Two Sides of a Coin - Chapter 15: Shastan Has His Way
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 to get along. Shastan, Ladril, and Elen are on a mission to rescue a wain company (wagons of women and children that have evacuated Minas Tirith) which has been taken over by wildmen.
"To every man there comes a time when he is figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do something unique to him and fitted to his talents." -Winston Churchill
Ladril rolled off the small bench and fell soundly onto the wooden floorboards. He jolted awake and spun this way and that, for a moment completely forgetting where he was. But he looked about the rusty wagon, its canvas roof glowing in the early morning light, and he recollected what occurred the night before: sneaking into the wains, fooling the wildman, meeting with Balar....The knives should have been distributed to the men folk by now, if Balar and Elen were true to their word, and Shastan was due to arrive to draw off the enemy's numbers in the early afternoon. For the moment, everything had been taken care of. Ladril gratefully sat back and was slowly lolled by the jostles and bumps of the road as the wagon moved slowly along...
The ranger bolted upright. Why was the wagon moving?
Quickly buckling his sword belt and throwing on his cloak, Ladril scrambled to the back of the cart and opened its flap. Women, children, and the elderly marched at a slow pace, pushing the wagons and encouraging the oxen along.
The wain camp had been completely cleared and once again they were on the move, under the hard whip of wildmen. Ladril scanned the people for a familiar face and was quickly rewarded with the face of Elen smiling at him as she walked a few feet behind the wagon.
"Good morning," She said.
"We're moving," Ladril replied heatedly. "Why are we moving?"
"Because there are dozens of wildmen with whips telling us to."
"But why didn't you wake me?"
"Calm down, everything has been taken care of," Elen said with amusement. "I figured you needed all the rest you could get."
"Not while there is work to do." With that Ladril jumped off the back of the cart and walked in step with Elen. "Once Shastan stops the train, all the women and children need to get into the wagons. We will also need a signal, so the men that are armed know exactly when to attack-"
"I will see that it's done. Your new duty is really getting to you, isn't it?" Elen gave a merry laugh at Ladril's edginess, but it was quickly interrupted by "Eh you! Quit yer laughin'!"
The two looked up to see a wildman stride by with whip in hand. If the way he walked was any indication, he was clearly intoxicated. "You just better stop yer laughin' or this'll meet yer hide!"
But Elen was not deterred by the crude weapon he brandished. "Have humorous things truly been banned?"
"Then I suggest you cover your face."
"Why ye scrawny little-!"
A few other wildmen heard the commotion and strode up to their comrade, ready for trouble.
"You really think you can take down five?" Ladril muttered to Elen.
"I can take every single one of you down!" She cried defiantly. "-If you dogs had the wits to challenge me!"
The brutes snarled at her, only too happy to oblige.
"Elen," Ladril pleaded. "Please do not go into your theatrics again!"
"I beg your pardon?"
"You are unarmed, remember?"
Elen looked down at her cloak where her sword hung secretly within its folds. "Ah...that's right."
The wildmen moved in, riled up to beat the trouble maker, but Ladril quickly made his own move.
"Good sirs, she is not worth the spoiling of your temper. Her words are as threatening as lilies hurled against stone. Why should anyone want to take what a woman says seriously?"
Elen bit her tongue, but it looked as though she would cut clean through it. The wildmen considered Ladril's words and huffed condescendingly.
"You just keep that woman shut up, eh?"
"Yes, sir," Ladril concurred. With that the brutes staggered their separate ways. Elen meanwhile had to use great control to suppress her seething.
"...Sorry," Ladril said quickly. "It was the only way to-"
"I know, I know," She quipped. "...And just what did you mean by theatrics?"
The ranger saw that it was quickly time to change the subject. "I thought you said they were orcs that took over your wains."
Elen eyed the grotesque brutes. "...Close enough. In truth I had never seen an orc before, nor a wildman for that matter. It is rather difficult to tell them apart, isn't it?"
"But where did they come from?"
"Wildmen live everywhere," Elen replied. "West in Dunland, North in the Brown Lands, East in Khand, wildmen even dwelled in the great hills by Minas Tirith at one time. We thought they had fully quitted Gondor by now, but we've clearly been proven wrong." When Elen saw Ladril's troubled look she asked "Does it make much difference whether the enemy are orcs or wildmen?"
"It will in battle. Orcs would have been easier to deal with in this daylight," Ladril sighed. "There is also Shastan. He will not like the fact we will be battling people."
"They still wish to harm us all the same." A gloom fell over Elen's face. "I am frightened, Ladril. They are making us march quicker today than is custom. I think we are finally nearing the horrid destination they have planned for the wains."
"We will never reach that destination," He said firmly. "I will see to that."
The rest of the morning was spent secretly relaying plans to the entire wain company. Everything had to be perfectly timed, everyone had to be perfectly positioned, or the battle would be over before it began. The messages spread without any detection from the drunk, vociferous wild men (little to Ladril's surprise) and by the time it was early afternoon, everything was ready. They could only wait for fate to show a kind hand.
Now the sun was climbing and Ladril nervously wiped the sweat off his brow. He had only been in soldiery three months (well, three and a half by now) and already he was designing war plans and ordering everyone about like a captain. Who was he to do all this? People were looking to him as a hero, yet in truth he was a young man of the lowest Ithilien rank. He was too young, too inexperienced, to lead in such risky battle. Who was he to-
The ranger jumped ten feet at the husky voice. "What?"
He regretted delivering such a quip, for standing next to him was the revered veteran Balar.
"Er...sorry, sir," The ranger muttered in embarrassment.
"You must calm down," The old man ordered. "You look as if you will fall to pieces."
"...I really cannot do this, Balar," He weakly admitted. "I am only a ranger, after all. It would be far wiser if you took command-"
"My days of commanding have long been over," Balar retorted. "I am battle weary and lack the vigor to charge into a fight. Besides, we do not need a captain of Gondor to sound the charge. We need a man who cares enough for the women and children to lead our cause for freedom. We need you, my boy."
"But-" He stopped when Balar quickly shook his shoulder and pointed ahead of the wains.
"Would that be your "scheduled diversion"?"
The ranger looked to where Balar pointed. Sure enough a small, lone figure could be seen in the distance, freely walking towards the wagon train.
"That's him all right," Ladril nodded.
"But it is only one man," Balar criticized as he squinted at the faraway fellow. "How does he expect to draw away the main force of wild men on his own?"
Ladril smiled as Shastan made his slow approach. "...The last thing I would do is underestimate this man, Master Balar."
"...If you say so," Balar reluctantly agreed. "Should everyone get into position?"
"When the train stops, they will know it's time."
"And when will you need the signal?"
"Once the remaining wildmen start gathering up the wagons."
"Very well, I leave it all in your capable hands, Captain Ladril," Balar gave a wide grin and departed on his way.
Ladril stood for a moment, and then shivered with excitement at the new title. While he played with it in his mind he nearly ran into Elen. She too was watching the valley ahead.
"Is that Shastan?" She asked with wariness.
Ladril simply looked at her; instead of a maid he saw a loaded spring. Elen was completely tense and practically gripping the hilt of her sword under the folds of her cloak.
"...You did not arm any of the other women, did you?" Ladril found himself suddenly asking.
Elen made a frown. "Despite my protests, Balar made sure no weapons were given to the women. It seems I am the only lady armed today."
"...Right," Ladril started. "About that...I really think it unwise for you to participate today-"
But Elen quickly hushed him: the wildmen saw Shastan's approach and were ordering the wagons to halt. A group of bigger brutes now advanced to the front of the train to greet the coming stranger.
Ladril saw this unfold and quickly whispered "I am moving to the front. I want to make sure the wildmen do not give Shastan trouble."
"I will go with you," Elen said determinedly.
"No. Stay here and make sure the women and children get into the wagons."
"No buts, Elen. I cannot have you picking another fight before the battle starts."
Elen smirked and turned back to the wagons. Ladril, making sure his sword remained hidden, inched his way towards the front of the train. As he did so he noticed some lads, such as Turmor and Nenbor, already slide into position as the train slowly ground to a halt. Women began to subtly put their children into the wagons and it seemed the entire company knew the time had come.
Ladril found a good spot near the head of the wains and waited as Shastan approached nonchalantly. The wildmen had completely stopped the train now and observed the strange fellow quizzically: he wore jeweled trinkets as they did, but his face was dark and his apparel foreign. He also carried a long spear which made them rather uneasy. As they hurriedly debated amongst themselves whether this man was friend or foe, Shastan reached the front group of large, chattering men and waited for an audience. While he waited he threw a glare at the distant Ladril which read "You said they were orcs."
Finally the wildmen stopped deliberating and faced the foreign man.
"Good morning," Shastan cheerfully offered them.
They shoved forward the brute that bore the most resemblance of intelligence.
"...You be a Southling?" He said distrustfully.
"Actually, the preferred appellation is "Se-werting"."
The wildmen stared blankly.
"...Never mind," Shastan gestured to the wagons behind them. "-Got yourselves spoils of war, have you?"
The ruffians glanced back at their prized horde and smugly nodded.
"And I have got news about the road ahead," He said emphatically. "Which may prove fortunate to profiteers such as yourselves."
Ears perked among the wildmen when hearing this, and Ladril could not help but nod with approval.
That's it, Shastan. Keep playing along, you almost have them...
Shastan opened his mouth to continue, but he paused when his eyes met a coin pouch hanging from a wildman's belt.
"...How much have you got there?"
The wildman took up the pouch and looked inside. "...Ten silvers," He answered.
"What a coincidence," Shastan produced from his pocket his only gold coin. "I happen to have ten of these, how about a game?"
"We don't have time for this," One of the men growled.
"Shut up you!" Another wailed and pushed him aside. "That's gold he's holdin'!"
"I would have to concur with that gentleman," said Shastan. "If you are in a hurry then I shan't delay you."
The horde quickly shoved the opposing fellow away and with hunger of gold in their eyes they begged Shastan to play the game.
...Ladril meanwhile could only look at the whole scene absolutely mortified. What was Shastan doing?
The Swerting smiled and held up his coin for all to see. Then with a flick of the wrist the coin was gone and two closed fists took its place.
"...Pick a hand."
The wildmen looked at one fist, then the other. A smaller man reached to make a choice and was quickly barked down. After cautious deliberation they eventually chose the left hand. Shastan opened his palm and showed it empty.
"That's a shame," He said.
The wildmen sourly muttered and rendered (rather reluctantly) a silver coin in payment of their poor luck.
"Don't feel too bad," Shastan said encouragingly. "They say one gold coin is worth a hundred coins of silver. Care to try again?"
At the chance of winning gold, the wildmen could not resist. Once again Shastan's coin disappeared under two fists. This time the wildmen used a bit more deliberation. Finally they chose left again, and once more it was empty. A flick of the wrist produced the proud coin from Shastan's right hand.
The men hastily paid another silver piece and the game continued. To the horror of the others, one brute reached out and instantly picked Shastan's right hand. Shastan displayed it empty. The wildmen all but killed the brute for his poor decision.
They paid and tried again. The rest of the game went on in a similar pattern: the ruffians would pick a hand, the hand would be empty, and they would have to pay again. This continued until all ten silver coins the wildmen possessed were snug in Shastan's own pocket.
"Ye fool!" One lout said to the other. "I told ye we shouldn't 'ave played, and now look! You've gone 'n lost all our silver!"
"You kept pickin' left! I told ye to pick right!"
Ladril had long given up trying to figure out what Shastain aimed to accomplish. But he became greatly alarmed when he heard one of the wildmen mutter to his companions "I think he's playin' us all for fools. I say he's got no more gold than that coin he keeps makin' vanish. And e'en that could be fake."
The suspicion of the men rose and they began to murmer threatening words against the Swerting. But all threats and suspicions were quickly forgotten when they saw one of their own men secretly continuing the game with Shastan in hopes of winning the gold.
"Hey you!" They cried at the lout in horror. "Stop bettin', you fool!"
"Too late," Shastan replied coolly. "Your little friend has run you three coins into debt."
They would have killed their fellow wild man then and there, but they knew the "Southling" had to be dealt with first. One of the taller brutes stood squarely in front of Shastan with a hand on the hilt of his blade. "We got nothing left, ye hear?"
"'Nothing left' isn't very satisfying to me," Shastan said with ease. "-Especially when I still have news to share about the road ahead, which will either spell your fortune or your doom."
The wildmen hesitated, having quite forgotten that part (it was really the only reason the Swerting was still alive). They did not want a single ounce of their wain treasure falling into his tricky hands, and yet they could not leave him unpaid if he indeed carried vital news.
Suddenly Shastan produced the answer to their quandary by saying "How about this: do you have any women back there?"
The brutes looked back at the wagons and beamed. "Loads!"
"A maid will do as payment, then."
A crop of them quickly turned on their heels and went to search for a suitable maid. But Shastan snagged one of the men and whispered "If I were as clever and cunning as you, I would take this as an opportunity to be rid of whichever maid has caused the most trouble."
It seemed a light (however dim) turned on in the wildman's head. "I know just the one."
Quickly the brute shoved past the others and hollered "Here! Go search for the trouble makin' wench!" The others bellowed in agreement and followed in suit.
It took less than a moment for things to register in Ladril's mind. He hastily ducked away and scrambled through the train, racing to find Elen first.
The search wasn't long. Elen's head was poking out of the crowd, straining to see what was going on at the front. She had been a spectator to the whole scene but she could not hear the words that had been exchanged.
"Ladril, what is going on?" She asked as she saw him approach. "Why in the world is Shastan playing games with the enemy?"
"Elen listen," Ladril said quickly. "Shastan has run them three coins into debt and they've refused to pay him."
"And Shastan resolved that a maid could substitute as payment."
"And I think they're going to use you."
Elen paused, as if waiting for Ladril to be serious. But when she saw that it was clearly no joke her jaw dropped. "They're going to sell me to Shastan?"
"It appears so," The ranger slouched with defeat. "I've given up trying to find the logic in all this."
"So...what should we do?"
"You're going to let them take you."
"At this point we do not have much of a-"
Just then the wildmen came crashing in. Shoving children and elderly aside, they locked eyes with Elen and her face turned white.
"There you are," They grinned wickedly.
Go Elen, Ladril's face pleaded; the maid knew she had no other choice but to obey. The brutes closed in and roughly grabbed both of her arms. She went stiff as a board, not quite knowing how to submit, and before she knew it she was being pushed and dragged towards the front of the train. A sharp glance from Ladril told the lads reaching for their hidden knives to desist and let the scene unfold. Everyone watched helpless and baffled as their poor, fair maid was delivered to the dreadful Southron.
"This is where you get yours," The wildmen snickered at her and rather ceremoniously they presented Elen to Shastan.
"What do ye think?" They proudly asked the Swerting. "Fine beauty, ain't she?"
Shastan studied Elen from head to toe. He stroked his chin, paced a little back and forth, as if taking serious evaluation. Elen meanwhile simply glared and came up with a list of rather nasty things to say to him once they were alone.
"Hmm...I think she will do," Shastan finally concluded.
The wildmen gratefully shoved Elen into Shastan's arms and subtly congratulated each other for their cleverness.
"Now," they demanded. "What's this "special news" of yours, Southling?"
"Ah yes," Shastan recalled the purpose of meeting with the brutes in the first place. "Here it is: over that hill, two miles ahead, lies a Gondor encampment of two hundred soldiers."
The horde of men were alarmed and buzzed at this ill tiding.
"Oh come gentlemen, there is nothing to fear," Shastan assured them. "-Providing you take my news wisely. This encampment does their soldiery at night and sleeps during the day. A good number of you should take them out in a solid stroke, if you hurry. And the booty that lies in store will make the possessions of these wagons look like mere trinkets."
That last part sold them. Already one of the bigger wildmen was barking orders to send word to the rest of the brutes in the train.
"That's handy news indeed," One sneered with delight to Shastan. "You ought to join us in the looting."
"...No thanks," He replied, patting his pocket full of silver and (rather awkwardly) putting an arm around Elen. "I've got everything I need. Thank you for the business, though."
The wildmen didn't waste their breath on a reply. They already forgot he was there as they chattered eagerly amongst themselves about battle strategies. So Shastan smoothly guided Elen to the right and they exited the road, heading up a slope where a border of thick trees loomed ahead.
After a while Elen couldn't help but speak.
"...You had no coin in either hand, did you?"
"Of course not, I was not about to risk my only coin on those louts."
"Then what was the point of all that?" Elen burst out.
"To make sure you stay out of the battle."
Elen was startled into silence and she simply stared at Shastan. "...You cannot be serious."
"I've never been more serious."
"But I will miss all the fighting!"
As Ladril watched Shastan escort Elen up and away from the future battlefield, he could not but wonder why he didn't see Shastan's objective beforehand. He said just yesterday that it would soil his honor if Elen fought in the battle, and it was apparent from the odd events this afternoon that he had chosen to do something about it.
Well, now that Shastan is satisfied, Ladril thought dryly. perhaps we can start our battle today.
A crude ambush tactic had been scratched in the ground by the wildmen, and already they were mustering their larger force from the train. A smaller half of the wildmen was left to gather up the wains into a tight circle and wait until the others returned from their plundering. In less than an hour, a primitive army was assembled and they marched from the wains, aimed for the hill far ahead.
"C'mon, you soft brats!" the wildmen sneered at the Gondorrim when the others had gone away. "Draw the wagons together! We're settin' camp!"
Everyone was calm and moved slow. Purposefully slow. They hitched up the wagons but subtly eyed each other. They were watching, always watching, for the signal.
"Didn't ye hear me?" The wildman spat. "I said get movin'!"
It was then that the fellow realized no fear could be seen on the faces of his prisoners.
The women had piled into the wagons, rather than set about pushing them, and everyone else looked like parts of a mechanism waiting to be set off.
The brute grew uneasy, but all too late: the time had come. The main force of wildmen had fully disappeared over the distant hill, the time had come. An old man covered in a ragged blanket moved slowly and feebly by the wildman, and the lout decided this would be a good tool to instill fear in his captives again.
"When I say move, ye move!"
He gave the old man a hard kick and he stumbled to the ground. He whipped out his blade and grabbed a fistful of the old man's hair.
"This is what ye get for bein' slow-!"
The wildman would have continued, but he stopped abruptly. A hot, searing pain shot into his stomach. He looked down and saw the hilt of a knife jutting from his gut, held firmly in place by the old man. He stared at the knife, then at the old man, in complete shock. Balar threw off the old blanket and rose to his feet, glaring the pale-faced heathen down.
"And this is what you get for challenging Gondor," He stiffly replied.
Balar did his part, and the battle had been set in motion. Ladril, who had waited for his cue, now unsheathed his hidden sword and raised it aloft: its cold steel gleaming in the bright sunlight.
"NOW!" The young ranger cried, and the battle began.