6. The Broken Wheel
Chapter Written by Angmar and Elfhild
His hands folded neatly on his rounded stomach, Aziru dozed against the cushions of the wain. As his loud, shuddering snores broke the silence of the compartment, Goldwyn stared at him as though he were a felon. Barsud, almost asleep herself, yawned and glanced down at the embroidery lying forgotten on her lap. The only one who was fully awake was Goldwyn, whose worried thoughts centered on her three sons. Was Fritha, her baby, crying for his mother? Had any of them been injured? Had they been recaptured, beaten... or even killed? She could not bear to think about the grim possibilities.
The late morning sun beat down on the road, creating shimmering heat demons above the pavement. The air was stifling inside the shadowy wain, with only a sluggish breeze coming through the open windows. To Goldwyn, the din from outside was the discordant beating of a drum that never stopped. Guards shouted and cursed, women scolded their young, children whimpered and wailed, horses whinnied, and behind the great train, the herd of beeves bawled vociferously. She looked resentfully across the aisle at her unwelcome companions, her long, proud nose sniffing disdainfully.
"They look quite content," she thought with a certain malicious sarcasm. "The rest of Middle-earth could be dragged down into slavery, but as long as they are comfortable and well-fed, they do not care a whit for the pain of others." Aching to hold her children once more to her bosom, Goldwyn felt more sorry for herself that morning than she had the day before, her self-pity a martyr's burden. Her reproachful eyes condemned Barsud, damning her perhaps even more than she did Aziru. Barsud had mentioned that she had two sons. How could she endure the knowledge that her sons were doomed to be slaves for the rest of their lives? Did she not feel the pain that they would have to suffer? Critical and judgmental, Goldwyn scorned the plump but pretty woman, considering her as nothing more than a common whore who waited, her bovine face placid, for any man to call for her.
A splintering sound like the crack of a broken bone jarred Goldwyn from her spiteful thoughts. The wain shuddered, jerked, and then lurched forward. With a curse, the driver snapped his whip high over the horses' backs, but though the straining animals pulled the traces taut, the wagon did not budge. The wain tilted precariously to one side as a spoke on the left rear wheel broke in two.
The passengers were tossed forward, then backward. Goldwyn grabbed the seat and held on tightly. Stirred from her indolent languor, Barsud reached for her embroidery just before it slid from her lap. She managed to keep her solid form in the seat by bracing her feet against the floor and holding on tightly to the seat. Seized in the midst of a great, trumpeting snore, Aziru's lips rippled as the air gushed out of his mouth. "Wha? Wha?" he exclaimed as he fell crashing to the floor.
"What is the meaning of this?!" Aziru screamed as Barsud helped him to his feet. Trembling and fearing that his bowels might give way from fear, he quickly opened the small window behind the driver's bench, only to find an empty seat. Muttering to himself, the little physician smoothed his robes, brushing them off as though they had been profaned, and then moved to the door. "Stay inside until I know what is going on," he ordered the women before stepping outside. "This could be some attack by Rangers! You never know what those devils might be plotting!"
"Oh, Master, please be careful!" Barsud's panicked voice quavered. "What would I ever do if my beloved master were killed by those unscrupulous men?"
"Silence, woman! I will protect us all!" replied Aziru, doubting that his small dagger would be any defense against the Rangers. He was immensely relieved when he saw no Rangers or brigands, only other wagons in the caravan making their way up the road. He hailed the leader of the rear guard, who assured him that all was well and that he would send a man ahead to the physician to ask for assistance. Greatly calmed by that news, Aziru walked over to the driver and his assistant, who were studying the wheel.
"Why have we stopped?" Aziru demanded.
"Master Aziru, the wheel, sir... it is broken." The man straightened and then bowed, nervously wiping his grimy hands on his tunic. His helper, a youth in his mid-teens, kept his head bowed as he held his cap in his hands, toying with the rim.
"Broken?" the little physician fumed. "That is preposterous! How can it possibly be broken?"
"Well, sir," the wagon master replied, fidgeting under Aziru's hostile gaze, "I am not quite certain, but down the road, we hit a fairly nasty bump. I think the strain on the wheel was too great. Perhaps one of the spokes was not so well made as I had thought--"
"Do not bother me with such unnecessary information, man! How long do you think it will take to repair it?" Aziru's tone was curt and impatient.
"Sir, to be honest, I am not quite sure," the driver mumbled apologies. "I feel that the whole wheel must be replaced."
"This is intolerable!" the diminutive Khandian exclaimed, his face turning red from his neck to his turban. "Certainly you do not expect us to sit out here in the middle of the road all day, do you?" he sputtered, his expressive, finely-formed hands gesturing towards the broken wagon wheel. "This road has heavy military traffic, and who knows when a convoy from the East might pass by?" Aziru wiped his sweating brow, wincing as his hand inadvertently brushed across a large bruise on his forehead.
"Come and look for yourself, Master Aziru. The spoke is shattered." The driver tried to keep the growing irritation from his voice, but still he sounded brusque to the fussy little Khandian. Clearly uncomfortable, the driver's assistant shifted his gaze to his master.
"What an insufferable situation!" Aziru railed to himself. "This fool will take the rest of the day to repair this minor damage!" As it was, the military of Mordor did not hold the slavers in the highest of regards. All that it would take to earn their everlasting animosity was to delay one of their precious patrols.
Pushing his turban back slightly, he scratched his head. Although Aziru knew little about carpentry or other manual labor, he would never divulge that information to the driver and his assistant. Still, though, it did not reflect favorably upon himself to wrangle with these incipient peasants. He would try another tactic. When a man as important as he was took interest in the mundane labors of servants, they always took heart. Gazing solemnly at the wheel, Aziru lamented, "Ah! If this were a matter of a broken bone, I could quickly set it to rights, but in this case, I must rely on the experience and judgment of others." When the tense faces of the wagon master and his helper relaxed into smiles, Aziru knew his ploy had worked.
All heads turned to look as a rider approached and drew rein beside the wagon. "Greetings, Master Aziru, esteemed assistant to the physician Tushratta. May peace and health be upon you!" After the two men had exchanged lengthy and verbose greetings and blessings, the young man continued. "News of your distress has already reached the Master Physician. He was quite concerned, as you might guess."
"Excellent, young man! And what else did he say?" Aziru gave him a benevolent glance.
"Sir, you will be pleased to know that aid is on its way. The Master Physician will be sending a wainwright and his workers to determine the problem, whether the wheel needs to be repaired or replaced. In order to avoid any delays, the rest of the caravan will be directed around your wain." Given to over-enthusiasm, the courier spoke rapidly, his words tumbling over each other. "The honorable physician also advised that until this wain is repaired, you are welcome to use his." The courier, a pleasant-faced man named Hazim, smiled amiably. Always hoping for a promotion, Hazim was eager to impress the little physician. "I am to stay here and assist you in moving any personal belongings."
"Though I appreciate Master Tushratta's kind offer for the use of his wain, I will wait here for this wagon to be repaired." His forehead creased in thought, Aziru peered at the wheel, giving every impression that he was earnestly studying the splintered spoke.
"Are you sure, sir?" the courier asked anxiously, an eyebrow raised. "You might have a long wait."
Aziru chuckled. "What you do not realize, young man, is that every obstacle can be a blessing. As it is said, 'Do not hate misfortune, for maybe there is fortune for you in it.' This situation is no different. While we wait, we will take the opportunity to enjoy a small respite and soothe both our rattled nerves and our gnawing stomachs."
"Yes, sir, as you would have it," the courier replied cordially. "What do you want me to do now?" Hazim looked at the physician's assistant for orders, but before Aziru could reply, Goldwyn stepped gracefully from the wain. Hazim's breath caught in his throat as his eyes hungered for that stunning creature. A regal turn of her head and their eyes met; then with a disdainful shrug that made the courier feel that he was beneath contempt, she turned her flashing blue eyes to Aziru.
"What is wrong, slaver?" she spat out. "Are your jackasses unable to fix a simple broken spoke? From the appearance of the damage, it should be easy enough even for your lackeys. As you might remember, my husband was a carpenter of some renown, and such a splintered spoke would be nothing more than child's work for him," she boasted.
Barsud stepped carefully out of the wain. Shaken by the accident, she breathed heavily, her scarred face pale beneath her olive skin. When she saw the courier, she mustered a weak smile, remembering the last time he had spent the night in the tent of the pleasure women. The courier, his feelings hurt by the golden woman of the North, smiled back at Barsud and settled his gaze on the slave woman's splendid bosom.
"My lady, my lady," Barsud wailed, her hand fluttering at her stomach, which had become unsettled by the tilting wagon, "please do not be frightened! We are safe with Master Aziru and this fine gentleman who has come to help us!" She fretted that the excitement of the accident might prove too much for her mistress' frail mind.
"Frightened? Frightened?" Her voice dripping with scorn, Goldwyn turned to the slave woman. "Appalled would be a better word... appalled at such bumbling incompetency. Your great one-eyed Master seeks to conquer the world, and His weak minions cannot even repair a wagon wheel." Her clear voice rose. "Step aside, men, and let a woman of the North show you how we repair wagons in Rohan!"
Aziru smiled condescendingly at her. "My lady, while I am sure that your inexhaustible talents would prove up to the task, a woman of your standing should never demean herself by doing the work of servants." Her deep, throaty laughter surprised him, but he dismissed her impertinence because she was too ill to think clearly. "I must be patient with her," he thought, "for not only is she mad, but she was brought up in a savage land where the women are coarse and rude. No one there teaches them to be modest, so they think nothing of baring their faces to the idle glances of men."
"I understand, you wretched little worm!" Goldwyn laughed haughtily. "You are afraid that I will show up you and these other pathetic weaklings! Then fetch me a horse and I will ride the rest of the way!"
"I fear I cannot do that, my lady, for that would be breaking the instructions of the Master Physician. I have a much better idea." Before she could reply, Aziru turned to Hazim. "Now find those worthless slave boys and have them prepare a picnic lunch for us."
"Certainly, sir," Hazim replied, jolted out of his daydream about nestling his head between Barsud's huge breasts. "It looks like it may rain today. Shall I have them set up a pavilion for you?"
"No, no," Aziru answered emphatically, impatiently waving his hand. "Nothing quite that extravagant. That would take too much time, and I want to eat! Simply have the slaves set up a large parasol. That will provide us with shade from the sun and shelter from the rain, should the Gods decree a storm."
The courier nodded. "An excellent idea, sir. All will be done as you have requested." Perhaps if he were fortunate, the physician's assistant would allow him to dine with them.
"Oh, yes," Aziru told him as an afterthought, "if the Chief Physician is available, invite him to attend my little picnic."
"Aye, sir," the courier tried to smile as he was dismissed. He should have known that the haughty little bastard would never allow him to dine with him.
After Hazim had ridden away, Goldwyn eyed the physician's assistant coldly. "What now, Aziru?" she asked skeptically. "Are we going to have a picnic in the middle of the road?"
"No, my lady, certainly not," Aziru remarked pleasantly, hiding his irritation behind a wide smile. "There is the spot for our picnic right over there!" He pointed to a sunlit patch of ground at the mouth of a little hollow where a small stream oozed its torpid way towards the Morgulduin. "What can be more pleasant than a picnic on a hot day? We have all that is needed," he beamed enthusiastically. "Food, wine... everything except ice for sherbet." A small scowl knotted his forehead. "But we must be content with whatever fortune provides. The two of you will follow me," he smiled as he strode forward across the road and into the parched meadow beyond.
"Physician's assistant," Goldwyn's voice was loud and strident, "how could you ever think of a picnic when my countrywomen and their children must exist upon the scraps from your table?" Her angry eyes bored into his back.
"My dear lady, how could you ever make such a statement?" Aziru sounded greatly injured. "Certainly since they have come under the keeping of the House of Huzziya, none of your countrywomen have ever gone hungry. Most of them eat better now than they have ever eaten in their lives. Scraps from our table indeed!" Aziru kept walking, not bothering to turn his head and look at her. "Enjoy yourself, my lady, and remember - it is a true saying - that the soul at peace has the best digestion."
As the Khandian and the two women moved to Aziru's chosen picnic spot, the caravan plodded along at a slow, even pace. Goldwyn turned and watched the long line of slave women and their children march by forlornly. "By Béma!" she exclaimed, clutching the side of her head with one hand. "There are so many of them! Did none escape? Tell me, Aziru, and do not lie to me!"
"As it is said, man proposes; the Gods dispose." The small man sighed heavily, fearing that this adage would upset the lady. "A few escaped, but not many."
"My sons, Aziru? What of them?" Goldwyn reached forward and grasped his forearm. She noticed the shocked and disapproving look on Aziru's face as he stopped and turned to her.
"Modest women never touch men without their permission." Annoyed at her presumption, he brushed her hand away as though it were an irritating insect. "Would you destroy your reputation!"
"Do not be preposterous, slaver!" she lashed back. "What a hypocrite you are! What a small, stunted mind you possess! You can touch any slave woman you want, and with far less innocent intentions than mine! How can you preach to me about morality? Every last one of you trades in the most loathsome of businesses, the buying and selling of human flesh! If my reputation is to be soiled, it is not I who will be responsible, but your damned master and his unholy business!" Goldwyn took a deep breath. "Now if you know anything, tell me of my sons!"
"And the other women, my lady? Do you wish to know of them?" Aziru replied calmly, stroking his chin as he studied the woman's face. Was she concerned only for the welfare of her sons? What would be her reaction if all the other women and children had perished and yet her sons had lived? Pondering these things, he wondered if anyone could ever understand the recalcitrant wench.
"Certainly, I will be overjoyed to learn of any who found their freedom. Now tell me, Aziru. Do not keep me waiting for nothing!" she demanded angrily.
"Lady, there were eight who escaped that night - eight - your sons and five women," he replied, his voice placating. "All that is known for any certainty is that of the three women who threw themselves in the river, only one body was ever found. The other two are presumed dead, but who knows? Perhaps they escaped." Shrugging, he held his hands palm up. "That leaves your sons and two women, and if these slaves find that fortune still favors them, they are free, at least for the time."