Two Sides of a Coin - Chapter 14: Enter the Wains
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. Ladril and Shastan have agreed to make a plan and rescue Elen's wains which have been taken over by the enemy. I do not own Middle Earth, and everything pertaining to Middle Earth is of J.R.R. Tolkien's imagination.
"I dreamt and life was joy, I woke and life was duty, I acted and saw duty was joy." -Anonymous
The sky was crystal blue and a quiet frost covered the ground. A morning haze sifted through the bare branches and dry leaves. A large, white buck softly grazed on a few patches of green earth. Ladril softly and silently stepped across the frozen ground, avoiding the fallen leaves. He carefully weaved through the pale trees with a richly carved bow in hand and a sleek arrow already fitted in the string. The great buck was only a few yards away and unaware of Ladril's approach. Satisfied with the distance, Ladril steadily breathed inwards and, slowly lifting his bow, he drew the arrow towards his target.
Just then a hard object smacked his forehead. Ladril reeled back in pain and loudly cursed, causing the buck to bolt away. Ladril was about to redraw the string for a desperate shot but another hard object smacked him in the shoulder. Ladril rubbed his shoulder and looked down at what hit him. It was a rock. Suddenly out of nowhere more rocks were pelted at him. Ladril could only cover his head while more and more rocks came from every direction. Soon the pelted rocks were gathering up to his knees, then to his waist, then to his neck as he began to drown helplessly in a foundering sea of rocks.
Narrowing his eyes and taking a more precise aim, Shastan lightly chucked his twentieth pebble at the sleeping ranger. This time it hit him just above the brow and with a jolt Ladril's eyes flew wide open. He seemed to be unaware of where he was for a moment, but when he saw the small camp in the dying sunlight he suddenly remembered. Then he saw pebbles clustered about his bedroll and an assortment of them still waiting in Shastan's hand. The ranger's face gave a hideous grimace.
"About time you got up," Shastan whispered.
"What do you want?" Ladril sharply whispered back.
"I didn't ruin a good dream, did I?"
"Shastan, so help me-"
"I've got a huge problem and I need help," The Swerting looked down guiltily. "I'm sorry I woke you, Laaderil, but there's no one else I can turn to."
Ladril wearily rubbed his eyes and sighed. If Shastan was in trouble, Ladril was really the only person who could give him help. "All right. What is it?"
Shastan presented his left shoulder: it's occupant was the weary head of Elen, fast asleep.
Ladril stared blankly. "What? That's it?"
"That's it? She's asleep on my shoulder!"
"Not so loud," Ladril ordered. "You'll wake her up."
Shastan gave the ranger the coldest glare he could contrive. "I want her off."
"-And you want me to do it?"
"Just pick her up and put her somewhere else."
"I am not going to wake Elen up, not after what she's been through. If you want her off then you do it."
Shastan looked down at the frail, white face of the exhausted lady. It seemed that if she were but touched she would crumble to pieces.
"But...look...I can't...please, Laaderil?"
"No. Either you move her or you put up with the fact you have a woman's head on your shoulder, and I can't imagine why you would complain about that." Ladril ended any further conversation by rolling over and pulling his hood over his head. Shastan was left to sourly look at the ranger, then at Elen, then try to get some sleep moving as little as possible under Elen's weary head.
"Shastan, Shastan wake up, hurry!"
The Swerting jolted upright. It was now the blackest evening and campfire had all but gone out. The bright face of Elen was looking intently at Shastan as he rubbed his eyes.
"What do you want?" He muttered, trying with the upmost capacity maintain some courtesy.
"Did you sleep well?"
"No," He responded, courtesy being soundly dropped.
"I am sorry I woke you, but there is something you have to see."
Shastan looked over to Ladril's cot and found it empty. "Where is Laaderil?"
Elen nodded towards the thick tangle of woods. "He's over there. Come, you have to see."
Shastan grumbled to himself and staggered to his feet. Blindly he followed Elen into the darkness of the forest, nearly hitting every branch on the way. He was about to heatedly ask what the point of this little venture was when he suddenly made out the figure of Ladril, highly alert and crouched quietly beside a bush.
"Laaderil, what is going-?"
But the ranger sharply hushed Shastan for silence and motioned him over to the bush. When Shastan joined his side Ladril gestured him to look over the bush's ridge. Shastan warily rose and peeked over; he saw to his surprise that the bush marked the very end of the forest and a green expanse stretched ahead, laden with hills and small rivers. But one alarming feature lay right in front of the Swerting: a great cluster of silent shadows, encircled by flickering torches and guarded by the dark shapes of fiendish creatures.
"It's the wains," Elen whispered.
By now their plan to rescue the wains had already been arranged: Elen and Ladril would quietly slip into that unfortunate company in the dark of night and quietly distribute Ladril's knives to the menfolk. Shastan was assigned to greet the wains the following day and warn the orcs of a "Gondor camp" up ahead. Thirsty for new plunder, the orcs would send a large number away to attack the supposed camp and then, if luck remained with them, they would manage to overthrow the few orcs left and reclaim the wain company.
Throwing the last of the knives into his pack, Ladril tied the satchel as tight as he could and swung the bag onto his back. He had both his and Elen's sword fastened to either side of his waist, making it difficult to maneuver his upper torso. The ranger awkwardly fastened on his cloak and wrapped it about his now bulky frame to properly conceal the pack and weapons.
"How do I look?" Ladril turned to Shastan who was sitting idly on a rock. "Is it convincing?"
Shastan rubbed his tired eyes and squinted at him in the dark. "Apart from looking like a hunchback, you're perfectly normal."
"Thanks," Ladril said dryly and took off his cloak to readjust his pack.
"...Remind me why I cannot come with you again?"
"Because," Ladril bunched his bag to make it look smaller. "Your role is to meet the orcs and create the diversion. We have been through all this."
"But you're going to need me in the battle."
"I do not disagree with that," Ladril sighed. "But if you fought out there, you would have to fend off orcs and Gondor men. I won't have time to explain to everyone that you are not the enemy."
"Well I am the enemy, just not to them at this particular time."
"There, see? You try sorting all that out to a group of angry captives."
Shastan took a moment to smile at this, but when he saw Elen packing her own things in the distance he moved closer to Ladril and whispered "You should tell Elen to stay here."
"These are her wains. She knows the people in them. We cannot afford to leave her behind."
"But you know once the fighting starts she will want to be involved."
"True..." Ladril admitted.
"She has to stay here. I won't have her getting hurt."
Ladril looked to Elen, then to Shastan. "Why Shastan, I didn't know you cared."
The Swerting gave Ladril a second cold glare for the evening. "It's dishonor on both our heads if a woman picks up a sword and gets wounded."
Ladril couldn't waste any time arguing. "Look, she has to come with me tonight. No disputes about that. I will do my best to convince her to stay out of the fight tomorrow, but once it all starts I can't look out for her. I think giving her fair warning clears us of any dishonor."
"In your culture, Laaderil. Not mine."
"We have to go," Ladril ended the conversation by re-fastening his cloak and turning to Elen. "Ready, Elen?"
Elen nodded and hurriedly finished packing her things. Bag in hand, she walked up to Ladril.
"You cannot afford to take that with you." Ladril gestured to her bag. "You'll have to give it to Shastan for now."
Elen turned to Shastan, and as he took her bag their eyes met for a brief moment.
"Goodbye, Shastan." She softly said.
"Goodbye." He replied dryly.
Elen slowly stepped back and Ladril put a hand on Shastan's shoulder. "It's farewell for now, my friend."
"Farewell, Laaderil. Try not to get yourself killed. I am growing accustomed to you."
"Likewise," Ladril laughed. With that he and Elen turned away, going deep into the tangled woods until in Shastan's farthest sight they were no more than shadows fading into the dark.
Ladril and Elen traveled for a while in silence, retracing the steps that would lead them back to the brink of the forest; then at length Elen chose to speak.
"Ladril, can I ask you a question?"
"Of course, lady."
"Why does Shastan insist on calling you "Laaderil"?"
Ladril quietly laughed. "That's the closest he can come to saying my name. He has trouble with pronunciation."
"Yet he pronounces every other word correctly."
Ladril stopped dead in his tracks. Aside from Ladril's name and the word "Swerting", he really did pronounce every word correctly. One could barely tell he even had an accent! But why would he butcher Ladril's name like that? Shastan knew how much it annoyed him...
...And maybe that's exactly why he did it.
Being hit with this realization, the ranger's jaw dropped and he was nigh on cursing. Why that sorry, no-good son of a.--
"We're here," Elen whispered, and Ladril realized they were by the same bush that marked the end of the forest. Hesitantly they looked at the foreboding shadows looming against the cold, silent valley.
"Do you have my sword?" Elen breathed.
"Yes, I have it."
"Good," The lady nodded nervously. "I will want it once we get into the wains."
Deep pity struck Ladril's heart when he glanced at Elen and saw just how scared she was. "You know you don't have to do this."
Elen gave a weak smile. "I know, but I want to do this."
"But there is the very great possibility that you will get hurt."
"This is an adventure," Elen reasoned. "Everyone gets hurt in adventures. Besides, think of how much fun it will be...the fighting, the victory...if we are still alive to see it, that is." Her voice shook a little as she said the last part.
"...I really think it would best if you remained here," Ladril insisted. "It would at least give Shastan a peace of mind."
Elen turned on him in a flash. "You mean he's worried about me?"
...Suddenly Ladril saw a glowing opportunity to gain a little vengeance on the Swerting.
"Oh yes," Ladril nodded emphatically. "He can't stop worrying about you. Why, you've been on his mind since the day he met you."
Elen gave a delighted little gasp. "You mean...you do not mean...does he.......love me?"
"Yes, but sadly he'll never admit it."
"He insists on keeping his passion a secret," Ladril tried to hide the evil smirk forming on the corners of his mouth. "He is worried you might deny him and break his heart, so after confessing it to me he vowed to keep his love for you a deep and total secret."
One could see the excitement burst in Elen's eyes. "That's why he's been acting so distant..."
"Exactly," Ladril felt the pain of keeping a straight face finally subside. "So, it would mean a lot to Shastan if you just stayed here. The thought of you getting hurt would be unbearable to him."
"I wish I had known about this sooner..." Elen thought aloud. "But now that I am on this adventure, I am staying on it until it's through. I would look like a coward if I turned back now."
"But...what about Shas-?"
"-Don't worry, Ladril. Shastan will see me quite alive when this is over, I assure you."
Ladril quietly rubbed his temples. There was absolutely no getting through to that woman...
"Ready to go?" Elen gathered herself up and glanced to the shadows again.
"Now listen," He demanded. "Once the fighting starts I cannot be responsible for you. Whatever happens...well, let us just say you've been warned. Understand?"
Elen smiled and, to Ladril's ultimate surprise, she leaned over and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "I understand. Now stop worrying."
Elen stood up and cautiously stepped around the bush while Ladril had to take a moment to process what just happened. Suddenly coming to himself, he got up and quickly followed after the maiden as she now crept through the darkness towards the shadow of the wains.
The whole scene felt ethereal, the way the light from the torch-posts played against the pale structure of the huddled wagons. Occasionally the black figures of orcs could be seen strolling casually back and forth, guarding their precious horde. Ladril and Elen kept low to the ground as they crossed through the meadow of tall grass. This proved very difficult for poor Ladril, who was still hauling two swords and a pack full of knives. As he awkwardly made his way along, Elen glanced at him and quietly snickered.
"What?" he whispered.
"You look like a hunchback."
Ladril was about to shoot something in retaliation, but he froze when he saw an orc prowling not twenty feet away. He and Elen had already stumbled upon the perimeter of the wain camp.
"Get down," The ranger hissed and pushed Elen into the grass. The orc stopped his pacing and squinted at the pale meadow, hand on his weapon and ears perked.
It felt as if Elen's and Ladril's own breathing shattered the tense silence. The orc remained fixed, staring out into the darkness while the two could only keep low and wait.
"...Ladril?" Elen whispered in his ear.
"What if we're caught?"
In all his careful plotting, Ladril hadn't thought about that possibility, but Elen's question was quickly answered with a "Hey, you right there! Get up, you two!"
Shock went up the ranger's and maiden's spine. For a moment they remained motionless, praying that what they heard wasn't real.
But their fears were affirmed with "That's right! You two! Get up now!"
The orc had seen the hump of Ladril's pack sticking out of the field, and through the thin grass he could see Elen's white garb. "This is the last time I'll tell ye! Get up!"
Shaking, Ladril and Elen slowly rose from the grass. The orc tromped forward with the tip of a crude blade pointed at them. But when he came near enough for Ladril to discern his features in the dark, the ranger realized that it wasn't an orc at all, but a dark and hideous wildman, robed in sheets of fur and harsh leather and decked with trinkets taken from the wains.
Flashing rotted teeth, the wildman kept his blade aloft and grimaced at Elen and Ladril. "What do ye think yer doin'?"
Ladril squirmed for some sort of reply...or an idea...or anything to make this brute go away. But before Ladril could even open his mouth the wildman pointed his sword back to the wain camp.
"Get back in there where ye belong!"
Ladril stared at the wildman and blinked in utter surprise. Elen, however, was quick to act. She delivered a swift punch to Ladril's arm.
"Idiot!" She cried. "You said your big escape plan would work and now look what happened! We got caught in a matter of seconds!"
The wildman gave a smug smile. "That's right, yer not gettin away on my watch. Now get back in that camp before I take my blade to yer hide!"
Elen yelped in pretense of great fear and quickly yanked Ladril towards the wains. He, meanwhile, rubbed his arm in bewilderment.
She's just like Shastan, He thought. Quick with the mind, hard with the hand.
The wildman marched behind them to make sure they didn't get away. Ladril quickened his pace when he realized his large pack was becoming lopsided under his cloak. When they reached the circle of pale wagons the wildman stopped and snarled "No more escapin' unless ye want yer tongue 'n eyes cut out, ye hear? And let this be a lessin to ye!"
The wildman snapped the flat of his blade against Ladril's leg. He yelped at the pain and nearly toppled over. This caused the wildman to laugh with delight as he lumbered on his way.
Elen quickly jumped to his side. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," he lied, trying not to wince under the throb of his leg.
The two looked up and studied their new surroundings. Together the wagons made nearly a complete circle, with more brutes, like the wildman, posted around the perimeter. In the center was a cluster of people and in the midst of them glowed a small campfire, weakly tended to by old men and quietly weeping women. No children dared to make noise, or leave the safety of their mothers' arms, lest they fell prey to the merciless wildmen.
Ladril felt as though his heart would break at this scene.
"We have to do something," He said grimly to himself.
"We cannot do anything tonight," Elen said, overhearing him. "-Except relay our plan to the others. Get into that wagon over there and unload the weapons. I will fetch Balar to speak with you."
"He was the captain of the wains when we set out. It would be best to tell him of our plan first."
Ladril agreed and Elen went quickly on her way. The ranger tried to keep his eyes off the pitiful scene of women and children while he climbed into the covered wagon. There he sat uneasy in the bitter dark, waiting for Balor to arrive.
Ladril jolted upright when he realized he had fallen asleep. Elen was now in front of him, gently shaking his shoulder and holding a lighted candle, which threw strange shadows about the interior of the wagon. In the entryway, a dark figure stood hunched under the canvas frame. Elen turned her candle towards the figure and the face of a gruff man was softly illuminated. His beard and hair were white, but old age left no other mark on his frame. He looked like a ripened veteran, well versed in war, and more fit for leading troops into battle than wagons of women and children into the countryside.
"Are you Master Balar, sir?" Ladril straightened up, feeling that to treat him any lower than a General would be dishonorable.
"I am," Balar replied, somewhat humored by Ladril's quick respect. "Take ease, man. This is no soldiers' camp."
"But this is still war," Ladril could not help but reply.
Balar paused. "...Yes, this is war. And in the worst place as well: wagons of women and children should never have to witness battle."
The old veteran sat himself directly across from Ladril. "But in the face of slaughter by wildmen, battle is the far better choice...and Lady Elen tells me that you intend to start one."
Ladril found himself nearly blushing. "...Only if I have your consent, sir."
"In war consent means nothing. Cooperation is what you seek. And I will readily give it, providing your plan is something the wains haven't already tried."
Ladril picked up this pack and offered it to Balar. The gruff man opened the flap and gingerly plucked out one of the many knives.
"These could be useful," He said with some thought. "...if we were not so outnumbered."
"That has been taken care of," The ranger said with a touch of pride. "A diversion has been scheduled for tomorrow which will draw away the enemy's numbers."
Balar looked up at the young man in surprise. "Scheduled? For tomorrow?"
"That's why we need to distribute the knives as quickly as possible," Ladril explained. "The battle for the wains has already been set in motion."
Balar was somewhat taken back. "You realize that you will have no sturdy soldiers to choose from, Ladril. All you will have to wage your warfare are young lads and the elderly."
Now Elen spoke. "But it is as you said: a battle is better than slaughter. And slaughter is what we will face unless we follow Ladril's plan."
On hearing this Balar let out a hearty laugh. "It seems you have an advocate, my boy. Well, I cannot argue against Elen's fine point. We will hand out the weapons tonight, but the process must be slow and subtle to avoid detection. We have Elen and other capable hands for that." He now stood, scooping up Ladril's heavy pack, and made for the end of the wagon. "But you should get some sleep now, if you are to lead the battle tommorrow."
Ladril nodded, then gave a double take. "Lead?"
"Turmor, Nenbor," Balar opened the wagon flap and called out. Two young boys ran up to the wagon and Balar lowered the pack to them. "We have much to do tonight, lads." He said, then he turned to Ladril. "You can stay in the wagon for the evening. Get a good night's rest."
With that he exited the wagon. Elen, picking up her own sword, was about to follow in suit when Ladril stopped her.
"What's the matter?" She asked.
"I cannot lead the battle, Elen."
"What do you mean? Wasn't that your original plan?"
"But Balar is far more experienced."
"And how does one become experienced?" Elen smiled. "By getting experience."
"This is not a training course, Elen. There are lives at stake."
"And I know you will not let us down."
Elen turned and exited the wagon, leaving Ladril to do anything but sleep at the prospect of having to wage battle the following morning.