Two Sides of a Coin - Chapter 7: Blind Judgement
author's note: This is a story in which an Ithilien ranger and a Southron must learn how to get along. Due to Shastan's preference, the term "Southron" has been turned to "Swerting" (mispronounced 'Se-werting' by him) for this story. Here are links to the other chapters:
chapter 1 http://www.theonering.com/docs/18654.html
chapter 2 http://www.theonering.com/docs/18734.html
chapter 3 http://www.theonering.com/docs/18779.html
chapter 4 http://www.theonering.com/docs/18933.html
chapter 5 http://www.theonering.com/docs/19022.html
chapter 6 http://www.theonering.com/docs/19108.html
"The real voyage of discovery consists not in making new landscapes but in having new eyes." -Marcel Proust
Shastan stirred and opened his eyes, then realized with a jolt he had overslept. It was already midmorning and too late to prepare breakfast before travelling. Shastan groaned at the prospect of journeying the whole day without food in his stomach, when he suddenly smelled smoke.
The Swerting sat up to see a small fire some yards away with a pot heating over it. As if in answer to Shastan's puzzlement, Ladril returned to the pot with a ladle and gave the contents another quick stir.
He was cooking breakfast.
Shastan blinked, rubbed his eyes, and blinked again. In response Ladril looked up and gave a sly grin.
"Shaaastan!" He piped. "Wake up and eat your breeaakfast!"
Shastan pulled himself off his mat, but as he approached the fire pit he was still completely baffled.
"...I thought you refused to do slave work."
"This is not 'slave work'." Ladril stated. "This is 'performing a service out of gratitude'. You want to eat?"
At length the Swerting nodded and sat himself down. Ladril poured some soup in a bowl and offered it to Shastan, and he took a taste while Ladril turned back and served himself.
"...Not bad," Shastan commented.
"Indeed, considering I had no idea what I was doing," Ladril admitted. "Half of the spices you carry I don't even know."
"They come from my Home, that's why: fresh grinds from special desert plants. They are a lot stronger than the spices your folk use."
The ranger nodded in agreement, then suddenly looked up. "How do you know what spices we use? Do you mean you have had our food before?"
Shastan turned away and did not answer.
"...Fine." Ladril finally said. "I will just add 'enigma' to the growing list of your oddities. And speaking of oddities, what on earth is that?"
Shastan saw that Ladril was pointing to a fine, long rod propped against the tree. At its tip boasted a broad spearhead and a thick, red tassel.
"A ceremonial spear," Shastan said in answer.
"Yes but where did it come from?"
"I saw it amongst a pile of loot at the orc camp yesterday so I bartered for it while you were still tied to the tree."
"You bartered with orcs?"
"...I should rather say I spooked them into giving me the spear," Shastan smirked while reminiscing the scene. "Since it came from my Homeland, I convinced the orcs that some dead Se-werting will haunt them until he retrieved the weapon. They kept insisting they found the spear by the road, but they got scared enough and handed it to me."
"But what would you want with a spear? It's no use to us in the wild," Ladril insisted.
"It is if we meet more orcs."
"Yes, but if you throw it and miss-"
"Basra's Exalted Name!" Shastan cried. "You do not throw a spear!"
Ladril blinked. "...I give up. What are you supposed to do with it then?"
"Well..." Shastan pondered a moment. "I suppose I will just have to show you sometime." With that Shastan finished the last bit of his soup. "This was very good. I shall look forward to breakfast tomorrow."
"That is where I'll make a deal with you."
"I will make you all the breakfasts you want from now on, providing you unshackle me."
"No," Was the flat reply.
"Stubborn!" Ladril spat. "Always stubborn, that's what you "Swertings" are! You will not cooperate and you will not listen. I cannot imagine how our two countries could ever get along!"
Shastan thought a moment. "Then it makes sense that we are at war with eachother."
Ladril was about to refute him, but then considered this statement. After a silent nod all arguement ceased for the rest of the morning, and the two men packed their things while the journey ahead promised to be very long indeed.
The highway cut into a cool forest, which made most of the travelling quite pleasant. But amidst the silence of the woods Ladril felt uneasy. Every step they took on the gravel road seemed to alert every creature to their presence, and having made only a narrow escape with orcs a day before, the ranger felt they ought to be especially cautious.
"We are not getting off the road," Was Shastan's answer to his suggestion. "Do you want us to get lost again?"
"I thought you had a knack for finding your way."
"I had a knack for finding the road. And now that I am on it, I am staying on it." Then the Swerting smiled. "You still owe me half of your country, by the way."
"If you thing I was actually serious about that-"
Shastan suddenly held up a hand for silence.
"...Did you hear something again?" Ladril whispered. "How is it you always hear better than me?"
"Don't hear," Shastan said. "Smell."
The ranger took a whiff of the air and to his surprise he smelled traces of smoke. The scent was coming from up the road, where it curved away from view. The two men stared after it warily.
"You can't go, it's too dangerous-"
"Well you're tied up-"
"If you unshackled me like I told you-"
"Just stay here. I'll go off the road-"
"Now you'll go off the road?"
"-And sneak up from the side. That will put them off guard-"
"-Unless they are expecting it."
"And I'm coming."
The Swerting and the ranger hid their heavy packs by the side of the road and slid into the forest. They followed where the highway curved and the smell of smoke grew stronger as they crept along. Shastan, with a firm grip on his spear, peered cautiously over a bush and saw the smoke's source.
"Where is the smoke coming from?" Ladril asked.
"A campfire on the road."
"Filthy orc-vermin," The ranger shook his head with disgust. "Are no roads safe anymore?"
"Well," Shastan turned to Ladril. "I wouldn't call an elderly man 'orc-vermin'."
Ladril blinked. "...What?"
The ranger peered over the bush also, and there indeed was an old man sitting in the middle of the road: dressed in nothing but rags and tending to a frail fire.
"We got worked up for nothing," Shastan commented. "Should we talk to him?"
"I think we ought to remain wary. We still do not know what side he's on."
Shastan stared at Ladril. "...I think either way he is an enemy to one of us."
Ladril thought a moment. "All right that's true. But what I meant to say was-"
"-When you two are done bickering," The old man called. "I will invite both of you...or one of you, or none at all, to share my fire: depending on if you two feel like finishing each other off before finishing with me."
Shastan and Ladril stared at the ragged man.
"...Ah... are not so hesitant," The old man speculated. "Which implies that you are the opposite. Therefore come sit and bicker no more."
After a moment both youths stepped out of the brush and onto the road. But the old man remained unmoved, his eyes still fixed downward.
"Who are you?" Ladril demanded.
"No one, sir." Was the answer.
"From what country are you?"
"No one belongs to no country."
"What side are you for? Gondor or Mordor?"
"No one is on neither side."
There was a confused pause.
"...And you are no one?" Shastan tried.
"As I said, sir."
"Do you jest with us?"
"On the contrary, I speak quite plainly: no one belongs to no country and no one is on neither side. Furthermore, no one is honest and these days no one shows much tolerance."
"Just what are you getting at?"
"No one knows."
Shastan gave up on the whole matter, but Ladril remained persistent.
"Could you...tell us something we should know?"
"Ah! Glad you asked," The old man pointed directly behind him. "There is a spring of clear water some fifty paces that way. That is something you ought to know."
"Splendid!" Shastan said. "I am going back to get our flasks, then."
"What should I do?" The ranger asked.
"You can stay with this fellow," Shastan smirked and turned to the old man. "You will look after him, won't you sir?"
"If he requires looking after." The fellow answered.
With that Shastan trotted back down the road. Ladril grumbled and sat next to the ragged man, who was still tending to his fire.
"Are you just insane, or were you actually trying to be insightful?" The ranger finally inquired.
"What one man may label as lunacy another man could prize as philosophic. Insanity and insight are, like so many other things, two sides of the same coin."
After Ladril consented at length, the old man leaned towards him and nodded in the direction Shastan had gone.
"What do you think of that fellow you travel with?"
"...Do you want me to be honest?"
"That and nothing else."
Ladril looked down the road contemptuously. "I think he's an idiot."
"Interesting," The fellow nodded. "You know what one man may call an idiot-"
"-Will you please stop that? I cannot stand philosophic discussions."
The old man shrugged. "Very well...why do you follow him, then?"
"For apparent reasons," Ladril displayed his shackles before the old man, but he paid them no heed.
"What of the reasons that are not "apparent"?"
This caught the ranger off guard, but his thoughts went back to the night he was trapped in the pit, and when he was at the mercy of a branding iron.
"I suppose..." He said at last. "I am indebted to him."
"For being indebted, it sounds like you do not get along with him."
"How can I? He's always so elusive-"
"-Like he is keeping secrets?"
"...Not really. He's not a fellow to keep secrets."
"Everyone has secrets."
"But he doesn't."
Ladril gave a startled pause. "...Yes, but he would not understand."
"Come now, even you can see we are so utterly different! We simply cannot think the same way!"
At this moment Shastan returned, having decided to lug the heavy packs along with the flasks. He dropped the bags and plopped down in exhaustion.
"Here Laaderil," He tossed the flasks to the ranger. "You get the water."
Ladril raised a brow. "You actually trust I won't run off?"
"Of course," Shastan patted the bags. "Because I have got all the food."
The ranger huffed and trudged into the woods. When he was far from view, Shastan turned to the old man.
"Well? What has he been saying about me?"
"He says you two do not think the same," The man replied.
"Isn't that the truth."
Shastan rested back with an arm propped under him while the old man leaned forward and asked "What do you think of that fellow?"
The ragged man nodded.
"I think he's an idiot."
"...Really....?" The fellow slowly nodded. "Interesting. I was just saying what one man may call an idiot-"
"You are not going into some philosophic discussion, are you?"
The old man stopped. "-Can't stand them, eh?"
"All right..." The old man rolled back his torn sleeves. "Why do you travel with him, then?"
"It's quite obvious."
"Aside from what's 'obvious'."
Shastan thoughtfully recalled the time he and Ladril were trapped under the log; if it wasn't for Ladril's idea to cooperate, they would have been killed. "I guess...I am indebted to him."
"And yet you two do not get along."
"How can I? He just talks and talks about practically nothing. It's as if-"
"-He's keeping secrets?"
"...No. No one keeps secrets nowadays."
Shastan hesitated. "...Yes. But he would never understand."
"Because it's just as Laaderil said: we cannot think the same way!"
At this time Ladril came back with the flasks nearly brimming. He handed one to Shastan, and both men took a moment to enjoy the refreshing spring water.
"Can I offer you two a word of advice before you depart?" The old man asked.
"Certainly," Ladril said, wiping his mouth.
"There may be moments when you do not understand each other, but with time and patience those difficulties will pass. That is the miracle: no matter how dark things get, brothers always pull through."
There was stark silence as the words registered, then the Swerting and the ranger violently choked and spat out their water.
"--You think...we're brothers?!" Shastan cried.
"Ah, yes!" The ragged man clapped his hands as if he won a game. "I am clever aren't I? I figured out you two were related before you could even tell me!"
"But he's a...and I'm a..." Ladril pointed between himself and the Swerting in utter confusion, but a sharp glance from Shastan communicated that the old man was obviously crazy.
"...Well we really must be going," Shastan quickly gathered up the bags. "Thank you for your advice. We shall reflect on that thoroughly."
"No trouble at all," The man cheerfully smiled.
"Grab your things and run," The Swerting muttered to Ladril and then bolted up the road. Ladril was about to follow in suit, but paused a moment while looking at the old man. He quietly leaned down and waved a hand in front of the fellow's face, then suddenly understood. He ran up the road to catch up with Shastan.
"Can you believe that?" Shastan said when they were out of earshot. "I should have known from the start. The man is absolutely crazy!"
"He's not crazy," Ladril stated. "...He's blind."
The Swerting stopped in his tracks. "...What?"
"He's blind, Shastan. I checked myself. He didn't know I was a Gondorrim and he didn't know you were a Swerting!"
Shastan thought reflectively. "And he called us brothers."
Ladril hesitated, then nodded.
...There was an awkward silence.
"He's still crazy." Shastan concluded.
"Yes. Absolutely." The ranger quickly concurred.
With that they continued on their journey.