep upon silken brocade cushions in his room. I want no one to disturb him, so set guards at the door!"

General Favarti wrapped his arms around Tushratta and Aban, embracing them firmly. "You and your servant will stay the night in my house, where you will enjoy the best it has to offer." His eyes narrowed to glaring slits when he looked to Esarhaddon. "I still have not forgiven you for insulting my play back in the spring, but I have decided to show mercy on this momentous occasion. I shall allow you to live... if you watch my play. If you fall asleep again, I will have the palace guards kill you on the spot and hang your dead body from the fortress wall! Is it agreed?"

"I do not see how I can refuse such an offer as that." Esarhaddon gave him one of his sleepy-eyed smiles.

"The night grows old, and I still must offer my thanks to Master Melkor." Favarti clapped his arm around Esarhaddon's shoulder. "Now you will go to your rooms, where you will enjoy the hospitality of the fortress until tomorrow evening. Then you will join me for another marvelous performance of my play, which has attracted so much attention – 'The Lonely Shepherdess.'"

Inwardly Esarhaddon recoiled at the touch of the General's arm. This time he would stay awake during Favarti's damn play, even if he had to pinch himself until he was black and blue.


"How did you do it, Tushratta?" Esarhaddon asked after the last of the dancing girls had retreated from the chamber. He set his goblet down on the wide, low table, recently cleaned of the noon meal. The early afternoon sun streamed through the windows, casting beams of light over the carpeted floor. The slaver and Tushratta sat together in the guest quarters, with Aban standing in attendance behind them.

"Before Aban left Lug Aanzaabr, I had discreetly told him in sign language that I had come up with a plan to save our lives," the physician answered. "I instructed him to go to Aziru and tell him that it was crucial that they obtain an albino ferret to match the sick one, if such a beast could be found." Looking haggard and worn after his long night of keeping vigil at the ferret's bier, Tushratta leaned back against the cushions of the divan. "To tell you the truth, Shakh, I had little hope that a suitable ferret could be located, but Aban knew a farrier in Ordthul who keeps the beasts to hunt rabbits. After purchasing a suitable ferret, Aziru drugged the creature so that it would keep quiet and not give away our secrets."

"Tushratta, I am still confused." Esarhaddon shook his head. "How did you switch the sick one with the well one without attracting attention?"

"Only Aban and I were in the room with the sick ferret, although I do not doubt that we were being watched every minute through peep holes in the walls," Tushratta explained. "I gave what I considered an adequate imitation of a priest performing rituals of healing, based on those I have seen in Khand. Through the sweet smoke of burning incense, I made ablutions to the Goddess of Healing and her maidens, bathing myself in sacred water and holy oil." He paused and took a sip of water from a goblet offered to him by Aban.

"I never expected that you were so cunning, Tushratta, but obviously you are. How did you manage to make the substitution?"

"That was the simplest part of all, Shakh." The physician allowed a faint smile to play over his thin features. "As part of the 'ritual,' I ordered Aban to fetch from the medicine chest a veil of healing dedicated to the Goddess. Contained within the silk was the false ferret. I covered Favarti's ailing pet with the healing veil, and when I drew the cloth away, I wrapped within it the dying ferret. I handed the bundle to Aban, who put it back in my medical chest, and there it is now."

"What are you going to do with the true ferret?" Esarhaddon asked, stroking his jaw thoughtfully.

Tushratta lowered his head. "I regret to say that the ailing creature perished this morning. I had Aban wrap the beast with perfumed linen, spices and myrrh, so that the smell of death would be contained. Since we do not leave Lug Aanzaabr until tomorrow morning, the body would put off such a reek that suspicions would be raised."

"Master," Aban spoke up excitedly, "can we sell the body as a holy relic or good luck charm when we get to Turkûrzgoi? There are many who would pay much for its apotropaic powers."

"Yes, Physician, perhaps you should consider becoming a traveling holy man who purveys mystic relics, fertility potions, good luck charms, and mummified ferrets." Esarhaddon appeared to be enjoying his own droll humor. "Perhaps miracles will be assigned to Favarti's mummified ferret, and you will soon find that you have a cult of gibbering mustelid worshipers following in your wake. You could become rich from selling such rubbish."

"Surely you jest! I know that you do not take any of this seriously." Tushratta frowned, his forehead wrinkling. "I have no intention of pursuing this foolish idea of traveling around the country selling charms made from cankerous ferrets!"

"Why not, physician? Many of those in your profession are charlatans and mountebanks, but I always hoped better of you." Esarhaddon studied the offended expression on Tushratta's face for a few moments before bursting out into laughter.

"Go ahead and laugh, my good master," Tushratta snapped irritably. "In a few hours, you will be the one watching Favarti's enlightening play about bearded women who run away with goats. I doubt you will be laughing then."

The smile disappeared from Esarhaddon's face, and he took a long swallow of his wine. "Maybe if you get good enough at alchemy, Tushratta, you can throw one of those magic veils over me and conjure up a homunculus identical to myself. Let it be tortured by that damned play instead of me!"

"It would fall asleep as well," Tushratta remarked dryly. "Now if you will excuse me, I will be going to the bathhouse." He glanced to his servant. "Fetch my things, Aban, and we will be off."

Esarhaddon was left alone to wait the slow toil of the hours until he was once again forced to endure another performance of "The Lonely Shepherdess." The next morning could not come too soon, and then he would shake the dust of Lug Aanzaabr from his feet. He considered writing a letter of complaint to the Tower, but taking matters through the official channels was always a lengthy process, especially during times of war. Since Favarti was a high ranking general, the dispute between the two men would be arbitrated by Sauron Himself. Esarhaddon did not relish the thought of standing before the Lord of Mordor and recounting all the humiliations that had been dealt to him. Hiring an assassin to take care of the matter would be far simpler. It would indeed be a pity if some accident befell the General, Esarhaddon considered wryly, for that would mean that he could pen no more plays, and the world would forever be denied the brilliance of his creative mind.

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