“Arash died in his sleep last night, father,” a mild voice echoed in the void, the rich accent dripped into the darkness.
“Have his assistant take up his position then, son,” a lower, scratchy voice snipped at the other.
“Bahman was mortally wounded falling from a cliff not four nights past in reaching his family’s village before his wedding ceremony,” the first voice returned, a sound of annoyance and despair worming its way through the inkiness.
“Then find another physician, Mirza!” the lower-pitched man demanded impatiently.
“Golnar does not want anyone other than Arash to see to her. She will be difficult to manage without the old eunuch,” voiced the younger man.
“She is your responsibility. Last year, I gave that to you when you decided you wanted to prove you were a capable prince of this palace. Trying to outperform your brothers isn’t your place here. Fourth in line. You deal with it. I am in a hurry,” the older man croaked, done with the conversation.
“As you wish, father,” the man conceded quietly.
Eoin hadn’t slept. The cell was cramped and smelled foul. The inmates in the compound were restless. Children cried out for their mothers. He had exhausted himself emotionally. Regret and terror swamped him. Surely, he could have pulled his boys out of the building and run. As they had walked through the city, Eoin had noted many potential hiding places. They couldn’t speak the language, though.
Questions seeped through his misery and roiled in his empty gut. What if the people came after them for being so different? What if the people, like the Daleroch, persecuted “witches” and would burn them?
He would end up waiting in that rat and bug-infested building for more than a fortnight, with barely enough food or water spared for the three of them. His gleaming hair turned coarse and sticky with sweat and body oil. Inactivity and the dark confines contributed to a general state of lethargic despondency. His children were a shade darker, with the sand of the cell sticking to them. He had made a nest of their shrouds to help them sleep off the floor, though it was not much of a barrier.
Blinking into the predawn light one morning, Eoin was surprised when Masud eventually pulled them for their cell. The slaver had them all, as he had promised: Amina, Tau, Callum, and Albin, chained but together. Eoin and his small family loaded onto a donkey-led cart. A burlap bundle lay shoved up against the bench boards.
Masud muttered and mumbled in the seat next to the driver, but none of his unwilling passengers understood his words. Eoin took the time he could to explain to the four what was happening. Amina and Tau, old enough to understand repercussions from actions, sat quietly in the cart, absorbing their fate. Eoin apologized multiple times during the trip. Amina waved them away.
Variable landscapes passed by day after day. Eoin slept on and off as the sun rose and set, and the donkey was changed at different stations along the rocky path. He had never seen land like this. Towering mountains, vast swaths of scrub brush and outcrops of palm trees. Sheepherders called to their flocks in the distance.
Eoin dearly wanted to find out from Masud where he was taking them, but the man kept well clear of the village doctor’s grasping fingers. The shrew stopped several times to enter tent camps and sit to drink with the men when the group in the carriage broke bread and guzzled water that timid women left for them.
It was in the early morning of some day, Eoin didn’t even know any more how many days they travelled, when the heights of a mountain capital rose up in front of them. He peered into the dark crevices and the shimmering glints of white where the sun touched down. Masud exclaimed with joy and pointed at the mountainside, pressing his driver to get their beast of burden to hurry.
They approached the mountain entrance, a vast soaring arch that blocked what Eoin presumed to be the one road up through the pass. Torches burned as bonfires at the top of the parapets. The gates gleamed, comprised of polished white and black stone, inlaid with turquoise and green tiles swirling with complicated repeating designs, interrupted with larger, more complex tiles of vegetation and animals. Two hawk-like reliefs pushed their way out of the gates to cast predatory gazes on those permitted to pass through.
Masud was stopped by the guards. He produced a scroll. Eoin stared at the guards, haunted, as they approached the cart and took in what sat in the back. The guard sneered and waved Masud into the city.
Eoin dry swallowed as the cart clattered over cobbled roads and passed solid stone structures. Bright clothing swung in the wind, strung out on lines to dry. Greenery and flowers blossomed at doorsteps, and women called to each other. The smell of roasting meats wafted down the pass, causing Eoin’s stomach to cramp.
The cart clattered through the city, past row upon row of houses and markets. Eoin shifted, impatient to know where they were heading. Surely, they would turn soon and be deposited with someone. Then he’d be secure. Then his children would no longer be hunted. His heart beat hard and slow in his chest as tension mounted.
A new gate, more impressive than the last, loomed into view. Gold flake shimmered in triangles at the top of the ramparts. Soldiers in lavish uniforms stood at the gate and along the top of the wall. There Masud again stopped and presented his documents. This time though, he was made to wait.
A series of men and women emerged. Masud and the driver were ordered off the cart, and the men and women waited as Eoin and his small family dismounted the back. The people’s eyes held ill regard for the contents of the cart. Eoin’s heart sank.
With rough hands grasping his shroud, guards pushed him in through the gate to be greeted by an immense, overwhelming courtyard filled with palm trees and fountains. The men of the group were ducked under a door frame and through a hallway into a dim room. Massive white and blue-tiled pools sank into refreshingly cool floors. Commands were issued to Eoin, Callum, Albin, and Tau, but none spoke the language. One of the guards shoved Tau into a pool, leaving Eoin’s chief splashing, terrified. They tossed a cloth at the large man and set a crock and bucket at the edge of the water. Pointing at it, again they yelled at him.
“What do you want from me? This is…warm? What is this? Where’s my wife! Where’s Amina! Give me back my wife!” Tau’s deep voice resonated in the chamber, but the guards didn’t understand what he bellowed.
Eoin tried his best to hold his sons away from the edge, afraid of what the guards were doing. He swallowed hard. A hand at his back tore his shroud from him. His hair fell around him. A startled exclamation reverberated around the chamber. His children pulled their shrouds tighter about them before the cloth was torn from them too, exposing their long snowy length. Muttering echoed in the chamber. Eoin cringed, not keen on being touched.
Again, he was pointed at the pool and the crock. Ever careful, he approached the ceramic container. He went to touch it, watching the guards, not wanting to do something to upset them. He and his sons were strong swimmers, he had taught them well, but he wasn’t keen on being pushed into water. Drowning, even in such an immaculate location, was not torture he was interested in being a recipient of.
The guards regarded him with a mixture of revulsion and curiosity. Eoin opened the crock to find some type of white paste. The smell hung in the air, intoxicating and strange. He looked up at Tau, who had managed to sidle up to him.
“What is it, Eoin? Is it poisonous?” Tau asked. He pulled his threadbare pants off and rung them out, ever watchful of the guards.
Eoin carefully dipped a finger into the mixture and spread a small amount on his skin above his manacle. The guards motioned them to hurry, but Eoin refused to smear all of that on himself or his kids if it was going to burn him. However, the viscous material was pleasantly cool on his chapped skin.
He reached for Tau’s hand. The guards stepped closer, wary at the interaction. “Scented soap. They mean for us to clean ourselves,” he explained before turning to his sons, who were regarding the pot with suspicion.
Convincing his sons to undress, he followed suit, his tattoos startling the guards. Tau managed to extract himself from the water. Eoin had him help with the two boys who were not keen on the scrubbing. Thoroughly soaped, Eoin pulled water from the pools with the bucket and proceeded to dump them on the rest, working on getting them all clean. Clean. He’d been able to wash like a proper person since being taken from Egret Nest. How long had it been? Two months…three…? He could no longer remember the days that had fallen away from him.
His sons’ hair and his were not taking the soap as well, though. He looked about himself, not even sure how to get what he wanted. He picked up their soiled clothing and shrouds and carefully approached one of the sword-wielding guards who had been watching them. The man stared down at him with a grimace. Eoin pointed between the crock and the clothing and shook out his nest of hair. His children clambered in, trying to ask for oil, for somewhere to wash out their clothes. The man looked between the onslaught and the other guards. One man shrugged and shook his head, not knowing what to make of it. The guard reached out to grab Eoin, growing frustrated. Eoin stepped back, trying to keep from being touched, which angered the guard more.
He knew it was coming. The hand wrapped around his shoulder, and he pulled the man into his terror-filled void. He didn’t break the connection, though. He willed himself to not bring the man down. Eoin needed to ask, to try to communicate with him. He wanted to clean and brush his hair. He wanted to clean his clothing. The man let go of him, startled, if not outright terrified. He chattered at the other guards quickly before turning to Eoin, levelling his sword at him. Eoin shrank back, pushing Callum and Albin behind him. Tau pushed all of them to his side and stood in front of the guard, his bulky size causing the guard to cringe back.
Stalemate. No one moved for a second, a minute. The boys whimpered. Then a noise from out in the courtyard drew the guards’ attention. Eoin spun to look around, putting the boys between him and Tau. Another man in uniform yelled a command down the corridor into the pool room. The guards issued commands at Tau, Eoin, and the boys, all brandishing their swords, pointing them toward another door. Naked though they were, the four made their way through the hall and into another room. There they found clean plain cloth and pants of a strange variety Eoin had never encountered before. There were also his and Tau’s traditional clothing, but his sons’ kente had been left from the bundle – ragged as they had grown.
Tau wrapped some of the clean cloth about himself and tied it down as was his way of wearing his skirts. Eoin regarded his sons. The pants were too long for them, and the cloth was too large to construct how Tau and the village tended to wear. It had been a long time since he had done it. He laid out the material and a cord on the tile while the guards watched. Carefully, his manacles interfering with his work more than once, pleat after pleat, he took up the length of the fabric. He got Callum into the first one, cinching the tie around his tiny stomach. He pulled the fabric up around his shoulder and tucked it into the back of the belt. He would have preferred pinning it in a way more traditional to the Fyskar, but he didn’t quite have that luxury, so he made it work the best he could. Following suit, Albin soon matched his brother in what Eoin could almost call a breacan. The pleats were too many and hung well to the floor, but what was his choice?
He turned back to the last of the material from the bundle and pulled on his bracelets of cowrie shells, ivory, and bleached wood. His cloth was next. Careful of his chains, he pulled and pleated it into a respectable skirt, cinching it on with his belt. Eoin eased on the length of beaded string from his shoulder to hip and then turned to Tau with the large net-like white and red-shelled necklace. Tau helped him drape it while Eoin kept his wet hair from getting snarled.
With the large shawl-like necklace spreading from under his torc to the ends of his shoulders, reaching well past his collarbone and shoulder blades, the tassels of fur dangling down past his chest, he returned to being the Egret Nest’s doctor.
Clean and dressed, he carefully worked the tangles from his children’s hair. Eventually, one guard took pity on the mess and offered Eoin a fine ivory comb and a small wrapped jar of soft wax. The comb and jar were generously engraved. The comb had some of the thinnest tines that spoke of wealth. Eoin treated it gingerly, wary of breaking such an implement. With work, he was able to tame his sons’ locks before turning to his own.
Eoin handed the comb and jar back to the guard when he finished. His hair hung to his hips, straight and gleaming wet. Eoin bowed slightly, ever aware that he had no way of knowing how to thank the man without touching him. The guard, who had to be a few years younger than Eoin, bowed back, smiling, saying some words to him in a kind voice. He looked between the guards that stood at their doorway, wondering what was to be done with them next. One guard turned to the other, again asking something in their odd language before exiting down the hall.
Hours had to have passed as Eoin, Tau, and the boys waited in the room. The guard returned eventually. They were ushered from the room and down a hallway to be met up with a clean Amina and Masud. They were led through steps and another winding corridor before finding themselves led through grander and grander rooms. Some contained refined-looking men, while others stood empty. Eyes dusted his shoulders in some of the empty rooms. He searched the high walls to notice shapes behind latticework along one wall or in an upper window blinking in and out of sight.
With a clack, a pair of massive doors dragged open at the far end of one opulently decorated red and blue room to reveal a sandstone and gold grand hall filled with lavishly dressed men on both sides of soaring columns holding up stone rafters. Massive lattice-worked windows looked out over the mountain cliff, providing a view of not the city but the land outside of the gates. Eoin swallowed, finding the view unsettling. Masud and the guards led the five forward into a space near the head of the room.
Bodies shifted. Eoin turned to the throne, startled. There sat a wizened, commanding old man in a grand gilded chair. He was not heavy, but he clearly would have towered over the rest if he had stood up. A younger man standing next to him was either his son or grandson. This individual rose above Eoin’s height by at least a head and a half, and the village doctor was tall to begin with. Elegant gold circlets sat atop both the old and the young men’s heads. Royalty. This was this land’s concept of royalty.
Eoin could not escape the mesmerizing glance of the younger man. His eyes were a harsh amber, hawk-like in their appraisal. Black hair, cut with rigid straightness, fell to the man’s chin. His complexion was that of the brown in the light-banded cockles.
The old man on the throne motioned for Masud to speak. The scrawny shrew stepped forward to bargain and plead with the old man. Eoin could not have hoped to glean the conversation, but with luck, Masud would obtain a position within this place for them as servants.
A disturbance at the side of the gallery caught Eoin’s attention. A rotund man in deep blue and silver had collapsed, his breathing shallow and quick. His complexion had gone sallow. Several men gathered around the corpulent individual and hurriedly whispered, trying their best not to interrupt their king.
Eoin’s memory faded from the point where he had been standing to the point he was holding the man’s head in his lap, his hand going to the readily available skin on his forehead. He pushed into the man’s unconscious form and felt for the pain, for what had toppled the figure. He found it, a stuttering beat of uncertainty. Lungs strained and pulled. He looked up, looking for his medicine bag. He cowered under the descending glare of the young giant. Eoin was not a healer here.
The village doctor knew he was in trouble. He eased out from under the rotund man and backed up to find his back pricked by drawn swords. The dark-haired man approached him with a fluid grace that had Eoin’s heart in his throat. If the man touched him now, Eoin surely would die a gruesome death from which he may not enter the Forest.
He tripped back, silently cursing the blades, gouges slicing stinging heat across his skin. The giant caught him about the wrist, and Eoin dropped them into the void. He pleaded quickly for the plants he needed, the instruments, the method of curing the man before impending demise. He begged for the medicines with all his will, hoping the man would understand through the language barrier what needed to happen. Prove worth. Eoin needed to do his job, and he needed that job to make his life valuable enough to save his family. He ignored the lacerations that would need to be seen to after this fiasco.
He pushed the man from the void, wishing the message was clear. The royal blinked in intrigued confusion and used Eoin’s manacles to right him. Guards continued to stare the village doctor down.
Eoin trembled, his hands shaking, unable to escape the giant’s clutches. The giant issued an order to one of the guards, who, without much eagerness, sheathed his sword and dashed out of the room. Not more than two minutes later, the guard returned with another rather rotund man who carried a large woven clutch in his arms. The guard pointed him to Eoin.
The Fyskar looked at the man in surprise. Fair skin, light brown curly hair, bright blue eyes decorated the man’s features. The man cocked his head, also surprised by the view in front of him. He greeted the giant happily and presented the clutch. The giant said something to the man and pointed at Eoin. “Bonjour!” the man exclaimed. Eoin shook his head, confused. He reached for the clutch, but the giant did not let him go. “Hello?” the rotund man tried English.
Eoin’s widened his eyes in wonder. It was not what he had learned on his isle out at the end of the Hebrides, but it sounded like Captain’s voice. He nodded, grateful for the communication
“What is your name? Mirza says you requested the physician’s old tools?” the man asked. Eoin shook his head and pointed around Mirza towards the individual on the floor. Mirza spoke softly to the brunet. The men around the fallen individual looked up at the exchange expectantly. “Merde!” The heavy man took Eoin’s manacles and dragged him around the prince, back to the unexpected event. He pulled Eoin down to the ground with him and shoved the bag in his hands.
The others looked on, curiosity and apprehension palpable in the space. Eoin opened the case, surprised that it would fold out into a massive blanket on which he could spread the materials. The chamber quieted to a deafening silence as he sifted through unfamiliar tools, jars and packs. It was infuriating to work with others’ tools and not have a clue as to their preparation methods, concentrations, and effectiveness. He worked his way through the materials, smelling and carefully tasting varying ingredients until he found a powdered resin he was searching for. With a mortar and pestle, he ground a set of dried herbs into the resin and looked around, suddenly aware that he didn’t have water in which to get the powder down the man’s throat.
He looked up at the giant of a man expectantly. He flinched when the giant’s hand settled on his shoulder for a second, trying to calm his beating heart. The first word he understood of the giant’s language, “water!” the man issued the command. A guard produced a flask of the liquid. Eoin grimaced, not keen on dumping the medicine into the container; it would ruin the flask, but it was the only solution available, and he had to hurry. He dumped most of the water onto the tile floor, which caused quite a stir among the onlookers. The prince snapped, and another person ran out of the room to return quickly with an absorbent cloth to clean the mess. Eoin ignored the interchange.
He poured a measured amount of his powder into the flask and shook it hard, incorporating it into a thickened liquid. Eoin pressed the opening to the man’s mouth and pushed into the man’s unconscious, forcing him to take down the liquid. The flask empty, the doctor laid his head on the man’s chest, listening to the beat as he felt the man’s skin, making sure what he felt and what he heard matched. Years appeared to drag by as he waited for the stutter to stop. He grimaced. Maybe the amounts weren’t right. Maybe the person responsible for the case hadn’t drawn the resin correctly.
There. A beat. A steady, strong beat echoed in Eoin’s brain. Tension eased down his spine. Another beat. Eoin breathed in and took his head off the man’s chest, looking at his complexion. Blood slowly seeped colour back into the man’s lips and gums. He opened the man’s eyelid, shading the pupil and watching it dilate as expected. The patient muttered and groaned.
Eoin quickly slipped through the man’s memories, trying to orient to the culture and expectations. He needed to know who he was being presented to, and this was the fastest way he was going to do it. The individual he was caring for was a high-end merchant who dealt in elaborate rugs, there to provide the prince with a new piece. Eoin pressed through to understand the lineage. The older man on the throne was a prince, but the young one, his son, was too. Both titles of Mirza.
The older, Mirza Khashayar, was a son of Abbas II through a low ranked consort in a long line of sons who never were written down as potentials to the throne. King Suleiman of Persia, one of his more note-worthy half-brothers, now sat on the throne at Isfahan. Having been cursed a giant, Khashayar was sent out away from the capital to not be talked of in court. He, however, was well-liked in these mountain towns where he had been posted. Suleiman respected the old man’s methods and left him to rule the corner of the Zagros in his stead as long as the taxes were paid. It was easier than patrolling the area with the military that was slowly falling to ruin in Isfahan.
Eoin had a defined place name for where they were. The massive mountain range they had entered was called Zagros. He knew at least that the man on the throne was no king but a placeholder prince. Mirza Khashayar’s son standing over him was the man’s fourth and had also been cursed to be a giant. The old man’s regard for the son who resembled him was loving, but there was no sign he would be designated to take his father’s place.
Eoin sat back and watched for another minute before releasing his hold on the man’s head. “That’s some fine skills there.” The heavy man next to him beamed. Eoin turned to him, surprised once more. He was truly in a strange situation. What was a Huguenot doing here of all places? “You are a doctor?” The rotund man pressed as Eoin returned to the physician’s clutch and put tools to order, cringing at the eyes watching him. He nodded.
“What is your name, young man?” the corpulent individual pressed once more. The giant snapped a terse word. “You may call me Henri. I work for the princes in translation.” He shared readily.
Eoin looked around, finding it difficult to focus on the man with all the others crowding around. Princes. He’d have an easier time thinking of the old man like a king. In this place, he might as well have been king.
“Speak, man! I will not bite, but the guards might take your head from your shoulders.” The man nodded back to the men who still held swords ready. A ceramic jar slid out of Eoin’s fingers. He sighed a tight breath. The jar had not broken.
He swallowed, meeting the man’s eyes and frowned. The Fyskar prince pulled his hair away from his shoulders and lifted the heavy metal collar away from his torc and necklace. He extended his neck for the man to see the scar on his throat. Henri moved closer to him to inspect the shiny red gash. He glanced into Eoin’s eyes and back at the scar.
Eoin opened his mouth and tried to speak. He could manage some sharp notes and hummed sounds, but anything requiring his larynx was out. Tau and Amina had helped him find ways around their language with the clicks and mouth inflexions that did not require guttural pronunciations. He had still been hobbled in the language, like that of a toddler, but he had been able to manage. Now though, he had to relive that horror all over again and try to make another person understand his hindrance. Frustration coloured his features as he waited for Henri to put words to his fate.
The linguist rose and brushed himself off, leaving Eoin to the clutch. He turned to the young prince and bowed deeply before speaking. The giant snapped, and another man came running. He whispered something in the guard’s ear. The man approached Masud and handed him a small purse, and waved the shrew away with a terse command. Masud turned and left, a pleased smile creasing his wrinkles.
“The children, they are yours?” Henri asked Eoin. The father’s hands stilled from closing the clutch. Blood drained from his face. He looked up at the corpulent Huguenot, his heart in his throat. He span to his children. Amina and Tau were already being taken from the chamber by a set of individuals dressed in a different uniform than the guards. He almost rose from the floor, but the prince’s heavy hand held him down in his kneeling position.
“They and Amina and Tau are my family! Please, don’t take them from me! Please. Take anything you want of me, but please don’t take them away.” He pushed the jumbled plea into the prince, clinging to the man’s hand at his shoulder, begging. The man nodded his understanding. He motioned for the guards to bring the children and Amina and Tau to him. Mirza studied them carefully.
Albin hid, trembling behind his brother. Callum took up a protective stance, though the man in front of him towered well over him four times. The giant hauled Eoin up by his manacles and released him into the possession of a guard who took them from the chamber. Uneasiness slid across Eoin’s back like a second skin.
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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