Two Sides of a Coin- Chapter 17: A Celebration

by Aug 12, 2006Stories

[b]author’s note:[/b] This is a story in which an Ithilien ranger, a Southron (referred to as a "swerting" due to Shastan’s preference) and a lady must learn how to get along.

“Jack shall have Jill; nought shall go ill; the man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well." -[i]Midsummer Night’s Dream[/i]

Their freedom did not come without a price.
At least two dozen souls from the wains were lost in the fight against their oppressors. Six soldiers of Dol Amroth also fell by the wildmen’s sword. They fought with valor, giving of themselves freely so that hundreds could be saved. This act would not be forgotten; those who lived victorious thanks to these perished souls held a funeral that afternoon. A mass grave was all that could be managed, but they gave such service as they could to honor the fallen, laying down wildflowers and taking moments of silence.
During one moment of silence Ladril noticed that Shastan was nowhere to be found. It was as if he evaded the funeral altogether. It was not until after the service that the ranger found the Swerting joining the crowd as it dispersed. When inquired, Shastan admitted he did not attend the funeral but would not say where he had gone. Ladril felt, for some reason, that it was best not to press him. Besides there were other things to attend to, such as the evening feast in commemoration of the wains’ victory.

The valley was wrapped in the dark of the night. Creatures retired to their caves and burrows and the trees kept a silent watch. Fields softly ruffled in the warm breeze and throughout the entire breadth of land there was peace. The stars twinkled overhead, the moon quietly shone, and there was silence.

…Or there would have been silence, were it not for the celebration raging in the middle of the valley. Interrupting the peace of the night was the chorus of merry instruments, laughter and singing. Disrupting the darkness was the blaze of lanterns and bonfires amidst a wide circle of wains: all this in celebration of a well earned victory.
In the middle of the circled train was a great bonfire, which was the centerpiece for all the festivities. Musicians strummed lively tunes of Gondor and maidens giggled as knights of Dol Amroth greeted them. Old men drained mugs of ale and young lads bit feverishly into sweet cakes and dumplings. Other men began games and contests in high (or mostly drunk) spirits. Children re-enacted the awesome battle that took place that day while others watched with delight. And amidst the drinking, feasting, and good-humored sports was the ancient and grandiose tradition of men and women engaged in dance.
Shastan looked on that grandiose tradition with disgust.

He had nothing against dancing itself, provided it was done in its proper time and place. Back at Home, dancing was looked on as a performing art: an activity done solely to entertain the masses. If you were dancing without an audience and without pay then what was the point of it? Besides, the petite and fancy stepping of Gondorrim dancing looked rather silly to him. He wouldn’t be caught dead trying it.
Thankfully, Elen respected the fact that Shastan would not dance. She danced with others, namely Dol Amroth soldiers, instead and Shastan was allowed a little peace of mind. This being the first real social affair in his life, the Swerting found himself preferring to stand by quietly and observe the spectacle of feasts and waltzes; avoiding involvement at all costs.
The dull song drew to an end and the dancers politely clapped and bowed to each other, no doubt thanking one another for the exhilaratingly tedious experience. The musicians re-tuned their instruments and began another song exactly like the one before. Again the dancers did their dainty footwork. It was maddening just to watch. Shastan looked at his empty wine glass and deduced that another drink was in order.
Suddenly, as he turned about, he bumped into a fate more horrifying than a thousand rushing wildmen: a short, gangly old woman looking for a dance partner.
"Oo!" She cried. "I’ve never danced with a <i>Southron</i> before!"
Before Shastan could even open his mouth, the old woman had a tight grip on his hands and dragged him into the dancing circle. She was only half his height and she giggled almost hysterically with a scrunched face and a toothless smile. Shastan could only look at her in horror.
"Come now! Use those long legs of yours!" She cackled. "A-one-two-three, one-two-three-"
Despite her count of the beat, her motions were anything but in rhythm. She simply frolicked about, Shastan in tow, and caused a horrific scene among the orderly conduct of the dance. Shastan’s face flushed a deep red. He was in a situation more dire than any battlefront and there was no way he could flee from it (at least, not politely). There had to be some excuse, <i>any</i> excuse, for him to escape this mortifying scene-
Right at that moment he felt a light tap on his shoulder. He turned and saw the bright face of Elen.
"Can I cut in?"
The old woman, who had seen her coming, stopped her dancing antics. "Er…well…"
"Absolutely!" Shastan cried and practically jumped into Elen’s arms. In a heartbeat they were engaged in proper dancing.
But the old woman was not easily deterred. She yanked on Shastan’s sleeve. "I still want a dance, you handsome boy. I get you the moment you’ve finished with her. Understand?" Then with another cackle she hobbled away.
Shastan visibly shuttered. "Can you believe that woman? I don’t think she could be more atrocious if she tried!"
"Looks like I got you out of a tight spot, then," Elen speculated.
"Yes. Thank you, Elen. You saved me from quite a lot of embarassment. But-" Shastan eyed the old woman as she waited on the sidelines, watching him intently. "-It looks like you and I are going to be dancing a <i>long</i> time."
"Oh, that’s all right," Elen shrugged.
"It won’t be an inconvenience for you?"
"Not at all."
As they rotated in time to the music, Elen threw a wink to the old woman over Shastan’s shoulder.
The old woman chuckled and winked back.

The night grew merrier with each passing hour. Children still laughed and played while men contested in sports with as much vigor as they did when the night began. But the dancing drew at last to a close and the partners bowed to each other, gave thanks for the company, and parted separate ways. As Shastan cordially departed from Elen, he wondered if he ought to duck behind a wagon to rub his aching feet. To someone who had never danced before, eleven songs can be very strenuous. He also stepped on many a foot (more often on his own than Elen’s) but after the fifth song he managed to catch on and Elen labeled him as "quite the dancer." They talked about nothing in particular…but managed to talk a lot anyway. Shastan decided that dancing with a woman, bereft of an audience or pay, following incessantly complicated footwork for hours at a time…wasn’t too bad of an experience.

Shastan glanced ahead and noted that Ladril was coming his direction. The Swerting wondered if Ladril had seen him dancing with Elen and what he thought of it. Shastan decided he might as well face the teases and jests now, just to get it over with. To his surprise, Ladril did not look like he was about to tease, he did not even look happy. His face was white and on closer examination one could tell he was shaking.
"Laaderil?" Shastan became alarmed. "What’s wrong?"
"Shastan…I’m an idiot."
"Oh come now," Shastan laughed. "You are not an idiot."
"No really, I am."
"Just tell me what happened."
"I was drinking too much," He explained. "I began to brag about how good I am with long-jumping. I had beaten every lad in Minas Tirith as a child and I claimed I could beat any man in this company too. So the men want to put my bragging to the test," Ladril swallowed at the next part. "…They want me to jump over the fire pit."
Shastan glanced at a group of men around a fire, taking a few quick strides and then jumping over the small flames while others cheered.
"It doesn’t look that difficult," He speculated.
"Not that fire," Ladril pointed behind Shastan. "<i>That</i> fire."
Shastan turned and saw that Ladril was pointing to the main bonfire that blazed in the center of the festivities.
"…You’re an idiot."
"Why thank you, Shastan," Ladril said bitterly. "I needed that confirmation."
"[i]No one[/i] can jump that!"
"After all my bragging, the men certainly think I can."
"Just back down from the challenge, then."
Ladril looked at him with wide eyes. "And <i>lose</i> my honor?"
Shastan decided that Ladril had a very peculiar perception of honor. It was like a glass object to him, just waiting to be shattered. If he said "Sorry, I’ve been drinking too much. I can’t really jump that far," then (at least to him) his reputation would be done for. Or perhaps he was simply unaccustomed to bragging and therefore didn’t want to be labeled as a man who couldn’t actually do what he [i]said[/i] he could do.
"If you’re going to jump that, you’ll at least need some practice," Shastan said.
"Yes," The ranger concurred, eying the bonfire with dread. "I most definitely will."

The main feast for the night was being prepared and women gathered together every plate, cup, and utensil they could find. Elen helped make the arrangements for what promised to be very fine dining, but every now and then she scanned the crowds of men and children. Now where had Shastan gone? Ladril too, for that matter? It seemed the two men had disappeared from the festivities altogether. Captain Lindor had chanced by Elen and inquired after them, but she could not tell him where they had gone. It was highly inappropriate of them, she thought, to suddenly disappear with Captain Lindor looking for them and the feast about to begin…
Just then a man stood before the bonfire and clanged his sword against a battered shield, calling for everyone’s attention.
"Lords and ladies, I trust everyone has enjoyed the festivities, and you’ll be pleased to hear that the feast is about to be served. But first, as a treat before you begin dinning, our own hero Ladril, champion of long-jumping, will cross this bonfire in a single bound!"
Everyone cheered with delight at this, but Elen couldn’t help feeling alarmed. For all the time she had been with Ladril, she never knew he could jump over bonfires.
…Then she saw Ladril come into view with a pasty-white face. Apparently, he never knew he could, either.
What in Arda had he gotten himself into now?

"All right," Shastan coached. "How many steps do you run?"
"About a dozen."
"When do you lengthen your strides?"
"When I’m about to jump."
"And do you look down?"
They had been practicing rigorously behind a wagon for some time. Ladril’s long jumps were impressive, but it would take a lot more than impressive to jump a bonfire. Now they stood before the anxious crowd and before the gleaming flames. It was still a large fire and a very nasty jump.
"What if I-" Ladril gulped.
"You <i>won’t</i>," Shastan insisted.
The Swerting stepped back and silence fell over the crowd. Ladril shook out his legs and rubbed his hands, trying to look professional but doing a very poor job at it. He closed his eyes, trying to picture the cobblestone streets back home where he contested Belegorn and other lads at jumping. The smooth, cold street…back home…
It wasn’t working. He couldn’t picture it. Those days were too far away…like the other side of the bonfire he was expected to jump…
"Having difficulty?"
Ladril turned and found that Elen had come to his side.
"A little, yes," Was the curt reply.
"And <i>why</i> are you in this predicament?"
"Because I was drunk."
"Ah." That explained everything. "…Listen, I have something to tell you which I think will help."
"No offense Elen, but what could you [i]possibly[/i] say that would help me jump this?"
Elen leaned in closer. "If you make it to the other side, I’ll tell you what Iorwen thinks of you."
Ladril blinked. "…Honestly?"
There was absoluetly no trickery in Elen’s eyes. "<i>Honestly.</i>"
The ranger took off like a shot. Everyone watched with baited breath as Ladril raced towards the fire, then lengthened his strides, then leaped. Time slowed down and he seemed caught in mid-air above the flames. Then he came down, down…. and tumbled into the grass on the other side.
Cheers rose, followed by ecstatic applause. Ladril’s boot had caught fire and a boy doused it with a pail of water. Ladril didn’t even notice. His mind was trying to catch up with what his body just did. He just looked about blankly as men helped him up and apologized for ever doubting his abilities. Shastan patted his back and Elen laughed and wrapped him in a tight hug. <i>Then</i> his mind caught up.
"I jumped it?"
"You jumped it," Elen said.
"All right," He pulled away from their embrace. "You said you’d tell me what Iorwen thought. Out with it."
Elen gave her smirk that she was so infamous for. "But I didn’t say <i>when</i> I’d tell you. Oh, don’t look at me like that! I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow morning, before you and Shastan have to depart."
Ladril glared at her. "If you weren’t a woman I swear I’d-"
"The feast is starting," Shastan interjected, as men and women brought forth steaming pots of soup and cooked meat. "Why don’t we finish this tactful discussion over a hot meal?"

The feast consisted of roasted boar, cooked carrots and dumplings along with baked apples, sugar rolls, and the finest wine. No tables could be offered, so after people crowded around to recieve their meals they scattered wherever they wished in the meadow. Shastan, Ladril, and Elen were each separated in the crowd and as people sat and ate to their hearts’ content the Swerting found himself all alone. He pulled up a barrel, sat on it, and picked at the food on his plate (he never could get used to the bland taste Gondor comestibles) in solitude.
He hadn’t been picking at his food very long before he noticed two children staring at him. It was a little boy and his brother, each wearing wide eyes as they watched the Swerting eat with dread fascination. Shastan hesitated, took a bite of meat…chewed…and found they were still watching him with the same intensity.
"…I’m sorry," He found himself saying to them. "Is there something I can help you with?"
The older lad looked at him sheepishly. "I promised my brother I would show him the…blood."
"What blood?"
"Father said Southrons drink human blood with their dinners," the younger boy piped.
"Oh did he?" Shastan replied.
"Can we see sir? Please?"
The Swerting smiled and leaned towards the two boys. "…It looks like I’ll have to give you a few lessons about Se-wertings tonight, won’t I?"

Ladril didn’t mean to be away for so long; he got caught up in the buzz among the soldiers concerning battles past and ones yet to be fought. Hours had gone by before he realized that Shastan must be sitting somewhere all alone. Cursing his negligence, the ranger went to seek out his friend and found instead a crowd gathering at one end of the meadow. The cluster of people were all captivated by something; then Ladril heard Shastan’s voice above the tense silence of the crowd. He squeezed his way through the throng until he found the Swerting sitting on a barrel: his hands, face, and voice in full animation.
Shastan was telling stories.
"Ah, Ladril," Balar said when he noticed the youth next to him. "Where have you been? You just missed a fascinating story about an island of sea-horses. But I think Shastan is about to retell the one about the one-eyed giant, if you care to stay and listen."
It started out with just a few children huddled together when Shastan started telling his tales about the desert and the lands beyond it. Then other curious youths stopped to listen, and soon men and women alike found themselves drawn to the Swerting’s captivating stories. He spoke of lovers, tyrants, and heroes which men of Gondor never supposed existed in the land of Southrons. The people who drank blood with their dinners transformed into noble lords and ladies in domed palaces by a foaming sea. They rode black stallions and had adventures in strange lands, lands which Middle Earth had never realized existed.
Suddenly the world seemed so much bigger.

Shastan’s tale about an enchanted pipe drew to a close and everyone applauded in appreciation. Ladril tilted his head and assessed the Swerting: there was something different about him. Of course he looked happier and much more animated with his storytelling, but there was something else…
Then one of the men stood up and called out "Here, now! These are wonderful stories, and it’s been a pleasure to hear them from such a talented Southron-"
"<i>Swerting,</i>" Several people corrected him.
"Ah, Swerting. Sorry. But I for one would like to hear him give a [i]song[/i] about his homeland!"
Everyone joined him in agreement and begged Shastan for a song.
"But I’m not a good singer…and translated in Gondor-speech the song won’t rhyme…"
But Shastan’s excuses did not deter his audience, and even Ladril found himself begging with the rest of them for a song. Finally Shastan consented on the condition that he would only sing one. Anticipation brought a hush over the crowd while Shastan stood, cleared his throat, and did his best to translate a traditional song from the heart of a vast and ancient desert.

<i>Word spread far and wide
of a beauty named Kishmali.
She dwelt under desert stars,
her loveliness was a wonder.

She sings, she sings, and night is dawn.
She laughs, she laughs, and bud becomes blossom.
Her eyes, her eyes, like rich almond leaves
in the gardens of my mind where desert cannot reach.

A foreign man came quick
to the desert under sky.
Having heard of Kishmali,
he sought to have her hand.
The first town he came to
he inquired an ancient man
what he knew of Kishmali.
The old man smiled and said:

She sings, she sings, and night is dawn.
She laughs, she laughs, and bud becomes blossom.
Her eyes, her eyes, like rich almond leaves
in the gardens of my mind where desert cannot reach.

"Where is she?" Said the foreign man.
"She is here," The old man said.
But the foreign man looked round about
and found not the lovely maid.
He rode into the next town
and inquired a little boy
what he knew of Kishmali.
The young boy smiled and said:

She sings, she sings, and night is dawn.
She laughs, she laughs, and bud becomes blossom.
Her eyes, her eyes, like rich almond leaves
in the gardens of my mind where desert cannot reach.

"All this I know," said the foreign man
"Can you not tell me where she is?"
"She is here," the young boy said.
But the foreign man could not find her.
Quite mad, the man rode on
and chanced by a wisened sage
who could see his great distress
and asked if he could explain.
"I cannot find fair Kishmali
and I yearn to seek her hand."
On hearing this the sage laughed
"She is here and she is everywhere.

She’s yours and she is everyone’s
for she is the desert’s beauty.
And the desert’s beauty is sweet hope.
’tis what "Kishmali" means.
Hope is wed to all men
who live in the cruel desert.
Hope is the fairest maid
when despair is at the door.

Hope sings, hope sings, and night is dawn.
hope laughs, hope laughs, and bud becomes blossom.
Hope’s eyes, hope’s eyes, like rich almond leaves
in the gardens of my mind where desert cannot reach.</i>

There was a moment of silence as the last words sank in. Then clapping, building up to cheering, followed. Shastan had a fair voice and the melody called to mind strange wonders of the deserts in Far Harad. They begged Shastan to sing the song again but he refused, stating that his entertaining was done for the evening. So the men and women turned amongst themselves and the audience became dispersed groups, chattering about deserts and things Southron. Ladril didn’t join any of these discussions, for he noticed Shastan slipping silently away from the crowd.
Sensing something was wrong, the ranger decided to quietly follow him. The world of lights and jovious feasting became small and far away as Shastan walked to a distant space in the meadow. Here all was silent and the only light was the ethereal glow of the faint stars overhead.
Ladril watched Shastan stand there, gazing at the stars, until he finally felt pressed to speak his mind.
"It was the song, wasn’t it?"

Shastan, who knew he had followed him, continued watching the sky. "…My mother sang that to me, long ago."
Ladril came and stood by his friend. "You miss her, don’t you?"
"It has been a long time since I’ve seen her."
"We’ll be leaving the wains tomorrow. I imagine we are only two days away from the Crossing of Poros and the Harad Road. Then you’ll be home."
“…<i>Closer</i> to home, anyway."
Shastan continued looking at the stars while Ladril quietly observed him. He couldn’t imagine being away from home for as long as Shastan had. He couldn’t imagine being in a different land, where everyone was an enemy…
Suddenly Ladril realized exactly why Shastan looked different.
"You’re wearing more trinkets."
The Swerting looked down at the leather strings and brass bits he had tied onto his hair and armor just that afternoon. "…I wanted to remember them." He said.
"Why? They were <i>wildmen.</i>"
"You must admit they carried admirable enormity in combat,” Shastan said reflectively. “That is why I wasn’t at the funeral. There were enough people mourning for the fallen men of Gondor, but many others fell today that had no one to mourn their death.”
“But…they were <i>wildmen.</i>”
“It doesn’t matter what race they are. I honor all fallen foes the same way."
"By taking things from them," Ladril pointed out.
"-To keep their memory alive."
"I still don’t understand it."

Shastan sighed and cast a glance at the evening sky. “…Do you ever listen to the stars?”
It took a moment for Ladril to adjust to the very abrupt change of subject. “No…” He began. “Because stars don’t say anything.”
“But they do. Listen.”
Ladril paused and listened carefully. He listened, and listened. “I hear nothing,” He said. “Only silence.”
“Exactly,” Shastan said. “They were created in silence. Silence is what they speak.”
“…Then how are you supposed to understand them?”
Shastan nodded to the sky. “You have to watch them to hear what they are saying. Listen with your eyes.”
Ladril looked at the stars. There were big ones, small ones, thousands upon thousands were looking down on him. Could they all truly be saying something?
Ladril tried to listen. He tried to listen with his eyes. He tried to look into that expanse and hear what they said.
…There was nothing.
“Er…” Ladril muttered after his attempt clearly failed.
“Don’t worry,” Shastan said assuringly. “It takes practice.”
“Well what about about you? Did <i>you</i>hear them?”
Ladril wasn’t expecting such a flat answer. “…What did they say, then?” He asked.
Shastan’s gaze turned from the stars to his friend. “-That my life will be in your hands.”
Ladril stared at the Swerting blankly when the words had filtered in.
“…What on Arda is <i>that</i> supposed to-?”
“So <i>there</i> you are!”

The two men turned and saw the outline of Elen from the distant firelight. "What are you two doing way out here?" She demanded. "I’ve been looking all over for you! They’ve started up the music again and I’m without a dance partner."
Ladril looked at Shastan, who simply shrugged. There were lights to be seen other than the faint stars here, and music to be heard instead of silence. The hour was late, but the celebration still carried on. Interpretation of stars and other present quandaries could be sorted out later.
"Well we can’t have our lady Elen single when there’s dancing to be had!" The ranger laughed.
With that Ladril cordially took her left arm while Shastan took her right. And so the three made their way back to the music, light, and celebration of the joyous spring evening.


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Found in Home 5 Reading Room 5 Stories 5 Two Sides of a Coin- Chapter 17: A Celebration

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