Two Sides of a Coin - Chapter 13 The River
author's note: This is a story in which an Ithilien ranger, a Southron (referred to as "Swerting," due to Shastan's preference), and a Lady must learn how to get along. Shastan and Ladril are now joining Elen's endeavor to rescue the wains (the wagons of women and children evacuating Minas Tirith) which had been captured by orcs. Links to previous chapters are posted below.
"Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: You don't give up." Anne Lamott
A morning fog seeped through the trees, enfolding the entire forest with a resounding silence. No creature stirred from its lair and not even the birds would sing in the haze of that eery morning. The trees stretched from the fog like bone fingers and the sky seemed to be nothing but a white cavern of utter silence.
...But chipping at the silence was the *crunch, crunch* of feet as a ranger, a Swerting, and a lady waded through the unearthly fog.
"...Are we lost?" Elen couldn't help but ask, though it seemed a crime to break the forest's stillness.
"No," Ladril replied. "I can make out the sound of the Anduin...unfortunately."
"...Unfortunately? What do you mean?"
"I mean I can hear its current but at this season there shouldn't be that much water in the river, which means it's going to be very difficult to cross."
Ladril looked back and saw a very gloomy face on the Lady Elen. She was clearly troubled about something...but what? Well, following two strange men in a dense fog with only the slightest hope of saving her kidnapped wains would do it. Perhaps it would be best to get her mind off things...
"So, Lady Elen," Ladril tried. "Do you have family in Minas Tirith?"
The results were miraculous. Elen's face instantly brightened at the prospect of a little conversation. "No, all my family lives in Lossarnach."
"But you live in Minas Tirith."
"Yes, and that doesn't sit well with them."
The ranger laughed. "I know what you mean. My family has been in constant worry since I joined the regiment."
"And what is your family like?"
"It's...rather small. They all live in the White City."
"I hope none of them were in the wain company," Elen said gravely.
"No, my father is a blacksmith and the trade is too important for him to leave the city."
"Good," Elen now looked to where Shastan marched ahead. "And what about you, Master Shastan? Do you have any family?"
Shastan somewhat stiffened. "...Some," He replied.
"-Down in Kesherut? What are they like?"
"Kisha'rut," Shastan corrected her. "...And I have a mother."
"Oh..." Elen nodded. "She must miss you terribly."
Ladril looked up to see how offended Shastan would be to Elen's effrontery. To his surprise, Shastan quietly smiled in agreement. "Yes, I'm sure she does."
The three journeyed on in silence as the fog grew thick and the way more unsure. After a couple discomforting hours Ladril stopped when he realized they were in a large clearing.
"We're here," He said. "The South Bend should be on our right."
They turned and after a few wary steps into the fog they came upon the river: the water was low, as Ladril predicted, but it was whipping through the Bend as a rushing torrent.
"...Not what I expected," Ladril breathed as they looked at the hazard before them.
"Is there another way around?" Shastan asked.
There was a space of hopeless silence as the mirky waves threw a forboding gleam while rushing by. Suddenly, to the great alarm of Shastan and Ladril, Elen picked up her skirts and started wading into the water.
"What are you doing?" The men cried out in unison.
"We have to go across, don't we?" Elen reasoned.
"If you want to be killed, yes," Shastan sharply replied.
"It isn't that bad," the lady looked at the stretch of white water. "It only goes to your knees, anyway."
"Elen, if we so much as lose our balance the current will throw us out to Sea!" Ladril vainly hoped that this would deter the lady's ambition.
"And if we don't cross the river then my wains shall be helpless against the orcs." Elen coldly answered. With that she carefully stepped deeper into the water.
"Most likely we won't make it across, and then it will all be for nothing." Ladril extended his hand to the lady. "This is senseless, Elen. I will not have your life put in danger for another moment."
Elen looked at Ladril's hand, then at the large distance already between them, and smiled wickedly. "You say you do not want my life in danger, Master Ladril, but I have every intent on going across. You'll just have to follow me if you want to protect me. ...It's the only honorable thing for a gentleman to do."
The words "honorable" and "gentleman" hit their mark. Audibly cursing, Ladril tightened the belt of his scabbard and stepped warily in the river after Elen.
"I see the other gender keeps you tightly leashed to their whim," Shastan scoffed at the ranger.
"At least I have my honor," Ladril snapped back. "What will you do?"
"I'm staying right here. I find no honor in following ladies once they've lost their senses."
"But I'm going into the river too," the ranger arched a brow. "So shouldn't you be following after me? It is, after all, your duty as a friend."
The words "duty" and "friend" did their work. Muttering under his breath, Shastan heaved his pack onto his back and waded after them.
The fog settled thickly over the rushing current, making the opposite shore almost impossible to see. Already the water was biting at the nerves and the smooth, slippery river bed quickly proved a hazard.
"We will only go as fast as the slowest person," Ladril ordered. "We must stay close together, in case someone slips."
Shastan and Elen readily consented. Instinctively they formed a small line as they began to inch their way against the current and into the white fog.
Every step had to be precise, this they knew, or the river would sweep them away at the slightest opportunity. The whipping water gleamed at them menacingly, like a hungry wolf restrained only by a thin leash. The river's freeze showed the poor travelers no mercy. Their feet began to grow numb, and soon they had to force one leg to go in front of the other as the current beat on them more and more.
"Oh this was a great idea," Shastan declared rather loudly as they barely made it halfway across. "Wading across the river. Why didn't I think of that?"
"Perhaps it's because you lack the capacity?" Ladril made the reply.
"This was your cleverest idea yet, Laaderil."
"It was Elen's idea!"
"I never asked you to follow me!" Elen piped.
"No, you just questioned my honor is all!"
"Never trust the beguiling charms of a woman." Shastan said.
"I did not beguile him!" Elen cried.
"Well you certainly got us into the middle of a river!"
"It's your own fault if you had qualms about leaving me on my own!"
"Oh I had no qualms about that!"
"Stop it you two!" Ladril shouted over the din of the water and incessant bickering. "It doesn't matter how we got here. What's important is just getting across. We need to stop arguing and focus on where we're stepping or else we'll-"
Just then Ladril suddenly slipped on a rock. His body fumbled for a moment to regain balance but to no avail. Shastan sprang into action and tried to grab him, only to be a second too late. With a startled cry Ladril crashed into the water and was swept away by the current in an instant, vanishing into the fog.
Elen and Shastan could only stand there in shock, staring dumbly at the wall of mist. When Shastan was finally hit with the full realization that Ladril was actually gone he was about to dive into the current after him. "No, don't!" Elen cried, grabbing his arm. "The river will only take you too!"
Shastan looked at Elen, then helplessly at the dense fog. What could he do? He couldn't just do nothing.
"Laaderil!!" He started hollering desperately. "LAADERIL!!"
Apart from the roar of the current, there was utter silence. Shastan found himself still blinking in shock.
No...he couldn't be gone...
Elen suddenly jumped. "Wait! Can you hear that?"
Shastan strained an ear over the river's noise.
There was silence, and silence, then there! Right there, nearly muffled over the current, was a small voice calling for help.
"Laaderil!" Shastan cried. "Is that you?"
They heard the voice go louder in affirmation.
"Where are you?" Elen cupped her hands and hollered.
Amidst the persisting roar, only fragments of speech could be discerned.
"...A rock......hurry.....I'm slipping...."
"We're coming, Laaderil!" Shastan called, but in truth he didn't know what they could possibly do. Ladril sounded like he wasn't too far off, but to try and step along the slippery riverbed with the current would be futile.
Suddenly Shastan felt his spear jerked out of his hand. He looked up to see Elen holding it awkwardly aloft. "What...?"
"We can reach him with this," Elen explained. "Give me some support and I can go a few feet closer-"
"Wait, wait!" Shastan was not going to permit any rescue attempt until he and Elen were secure from the river's force. After looking around he spied a clump of young trees growing from the water a few yards away.
"Take my hand," He quickly ordered Elen. "We're going to the trees."
Quickly but warily the Swerting and the lady reached the leafy saplings. Shastan wrapped an arm around a branch and nodded to Elen.
Elen nodded back, but horror was clearly written on her face.
"Elen, I will not let you go. Understand?"
Elen stiffly nodded again and made an effort to swallow back the fear. Holding the spear out, she stepped carefully with the current, her legs shaking and her grip tightening on Shastan's hand.
"Keep going," Shastan coaxed her along. "I will not let you go."
Elen fumbled blindly into the fog. Darkness rushed about her knees and a sheet of white loomed in front of her. The only surety she had was that Shastan still had a hold of her. After going as far as she could without losing her grip on him, Elen slowly stretched the spear into the fog.
"Ladril?" She called. "Ladril, if you can hear me, grab the spear!"
Aside from the the noise of the river, there was silence.
Elen shook her head and commanded herself not to panic. "Ladril, it's Elen! I need you to grab the spear!"
There was no reply.
She found her whole body shaking. They were too late, they were far too late...
She frantically waved the spear this way and that.
"Ladril! Please answer me! Ladril!"
Up ahead to the right, she was answered by a very large "OW!"
"Ladril!" She cried, thoroughly relieved.
"...You...hit me..." he replied from the din of the current.
"Grab the spear, quick!"
There was a moment of fumbling, then Ladril finally got hold of the spear. But Elen in all her excitement had not braced herself yet for his weight. When Ladril let go of the rock she was suddenly ripped off her feet and hit the water. Shastan was not properly braced either, and the violent jerk from Elen caused him to lose his footing also. But he still had a hold on the branch, and so the three were dangling in the treacherous waves like the tail of a kite in howling wind.
"Shastan!" Elen sputtered.
"Just hold on!" Shastan called. Using every muscle he strained to pull the three against the current to the safety of the branches.
Elen meanwhile felt as if her arms would rip out of her sockets. She was slowly losing her grip on the spear...
Shastan quickly observed this. "Elen so help me, if you let go-"
"I'm trying not to!" She snapped.
Just then the branch Shastan held split. Suddenly the three were buried beneath the current's white foam. For a moment Elen thought this was the end, but she felt her body suddenly jolt to a stop and her head burst above the swirling surface: Shastan had managed to grab another branch just before the river could claim them all. The wood nearly tore the skin from his hand, but now he doubled his efforts to pull his friends through the current.
Elen felt the wet spear continue to slip from her grasp. It was no use, she couldn't hold on any longer...
Just then she felt a clammy hand suddenly grab her wrist. With a yelp she looked down to see Ladril right in front of her: he had managed to pull his way up the length of the spear.
"Ladril are you-?"
"I'm fine. Give your other hand to Shastan."
Ladril hung onto her back while Elen turned and pulled on Shastan's arm with both hands. After some struggle Shastan finally tugged them into the safety of the sheltering branches. They grabbed onto the trees and at last regained their footing on the slippery rocks.
Ladril looked to Shastan. "Are you all right?"
Shastan was nigh on falling down in exhaustion, but he swallowed and nodded.
"And Elen? Are you all right?"
Elen looked up for a moment in silence, then suddenly her face flushed with delight and she burst into a long string of laughter.
Shastan and Ladril stared at giggling maiden blankly.
"She's mad," Ladril whispered.
"She's always been mad." Shastan replied.
But Elen gleefully pointed at something behind the two men. They turned and with widened eyes they saw the opposite shore not six feet away. The firm ground and greenery gleamed at them in the afternoon sun as the treacherous fog steadily drifted from the bank.
Looking at the wonderful sight, Elen was soon joined by a great chorus of laughter. Unable to remain in the river for another moment, the three quickly picked their way along the last few feet and collapsed happily on the shore.
After a few moments of well earned rest, Elen gratefully wrung out her sopping hair while Ladril emptied water from the crumpled packs. Shastan however remained on his back, staring at the clear sky.
"I'll never look at a river again," He said flatly, once he was strong enough to speak.
"You did well today," Ladril said and proudly patted his shoulder.
Shastan simply huffed and struggled back onto his feet.
"What are you doing?" Elen looked up at him worriedly. "You need to rest."
"Right now no one should be resting," he replied. "In case you haven't noticed, the air is getting colder and we are soaking wet. Unless we can gather wood and build ourselves a fire, your wains will not be seeing any sort of rescue from us."
Ladril and Elen both groaned when they realized he was right. Picking up their packs again the three stumbled across the rocky shore and into the forest to build a fire, set up camp, and to sleep for the next dozen years if they had their way.