Two Sides of a Coin - Chapter 8: Shastan's Past
author's note: this is a story in which an Ithilien ranger and a Southron (referred to as 'Swerting' due to Shastan's preferance) must learn how to get along.
"Men know thee, but men do not know thee. It's easy to forge in the shallows." Benjamin Franklin
Shastan and Ladril had spent the rest of the day travelling on the road and camped early for the night. Now it was morning and they were packing once again for the long journey ahead.
While Ladril tightened the satchel on his bag, he was hit by a shocking realization: the two men had not fought all morning.
The ranger could not help but wonder at this. Was it due to the fact they barely spoke since breakfast, or were all the pointless arguements really behind them now? As Ladril reflected on that he felt a sharp pain in his wrists. Wearily he looked down and found the shackles had rubbed into his skin and now bit into his flesh. If he and Shastan were really past fighting then the Swerting would have unshackled Ladril and spared him this pain. But Shastan was obviously adamant about keeping Ladril in chains. If only he could learn why...
The sun was climbing, and the two men started their trek on the long, dusty road. The dark forest was far behind them and the road now cutted its way through grassy hills in a broad, sunny plain.
After some time travelling in silence, Ladril finally spoke.
"...I really don't want to go to Kisha'rut."
"Can't we come to a negotiation or something? You know I will just dig in my heels the whole way South, and I'll make a terrible slave. I could compensate you somehow if you set me free...how about it?"
Shastan began to nod, considering Ladril's request. Then, realizing what he was doing, quickly snapped "A master does not adhere to his slave."
Ladril was startled into silence. There was a long moment in which Shastan recalled his harsh words and regretted saying them.
"...I planned a few strategies for the next time we get caught up with encounters on the road," The Swerting said at length, hoping light conversation would ease things.
"Such as?" The ranger asked with little interest.
"If we meet orcs, I will act tough with you and we'll hurry past them. If we see a fellow we do not know, we'll get off the road and go around. If we meet a band of Sewertings, I'll just throw them a nod and they will let us by."
Ladril looked up. "What if we meet an Ithilien regiment?"
"We'll dive under the rocks, I suppose. But what are the odds of that happening?"
"Pretty good I'd say, because here they come."
Shastan's head snapped up. Straight ahead, where the road climbed over another hill's crest, stood the front rank of an Ithilien regiment gazing down at the plains.
"...And it looks like they see us," Ladril commented.
Indeed, the fronk rank was now staring down in puzzlement at the two men, though at this distance they could only be discerned as blurred figures.
Ladril turned to Shastan, expecting him to dive under some rock. But Shastan, knowing they have been marked by the Ithilien troop, gripped his spear and readied himself.
"What are you doing?" Ladril asked, greatly alarmed.
"Preparing to fight," Was the reply.
"Shastan you idiot! You can't fight them all!"
"Then I will die trying."
The ranger was surprised, but admired the man's grim determination: he was not angry nor spiteful at his current fortune but was set for whatever fate would deal him.
...Even if it meant death.
Ladril looked at the regiment, then at Shastan. He could just stand back, rejoin the troops as a free man and let the soldiers arrest the Swerting. But then...what would happen to him? Ladril knew he really shouldn't care, since he was the enemy and this was War.
But Shastan really wasn't the enemy. He was...Shastan. A polite, albiet extremely superstitious and often times ridiculously gallant, "Swerting". And now he was bracing himself for whatever fate the Ithilien regiment would contrive for him.
Ladril's consience quickly decided he would not let that happen.
"Listen," Ladril began as the regiment's second rank now peered over the hill and observed the two strangers. "...I have an idea, but you have to do exactly as I say."
Shastan remained unmoved.
"Shastan, this will save your life!"
The Swerting finally lowered his spear. "Fine. What is it?"
"You know you don't have a choice."
Shastan hesitated, looking at Ladril and then the Ithilien ranks. Finally, cursing under his breath, he pulled out a small key from around his neck and fit it into the lock of the shackles. With a click they unclasped and fell to the ground.
Ladril rubbed his sore wrists and thanked the Valar he was no longer in chains. He wanted to kick the shackles as far away as he could, but he would need them for his plan.
Picking them up, he reached for Shastan's wrists. Shastan immediately sprang back.
"What are you doing?!"
"Just put these on. I'm pretending you are my prisoner."
"I am not your prisoner!"
"I know. We're pretending until we pass the regiment. Just give me the key and put them on-"
"I am not putting them on!"
"Shastan we do not have time! They're coming..."
The Swerting and the ranger looked back at the hill as the regiment began marching down the slope to meet the two men.
Ladril tried to move for Shastan's wrists again, but he sharply tugged his hands away. "I said NO!"
"I'll take them off the moment we pass the regiment! You have to trust me."
"I will not be your slave!"
"If you don't do this you'll die!"
"That's better than being in chains!"
"Put them on!"
"I won't be a slave!"
There was startled silence. Ladril found that he could only stare in shock, while Shastan resolved to keep his head erect, despite the fact it was now flushed and shamed.
Sweet Valar, what has this man been through? Ladril could not help but wonder. Then coming to himself with the realization that time was pressing, the ranger held the shackles in front of the Swerting and said in a firm voice "Shastan, you are either a captive to me for a moment or a captive to the Ithilien Guard for the rest of your life. Now choose!"
Shastan's eyes refused to meet the shackles, but at length he nodded. With the regiment nearly in clear eyesight, Ladril hurriedly took Shastan's key and clasped the cuffs around his wrists, noting that the Swerting visibly shuttered. There was only just enough time for Ladril to pick up the spear and prod Shastan along before the Ithilien regiment came upon them. There were ranks upon ranks of armed rangers with a banner marking the Tree of Gondor fluttering before them. The Captain immediately stepped forward while the flanks watched from their lines with curiousity.
"What regiment do you report to, ranger?" The Captain acknowledged Ladril.
"The Northeast Regiment, sir." He quickly replied.
"You are heading South, far from any regiment," The Captain's eyes shifted suspiciously to Shastan. "...Why do you travel with this man?"
"He is my prisoner, caught in one of the Northern skirmishes. I am now delivering him to the regiment in the...Southwest." He finished rather lamely.
The Captain raised a brow. "Why on earth would you be doing that?"
Think Ladril, think. The ranger fumbled a bit, then suddenly said "There is a...ranger, in that regiment that knows the Southron speech. He is to interrogate this savage and obtain information concerning the Enemy's plans."
The Captain studied Shastan and slowly nodded. But when Ladril eyed him he was greatly alarmed: the blood was draining from Shastan's face and it seemed that hundreds of nightmares or dark memories were beseiging him as he stared down at the shackles.
"Still," The Captain concluded. "There is no sense in having only one ranger escort a captive in the wild. I will send a few men to accompany you Southwest."
Ladril nervously bit his lip. He didn't plan on this happening. The Captain turned and selected a few broad shouldered men, but as they stepped forward Ladril looked at Shastan's sick complexion and was struck with an idea.
"Plague!" His voice rang out. "The Southron is riddled with a desert plague!"
The entire front rank jumped back in fear, including the Captain. There was dead silence throughout the troops.
"...The...Ithilien Guard can only afford to spare one man for the job," Ladril explained. "You understand."
The Captain nodded, but was astonished. "You willingly risk your life to see this Southron delivered to the Southwest regiment? Never have I seen such valor in a ranger!"
"Er...yes, well...we have to leave now, time is pressing you know."
With that Ladril began to yank the pale Shastan away.
"It will not profit you to lead your captive with that," The Captain called, referring to the spear in Ladril's hand. "You will be without a weapon if you throw it and miss!"
Ladril could almost feel Shastan grimacing. But the Captain turned to his horse and untied a scabbard from the saddle. He tossed it to Ladril, and his eyes grew wide when he saw the sword's fine craftmanship.
"Thank you, sir," Was all the ranger could say.
"Thank you for the service to your country," The Captain answered.
Rather than contemplating the great irony in the statement and thus becoming riddled with guilt, Ladril continued to lead Shastan down the road. They did not stop until they were far from the regiment, which had turned and resumed their march in the other direction. When the troops were out of Ladril's farthest sight, he kept his promise by taking off Shastan's chains. By now the Swerting was calm and retaining his color.
"Thank you...I'm sorry, Laaderil."
That was the last thing Shastan said for the rest of the day. He just turned and continued down the road as if nothing changed. But something had changed: Ladril was free and thanks to the Captain's sword he was now armed. But he consented to follow Shastan until nightfall when they would set up camp. Then many things would be explained.
At dusk a fire was set and a small dinner was prepared, though neither Shastan nor Ladril touched it. For a while they both stared at the fire deep in thought, unil Ladril felt it was time to end the silence.
"Do you want to talk about it?" He asked the Swerting.
"...I suppose I do owe you an explanation," Shastan said.
"I didn't mean it that way. I meant it might help you to talk it over. You have never told anyone you were once a slave, have you?"
"...No," Shastan admitted. "But that doesn't mean you ought to be the one to learn my past. What I have to tell...you will not find it pleasant."
"I can listen to anything."
"Can you?" Shastan nearly scoffed. "Very well then. In my early years my mother raised me in the desert. But drought and lack of food forced us to join a caravan to Umbar: rather a nasty place, but we managed to make a living. Then one day, when we were at the ports conversing with Cosairs, the coastline was suddenly bombarded by terrible men with massive and deadly ships; they poured onto the barges like hungry locus. I can still remember...people running, such confusion, and then my mother and I were quickly separated in the crowds. Being only a child, I fell easily into the enemy's hands. They took me along with others back on their ships and they sailed away. I was enslaved in their lands and never saw my mother, or anything that resembled Home, again."
"That's terrible," Ladril said breathlessly. "I cannot imagine even savages stealing children like that. In what land were you enslaved?"
Shastan stared at him, amazed that he did not understand. "I was enslaved in Gondor."
Ladril blinked. "...That cannot be true."
"Gondor does not permit slavery! Any people we take in warfare are captives at best."
"Ah yes they are captives, but then what? What do you do with prisoners of war that you have no use for? You can't turn them free, lest they have discovered a weakness in your country during their captivity. So most prisoners are put to work secretly. Deep in mines or in mills that are out of the way. That was so in Gondor, and I spent most of my childhood working at a mill in a remote region of Belfalas."
Ladril shook his head. "I still cannot believe it...I had no idea..."
"I am sure no one else did either. These places were very secretive and my..."master", was a man few people knew. But I was a slave there all the same." Shastan said this last part in a bitter tone.
"That is where you learned the Common Speech, isn't it?"
"But you are free now. How did you escape?"
"I didn't. Rather I was set free. My master was getting very old, and I suppose he did not want to enter the next life knowing he was a slave owner. He deduced that all his deeds would be forgiven if he took what slaves he had at that point and released them in Umbar. So that is what happened to me...though I think he shall still meet condemnation anyway."
"...And after you were released in Umbar you went home." Ladril concluded.
Shastan hesitated. "...Yes."
His hesitation was long enough to be questionable.
Suddenly Ladril realized the truth, and he wondered why he couldn't see it before. "...No. You still hated Gondor didn't you? And even after your release you wanted to get even."
Shastan lowered his eyes at this.
"That's why you did not return home but joined your country's army. You felt you would not be avenged for the wrongs done to you until..." Ladril looked at his raw, bitten wrists. "Until you obtained a man of Gondor as a slave of your own."
Shastan was silent, then at length he said "...Well done, Laaderil."
In all honesty, Ladril was not too offended by Shastan's line of thinking. Were Ladril in his place, he would have wanted revenge also. "But there is one thing that doesn't make sense," The ranger said. "You enslaved me for revenge, and yet you treated me so kindly. I do not understand why."
Shastan's head snapped up. "Then I will tell you why, Laaderil. It was because every little thing you did reminded me of when I was a slave. You dug your heels in, resisted every step of the way, exactly as I did. I could not ill treat you because it would have been like ill treating myself.
"I wanted to be avenged so much...I had forsaken going home, traveled countless miles with my army, so I could get a slave and be compensated for all my years trapped in chains. Then I end up getting you, which was like enslaving a mirror," Shastan reflected on this in sad amusement. "I suppose my life is simply an irony."
Both men fell into silence for a few moments, then at last Shastan straightened and said "What will you do now?"
"Well you are free now and you are armed. I expect you'll rejoin your regiment in the North. Or will you go home instead?"
"Neither. I've been thinking...what if I make a deal with you?"
"When have you not?"
Ladril laughed. "I have a good feeling you will actually consider this one."
"Let's hear it then."
"If you journey to Kisha'rut alone, you are likely to run into another regiment and get arrested. So I will take you as far as the Cross of Poros in the very South of Gondor. The Ithilien Guard has no troops stationed beyond that point, and the Cross of Poros will put you on the Harad Road which will send you straight home."
Shastan stared at the ranger. "...You'd do that? Really?"
"Of course. I owe you for quite a lot of things already."
"All right then," The Swerting happily got on his feet. "I accept your deal. We embark for the Cross of Poros at dawn."
"It will take quite a few days, actually." Ladril stated.
"...Then we embark on the journey for the Cross of Poros at dawn." Shastan corrected himself.
Ladirl nodded and smiled. About a week ago, travelling to the Cross of Poros in the company of a Swerting was the last thing he expected to do.