7. Picnics and Prejudices
Chapter Written by Angmar and Elfhild
Goldwyn knew they were mocking her, that little toad of a doctor and his dumpy bawd! How dare those heathen savages do that! Those ignorant barbarians were envious of the culture of Rohan and its advanced ways, and they would try to degrade her in every way they could. She should not let their stinging words hurt her, but they did. She would never show it, though. Above her on the path, she could hear the woman giggling at some remark from that bloated little bastard.
Since passing over the Anduin, the slavers had not set a guard to watch her every move. They knew she had nowhere to go with a wide river separating her from her homeland. She had not given up the idea of escaping, though. No, she would never do that, but for now, she would simply have to bide her time. Perhaps if she could slip away during the night, she would sneak away to the river and steal a boat. Then she could row across... How much did she know about rowboats? She had never ridden in a boat in her life, and she was not quite certain even how to row. But good would find a way...
When she had topped the knoll, Goldwyn was amazed by the sight before her. The three slave boys had obviously been hard at work, for slightly beyond the crest of the hill, unseen from below, stood a tall, colorful pavilion. Bright and colorful against a landscape still recovering from darkness and an overlong winter, the material was green and yellow, and from its dagged edges tassels of goat hair swayed in the breeze. Beneath the large, airy shelter rested a table bedecked with cloths woven of gaudy crimson and cream. Fine rugs had been spread over the ground and upon them were silken brocaded cushions and pillows, their opulency begging to be enjoyed. Trooping up the side of the hill marched a pageant of servants bearing baskets and hampers filled with provisions for the picnic. Goldwyn stopped, gazing curiously at the scene until Barsud walked down the hill to meet her and bowed politely.
"My lady, the feast is ready, and the physician's assistant bids you come dine with him."
"All this for a picnic, Barsud?" Goldwyn laughed sourly. "Back in my country, only rich lords would dine in such fashion. You people certainly do like your opulence, but I suppose when you finance such extravagance upon ill-gotten riches, you can do whatever you like."
"My lady, I am only a slave like you," Barsud replied softly.
"Of course, you are, Barsud - only a slave, but not just like me." Goldwyn gave Barsud a pitying glance. "The difference is I do not intend to stay a slave the rest of my life, while you do." Brushing past Barsud, Goldwyn walked briskly to the pavilion.
"Greetings, my lady. Welcome to my picnic." Aziru smiled at her and then turned to the three slave boys who stood with heads bowed, waiting for their master's next orders. "Aban, you and the other boys have worked diligently beneath the heat of the sun. The picnic was unplanned - nothing settled until the last minute - and you had little time to make preparations. I am pleased with the performance of you all." The small physician, a sparkle in his brown eyes, regarded the boys with a fatherly smile. For a moment he rested his hand on Aban's muscular shoulder. "Now I think you deserve a reward."
Reaching for the coin purse beneath his cloak, Aziru drew out a few coins and tossed them into the air. With grateful smiles to Aziru, the boys scrambled to catch the coins, laughing as they tried to push each other out of the way. After they had collected their prizes and received more praise from Aziru, the boys were dismissed to take their places at the side of the shelter. As the other servants brought bowls of warm rosewater for washing, Aban and his fellows stood as silently as statues in a lonely graveyard. Aziru, obviously well-pleased with his picnic, made an elaborate display of inhaling the fragrance of the scented towels before wiping his hands on them.
"By the holy paps of Inanna, the Goddess of Love!" he exclaimed as a slave brought him a cup of wine. "I would not be ashamed to offer this feast to the Gods!" Delighted, he watched as the servants placed a large communal bowl of flavorful hummus upon the table. As the only free male present, it was Aziru's privilege to be the first to dip pieces of flatbread into the bowl. After giving the women permission to eat, Aziru waited expectantly to see the looks of gratitude which he was sure would meet his generosity.
"Aziru, what is the difference between this meal and the food you eat everyday?" Goldwyn scoffed, taking a perverse satisfaction in crushing the Khandian's enthusiasm. "If this paltry meal is a feast for your deities, then what are they? Mice?" She eyed the little physician dubiously. "We throw better and more abundant scraps to our hounds in Rohan!"
Aziru was silent for a while, his disbelieving mind attempting to comprehend what she had said. Then as his slight frame trembled in anger, his face blossomed into a livid scarlet underneath his tawny skin. Speechless, he could only clench and unclench his right fist in repressed fury. Barsud, who had been dipping a piece of bread in the bowl, felt her hand pause in midair before she jerked it back to rest in her lap. As though some dire event of calamitous proportions were about to descend upon them all, the servant boys held their breath, careful not to make a sound. Protocol and courtesy had been shattered, and all the slaves waited to see what dreadful punishment would be meted out to the brash and irreverent Northern woman.
"Mice?" Aziru was finally able to choke out. "Mice? You know nothing about the Gods of Bablon, you heathen wench! You know nothing, nothing at all!" Clearly so incensed that his temper was beyond his control, he raised his hand up as though to strike her.
"Aziru, you blessed little man, you have even provided cheese for the divinities!" Goldwyn was enjoying this. The Easterling was such a pompous little fool, and he had needed someone to shake the hinges of his vain delusions for a long time.
"Say one more word, and I will have you tied and gagged! You will not ruin my feast!" Aziru almost screamed. He watched her face to see if he saw intimidation there, and when he beheld the haughty arrogance in her flashing eyes, he became even more enraged.
"Go ahead," she told him cheerfully. "That is all you people can do, is it not? Bully women and children! Torture them when they do not obey you! And when you cannot break their spirit and will, throw them in some rat-infested dungeon and let them rot! Go ahead!" She extended her once lovely hands, the skin sunburnt and abraded by the elements, the fingernails jagged and broken. "Tie them yourself! Here they are!"
The atmosphere over the small gathering had grown oppressively tense, the air charged with a storm of brewing emotions. Barsud shot Goldwyn a sideways glance, silently pleading with her to be quiet and cease goading the physician's assistant. The Northern woman's eyes flashed such a look of malicious glee that Barsud recoiled.
"The witch!" Aziru warned himself. "She tries to make me appear a weakling and fool in front of my own servants! She will not be happy until she sees me lose face, and if I am forced to play her little game, that is just what will happen! The servants will never stop laughing at me behind my back, considering me a powerless man who cannot control even a woman!" He excused himself, however, when he considered that he had not expected such a fierce verbal attack at his innocuous statement. He decided that his best option was simply to laugh the whole thing off while holding her up to public ridicule.
"My lady Goldwyn, although you have insulted the sacred pantheon of Bablon, my feast and myself, I feel that you have done this not through malice but through ignorance. How could you know any better when you have been brought up and nurtured by savages?" He smiled pityingly at her. "It is such a shame that you do not have the protection and comfort that comes from worshiping the true gods." He leaned forward, resting his chin on his hands. "Perhaps the people of your country worship no gods at all! Could this be true?" He looked at her curiously. "Yes, I see by your face that I am correct."
"What the Rohirrim believe is their concern and none of yours!" Gripping her cup, Goldwyn clenched the vessel tightly in her hand, envisioning Aziru's shocked expression when she threw the contents in his face. She only wished that it were a caustic acid that would burn away his loathsome face!
"Unwilling to discuss your belief in divinities? Then you are either a godless infidel, or one who does not have the conviction to follow any beliefs at all." Quirking one eyebrow, Aziru regarded her sadly, smiling to himself as he caught the grin of one of the slave boys behind her.
While it would be immensely satisfying to toss the cup into his face, Goldwyn realized that such a crime would surely be punished. Unwilling to discuss her beliefs with this vexatious little man, she decided to provoke him until he made a complete ass of himself. "What is wrong, slaver?" she hissed. "In your lengthy recitation of my manifold faults, have you become so intoxicated on your own words that you have forgotten to bind my wrists?" Leaning forward, she lifted her arms and thrust her crossed wrists into Aziru's face. "Here they are; either bind them or stop making idle threats!"
"Let me examine them first before I decide on the proper binding material." Smiling like a lusty imp, Aziru caught both her hands in his and turned them over, palm upward. "Such hands as these were never meant to be encased in ropes. Nay, they were meant to be free to caress a man until his blood boils with fire!"
"You lecherous little pig!" She struggled in his grip, but Aziru, stronger than he appeared, held her fast.
"The only thing to go around these arms should be decorations to accentuate your loveliness... bracelets of fine gold and silver for your wrists and rings of priceless stones for your fingers." His voice husky, his small dark brown eyes gleaming with a sensual spark he did not feel for her, Aziru leered suggestively at the Northern woman. No feral beast captured in a snare could have glared at him with any more hatred than that which flared from the golden lady's eyes.
"Let me loose, Aziru! I do not want your filthy hands on me!"
Pulling her struggling hands to his fleshy lips, Aziru flicked his tongue over the palms. "Why do you fight your destiny, lady? You were born to be possessed and mastered by men, and it does you no good to deny fate. Though you would look charming with a gag between your lips, your warm, inviting mouth was designed for far more titillating purposes."
Fighting desperately in his grip, Goldwyn threw her whole weight backwards against the cushions, but Aziru pulled her so close that their faces were almost touching. "When the Shakh comes back, I am sure he will put both your hands and your mouth to good use." He chuckled, knowing that her fury had been smothered under the deep flush of her shame. Laughing, he forcefully pushed her away, as though the touch of her had become loathsome to his flesh. A beaming smile upon his face, Aziru looked around at all those assembled beneath the shelter. "Now if you have nothing else to add, I would like to eat. More wine, slaves."
An unspoken feeling of relief rippled over the ranks of the servants, and, relaxing, they replaced the empty platters, bowls and cups with more food and drink. All were delighted that the barbarian slave woman had been shamed and put in her place... all of them except Barsud.
As Barsud glanced over at the Northern woman, she knew that the lady was suffering. She considered her pale face; the dark shadows beneath her hollow eyes; her thinned lips defiant; the visible strain so apparent on her face; the gaunt body which appeared to be in the grip of some wasting disease; and the long, golden hair, which hung lusterless down her back. A kindly woman, Barsud prayed that whatever demons ravished the lady's mind would depart and leave her in peace.
While she could understand Goldwyn's grief at losing her children, still she felt that the lady had much for which to live. In spite of the fact that Goldwyn had the temperament of an ill-humored she-camel, the woman had somehow found favor in the eyes of Esarhaddon uHuzziya, one of the richest and most powerful men in either Nurn or Harad. Reported to be enamored of her, the handsome Shakh surely planned to keep her for his own harem. "Why else would he lavish so much care and attention upon her... and allow her to behave as a spiteful, unruly child?" Barsud puzzled to herself.
Camp gossip had it that the woman experienced strange visions, dreams, and hallucinations while in the grip of bizarre, violent fits. Some even said she was a medium through which djinns made contact with the physical world. Barsud bit her lip as she felt a chill go down her spine. One never knew when such tales might be true, but in this case Barsud had never taken the stories seriously. No matter what others might say, she had no hesitation at all in serving the lady, for she pitied the woman. "Poor soul," Barsud thought, "to have so many miseries descend upon her, first losing her husband, and then having to leave her sons so they might have the opportunity to escape."
Far more disturbing than idle tales of visions and djinns was the information that Sang-mí had related shortly after she had returned to the tent of the prostitutes. Although there was no time to relate all the details, Sang-mí had intimated that there had been trouble between the two. Sobbing almost incoherently, the younger woman had confessed that she was afraid of the foreign lady - far more afraid for the sake of her baby than she was for herself. Though Sang-mí was genuinely worried, Barsud could hardly believe that the dazed and confused Goldwyn could pose any threat either to Sang-mí or her child. Barsud knew how incredibly cruel and wicked people could be, but she did not want to believe that any mother would harm a helpless baby. So wrapped up was Barsud in her ruminations that she did not hear the approaching hoof-beats of two horses.
Cantering his sorrel mare up the small rise, Tushratta drew ahead of his companion, a dark-skinned young man named Khaldun. The two men reined in their horses in front of the shelter and turned their mounts over to the waiting servants. His lean face flushed with exertion and the excitement of winning the small bet he had made with Khaldun, Tushratta slapped the younger man good-naturedly across the shoulders.
"That is a fine animal you have there, Khaldun," Tushratta remarked admiringly. "If the race had been longer, your gelding would surely have beaten my sorrel."
"You are most kind, Physician," Khaldun replied, a smile lighting up his swarthy face. "Sometimes it takes my steed a while to get into his stride, but then when he hits it, there are few animals that can keep up with him."
"Khaldun, we will race them again sometime," Tushratta told him. Smiling, the two men walked to the shelter, where Aziru waited to greet them.
"Welcome to my humble feast, Master Tushratta and Khaldun." Aziru touched his hand to his heart and inclined his head.
"Feast?" Tushratta exclaimed as he looked over the table. "Did you save any food for Khaldun and me, you little scoundrel, or have you eaten it all yourself?" He laughed jovially as he clasped Aziru by the shoulder.
"My esteemed guests, you will find there is a surfeit of everything," Aziru smiled. "You know I never withhold when it comes to a feast."
"Especially if it is one financed with my money, you weasel!"
When the laughing had died down, Aziru's expression turned serious as his eyes darted towards Goldwyn. "Good Master, I need to have a word with you, if you would care to go outside with me." He looked over to Khaldun. "Sit down, my young friend, and enjoy the meal. There are some matters of utmost importance that I must discuss with the Head Physician."
"Certainly, Physician. I shall be happily occupied here for a while." Khaldun inclined his head respectfully, his eyes lighting up when the servants placed a fresh bowl of hummus and a platter of flatbread on the table.
"Do not mind me, gentlemen." Goldwyn looked up at them, smiling sarcastically at the two physicians. "I am only another one of the insane foreign women on this caravan who are known for rambling to themselves. While the two of you discuss me in private, I will just sit here under your amazing pavilion and hope that a brisk wind does not come along. It looks like a storm is brewing."
The two physicians walked until they were out of hearing range of the others, and then Aziru halted. He lay his hand on Tushratta's forearm as he searched his eyes. "Tushratta, this arrangement is not working out! The woman argues with everything, and when she is not honing her sarcastic wit on me, she waits to stir up trouble. My friend, I feel as though I am trapped in a cage with a tigress!" The physician's assistant watched as Tushratta's dark eyebrows furrowed in concern. "Remember last night when she hurled herself upon you with a strength that was almost supernatural?" Aziru mopped his sweaty brow as the two men walked along the crest of the ridge. "For her sake and for ours, too, I strongly advise that she be kept in a perpetual state of light sedation!"
"Aziru, I am surprised at you." Tushratta looked at him with a mixture of pity and disapproval in his gaze. "You are making far too much of this. The lady woke up from a bad dream and was startled. She never meant to do any harm, I assure you."
"A bad dream?" Aziru remarked in disbelief. "She went after you like an agonized whore poisoned on cantharides!"
"Aziru, try to be a little more charitable. You misjudge her motives and exaggerate in your description of her behavior." Tushratta scowled at his assistant. "The lady Goldwyn is not a wild beast to be kept in chains, nor is she a lunatic to be kept sedated all the time! No cure can be effective if she becomes addicted to opiates!"
"Then, Tushratta, at least have one of the eunuchs ride in the wain - one of the brawny ones, I would suggest. I am concerned that she might go berserk and possibly attack Barsud. I do not think I could control her!" Embarrassed to make such an admission, Aziru dropped his eyes, his tawny skin flushing a deep red.
"Aziru, are you afraid of a woman? I can hardly believe that!" Tushratta scoffed, regarding his assistant with disbelief.
"Not quite that dramatic, Tushratta." Aziru looked a bit sheepish. "I can handle her most of the time, but we both know that madness can sometimes endow a sufferer with incredible strength." Aziru's eyes shifted, and he looked furtively back over his shoulder.
"Aziru, you are alarmed! I have never known you to have such a reaction to any patient. I must ponder upon these things." His head bowed, Tushratta clasped his hands behind his back and walked in silence for a while. When the two men reached a giant plane tree, the physician turned back to Aziru. "I realize that you feel there is something beyond the ordinary about this case, and sometimes I find myself agreeing with you. Where we differ is our mode of treatment. I will administer opiates only as a last resort!" As the men had been walking, the skies in the west had grown dark. Lightning flashed in the turbulent heavens and thunder rumbled loudly. "Do you want the woman to go through life in a poppy induced haze? I do not!"
"Tushratta, just a light sedative to calm her, surely you would agree to that!" Aziru looked desperate.
"No! This matter is settled! Now let us get back to the others. I have been waiting long enough to eat while I listened to your unreasonable demands!" Tushratta's strong, lean face, too grim to be considered handsome, was tense with irritation. Turning on his heel, he strode back towards the shelter, leaving Aziru gaping after him. "Aziru," Tushratta called back over his shoulder to his assistant, whose wheezing shamble was no match for his superior's long-legged stride, "disobey my orders and you might as well look for employment with another physician!"
The rain was falling steadily by the time the two physicians reached the site of the picnic. The scene was almost deserted, except for a few slaves who were frantically trying to salvage the pavilion and the remains of the feast. Down the hill, the men saw Barsud and two servants hastily shepherding Goldwyn back towards the road.
"Master Physician, there is Khaldun with your sorrel," Aziru commented, motioning with his hand to where the young man led Tushratta's horse from a small grove of junipers.
Nodding his thanks to Khaldun, the physician was quickly in the saddle, and, reaching down, he pulled Aziru up behind him. The hoods of their burnooses low over their faces, the three men rode down the hill into the blinding storm. When they reached the repaired wain, they were met by servant boys who took their horses. Soaked to the skin and eager to be rid of their wet clothing, the three men stripped to their sirwals and put on fresh garments from Tushratta's trunks before entering the wain.
A look of joy on her face, Barsud rose to her feet and bowed. "Masters, this humble servant was worried for your welfare! How I rejoice at your safe arrival!"
"We were in no danger of being swept away, I assure you." Tushratta smiled, and then the three men sat down on the bench across from the women.
Goldwyn eyed them coldly, resentful of their intrusion. "I see that the grave physician and his two lickspittle helpers are with us once more."
"Yes, my lady Goldwyn. I am sorry if we have disappointed you." Tushratta brushed her sour remarks off with a warm smile and a shrug of his shoulders. Then their eyes met, and he found they were soon locked in combat, her turquoise orbs sending volleys of pure hatred into his soft brown ones. The two fenced, vying with each other, thrusting and parrying. Though Goldwyn was the first to turn aside, why did the physician feel as though his heart had been dealt a searing wound?