[b]author’s note:[/b] This is a story in which an Ithilien ranger and a Southron (referred to as "Swerting" due to Shastan’s preference) try to get along.
[i]"From truth comes self-realization." -Gandhi[/i]
The morning was full of fond farewells. It was also, in truth, a morning of sluggishness. As the sun rose above the distant mountains the men moved slowly and grudgingly about the wains (such was to be expected, with the gross amount of alcohol that was consumed the night before) but this was a day when much work was to be accomplished: the wains had to travel further South for safety, the herald Lindor of Dol Amroth had to travel North to Minas Tirith, and Shastan and Ladril had to travel East to return to the Ithilien road.
Lindor and his men were already saddling the horses for their departure while women and children doused the cooking pits and hitched the wagons. Hands were shaken in farewell and words were exchanged in parting. Ladril couldn’t imagine leaving without saying goodbye to Balar, so after he readied his pack he went to seek the gruff man. He was resting beside a lone wagon, appearing to be asleep.
"…Leaving so soon?" Balar said, cracking open an eye.
"We have to, sir, if we are to reach the road tomorrow," was the answer.
"And when you reach the road, what then?"
"I promised Shastan I would see him to the Harad Road, at the Crossings of Poros." Here Ladril hesitated. "…I wish I could stay. I really do. There is so much I can learn from you, sir-"
"-What can you possibly learn from me?" Balar laughed. "You have gained in experience these past two days more than I could ever teach you. But whether I had a thousand lessons for you or none, will you not remain with the wain company? The people have grown very fond of you."
Ladril allowed himself to smile at this. "Thank you, Balar, but I made a promise to Shastan and I cannot go back on it."
Balar with some effort stood up from the nestled grass. "So it is, then. Two horses are being prepared for you, each laden with provisions. On horseback you and Shastan should reach the road by nightfall."
Ladril was taken back. "Balar…I don’t know what to say. Your kindness is overwhelming."
""Kindness"?" Balar looked at the young man with a cold eye. ""Kindness"? It is [i]caution[/i] that I do this."
The air turned suddenly solemn at Balar’s change of mood. The re!@#$l, contented old gentleman was now a very cold and grave captain.
"…Why?" Was all Ladril could say.
"Because the moment you leave these wains nothing but danger will follow you," was the reply. When Ladril looked at him blankly Balar could only give a sad smile. "You poor boy! Can you not see it? Can you not feel what is approaching? The threat of the Wildmen was only a ripple to a much darker tide at hand. Captain Lindor is going to Minas Tirith because Gondor has called for aid. Why would Gondor call for aid? It is because the Enemy has made his move. The war has started: the wheels are now in motion and there will be no safe place in Middle Earth until the battle has been decided. When you ride out of this field today, Ladril, you will ride into war. You have dealt with skirmishes before, perhaps even a battle or two, but never war. It will encompass you and you will come out a different man in the end. What sort of a man you’ll be after facing war, only your will and time shall tell." Balar’s grave countenance now shifted to a light and comforting one. "But you of all men should not be frightened, Ladril. You are a man that has been made strong by your convictions. Establish what is truth to you now, establish what you believe, and war shall take no hold on you. And you’ll even come out a better man in the end."
What could Ladril say to all this? He found he could only nod dumbly while absorbing Balar’s words.
"Now go and take the horses," Balar smiled. "You are a great man, Ladril. Were I still a captain I could not ask for a better man to fight at my side. Now go, my boy. You have nothing to fear."
On the other side of the field the soldiers of Dol Amroth were assembling to depart. Captain Lindor found time to converse with Shastan and bid him farewell before mounting his horse. "Would that these were better times," He said. "Then I would gladly invite you to Dol Amroth to instruct my men on your deadly spear methods."
Shastan smiled and laughed. "If those times shall ever come, I will gladly accept your invitation, Captain."
Captain Lindor nodded courteously. "Till then, may the grace of the Valar be with you."
With that he turned to his men and gave the order to depart. The white swan on blue cloth flew in the wind as the noble party began riding out of the valley. Several choruses of farewells echoed after them by the people of the wains (especially the young women, who had become rather smitten with the soldiers). Just as dreamlike as when they mounted the crest and sprang into battle the day before, the troops of Dol Amroth now rode smoothly away. After watching them go, Shastan put on his pack and made for the wains. …He [i]really[/i] ought to ask Ladril what on earth a Valar was.
As Ladril led the two horses along he saw Shastan coming his way. "Are you ready?" The ranger called.
Shastan nodded, then eyed the horsed keenly. "Are they for us?"
"Yes. Courtesy of Balar," Ladril said, but his mind replied [i]Or rather[/i] precaution [i]of Balar[/i].
The Swerting approached one of the steeds and patted it gingerly. "Have you had experience with horses?"
"A little," Ladril said honestly. "What about you?"
Shastan hesitated. "…Didn’t you see me ride into battle with Elen the other day?"
"Yes, and as I recall you were hanging on for your life." Ladril raised a brow. "That isn’t be the only experience you’ve had with a horse, is it?"
In reply Shastan took one of the reins from Ladril’s hand and said "Look…I’ll get the hang of it."
Ladril could only smile and shake his head as Shastan awkwardly led his horse onward.
There were many shaking of hands and lengthy farewells between the people and the two men. Many begged them to stay at least a little longer, but the sun was already growing high above the meadow and Shastan and Ladril could afford to tarry no longer. The rescue of the wains was an adventurous and exciting road, but now the way diverged and the Swerting and the ranger had a new path to take.
After the last exchange of thanks and goodbyes the two men meant to turn and depart, but not before running into the lady Elen.
"Would it be all right if I accompanied you?" She asked.
"Absolutely [i]not[/i]," Ladril ordered. "The journey will be far too dangerous and I’m not about to risk your safety [i]again[/i]. I have been scared to death for the past three days alone, worrying about what you’ll run and do next-"
At this point Elen gave a slight smirk. "I meant can I accompany you to the end of the [i]field.[/i]"
"…Oh," Ladril said. "Er…yes, of course."
People buzzed about, hitching oxen to wagons and loading supplies, but all the bustle seemed small and far away as the three walked through the sun-dried grass, over slopes and under the clear blue sky. They talked about all they had seen and done, what had been accomplished in the past four days and what there was yet to do. Elen strolled slowly with the two men as they led their horses along; they had tried to walk as slowly as possible, but the end of the meadow came all the same. Even then the three continued on in conversation as they entered the forest and passed by the blossoming birch trees. Finally, since the way back to the wains was barely discernible now, Elen had to stop. There was a space of silence as the three knew that the hour had come at last.
"I cannot believe we are actually parting ways," Elen said. "Are you sure you can stay no longer with the wains?"
"I’m afraid we still have a journey that has yet to be completed," Shastan answered.
"And the days are growing darker," Ladril added. "There is no safe place for Shastan in Gondor anymore."
"Yes, of course," Elen sighed. "I know it has only been a few days, but it seems that I have spent a lifetime with you two." Now she stepped up to Ladril and she gave him one last embrace.
"It was fun, wasn’t it?" She smiled. "You have to admit that it was fun."
As they pulled back Ladril also smiled. "I feel it safe to tell you now, Elen, that you are the most peculiar woman I have [i]ever[/i] met." Then he added "-And yes, I have never had more fun in my life."
Elen laughed merrily. "I have been most impressed with all you’ve done, Ladril. But I suppose Iorwen would have expected no less from the man she loves."
Ladril nodded in reply……and then it hit him.
"You…you don’t mean-" he stammered. "You actually mean…?"
Elen giggled and nodded.
There was silence as it sank in, then Ladril suddenly hollered and picked Elen up and span her about. "Yes! Yes! I knew it! I [i]knew[/i] it!"
Elen squealed and Shastan couldn’t help but grin at Ladril’s antics. But the ranger quickly remembered himself and put Elen down in embarrassment. "Er, I mean, thank you Elen. That was very good to know." …Then he decided to forget himself once more and hugged the maid again. "Thank you, Elen. [i]Thank you.[/i]"
"I’m holding you to your promise now," Elen admonished. "You said you wouldn’t breathe a word if I told you."
"I won’t, I won’t," Ladril said readily.
"Good." Elen stepped back from Ladril and now turned to Shastan. Here the mood changed. Elen’s eyes gazed into Shastan’s green ones and silence hung over the young birch leaves as they looked at each other.
"…I suppose this is goodbye, Shastan," She said quietly.
"…I suppose it is," He answered.
It felt like no more could be said, so the maid curtsied to him and turned to leave. Then without warning she quickly turned back, wrapped her arms about his neck, and pulled him into a kiss.
Ladril courteously looked away, but he couldn’t help smirking as he did so. Shastan froze, trapped in complete shock and Elen’s firm hold. Finally she pulled back, leaving the wide-eyed Swerting simply standing there, and she curtsied to Ladril.
"Good morrow, Ladril."
"Good morrow, Elen." He bowed.
And with that Elen departed, strolling back through the blossoming birches, back through the meadow, back to her people. So ended the adventures of Shastan and Ladril with the spirited and willful Lady Elen.
Ladril watched her go until he could spot her no more, then he turned to the Swerting. "Well, Shastan, we had best be underway-" He suddenly stopped.
Shastan was still frozen in position.
Ladril paused, then snapped his fingers in front of his eyes. Shastan jolted a bit, blinked, and nodded. "Ah, yes. Let’s go then. I’ll lead."
Shastan pulled his horse onward and into the deep wood, carrying on as if nothing had happened. But Ladril clearly noted that the Swerting was having great difficulty walking in a straight line.
The day wore on and there seemed no end to the wood. The horses kept a good pace and Shastan for all his inexperience was not having too much difficulty riding now. They walked and rode, walked and rode, and they passed spectacular blossoms of a beautiful spring. Clear streams rushed by, deer grazed quietly in cool meadows, leaves danced lightly on a playful wind, and all was calm and peaceful.
But things were not calm and peaceful in Ladril’s head. He couldn’t focus on nature’s beauty with Balar’s voice echoing through his mind. He turned the old man’s words over and over again. [i]When you ride out of this field today, Ladril, you will ride into war.[/i] Ladril thought he had already experienced war; he had fought battles, hadn’t he? But Balar made it sound as if war had nothing to do with battles. War was a greater, much darker animal: an animal that either consumed you or elevated you. It was a beast that tested you, to see where you will stand.
Where [i]did[/i] Ladril stand? He wanted to stand for Gondor, and against its enemies…but what about Shastan? He could see Swertings in general as the enemy, but not Shastan. So where does he stand, then? What exactly was his truth that he could hold onto when the tide of war comes crashing down?
Heavy clouds were steadily rolling across the sky and the forest darkened. A storm was approaching.
…Ladril decided that when it came to Shastan, Gondor could not govern his choices. Nothing was worth warring against him. That, he decided, was his truth.
Thunder began to rumble from afar. The clouds soon took over the woods. It was a most strange storm drifting from the East, and the once clear spring day now quickly fled from the dark and foreboding weather.
…Fear and hate, that was what drove war. But Ladril had a good head on his shoulders, and so did Shastan. Together they could keep above the swirling madness of war. As long as Ladril didn’t feel fear or hate, he would be fine.
It started to rain. A few drops at first, then it burst into a downpour. Dry dirt became churned mud. The thunder rolled and the rain continuously pounded. It was cold, wet, and truly miserable.
…As long as Ladril had his truth, all would be fine…
Suddenly his thoughts were pierced by the voice of Shastan.
"Do you know what’s the wisest choice you have made since we met Elen?"
"…What is it?"
Shastan looked at the dreadful clouds, the foul smelling horses, and the rain pouring over their heads. "…leaving her behind."
Ladril laughed. He could only [i]imagine[/i] how Elen would be in this weather.
Leave it to Shastan to brighten the mood in a storm like this. Here Ladril was fretting over truths and war while Shastan was thinking of a way to make him laugh. Shastan’s thoughts were by far the more constructive ones. Ladril felt a little guilty worrying so much about-
Lightning struck. It flashed with brilliance and lit up the sky, followed by a deafening crash of thunder. It was too far away to harm the men, but the horses reared up in a sudden panic.
Ladril got control of his steed quick enough, but Shastan was not as skilled. His horse reared with fright and the Swerting fell off and landed squarely on his back.
"Shastan!" Ladril cried and leapt off his horse. He ran to the other horse and calmed it down so it could not do any more harm to the fallen Swerting. With the two steeds hastily tied up he now ran to Shastan.
"Are you all right?" He said as he skidded through the mud.
"…Fine…" Shastan wheezed. He was unharmed but the wind was completely knocked out of him.
"Can you sit up?" Ladril asked.
"Can’t…can’t breathe…" Shastan’s chest heaved as he tried to blink the thick ran from his eyes.
"It’s little wonder with that tight armor you’re always wearing," The ranger assessed. "Let’s sit you up and get it off, quick."
Shastan didn’t seem to hear, but he let himself be sit up and Ladril unlaced the heavy, bronze-plated jerkin and lifted it off him.
Shastan breathed more freely now and started to relax. He was wearing a black tunic underneath that looked poorly stitched. But that was not what caught Ladril’s eye.
Something gleamed from around Shastan’s neck. It looked like bright silver, or some shining jewel. Ladril angled his head for a better look. It must have been important, if Shastan had kept it beneath his armor all this time. He leaned over a bit more and found that it was not one jewel but seven, gleaming about the border of a silver medallion.
In the center was a white tree.
Ladril stared for a moment, but it felt like eternity as he tried to push the gnawing horror from his mind. The fearful question of why his brother’s medallion was around Shastan’s neck pounded in his head as he tried to quench the dark answer. The medallion glared at him from its chain, striking his heart with a blinding truth that could not be denied. His trust and faith in his friend was drowning under a horrible realization that could not be suppressed. [i]He killed him[/i].
No…not Shastan…not him…
But there it was. Nothing could hide this truth: it was hanging from Shastan’s neck.
Now a new feeling swept over: the feeling Ladril had thought he was safe from. The feelings that drove war.
Ladril felt fear.
Ladril felt hate.
[i]He killed him.[/i]
Now rage defeated his reason. In a swift motion Ladril drew his knife and threw the unsuspecting Swerting to the ground. But Shastan was quick enough to bar Ladril’s arm as he tried to come down on him with the blade. Hot tears streamed Ladril’s cheeks as the medallion on Shastan’s neck now glistened in the pouring rain. As hard and loud as his lungs could give, Ladril cried "[i]You[i] killed him! [i]YOU[/i] KILLED MY BROTHER!"