3. The Search for the Sublime Elixir
Chapter Written by Angmar and Elfhild
Goldwyn's shrill voice interrupted Aziru's reverie. "Sir, do you have any objections to my opening the curtains over the windows?" He tried to ignore her, but she seemed bent on disturbing him. "Perhaps you are unaware of the moldering reek of that foul old book, but let me tell you in simple terms, it stinks!" She looked right at him, her nose twitching in contempt. "And I have no idea what is that dreadful stench that surrounds you, but if I am forced to endure it much longer, I fear I will faint! I must have air!" She fanned herself furiously with her hand.
Aziru glanced up, the sour expression on his face clearly showing his irritation. He quickly forced himself to look pleasant, or at least neutral, for he was determined not to antagonize the woman. She was talking so fast in her Northern accent that he could barely understand what she was saying anyway, except that every word was insulting. "Ignorant barbarian wench," he thought with disgust. Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to speak patiently. "That 'dreadful stench,' as you call it, is a fragrance compounded of the most expensive ambergris and sandalwood, and it cost me quite a lot! Since you find it offensive, however, go ahead and open the curtains if you want."
In truth, the fragrance was an inexpensive one which he had purchased for a bargain price in the great souk back in Nurn, but he would not admit that to the haughty bitch. He would not attempt to explain to her about the book either, for it would be useless. How could a lowly woman understand such lofty matters anyway? His gaze dropped back to his place on the page.
Satisfied with his reply, Goldwyn turned away from him and pulled aside the drapes to allow the fresh breeze into the stuffy wain. A look at the early morning skies revealed pink clouds splashed across the blue heavens, a harbinger of turbulent weather later that day. She watched the scene outside with casual interest. Dying campfires were being snuffed out as supplies were loaded onto the wagons. How strange it was to see such activity in this ancient city of ruined halls and crumbling buildings.
Eager to lose himself in his favorite subject and forget the existence of this hostile woman, Aziru eagerly read over the pages. "For much of my life, I have searched for the key which will unlock the very secret of life itself. The ancients believed that a substance existed which would effect a transmutation of mortal flesh into the divine and bring about an era in which all sorrow would be ended. Sometimes I feel that I am close to its discovery, but when my mind reaches out to cross the threshold into sublime knowledge, the secret eludes me! I had almost given up hope when fortune led me to this tome! The pages almost hum with unseen power! I know the answer is here!"
Aziru looked up, the sheen of perspiration on his broad face giving a glimpse of the intensity of his great mental struggle. "The sublime elixir - flawless, faultless, paradisiacal and perfect in all of its ways - the potion that endows even the most ancient of men with eternal youth and immortality!" He closed his eyes tightly, his mind wrestling to unlock the secret of the ages. Yet as he neared the unseen portal to esoteric knowledge, he felt it slam shut with a loud clang.
Sensing Goldwyn's disapproving gaze upon him, he opened his eyes and glared at her. He watched in satisfaction as she quickly averted her eyes and looked away. "Foolish woman," he thought smugly as he went back to his meditation. Putting her in her place made him feel better. Now perhaps he could achieve a perfect state of mental harmony. Once again he calmed his mind and attempted to drive away all distracting thoughts.
"Always has mankind striven for the elusive goal, but he has failed miserably." One hand hovering slightly above the blessed tome, he listened to hear the steady rhythmic beating of his heart, and felt the universe pulse in time. "Man has devised potions and nostrums from every conceivable substance, including metals extracted from the earth and even costly gems which have been ground to the finest of dust. The secret of life cannot be found in these substances! It must be found in that which had life itself!
"How few understand this simple, irrefutable truth! The key to unlocking the mystery of life must be found in food, for it nourishes the body, though only temporarily at present. When at last the secret is deciphered, perhaps it will be no more mysterious than the inclusion of a spice from a land not yet known. Maybe the secret is hidden in a drop of some lowly green slime that grows innocuously at the bottom of a pond!"
Aziru longed to move into a deep trance state. Only there would his mind be liberated from the restraints of the physical, and he could wander freely into the airy realms of the metaphysical. He tried again to relax and concentrate on the book, but still there was a force which resisted his will. Each time when he had almost transcended the barrier and entered the elevated state, he was met by thick, stubborn resistance. What was it? His large brown eyes bulged open. The woman! She had thwarted him at every turn. Her mind was filled with a thick miasma of confusion! He sighed heavily and rubbed his temples. He must restore his concentration before he could even think of resuming.
At last after composing himself, Aziru went back to his reading and tried to free his mind once more. Only then could he delve the secret meaning behind the words of the book. He would fight the gray cloud of depression which hung about the Northern woman like a shroud. If he did not thwart her negative aura, she would destroy every positive influence that emanated from the book. After he had broken her hold, he would be able to concentrate and redirect his thoughts into more positive channels. Only then could he travel to the headier spheres.
"Breathe slowly and deeply and feel the harmonies of the book," he urged himself as he cradled the wondrous volume in his hands. The pads of his fingers tingled as he felt a burst of psychic energy surging through the covers of the book. The book was trying to speak to him! The secret would soon be his! Nothing could stop him now!
For the single beat of a heart, it seemed to Aziru that the destiny of mankind hung upon a fragile thread, and then all crashed about him. One of the horses pulling the wain snorted and kicked, breaking wind thunderously and without interruption for some moments. Startled, Aziru almost dropped the book, and when the sound went on and on, he winced at each salvo. He realized with a sense of sickening despair that the mood had been totally shattered and the portal had been closed, perhaps for all eternity. Nothing was going right! "How could this be?" he fumed. At the very moment when he had been on the verge of unlocking such incredible mysteries and showing mankind the path to self-actualization, a damned horse had profaned the zephyrs! It was hopeless. He gave a long, weary sigh, tugged his nose and shot a glance at the woman. He would try again when they camped for the night. Perhaps then he would have peace. He closed the book and, with a suspicious look at Goldwyn, put it back in his trunk.
"Why are you looking at me?" Goldwyn demanded testily. This repulsive, bulbous-eyed little man kept staring at her! The looks that he gave her were bizarre, almost crazed! He was constantly glancing between her and his musty old book, his lips always moving, as though he were intoning some dire incantation. Was he trying to cast a spell upon her, perhaps a love spell which would leave her at his mercy and render her helpless to his advances?
But everyone else here watched her as well, their eyes studying her with critical scrutiny, sometimes fear. "They are all watching me as though I were mad!" she thought desperately, feeling the urge to bolt from the wain. She was certain that the doors were locked from the outside and there were guards in attendance. There was no escape! A sharp pain struck her above the right temple, tearing through her brain and threatening to topple her with its agony. Another one of those devilish tormenting headaches was plaguing her again! Breathing heavily, she clutched her head between her hands. She felt so dizzy, as though she were shattering into pieces and spinning away from herself.
Aziru stared at her in increasing dismay. "Bël, no, she is going into another one of her fits!" he thought frantically. Though alarmed by the return of the woman's hysteria, he still managed to speak in a calm, quiet voice. "I might warn you, lady, that escape is useless. The caravan will soon be approaching the floating bridge. Even if you are successful at getting past the guards riding with us, all you would gain from your foolhardy attempt would be a cold plunge in the river. You could drown - other women have met that fate when they attempted to escape in that way. Please calm yourself. The Shakh would be most displeased should anything unpleasant befall you, my lady. You have nothing to fear there, though, for we mean you no harm." He gave her a small smile which he hoped would be reassuring, but she took it to be a perverse leer.
Goldwyn's hands dropped from her cheeks and she stared at Aziru. Damn him, he had guessed what she was thinking! Somehow that made her angry, and her head began to clear. "Aziru, do you assume me to be an utter fool?" she asked coldly. "Of course, I will not try to escape!" She mulled over the things which he had said, and decided she did not believe a word of it. The awful Easterling was lying about the other women, trying to frighten her and make her lose hope! Every instinct told her that most of the women had safely escaped, and she had been one of the unlucky few who had been captured. She could not bear the guilt of knowing that, if she had not encouraged the women to escape, they might still be alive today!
"Certainly not, my lady, but I thought that I should remind you for your own good," Aziru demurred politely, determined not to upset her. How he wished that the woman's health would soon improve! Then she would be returned to the other captives, and never again would she bother him.
At that moment, there was a knock upon the wagon door. Relieved by the interruption, Aziru was quickly on his feet and soon had the door open. "At last!" he exclaimed eagerly as a plump, pretty woman wrapped up in a delicately patterned cloak climbed in the wain. After bowing, she unfastened her cloak and, folding it neatly, laid the garment aside. Appearing to be in her late twenties or early thirties, she had wavy brown hair, wide-set dark hazel eyes, a slightly upturned nose, a blunted chin, and olive skin. She wore a cream colored shirt with short, fluttery sleeves which hung to her forearms; a short black vest trimmed with yellow embroidery; and a pair of slate blue pantaloons. About her thick middle was a sash of deeper blue, and upon her small feet was a pair of black leather shoes.
But Goldwyn paid little heed to the woman's exotic clothes, for her horrified, disbelieving eyes were riveted upon the gruesome scars which marred the woman's olive skin. The memory of a wicked gash sliced from under her nostrils, over her lips, and down to her blunted chin. Running round her neck was a hideous red scar, a gruesome parody of a necklace rising above the strands of beads which cascaded over her upper chest. Other, smaller scars marked her face and peeked out from beneath the bangles on her arms, as though once cruel shackles had bound her.
"What have these savages done to her?" Goldwyn's horrified brain screamed in dismay. What kind of hideous tortures had this woman endured?
"Lady Goldwyn, this is Barsud, your new handmaid," Aziru introduced, then turned to the plump slave woman. "Barsud, the lady's care is now in your hands. Serve her with your life... the great Shakh will expect no less."
Barsud sank to her knees, much to Goldwyn's embarrassment. "Master, this worthless slave is forever grateful that the great Shakh, Esarhaddon uHuzziya, has seen fit in his unending mercy and kindness to allow her to care for this great lady of the North! With happiness and great rejoicing, I will direct all my heart, mind and strength to do this lady's bidding."
"Please do not grovel before me," Goldwyn murmured. "I am a slave, too. Sit beside me, please."
Barsud looked up at Goldwyn, her hazel eyes smiling as she rose to her feet and took a seat on the bench. "O must illustrious lady whose beauty eclipses the stars, I beg you to punish me if I disappoint you for a slave who fails is lower than filth!"
"You beg to be punished if you do not please me?" Goldwyn asked incredulously, her eyes wide in disbelief. "Oh, Béma!" She groaned aloud in horror and revulsion, and her hand fluttered to her throat. "What have they done to you?" The words were out of her mouth before she realized what she had said, before she had time to contemplate that she might suffer the same fate for her impertinence.
"Done, Mistress?" Barsud's eyes dropped down and she studied her clasped hands. "No one has done anything to me."
"Your body is covered by scars, and you say that they have done nothing to you?!"
"This, Mistress?" Barsud asked questioningly as she brought her fingers to her lips and her neck. "These marks were made a long time ago, but certainly not by the merciful Esarhaddon uHuzziya."
"Then who, Barsud? Tell me who!" Goldwyn implored as she grasped the woman by the forearm and looked deeply into her eyes. She took Barsud's other hand and squeezed it sympathetically. "Please speak freely! No one will hurt you!" She shot Aziru a scathing glare of warning.
The physician's assistant groaned inwardly and raised a hand. Once again, the woman was severely taxing his patience with her constant confrontations. He would have to attempt to keep her soothed by persuasion or he would have to drug her, although he did not like to do that during the day. Still she irked him. Before he began to let his increasing irritation show, Barsud caught the look in his eyes and spoke up in a soft voice. "Master, may I speak?"
"Yes, Barsud, you have permission," he replied, grateful that her diplomacy had avoided a potentially unpleasant scene.
"Thank you, Master." Barsud folded her hands in her lap and began to relate her tale in a calm, clear voice which seemed to belie her troubled past and scarred body. "When I was a girl in Nurn, I was bought by a very cruel master who purchased me for no other purpose than to torture me. He was a Gondorian by birth, and was consumed with hatred for what he considered the 'lesser races,' the people of the South and East. I was especially repulsive to him because I am of Haradric, Gondorian and Umbarian descent, and therefore have a tainted and accursed bloodline. His perverse mind thought of endless tortures, and he delighted in administering them. Luckily, I managed to escape." She paused, and then continued, "But that has been years ago. Much time has passed since then."
"Oh, Barsud, what a terrible story!" Goldwyn wrung her hands fretfully. "Please tell me more!"
"My lady, I have said enough." Barsud hung her head, her eyes reflecting a profound sadness.
"Oh, Barsud!" Goldwyn exclaimed, reading the look in the other woman's eyes. "Please say no more, and forgive me for my poor manners! I should have realized how painful it must be for you to talk about these things." Barsud lifted her face and looked at her gratefully.
"Yes, Barsud, I think you have said quite enough," Aziru interrupted. The Northern woman was flighty enough without being further alarmed by Barsud's gruesome tales of her past. He would be glad if there were no further outbursts from Goldwyn, and the journey could begin in peace. At that moment, though, his stomach growled, a long, mournful wail of protest. "I wonder what is taking the caravan so long to start? I have grown quite an appetite waiting for the journey to commence. Barsud, after you have cleansed away the dust of the trail from our hands, please serve the lady and me the repast that you have brought."
"No, Barsud, please," Goldwyn quickly protested, shaking her head. "I really cannot eat now, but, please, serve your master and yourself." She had been quite unsettled by the sight of Barsud's mutilated face. "Poor woman," she told herself. "She has been trained to tell this far-fetched tale about some wicked Gondorian. Obviously this is a complete fabrication devised to turn me against the people of Gondor. I do not blame the slave, though, for what could I expect from a poor woman whose mind is shrouded in darkness?"
"My lady, as you wish, but should you change your mind..." Barsud smiled at Goldwyn and then turned her attentions to Aziru. After she had cleaned away the dirt from his hands, Barsud opened a large brocaded bag and brought out a smaller muslin sack. "Master, you will find that I have come well prepared." Taking out a small tray, she swiftly filled it with raisins, dried dates and almonds.
"Superb, Barsud!" Aziru smacked his lips, smiling as he took an oat cake and smeared it with honey from a small pot. "I would think I was back in Nurn!" After he had finished the luncheon and Barsud had cleaned up the reminders of the meal, Aziru told her to take a cushion and sit at his feet. Goldwyn sensed that Aziru was sending her a silent message that the place of a low ranking slave like Barsud was on the floor, and not at the side of the master or mistress. She decided not to dispute the matter. Like it or not, she was rapidly learning the ways of these heathen people. She would remember this inequality, though she did not intend to abide by it in the future.
"Now, my lady Goldwyn," Aziru leaned back against the cushions, smiling as Barsud placed a small hassock under his feet, "I cannot imagine what is taking so long for us to get started. If something does not happen soon, I will have to send a message to the master physician Tushratta and ask as to the nature of the delay."
"Oh, Master," Barsud chuckled softly, pleased to be sitting so near to him, "does anything ever begin on time?"
"Hmmm... no," he pondered, "not unless it would be my execution, and that I am sure would start at precisely the announced time... maybe even earlier." He chuckled wryly.
"Oh, Master, please," she turned startled eyes up to him, "do not ever say such a thing! Not even in jest!"
"Merely being light, Barsud," he assured her, gently patting her shoulder. "Now I have other things which I need to discuss while I have the opportunity." He looked to Goldwyn, his face turning serious. "My lady, please do not be alarmed by anything you might see as we pass through the mountains. We will be traveling through Dor-en-Úlairi, the Kingdom of Morgul, a small country which is allied with Mordor." Goldwyn noted the flash of fear in Barsud's eyes before the slave quickly dropped her gaze to the floor.
Goldwyn raised an eyebrow. "Aziru, I am puzzled. Why might this valley be so frightening?" Feigning ignorance, she did not intimate to him that she had heard many tales about the Morgul Vale in the past. Of course, she had no way of knowing the veracity of any of them.
"Do not take me wrong, my lady," he told her, his face set in an expressionless mask. "I have seen nothing myself, but there are those who say..." he paused, making sure that he had her attention.
"What, Aziru?" she queried, interlocking her long fingers together. "What you say intrigues me."
"Well, my lady, to be truthful, some say that a strange phenomenon prevails throughout the valley which causes aberrations in the natural order of things. There have been many accounts of people who reported that they had seen unusual visions, hearing things which are not there, and smelling scents which others do not smell." He smiled uncomfortably. "I assure you that these illusions are just that - illusions. Many can be explained by an over-active imagination. Others are caused by the play of sunlight or moonlight upon the heavy mists which lay over the valley. Some scholars maintain that there are deep fissures in the mountains nearby, and from these chasms are spewed vapors which deceive the senses of ignorant travelers and cause them to hallucinate." Barsud's shoulders trembled slightly, but she remained silent.
His voice hushed, Aziru leaned forward and looked directly at Goldwyn as he tapped the tips of his fingers together, a mannerism Goldwyn found irritating. "The King of Morgul and his lords do little to dispel the rumors and stories which have sprung up about the valley, however. The vale's reputation for oddness is a boon to them, for they prefer to be isolated in their little kingdom and wish to be left alone by outsiders. The lords have even adopted grim, foreboding dress which makes them appear as somber spectres of Death. You have little to fear from them, though, for even here gold speaks with a charm of its own, and the House of Huzziya has been granted safe passage through Dor-en-Úlairi."
Goldwyn returned his gaze boldly. "And you expect me to be unaffected by such stern and dour men who pose as servants of Death?" She laughed hollowly. "I have seen most everything else in the past month, so perhaps I can face yet another challenge to my sanity by these ghouls."
Aziru gave her a puzzled look, wondering if once again her mind teetered upon the brink and was about to plunge into the abysmal depths of madness. Bringing his hand up to his mouth, he coughed discreetly. "While their mode of appearance might indeed be considered eccentric, I do not expect we will even see them. Usually these lords have their spokesmen meet with the masters of caravans. Once past the city, we will approach several fortresses in the valley, where we are required to stop and show our papers. Merely a formality, I assure you, and we should be quickly on our way once again." When he had concluded the speech - which Goldwyn suspected had been prepared for her benefit - the little Easterling seemed almost relieved.
Though it had nothing to do with the lords of the valley, Goldwyn dreaded to ask the next question. "When do you expect your master to return?" she quickly inquired, resisting the urge to clutch nervously at the material of her pantaloons. She was far more afraid of the known than the unknown.
Aziru considered her question and then replied, "That is difficult to say, but I would expect no more than two or three days at the most. Possibly the Shakh and his men already have the captives in tow. In the meantime, the caravan will continue to travel towards the plains of Gorgoroth, where we will set up camp and wait for Shakh uHuzziya."
"He will never capture my sons!" Goldwyn exclaimed defiantly, beginning to rise to her feet before she caught herself. "Not even if he enlists the hounds of hell to aid him in his pursuit!" She would rather think them dead than caught and brought back into the iron embrace of slavery! Exhausted by her emotional outpouring, Goldwyn sank against the cushions, breathing rapidly. She rubbed her temples, wishing now only to slip into herself and dull the grim realities of this harsh world. Aziru and Barsud stared at her in stunned silence, both alarmed by her sudden outburst.
The uncomfortable quiescence inside the wain was broken by the sharp crack of the driver's whip as he lashed over the horses' backs. The wagon jolted forward, the wheels creaking and groaning. A sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, Goldwyn's spirits sank as she remembered the iron slave collar about her neck. Somehow it seemed to be growing tighter.
The distance to the Anduin was not far, and soon the wain rolled down a slight incline and onto the floating pontoon. The sound of the many wagons behind them became a thunderous roar inside her skull. "The River!" Goldwyn thought in terror as she looked out the window and saw water passing by on both sides. Her stomach churned, and she feared she might become sick with the constant motion and pandemonium of noise.
When the horses came to the other side of the River, they struggled to pull the wain up the steep incline. "At least we are on dry land again," Goldwyn realized and sighed in relief. Her attention was caught by the scene out the open window on the right, where she saw a smaller river flowing into the mighty Anduin. Where the waters of the lesser river joined with that of the greater, puffs of vapor arose as though a giant were exhaling misty breaths upon a chill winter day. "By Béma!" Goldwyn thought with a small shudder. "How strange! Whatever can that be?" She could not bring herself to ask Aziru.
Soon the procession was past the steaming convergence of the two rivers, and outside Goldwyn could see the ruins of more buildings. Some structures were close to the road, while others were at a distance, nestled forlornly, forgotten in the groves of cypress, cedar and juniper which grew over the site of the abandoned city. Many of the old buildings were little more than ruined shells, invaded by trees and bushes which had pushed between the breaks in the stone to raise their bare branches into the air. The feeling of sorrow and desolation which lay over the landscape was almost palpable.
Finally they passed through the last of the abandoned city. Gradually the landscape began to change, and they could see the tree-covered slopes of the foothills which rose slowly about them. From what Goldwyn could see out the window, they had entered a valley whose channel was cut by the small river flowing by on their right. She looked over to Aziru, who had settled back against the cushions, his eyes gradually closing. The wain had not traveled much further before he was asleep, snoring peacefully.
Barsud giggled softly at the amusing sight of the physician assistant's softly flapping lips. When Goldwyn did not laugh with her, Barsud sheepishly dropped her gaze and studied the henna designs on her fingers. In the center of her palm was a ring of deep amber flowers connected together by trailing vines. More vines radiated outward, stretching to her fingertips, palms and wrists. The same pattern was mirrored on the other side of her hand.
The day was a hot, lazy one, the perfect sort of day for enjoying a long siesta in the shadows of a palm grove or lounging upon a stack of cushions on a shaded veranda which looked out to a tranquil courtyard. Despite the brooding presence of her Northern traveling companion, Barsud began to feel drowsy. Aziru's snoring rumbled in her ears, cajoling her to slip off into the land of dreams. She fought sleep for a while, but the gentle swaying of the wagon eventually had its way with her. Her eyes fluttering closed, Barsud began to doze, her head drooping down to rest upon her chest.
Goldwyn wished that she could do the same, but she was far too restless and tense for sleep to enchant her with its gentle spell. She watched as the scenery outside passed by in changing succession. She was on her way to a new life, a life which filled her with dread.
"Béma," she thought, "give me strength for what lies ahead!"