Two Sides of a Coin - Chapter 6: The Brand
All was quiet in the regiment camp, and through the night air blew a foreboding wind. But this did not bother Ladril, for this night a messenger from the South Ithilien troops was due to arrive and give the Captain a report. Ladril had heard nothing from Belegorn for nearly two weeks; at least when the messenger comes he will have some news of him.
After an eternity of waiting outside his tent, Ladril finally heard the pounding rhythm of a horse entering the camp. He sprang up and followed the sound, but when he finally caught sight of the messenger he was surprised to see him bore right through the camp and bolt into the Captain's tent.
Baited with curiosity, Ladril crept towards the quarters of the Captain with the utmost stealth. Whatever the messenger had to report, it was obviously of extreme urgency. Ladril was close enough to hear muffled voices, when suddenly to his surprise and dismay, the Captain himself opened the flap of his tent.
The young ranger froze completely as he looked into the eyes of his superior. But the Captain's face was not enraged or scornful, rather solemn and quiet.
"I was just about to summon you, Ladril." The Captain said. "Please come inside."
Ladril was surprised the Captain even knew his name, let alone desired to summon him. The ranger awkwardly entered the tent. Apart from the fine rugs and table of maps, Ladril saw the messenger standing in the corner: still red faced from the cold and breathless from his ride.
The Captain sat at his table while Ladril stood a respectful distance away.
"Ladril..." The elder man started, as if not sure where to begin. "How long have you been in the service of Ithilien?"
"Nearly a month, sir."
"And what made you decide to enter the service?"
Ladril paused at the oddity of the question. "...It was Belegorn mostly, sir. It was our desire to join the regiments together."
The Captain hesitated, still at loss for the right words. "...As you know, Belegorn and I were very good friends in our youth, so I have always felt somewhat responsible for you. And...given the message I have just received...I feel it is my duty as your officer, and as a friend, to tell you..."
"...What happened? Where is Belegorn?" The young man asked, though his heart already knew the answer.
"Ladril," The Captain said. "...Your brother is dead."
Ladril woke with a jolt, feeling sick to his stomach. It was dawn and the forest was unearthly still. The light played on the pebbles of the highway, making it gleam like a white ribbon in the woods. The ranger slowly rolled over and saw Shastan busy over a fire pit. He turned his head back and stared up at the pale sky miserably, wishing more than anything that he was dead.
...Death had to be better than his present situation.
"Laa-deril!" Shastan called. "Wake up and eat your breeaakfast!"
Ladril loudly groaned and pulled himself up. He stumbled over to the fire pit, and unceremoniously plopped himself down across from the Swerting.
"I found which way is South," Shastan said proudly as he handed him breakfast.
"That's nice," Ladril mumbled.
Shastan watched for a moment as the ranger sighed and stared at his food.
"...Is that a habit of yours?"
"To wake up every morning eerily depressed?"
"Well being a slave hasn't been a pleasant experience."
"You have been having it pretty easy," Shastan speculated. "I should have made you wake up early and prepare breakfast."
"Then why didn't you?"
Ladril looked up from his meal and saw that the Swerting would not answer his question.
"...I see," Ladril scoffed. "You have finally figured out that orders will not work on me. You can command, insult, even threaten me with death; I will not be moved. In fact I would welcome death right now if you had the mind to deal it to me."
"What good are you to me dead?" Shastan asked simply.
"True. That would be one less slave for your poor mother."
"That would be no slave for my poor mother."
"What? You haven't any slaves in your household? I imagined you to be of high standing among your folk."
"My folk do not own slaves."
Ladril gaped at the Swerting in shock. "But...why did you enslave me then?!"
"My desires can differ from those of my people," Shastan said. "I wished to procure a slave and I did so. You needn't know more than that."
"But you don't even know what to do with me!"
"When I figure out what a master is supposed to do with a slave, I will see that it's done!"
"'til then," Ladril muttered. "You get to leave me alone."
"'til then," Shastan coldly replied. "You get to stop giving me orders."
The two men remained in a sour mood through the rest of breakfast. And when they gathered the supplies and started on their journey, the mood followed them. As the day wore on and the travel wearied on the dusty road, the men's ill temperament did not ease; rather it boiled under the hot afternoon sun. During midday they stopped to rest by a tree amidst the blossoming eaves. The frustrated glares and ill silence was then at last decisively broken by the ranger.
"...Can you please take my shackles off?"
"No," Shastan replied flatly.
"But they're driving me insane."
"Then at least you are preoccupied."
"-And they also prevent me from doing the labor a slave ought to do, such as cooking your precious breakfast."
"Just as well," Shastan mumbled. "I bet you can't cook anyway."
"What? I told you I can cook a little."
"Oh I suppose you can warm up the occasional crust of stale bread, but when it comes to surviving in the wild day to day, you would starve without me."
"Then who has made who the slave?"
Shastan became positively livid. "Being your master has been nothing but a foul curse!"
"Then release me!"
"So you can go on your merry way? Oh no, not `til you have tasted what a slave really endures! Why right now I have a good mind to drag you on your feet and..." Shastan suddenly paused.
But the Swerting held up a hand for silence. He craned his neck towards a large hill across the road and his muscles immediately tensed.
"...Did you hear something?" Ladril whispered as he stared at the hill blankly. The Swerting did not reply but slowly got to his feet. Bent in half he crossed the road and crept up the hill until he reached the crest. Warily he peeked over.
"Laaderil!" He cried in a harsh whisper.
"Whatever. Get up here and see this!"
The ranger carefully made his way up the slope and joined Shastan at the ridge. He looked down at a shallow valley below and felt his heart drop to his stomach. There, nestled under a clump of heavily shaded trees, was a horde of snarling, gruesome orcs.
Ladril dropped his head lower, but continued to watch as the foul creatures scuttled back and forth, bickering amongst themselves as they attempted to set up a camp. A few of them squabbled over fresh spoils, which betrayed to Ladril that they attacked Gondorrims on the highway quite frequently.
Shastan looked at the creatures with bewilderment. "...What are those things?"
Ladril stared at the Swerting blankly. "They are on your side."
"Are they?" Shastan studied the camp of orcs again, suddenly recollected something. "Ah yes...Kreshxes."
"Kreshxes: the monster-children of The Eye. It is said in my land that every time the Lord of the Dark draws in breath, ten Kreshxes spring into being."
"It would seem so. There are so many of these brutes now," Ladril sighed and decided he had observed the orcs long enough. "We have been most fortunate they weren't watching the highway when we came. Let us go now, so we can be a good distance away when night falls."
The ranger turned to go back down the hill but suddenly noticed, to his surprise and great alarm, that Shastan had a rock in his hand and was now taking aim at one of the orcs below.
"What are you doing?" Ladril nearly cried.
"I want to see if the stories are true," Shastan stated.
"The ones told in my homeland. They say the Lord of the Dark protects his Kreshxes with such powerful magic that an enemy's sword cannot even touch them. If the stories are true, then this rock should bounce right off of them."
"Don't be stupid. That rock is not going to bounce off."
"Yes it will. Watch..." Shastan raised the rock and took aim again.
"Shastan, don't!" Ladril sharply whispered. "It's going to hit them and we'll have twenty orcs after us!"
"The rock will not even touch them. They're protected by powerful-"
"Will you shut up about that? They are not protected by magic!"
"How do you know? Have you ever encountered a Kreshxe before?"
Ladril paused. Now that he thought about it, he really hadn't. His regiment never crossed any orcs in Ithilien, so all he knew concerning those creatures was what he heard at home. But everyone knew the Lord of Mordor was full of black magic. Perhaps his sorcery went indeed to such extent as to shield his minions and thralls from the blows of Men.
All the ranger could do was watch with sprouting curiosity as Shastan once again raised the rock and found his target. After a moment of baited breath, Shastan hurled the rock across the air, and the two men watched its path intently. The rock flew into the orc camp and soundly struck the base of an orc's head. The creature let out an agonizing howl and toppled forward, and then all eyes quickly turned to the two humans crouched atop the hill.
"Idiot," Ladril muttered to Shastan. The Swerting decided to keep his mouth shut as they both barreled back down the slope. In an instant the orcs leapt from their campsite in a furious pursuit. By the time Shastan and Ladril reached the bottom of the hill, the orcs had already passed over its crest.
"There is no way we can outrun them," Ladril said breathlessly.
"And all we have is a hunting knife, so fighting is not an option," As Shastan said this he turned deathly pale. "...I am a dead man."
"You're a dead man? They're on your side, remember? I'm the one they are going to kill!"
Nothing more could be said, because by this time the horde of orcs had finished lumbering down the slope. Now they stopped a few feet before their prey, flashing their snarled teeth and their long knives.
"Which one?!" A bigger brute growled. "Which one of ye threw that rock?!"
There was a drawn out silence as the two men stood frozen stiff in front of the blood-thirsty creatures. The orcs sneered and cursed, displaying their impatience for a reply. As Ladril searched through his frenzied mind for any possible answer, he suddenly felt a Swerting hand give him a hard smack on the side of the head.
"Idiot," Shastan said. "How many times have I told you not to throw rocks?!" He accordingly turned to the orcs. "I am sorry about that. My slave can be such a nuisance at times."
All the creatures gave a fiendish glare at Ladril and would have lunged at him, were it not for Shastan's arm barring the way.
"I am sure this poor wretch deserves whatever you fellows wish to give him," Shastan said calmly. "But he is my property and thus cannot be harmed." Ladril rubbed his head and glared at the Swerting coldly.
"And who are ye?" The orcs snapped at Shastan.
"I am Shastan of Western Kisha'rut, and I am.......on your side?"
A few orcs leaned in and gave the Swerting a whiff. "Garn!" They spat. "He's one of them Southlings. We'd have our tongues cut out if we as well touch 'im!"
Shastan felt very relieved at this, but the bigger of the brutes was not so moved. He studied Ladril with a sharp eye.
"...He's your slave, eh?"
"Shackled him myself," Shastan said confidently.
The brute moved in closer, and Ladril felt short of withering under his yellow eyes and coarse breath.
"Then you tell me somethin', Southling," The brute grated through his gleaming fangs. "If he's yer slave, then where's his brand?"
"His brand?" Shastan asked puzzled.
"Yeah, his brand that says he belongs to ye."
"I only got him a couple days ago."
"But that's what a master does with his slave," The big orc gave a snarled grin. "...He brands 'em."
Ladril audibly gulped, but Shastan remained calm. "I will do that when I reach home." He stated.
"You'll do that now!"
All the foul creatures cheered at this promising entertainment and immediately grabbed the ranger. They roughly shoved Ladril and Shastan up the hill and down the other side, back to their horrid campsite. The two men were quickly separated and Ladril was brought to a short, withered tree growing beside a flat rock. With all haste the orcs kicked the ranger to his knees and made him hunch over one side of the rock as they looped the chain of his shackles over the tree's branches on the other side. They then rolled back his sleeves, so the Gondorrim sat tied to the dead tree with his exposed arms stretched across the rock face.
In the corner of his eye Ladril could see other orcs clumped around their camp fire, trying to turn it into a roaring flame. Over the pit an orc was heating up a cooking rod: Ladril's branding iron.
The ranger's eyes quickly shifted to Shastan. All the Swerting could do at the moment was just watch the whole spectacle. But he was working out a plan, Ladril knew. Once the rod was fully heated and offered to Shastan, he would do some clever talking and get Ladril out of this mess.
More logs were thrown into the fire pit, sending sparks and ash whirling in the air. Slowly the rod was heating up, and doubt and fear began to prey on the ranger's courage. The creatures were snarling louder and louder with delight as the rod was getting hotter. If the orcs got too riled up about the branding, it would be impossible for Shastan to dissuade them. But suddenly a horrid thought crept into Ladril's mind.
What if Shastan wanted to brand him?
The ranger tried to press the idea out of his head, but it returned with a vengeance. Ladril had insulted and jeered the Swerting on every step of their journey. Why wouldn't Shastan want to brand him? It would be the ultimate lesson for the defiant slave.
Ladril began to feel knots in his stomach. Beads of sweat started to form on his brow. He had only wanted his freedom, but he shouldn't have been so hard on Shastan...
A clamor of howls and cheers signaled that the rod was now scorching hot. The orc horde cleared back, and Ladril turned sick when he saw the hot red tip of the iron as it was raised from the fire. The bigger brute took the rod and offered its wooden end to Shastan.
Shastan took it without a word.
The sun was disappearing amidst black clouds as the orcs roared with delight. The Swerting turned towards his slave. Ladril, completely sick with fear, could only see Shastan in his hazy vision as an approaching blur holding a glowing red beam.
The orcs grouped around in the fading light, sneering and beating their chests with excitement. Then in one horrid voice they began to roar "Brand him! Brand him!"
Shastan stood before the ranger, who was helplessly chained to the dead tree: his pale arms exposed on the flat rock. The orcs huddled around closer, but Shastan suddenly said "Get to one side! You are blocking out the light!"
The creatures consented and hastily regrouped behind him. "...I have to see what I am doing," the Swerting muttered.
The hot iron was raised, and Ladril in his unraveling mind thought back to a poem he recited as a child:
If stranger begs I'll give him some
though he's from different lands.
For who knows in the days to come
if I'll be in stranger's hands?
Ladril now began to squirm uncontrollably, and Shastan grabbed his arm and held it firmly in place. He lifted the rod, and bore it straight down.
Ladril squeezed his eyes shut and cried out loud. The heat! The searing, unbearable-
...But not as hot as he imagined.
Ladril opened an eye, and saw the iron struck an inch above his arm, scorching the rock. The heat was nearly blistering his skin, but the rod did not touch him.
Ladril stared dumbfounded, but a sharp pinch on his arm from Shastan signaled he needed to scream for pretense. Pulling himself together, the ranger gave an agonized howl, then writhed and wailed for good measure. The orcs guffawed and cheered at his supposed torment. "That's it! Sign yer name in 'em!" They cried.
Shastan hovered closely over Ladril so they could not see what he was doing, but since the orcs took such delight in the man's wailing, it mattered little. At length Shastan raised the rod and took out a piece of cloth. The orcs rushed forward, but before they could view Shastan's "handiwork" on Ladril's skin, the Swerting had already wrapped the cloth around Ladril's arm as if to keep the burn from bleeding. The man turned to the bigger orc and returned the cooking rod. "My thanks to you for lending me this," Shastan said. "I certainly hope it has taught my slave a lesson."
Ladril was overwhelmed with exhaustion, relief, and guilt. For a while he felt completely senseless as Shastan conversed with the orcs for some time. Then he felt himself being lifted up from the shrub he was chained to, and before he knew it he was hobbling off with the Swerting up the hill and down the other side: away from the orc camp.
After they had picked their things up, the two men traveled south until the sun was fully covered by the clouds and it began to rain. They found a dry haven under a thick tree, and there set camp. Ladril noticed that Shastan had not spoken a word since that afternoon, and appeared to be avoiding him.
"I underestimated you, Shastan." Ladril said at length. "You spared me from a great ordeal when you did not have to." Then the ranger smiled. "Perhaps we are not so different, you and I."
The Swerting spun on the ranger. "If our places were exchanged, would you have spared me?"
Ladril was about to give the obvious answer, but suddenly paused. He pictured himself holding the rod with a Southron on the ground in chains....the perfect revenge...
Ladril jolted from the image, surprised at himself for even thinking that.
"Ah, so you see Master Laaderil," Shastan said bitterly. "We are very different."