Two Sides of a Coin - Chapter Nine: A Haunted House


author's note: This is a story in which an Ithilien ranger and a Southron (referred to as "Swerting" due to Shastan's preference) must learn how to get along. And regretfully I could not find a deep and meaningful quote that could fit with the special circumstances of this chapter.

***

"What do you mean you're not supposed to tell me?"
A morning's journey on the hot road led the two men into a quiet forest. Ladril had decided to inquire Shastan as to why he adorned trinkets from men he defeated in battle, but the Swerting refused to properly answer the question.
"I am not allowed to reveal the purposes behind my people's actions," He explained.
"So your entire culture believes in taking things from dead men?"
"-From warriors we've defeated, yes."
"...And your people have forbidden you to explain why they do that?"
"I would rather say it is a Higher Order that forbids me."
"Oh...you mean it's sacred."
"Yes."
"My culture would call it grave robbing."
"-Only if you look at the taken trinkets at face value."
"I do not understand."
Shastan turned to the ranger. "Surely there was some trinket or jewelry in your life that you felt deeply attached to."
Ladril paused a moment and thought back into his earlier years, from his youth in Minas Tirith to when he enlisted in the Ithilien Guard. "...There was a medallion," He said at last. "That I was rather fond of. I couldn't take my eyes off it for the longest time."
"You still have it then?"
"It wasn't mine. It belonged to Belegorn."
"Ah..." Shastan said thoughtfully. "So this Belegorn is a relative, I assume."
"...My brother," Ladril admitted. "The medallion was a gift to him when he became the lieutenant of a regiment. I rather envied how fine he looked when he put it on."
Shastan paused. "...Belegorn was stationed in Ithilien?"
Ladril nodded and for a moment forgot the pain of reminiscing. "It was a rather novel idea among the troops: a popular lieutenant and his little brother both put in the Ithilien Guard...I only wish we were in the same regiment."
"So where is he now?"
Ladril's smile vanished as quickly as it came. He should not have brought Belegorn up. He did not want to even think about what happened that night...
Shastan meanwhile was waiting for an answer. "...Laaderil? I said where is-"
"I heard you."
"Then will you not tell me?"
He took a deep breath and said, struggling to make the words come out, "...He is dead."
...It seemed all the woods and the creatures in it went still and silence rang between the two men.
"...I am sorry to hear it," Shastan finally said. "How did he die?"
Please don't ask me that... The ranger moaned in his head. But fortunately for him the conversation went no further, for Shastan suddenly halted, tensed, and held up a hand for silence.
"Did you hear something again?" Ladril whispered in exasperation. "Or is it something you smell?"
The Swerting arched a brow. "Er...Laaderil? Look."
Ladril turned ahead and found a large abandoned cabin just off the road, glaring right at them between the trees.
"...Well done, Shastan," He muttered in embarrassment. "Let's keep moving."
But Shastan was not listening. He swiftly cut through the brush and made for the cabin.
"What are you doing?" Ladril became alarmed.
"Going in," Was the reply.
The ranger's eyes shifted to the house's black, rotting wood and the utter darkness behind the cracked window panes.
"...You want to go in that?"
"Yes. Are you coming?"
Ladril sighed wearily. After all their ventures, he learned that it was pointless to argue whenever Shastan had an impulse. So he simply trudged after him as he entered the eerie, abandoned settlement.

Both men stood in the doorway and looked apprehensively into the gaping darkness. "...After you," Ladril said.
"What is this house even doing here?" Shastan wondered.
"There were once farming settlements throughout Ithilien, but as the war worsened the people had to abandon them. This house has been abandoned just recently since it has yet to be burned down by orcs."
"...After you," Shastan replied.
"It was your idea to come here."
"Are you saying you're scared?"
"Are you?"
"I was thinking we'd both go in."
"You first, then."
"At the same time."
"Ah. Ready?"
"On the count of three."
"Right."
"One...two...three."
No one moved.
"For Basra's sake," Shastan muttered and charged into the house with ceremonial spear ready. Ladril unsheathed his sword and quickly followed.
As their eyes adjusted to the darkness, the shape of a sitting room could be discerned. The shelves and mantle were bare, aside from a thin layer of dust. Ahead was a narrow staircase and to the left a cramped hall.
"No ghosts," Shastan stated with a trace of disappointment.
"We don't want ghosts, we want some supplies. Try upstairs while I search the hall."
Shastan consented and trudged up the staircase. The ranger warily took the hallway, sword pointed ahead. In the dark he suddenly stumbled upon an open space. It had windows and the afternoon light illuminated the room into a discernable kitchen. Again the shelves were bare so Ladril rooted through the cupboards and drawers. As he went through the first row of drawers his glance went to the window. He could see a small deserted farmhouse made of similar rotting wood a dozen yards away. With any luck, he figured, a few of the farm animals could still be around.
Ladril went back to searching the last row of drawers. In the final drawer he came upon a fistful of sharp knives in various sizes. Satisfied that his search finally produced something, he pocketed the knives. He looked around the kitchen for a back door to the farmhouse when he suddenly heard a piercing cry.
Sword quickly whipped out, Ladril barreled down the hall and up the narrow staircase in a flash. With his heart pounding he rounded the corner and found Shastan sprawled in a wide hallway pointing his spear fearfully at an open room.
"What happened?" Ladril cried and raced forward.
"In there," The Swerting hissed.
The ranger stopped and eyed the inky black room in front of them. Shastan got to his feet and kept his spear pointed at the doorway, but he clearly would not go back in. The two men stared at the room for a long moment.
"...I'll go in there," Ladril whispered. "Come after me if I call you."
Shastan gave him a firm nod.
Ladril hesitantly neared the door frame and after calming his nerves and tightening the grip on his sword, he took a cautious step into the darkness.
There was utter silence except the sound of the ranger's feet shifting across the floorboards. He could not see a foot in front of him, but he could sense someone was there.
"Yield to me now," He ventured in the darkness. "Yield yourself and I promise I will not hurt you."
There was no reply.
"Talking will not do any good," Shastan whispered from the door. "It's some kind of creature."
Ladril cautiously moved forward. With him advancing and Shastan at the door there was no way anything could escape the room. But with each step in the dark Ladril found his confidence dwindling.
At last he was nearing the back of the room when he heard scuttling right in front of him. A faint shaft of light from a half drawn shutter helped the ranger adjust his vision in the darkness. He took one final step...then suddenly found himself staring into the black, inky eyes of...
A chicken.

Ladril blinked, stared at it, and blinked again. The chicken held Ladril in the same puzzled regard.
"...Did you find it?" Shastan broke the silence.
"...Shastan?" The ranger started. "...It's a chicken."
Shastan hesitated. "...What's a chicken?"
"You spent all those years in Belfalas and you don't know what a chicken is?" Ladril asked incredulously.
"I spent all those years isolated in a mill in Belfalas and no, I do not know what a chicken is."
There was a slight pause, then to the Swerting's surprise he heard an outbreak of laughter in the darkness. "...You sent me in here to hunt down a chicken!"
"It caught me off guard, all right?"
"You got scared of a chicken!"
"It was dark in there, then it suddenly jumped out-"
But Shastan's protestations were not helping. The fact that the Swerting could not stand up to a chicken sent the ranger into a fit of laughter that rang throughout the entire cabin.
Shastan did not find it funny.
Ladril finally came out of the room with the chicken under a firm grip. Shastan slightly jumped as the bird wildly beat its white wings and clawed at the air with its stubby feet.
"This," Ladril stated with a smirk, "Is a chicken. It scratches, pecks, makes the most incessant noises in the morning and tastes good when lightly roasted over a fire. With that said, understand that if the next foe we meet is another farm animal you're on your own."
Instead of quipping something back, Shastan studied the chicken with peaking interest. "...You can actually eat this thing?"
Ladril sighed and put the bird into Shastan's arms. "Come on, we're leaving."
The Swerting followed Ladril down the stairs with a firm hold on the chicken. "But we haven't finished searching the house."
"It doesn't matter, we're quite done here. And from now on no more wild detours off the road, because you are either throwing rocks at orcs, pestering crazy blind men, or making me hunt down chickens. Valar knows what will happen next."
Shastan couldn't argue there so he simply followed in silence until they were out of the cabin and back on the road. When they hit the middle of the pebbled highway Ladril studied the setting sun. "The day is spent. We wasted valuable traveling time poking around that cabin and what did we get in return?"
Shastan looked down at the mess of feathers in his arms. "...We have a chicken," He offered.
Ladril paused a moment, then smiled at this. "Yes, we have a chicken. And a fine feast we'll make of it too!"
He walked over to a large stone and unsheathed his sword. He then motioned the Swerting to hand over the bird. Shastan was a bit disappointed; he had become rather fascinated with the new creature he discovered. But food was food he supposed, and it would be impossible to travel with a live chicken.
He accordingly delivered the chicken to Ladril and the bird simply blinked in ignorance as its neck was laid across the stone. The ranger held it firmly in place and with the other hand raised his sword. He brought the blade halfway down and suddenly stopped when he saw Shastan watching innocently.
"...Shastan? You might want to look away."
"What? You think I'll find it disturbing?" He asked incredulously.
"More or less."
"I do not know of anything that could possibly disturb me."
"You also do not know what a chicken does after its head is cut off."
Shastan waved a hand dismissively, quite set on watching the beheading. At length Ladril shrugged and raised his sword again. Then he brought it down with a swift stroke.

It was late in the night. A soft wind blew through the trees, a fire glowed in the small camp, the remains of a chicken still clung to the spit, Ladril happily sat back with his stomach filled, and Shastan was still very disturbed.
"Are you going to be all right?" Ladril finally asked the Swerting.
"It kept...running in circles...and the head was gone..." Shastan gave a disgusted shudder.
Ladril nodded knowingly. "That's the trouble with chickens, I'm afraid. They don't have enough sense to know when they're dead."
"I have never seen an animal do that before."
"-It's in the breed, I suppose."
There was thoughtful silence as the ranger idly poked at the fire with a stick. Then Shastan looked up.
"I think...I would want to die like a chicken."
Ladril stared at him blankly. "Dare I ask why?"
"You know, up on my feet: fighting till the last moment, refusing to take death for an answer. That's how I'd like to go."
Ladril gave a smirk. "Curious you'd want to die like a chicken, considering you were just defeated by one today."
"You are most amusing," Shastan said dryly. "I suppose you will never let me forget that incident."
Ladril's smirk grew wider. "...Never."
There was a slight pause as Shastan took the last piece of chicken and chewed it with some hesitation.
"What about you, Laaderil? What kind of death would you want?"
"Not a chicken's death, I assure you."
"Your problem is that you do not appreciate metaphors. But come, if you could choose, how would you want to go?"
...Avenged, Ladril wanted to say. But instead he simply shrugged. "I've never given it much thought."
There was another pause, then Shastan spoke exactly what was on Ladril's mind.
"You never finished telling me about your brother's medallion. What does it look like? Is it of high quality that you should value it so much?"
It stung to recall the details of Belegorn's prized possession, but Ladril did so to satisfy Shastan.
"It was encrusted with seven jeweled stars," He said. "A white tree was at its center."
Shastan shrugged at length. "...Sounds like a common piece of jewelry to me. Is not the emblem of Gondor a white tree?"
"My father forged it himself in his smithery," Ladril said, slightly affronted. "Such craft had never been seen in Minas Tirith before. And the day he gave it to Belegorn...I never saw my brother so happy."
The Swerting straightened with an air of wisdom. "When a man dearly loves a possession, a part of him lives in it after he passes to the next world."
"...But I do not have Belegorn's medallion. How does that help me?"
"It's an answer to your question this morning. Possessions carry a bit of a man's memory and spirit. That's why Se-wertings take them from men they have defeated in battle. Understand?"
"...I understand," Ladril replied, but that was not true. He didn't understand how one man could take another man's treasure without remorse; he didn't understand why the world would give men possessions and loved ones only to take them away; he didn't understand why his brother had to die...

The fire was slowly dying and the night was growing old. Ladril knew it was now time to face a listless sleep: one of many in a long count of nights. Shastan had offered no comfort with his words, and Ladril thought he would have given better sympathy than the rangers had the passing of Belegorn. Not that it mattered of course. Ladril needed no sympathy. But during the past couple days he hoped to find resolution in Shastan's company. All he found was that the longer he was with a Southron the worse his nightmares got.

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