Two Sides of a Coin - Chapter Ten: The Coin Game

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.

"Chance...or could hardly be one without the other." -Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead


"Laaderil! Laaderil wake up!"
Ladril jolted up with a gasp. His heart was pounding and sweat beaded above his brow.
"What...what happened?" Was all he could say.
"You had another nightmare," Shastan explained. "You were shouting in your sleep."
Ladril laid back and wearily rubbed his eyes. Waking from a nightmare to the skeletal shapes of a forest was not very plesant.
"...Something about Belegorn," Shastan added, remaining fixed at Ladril's bedding to hear an explanation.
Instead of responding, Ladril simply rolled over and wrapped his cloak about himself. "Sorry Shastan...I need some sleep."
Shastan finally shrugged and went back to his bed, glancing occasionally at the ranger's still form. Ladril knew Shastan wanted details about Belegorn's death; he had been hinting about ever since last night when they ate the chicken. He probably deserved to have it explained, but the subject was too painful for Ladril to discuss. And he did not want to admit that he was still having trouble coping with his loss. So he kept quiet concerning the matter, praying that while hiding it on the outside he would not start to feel it eat from the inside.

Shastan allowed Ladril to sleep in and they began their journey in the late morning at a stroll. The day was pleasant and the road evenly wound its way under sunny leaves and cherry blossoms. The two men eventually talked about their lands and various tales. Ladril's mood brightened as Shastan described magic caves full of gold, women who lulled warlords to sleep just by singing, and fish so monstrous their humps were oft mistaken for isles. Ladril in turn told tales concerning fair Númenor in its splendor, and the fact that the entire kingdom was swallowed by the Sea interested Shastan greatly. He suggested Numenor was perhaps built unwittingly upon a fish that fell asleep, and the end of the kingdom was due to the fish waking from its nap and diving under for a meal. Hearing this caused Ladril to break the stillness of the morning with hearty laughter.
Late in the afternoon the men came across a young buck in the woods. Ladril was surprised that the buck did not scare Shastan half as much as the chicken had. After much effort between the two of them the buck was finally caught, making another fine meal for the ranger and the Swerting that night. They ate to their hearts' content as darkness gathered and the evening air grew chilled. For a while the two men sat back as the fire crackled against the cold night, and in the silence Ladril's thoughts seeped back into the troubled haunts of his mind.

But all silence and thoughts were broken when Shastan leaned forward thoughtfully and said "...I's cold enough...Perfect weather to play."
"...Play what?" The ranger asked mildly.
"The coin game."
"What's the coin game?"
Shastan held up his coin, its gold flickering bright red in the firelight, and spoke in an ominous tone. "Do you believe in fate?"
"No," Ladril replied flatly.
"Excellent! It will be fun to play against you then."
"How do you play?"
"It's a game played in my Homeland. It requires at least two men, a coin, a warm fire, and a very cold night. One man asks the other man a yes or no question: if he answers truthfully he can keep his seat next to the fire; if his answer is a lie he must move a space away from the fire's warmth. Twenty questions are asked back and forth and he who is closest to his original space by the fire wins."
"But how can you tell if a man is speaking the truth or not?"
Shastan raised his coin again. "The One, or Fate as you would call it, will tell. Each time a man is asked a question he flips the coin. If it lands with the printed head facing up he is telling the truth, and if it lands blank side up he is lying. The One's judgment on the man's honesty is spoken through the coin. You want to play?"
The ranger looked at Shastan. "...Can I speak frankly?"
"Of course."
"The game sounds ridiculous."
Shastan raised a brow. "Afraid you'll lose?"
Ladril's pride immediately kicked in. "Of course not. Not only will I play this silly game but I'll beat you at it too. How many questions do we ask?"
"Ten each."
"Of any nature?"
"-Providing they can be answered with yes or no. But if you lie then you have to answer the question in detail."
"Fine with me."
Shastan tossed the coin to Ladril. "I will ask you a question first."
Ladril caught the coin and held it between his thumb and forefinger. "It still sounds ridiculous," He muttered.
Shastan cleared his throat and began the game.
"...Is there a lady you are fond of?"
"No," Ladril replied. He tossed the coin and with a bounce it landed in the dirt. Shastan leaned over.
"Blank side," He speculated.
"See, Shastan? This is just a game of chance. There is no ominous "truth" or "lie" factor at work."
"What's her name?"
"The odds of a coin landing on one side or the other are even. It's pure logic. The coin had just as good a chance landing heads up."
"What's her name?"
"...Iorwen," Ladril finally muttered.
"And what is she like?"
Ladril tried to think of what words would best describe her, but in the end he could only say "She's...everything I've ever wanted."
"That does not satisfy my question," Shastan insisted.
"Fine. She's beautiful, intelligent, and we first met in front of the Houses of Healing where she spends her days as a nurse. Is that enough?"
"So I take it you two have been courting for a while."
At this Ladril squirmed. "Well...we are not exactly...I mean, she doesn't really..."
The Swerting gaped. "She is not aware of your intentions?"
"Look, enough questions. It's my turn."
Shastan looked at Ladril firmly. "We'll discuss this later then. Move a space back and ask me a question."
The ranger moved a few feet away from the fire and tossed the coin to Shastan. After a moment of thought, Ladril looked at Shastan's garb disdainfully. "Have you ever worn a color besides black?"
"...No." Shastan flipped the coin. It bounced then landed blank side up.
"It says you're lying," Ladril observed.
Shastan did not reply.
"...So are you?"
"Yes," The Swerting quipped in embarassment.
Ladril looked up with interest; the topic of colors was obviously a sensitive subject for Shastan.
"Out with it. Tell me when you have worn a different color."
"...When I was very young, still living in Kisha'rut, there was a festival in which the children had to put on a play....and they made me put on a blue costume and participate."
"What is so horrible about that?"
"...It was a play about a hero and his maiden... and...well...we were out of maidens."
Ladril's eyes widened. "You played a girl?"
"It's my turn!" Shastan cried and scooted a space away from the fire. Before Ladril could say another word the Swerting tossed the coin to him and dove into the next question.
"Are you fairly new to the army?"
Ladril hesitated as he studied the coin. It definitely had a heads side and a blank side, so Shastan was not tricking him. Still, there was no way a coin could possibly judge a man's honesty. Ladril answered Shastan's question with a "No," and tried flipping the coin to make it land on heads. It bounced on the ground and landed blank side up.
"-I've been in the regiment for three months." Ladril shortly explained. Shastan shrugged and took the coin, waiting for Ladril's question.
"Is there a lady you fancy?"
"No," Shastan replied. The coin landed heads up. "...The slave-mills of Belfalas and the ports of Umbar were not exactly opportunities to meet women." He picked up the coin and asked his question.
"Have most of your nights been troubled with nightmares?"
"...No." Ladril again tried flipping the coin so it would land on heads, but it soundly struck the ground displaying the blank side. Ladril moved a space back and jumped into another question.
"Does every trinket you're wearing represent a man you have slain?"
"Yes," Shastan said. The coin was heads. "Are you fairly close to your family?"
"...Yes." The coin was heads. "Have you ever felt remorse after killing a man?"
"No." It was heads. "Do you miss your brother?"
"No." It was blank. "Do any of your people feel remorse when they kill others?"
"Not if it is the enemy." It was heads. "Did you lose Belegorn recently?"
It was blank.

By this time the frigid air had all but shut out the fire's warmth for Ladril. And with every question asked, dark memories began to sharpen his anger.
"Do your people thrive on slaying others?" He asked coldly.
It was heads.
"Are all your nightmares about Belegorn?"
It was blank.
"Would you kill an innocent man in his sleep?"
It was heads.
"Do you feel you need to be avenged for your brother's death?"
It was blank.
"Do your people hack down crops and villages as well as people?"
It was heads.
"Is there a specific reason you hate my people so much?"
It was blank.
"Do your people kill women and children as savagely as they kill men?"
It was heads.
"Did my people take something from you?"
It was blank.
"Is it true you drink the blood of your enemies?"
It was heads.
"Did my people kill your brother?"


Ladril tried dropping the coin to make it land on heads. As he did so it slipped from his fingers, hit a rock, and after a moment of tumbling it landed soundly with the blank side up.

The ranger got up and walked away in an effort to hide his tears. Shastan remained quiet while Ladril reached the end of the camp and stood there in silence.
"...Laaderil," Shastan said at last. "It is time you told me what happened."
There was silence a moment more, then after some effort Ladril spoke. "...Two weeks ago...Belegorn was camped with a small party near the road in South Ithilien...They meant to watch the road and send out warning if enemies passed. But in the middle of the night a pack of Southrons came from the woods and ambushed the camp." Ladril lifted his head resignedly. "...My brother was killed in his sleep."
Shastan nodded quietly. "That's why you hate my people and that's why you were always angry with me: because a Se-werting killed your brother."
"I already know what you will say," the ranger scoffed. "I had no right and I let petty hate and prejudice take over."
"No," Shastan said firmly. "You had every right. You did not know how to heal your pain, satisfy your it has become a hate inside you. I know how that feels."
Ladril shook his head. "It's just...I miss my brother terribly..."
"...I understand."
Ladril looked up in confusion. A Southron killed his brother, and now a Southron was consoling him in his loss. Yet after some thought he realized most of his hate and assumptions towards Shastan's people had been dispelled during their travels, and that, to Ladril's great surprise, opened the way to heal. Also talking about Belegorn's death at last, letting it all out, felt relieving to him. Ladril turned to the Swerting with some peace upon his face. "I think at last...I am beginning to heal."
"Your resolution has been wrought by yourself, not by me." Shastan stated.
Then the two men suddenly realized that the night was waxing old and the fire was beginning to die. With a long journey awaiting them on the morrow, the men quickly unrolled their bedding and prepared for some sleep.
"You won the game Shastan," The ranger admitted. "-Which means I will have to find something to beat you at tomorrow."
"'til then," Was the reply, and no more was said that night.
...But Ladril noticed with some curiosity that Shastan was sleeping furthest from the fire.

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