<i>Life is just a mirror, and what you see out there, you must first see inside of you.</i> -Wally Amos
As the morning sun burned in the rising smoke, the General observed his nest of troops with pride. Just the night before last they laid siege to the city and when dawn broke, even the highest towers were wreathed in black smoke; a token of fear from the Cosairs of Umbar.
Poros had been an easy victory, sure to be one of many.
The General’s eyes wandered up the path of the Anduin, cutting deep into the heartland of Gondor. Beyond that, he knew, lay Minas Tirith: the final destination of the war.
Messengers of the Dark Lord came to Umbar months ago, promising all the booty of the White City in exchange for loyalty. But the Cosairs were no fools; they knew the Dark Lord had made the same promise to Harad also. His hope was that Harad and Umbar would eventually war amongst themselves over the treasure of Gondor. Harad and Umbar saw the Dark Lord’s lie, but they pledged their loyalty to him anyway.
Their drive behind this war had nothing to do with treasure.
"…General?" An approaching commander coughed.
The dark face of the General turned to the young soldier. "What is it, man?"
"There is a lieutenant in your tent that requests an audience with you, sir. He says the matter is urgent."
The heavy Cosair conceded with the wave of a hand and the commander backed away. Despite popular belief, the Cosairs were rather eloquent when speaking their tongue, and the misconception that they were poorly organized in warfare was something Gondor was dearly paying for now.
As the General turned for his tent he looked back at the desolate buildings and piled rubble one last time. As always, oily smoke rose above the city; it had been billowing since the dawn of yesterday. The fire seemed to persistently find new things to burn.
The General gazed at the smoke and smiled. Black smoke for the Black Wave.
He liked the sound of that.
The General opened the heavy flap and entered his tent. At one end of the musty interior stood his personal guards, a table covered in maps, and his rich assortment of armor. At the other end, kneeling reverently on a woven mat, was the lieutenant that was seeking audience.
The General was not a patient man and he was particularly impatient with men of such low rank. "What is your division, soldier?" He deeply growled.
The kneeling fellow shakily replied "The Company of the Serpent, sir."
"I see," the General eyed him sharply. "And what are you doing away from your company’s post? Have you grown bored of maintaining the city’s eastern gate?"
"Please, sir," The lieutenant groaned. "I come here with no personal qualms. I bring word from my captain, sir."
Ah, he’s a messenger boy. If the captain didn’t have the stomach to come here himself, the message must be rather terrible. "What is it, then?" The General said. "Have the supplies spoiled, or has your ship been damaged?"
"No, sir," The fellow answered. "In the early hours this morning, we obtained a prisoner. He appears to be a soldier of Gondor, or perhaps a ranger of Ithilien-“
The short fuse of the General’s temper was rapidly turning into a stubble. "You dare waste my time with idle chat about [i]prisoners?[/i]"
"No sir!" The lieutenant quickly cried. "I would rather meet death than interrupt your business, revered General! But the circumstances surrounding this prisoner required that I bring him to your attention."
The General now stared at the lieutenant. "What circumstances?"
"At an hour after dawn, we caught this soldier of Gondor trying to attack the Company of the Serpent from the East. He came from the Crossings of Poros, we think."
That was unusual. The General thought all enemy activity by the Crossings had dissipated by now. "We should act quickly, then," He said. "How many were in this soldier’s company?"
"Er…none, sir," The lieutenant replied. "It was…just him."
The General blinked. For once he was actually taken off guard. "…Are you saying this soldier attacked your company by [i]himself?[/i]"
Now the General laughed. "Surely you have it wrong. He must have been a wayward scout, or some luckless renegade wandering too close to Poros. Not every man who comes near your company means to attack it."
"I am afraid this is not the case, sir."
"What makes you say that?"
"Because this man…ah…walked directly into our camp."
Once more the General was silent by the surprise.
"…You had better tell me the whole story, lieutenant."
"Yes, sir. All was quiet early this morning. We were changing guards and the body of the company was preparing for morning inspection. Then there rose a great commotion among the tents and the sound of fighting began. A man of Gondor had entered the east gate of the city, unchecked during the change of the guards, and was walking silently through our camp. When our men tried to waylay him, he drew his sword and cut them down. More came at him and he cut them down also. He drifted through the camp, heedless of everything except what got in his way. He was like a ghost, sir. A pale, horrid thing that wouldn’t speak and wouldn’t stop."
"You did eventually stop him, I assume?"
"Yes sir, but at a great cost. He severely wounded twelve of our men before we brought him down."
"Thankfully no, sir."
The General took this news quietly, deep in his thoughts. A soldier of Gondor, unprovoked and unaided, walks straight into an enemy camp and begins cutting men down. It sounded suicidal, it sounded insane, it sounded….
The General turned on the lieutenant. "What information have you gotten out of him, lieutenant?"
"That’s just it, sir. We’ve tried interrogating him, but he won’t say anything. Even under the whipping he was silent. It’s as if he’s completely senseless."
The General sighed wearily. "In a situation like this, lieutenant, you will find torture is most effective."
"We had started that sir, but-"
"He’s contracted a dangerous fever. If we do any more to him, he’ll die."
The General began to thoughtfully pace across the rich carpet.
"It’s why I’m here, sir," The lieutenant continued. "Since the prisoner is still unyielding and near death, my captain sent me on this delivery in case you desire to make your own inquiry."
The General stopped his pacing. "…You brought the prisoner here?"
"He is just outside the tent, revered General," The fellow said. "If you do not wish to question him, we can simply have him executed."
"…No." This was too curious a case to pass up. "Send him in. And return to your company, lieutenant. If my inquisition proves fruitless then I shall do the honors myself."
The lieutenant bowed his head to the ground once more, then he rose from the woven mat and backed respectfully out of the tent. A few orders were barked outside, then the tent flap opened again and two Cosair soldiers entered, dragging the prisoner between them.
He was, indeed, like a ghost. His skin was pale and clammy and his dark hair hung loosely in sweat. He was a frail, gangly creature wearing nothing but a loose tunic, the back of which was stained with blood, and thin hose with a pair of muddy boots. The Cosair soldiers pushed him onto the woven mat and backed out of the tent, leaving the General and the prisoner alone.
Ladril’s world was unfocused, and with his hands tightly bound behind him he was having difficulty sitting up. The General studied him long and hard before speaking. He could usually read a man well just by looking at him, but with [i]this[/i] man he could read nothing.
"What is your regiment, soldier of Gondor?" The General asked briskly in the Common Tongue.
Silence was his answer.
"You have attacked and wounded twelve of my men, completely unprovoked. Why?"
Again, Ladril was silent.
The General calmly but forcefully stepped in front of the prisoner. "My men may have patience for your games, but Ido not."
He grabbed a fi!@#$l of the young man’s collar. "Why do you not answer me?"
Ladril’s bruised eyes tried to focus on the large man in front of him. He realized…he was speaking to him…
"…I…do not answer," Ladril hoarsely replied. "…Because I do not know."
The General’s mood eased and he released his grip.
"What is this?" He studied Ladril’s sorry state. "A lone, crazy soldier who will not speak. Is it a new trick from Gondor? I do not like tricks, no more than I like games. Why are you here, Gondor-man?"
Ladril blinked. Why was he here? Oh yes…
"Poros…is under attack."
The General laughed. "You mean it was under attack. It has been thoroughly defeated now. Those who could escape have fled long ago, and those who couldn’t are now the property of Umbar. The city is lost, and yet here you are: striding into camps as if you could stop the whole siege." The large man raised a brow. "But surely there is a reason you do this?"
"…Reason?" Ladril looked up at him.
"Yes. A purpose. Everyone has a purpose behind their actions. For Gondor it is glory and power, for the Dark Lord it is to spread darkness, and for us it is to avenge ourselves on the cursed Black Wave. And what about you, boy?" The General leaned in. "What is [i]your[/i] purpose?"
Ladril, his mind riddled with fever, tried to think. He had a purpose some time ago. He could have [i]sworn[/i] he had one, but now…
He couldn’t trust anything he thought now, or anything he believed. His truth was shaken…
"I don’t…I don’t have one," Ladril finally replied.
The General stared at him. "You don’tamp;nbsp; have a purpose?"
"No…" The young man’s world began to spin. "…I think I lost it…somewhere…"
The heavy Cosair studied Ladril again, but only for a moment. It was easy to read the fellow now that he knew what he was looking for. The General gave a contemptuous laugh. "I understand now. You’re a man who has been through a trauma and now you have lost your reason. You’re a man seeking to end the confusion by ending your life. What quicker way to end it than walking straight into an enemy camp and causing trouble? You were hoping for a quick soldier’s death, but-" Once more he took Ladril’s collar. "You have had the great misfortune of falling into my hands. And I make it a point not to cater to the likes of you."
The General released his grip and Ladril, his strength now fully spent, fell forward to the ground.
"When my enemy desires life, I give him death," The General continued. "And when my enemy desires death I give him life, and a cruel one at that. Guards!"
The General’s personal guards detached from the shadows and stepped duly forward.
"Take him to the Square and bind him with the others. He will make an addition, albeit a poor one, to our slave trade."
The guards took Ladril by either arm and pulled him to his feet. They dragged him out of the tent, leaving the General to return to his maps, leaving him to plot out the swelling tide of devastation on the land of Gondor.
The day was clouded and the persistent smoke only made the light in Ladril’s blurred world more dim. He didn’t quite hear, or rather didn’t quite grasp, what the General had said. Something about a Square…and slaves…
He was dragged through winding roads and heaps of rubble. The guards kept such a swift pace that he could not keep his footing half the time. They stopped at a dark man in front of a large tent and they left the ranger under this man’s charge. Ladril could not remember what happened next, but he eventually found himself sitting on a cobblestone road, bound to a long stake driven in the ground. The road seemed surprisingly wide, but if Ladril had been more conscious he would have realized that he was not on one road but five, all meeting at one point in the city. At the very center was once the grand statue of a Numenorian, now a heap of ruins. There were other men, about two dozen or so, also bound to long stakes and with Ladril they sat in a wide circle.
Ladril was in the Square.
His head felt like a bag of lead, but with enough strain he lifted it up and looked at the men around him. They were all men of Gondor, soldiers that stayed and fought while others fled, and this was their reward. There was even a lad, no more than twelve years of age, also bound to a stake. Here they were, men and child; it didn’t matter what had happened in their lives past, they were all awaiting the same horrid future together.
Ladril was sweating and shaking from the fever, his hands and back ached for reasons he couldn’t recall, but those things didn’t seem to matter now; when your inside is falling apart, you don’t pay much attention to how your outside is faring. Ladril felt…hollow. A vacuum filled what once was logic and reason. His mind was a jumble of pieces sliding off a table’s edge into emptiness.
Himself, as a child, long ago. He had a set of soldiers he played with. One side was light, the other side was dark. He played out countless battles with the little wooden men, but each outcome was the same: one side was Good, the other side was Bad, and the Good side defeated the Bad side. That was that. It was what he believed in. That was his truth.
When Ladril entered the regiments he thought things would be like his wooden soldiers. He was on the Good side and there was an Enemy to destroy. His brother had been killed by a Bad soldier, so it was Ladril’s duty as a Good soldier to destroy as many on the Bad side as he could. …No one told him the Enemy was a bunch of men as human as he was. No one told him that they, like Ladril, had to kill not because they liked it but because they had to survive. No one told him there were honest men on both sides of the battle.
…And who decides which side is Good and which side is Bad, anyway? Both sides view themselves as Good and the other Bad, so the line on the battlefield isn’t drawn between who’s Right and who’s Wrong. It’s drawn on difference.
It was a blow to Ladril’s truth and reason. What he had been raised to believe in, that We are Right and They are Wrong, had now crumbled to dust.
Ladril’s thoughts were now unraveling. His mind was a pit that was growing deeper and deeper. He was clinging onto the edge of a cliff, and he was slowly losing his grip.
What does a man do when the foundation of what he believes in tumbles to the ground?
…He has to rebuild.
…He has to start anew.
The pit continued growing. His grip had reduced to the last trembling finger.
He starts anew.
Too bad it was now too late.
Meanwhile someone was cutting the bonds on his hands and legs. Someone was loosing him free from the stake and helping him onto his feet.
…He lost his grip. He was falling…. but someone had caught him.
Ladril tried to clear his vision. He tried to see who was standing right in front of him, but he didn’t need to. The face, though blurred, was already very familiar.
"…Shastan?" Ladril rasped.
The Swerting smiled. "I’m afraid you are not rid of me yet, Laaderil."
A thousand memories, all good, hit Ladril like a rushing tide. The log, the pointless arguments, the blind man, the chicken, Elen, the wains…
Then some memories came back that were painful, but the pain seemed further away now; it had been eased with new understanding, new perspective.
He starts anew.
Ladril almost toppled over but Shastan quickly caught him. The ranger blinked, trying to comprehend Shastan actually standing there. "…Shastan? Is that really you?"
"Er…" The Swerting patted his face as if to make sure he did not spontaneously change identity. "…Yes?"
"I thought you were going home…" Ladril insisted.
"I was going Home," Shastan explained. "But I remembered you once told Elen you had no living relations outside Minas Tirith. So you certainly didn’t come to Poros for family matters." Here Shastan smiled slyly. "You are clever, Laaderil, but not [i]that[/i] clever."
Ladril tried to laugh, but it came out as more of a grunt. He was exhausted and the fever was still rising, but for now his limbs were light and he felt as though he was drawing fresh air after a lifetime underground.
"Come on," The Swerting pulled the ranger’s arm over his shoulder to give him support. "We have to get out of here."
"Wait…" Ladril looked around at the other men still bound to the stakes. "Have you got a knife?"
"Yes. That’s how I cut you loose."
Ladril staggered a few steps towards the captive soldiers. "Then help me with them…"
The work took only a few minutes. Soon every man had been cut free from the bonds of Umbar. They didn’t need any orders from Shastan or Ladril; after giving thanks they quickly took to their feet and dispersed into the ruins of the city, vanishing behind the piled rock, making their own escape.
The last fellow Ladril helped cut free was the young boy. The starry-eyed lad looked at him as if he was beholding a hero from a forgotten story. "Are you a Captain?" The boy asked.
"No," Ladril tried to laugh. "I’m just…Ladril."
"I’m Peladrim," The boy replied. "Thank you for rescuing us, Master Ladril."
Master Ladril. He hadn’t been called that since he met Elen. But before he could reminisce he saw the young Peladrim rush out of the Square and also vanish in the maze of broken buildings.
"Laaderil," Shastan said, with a trace of nervousness in his voice. "Let’s hurry before we’re caught."
Any man quickly scurrying from the Square into the ruined city had a good chance of escape, but a man trying to drag another man who was riddled with pain and fever had a significantly slimmer chance. After stumbling along a while, Shastan dragged Ladril behind the corner of a building to rest. Shouts could be heard now among Cosair soldiers. Of course, a lot of shouting would be done if one found one’s entire slave franchise vanished.
Soldiers were rushing along the other street, but here, in the remains of an alleyway, Shastan and Ladril were safe for the moment.
It was at this time Shastan felt he should state the obvious. "I am in a lot of trouble, Laaderil."
"…It’s not as if you weren’t in trouble…before you released those men," Ladril answered between panting breaths.
The Swerting, inspecting the street around the corner, turned to his friend. "What do you mean?"
"Well…you were in trouble by releasing me."
Shastan continued looking at him. "No, I wasn’t."
Ladril, despite his aches and fever, managed to put two and two together. "…You purchased me?"
"The Cosairs are quite accommodating to my people," Shastan said. "When I came to Poros, they gave me a tour of their military operations and when I said I wanted to purchase a Gondor slave, they were, quite frankly, only too happy to sell you."
The news was still seeping into Ladril’s mind. "….I’m your slave?" Then his sarcasm kicked in and he said "Again?"
There was shouting close by. A Cosair captain was barking orders on the street next to them. Shastan and Ladril held their breath, waited, and eventually the noise died away. The tension released and the two men relaxed a little.
Ladril then asked a question he really could not help asking. "…How much did I cost?"
Shastan ran up the sum in his head. "Let’s see… my horse, all the supplies…and my spear."
If it was at all possible, Ladril got a little sicker. "You… you sold your spear?"
"It’s all right, Laaderil-"
"But it’s your spear," He insisted. "You shouldn’t have given that up!"
Shastan stared at him. "Are you saying you’re not worth a spear?"
"No, not in my condition… If it was for a healthier slave…it might have been worth it, but-"
Ladril stopped when he saw Shastan still staring at him. "…My friend, you are not well at all."
Ladril smiled. "Actually…I’m feeling a lot better now. Especially since I was just-"
…Have you ever noticed that sometimes you don’t feel pain until after you’ve thought about it? Right now, in an alleyway hours after his torture, Ladril was conscious enough to think about it.
"Laaderil?" Shastan said as Ladril steadily slumped down. "Are you all right?"
His world became stretched and distorted. He remembered his back was bleeding; he had been whipped. His fingers were screaming out in pain; something had been done to them. He couldn’t recall what happened as the Cosairs stood over him rattling off questions. It had been in a tent, and it had been dark…
Ladril was seconds away from becoming sick, but he shut his eyes and held it in. He realized Shastan was asking him something. …It was dark…he was asking questions…
"I don’t know," Ladril murmured absently. "I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know. Stop asking me I told you I don’t-"
There was more shouting from nearby streets. The sounds died away again, and Ladril felt himself being steadily lifted up by Shastan. "We’re not safe here," He said. "We have to keep moving."
Shastan tried to coax Ladril along as they sneaked from street to street, but the wave of pain was too much for the ranger and his fever was still climbing. Soon Shastan had to drag him from building to building. The Cosairs were everywhere; it seemed every able soldier was looking for the men who had robbed them of their slaves.
But they had yet to be caught. After an exhausting hour Shastan deposited Ladril by a wall to rest.
"…It’s over," Ladril panted in his dizziness. "You should go. The Cosairs are coming and I…” Ladril swallowed. “…I’m only slowing you down."
Shastan turned sharply on his friend. "Don’t you [i]dare[/i] give me the "Go On Without Me" speech."
"But Shastan…" Ladril groaned. "I made you give up going home. I made you…give up your spear. You will not give up your life too."
"I am not going to die," Shastan stated. "And you aren’t, either."
Ladril looked up dryly. "Really?…Why not?"
"Because it doesn’t feel like we’re going to die."
"Shastan, We’re surrounded by Cosairs…I’m so sick I’ve become a burden…” Ladril looked at the Swerting hopelessly. “If this doesn’t feel like the end, how are we going to get out of it?"
"Fate will play a hand," Shastan replied calmly. "It always does. Wait and see."
Ladril brought his legs to his chest to block out the growing cold. "…I forgot…you’re a man who doesn’t believe in…coincidences."
"If things can happen without a reason, then there’s no reason for anything that happens.”
"…So what is supposedto happen now?" Ladril stiffly asked.
"You! Stop right there!"
This came from a group of Cosairs at the end of the road. Gripping their swords and crossbows, they started marching towards Shastan, who was standing in the middle of the deserted little street. Having been sighted, Shastan slowly put his hands up in surrender.
Ladril’s heart dropped to his feet. This was it. They were finally caught. He was about to stagger up and raise his hands also, but Shastan muttered "Don’t move."
"Why-?" Ladril began.
"They can’t see you."
Shastan was right. The wall Ladril was leaning against tilted slightly away from the road. With the pale colored ranger huddled against the wall and Shastan standing in the middle of the road, Ladril was completely missed by the approaching Cosairs.
"But what about you?" Ladril whispered before the Cosairs were in hearing distance.
"Fate, Laaderil. [i]Fate,[/i]" Was all Shastan could say before the Cosairs were only a few feet away, their crossbows pointed at the Swerting. They made a demand at him in their guttural language but Shastan replied "I speak only my tongue and the tongue of Gondor."
"What is your game, Son-of-the-South?" The Cosairs said again. "Why did you set all the slaves free?"
"I don’t know what you’re talking about-"
"Don’t play the fool!" They hissed. "We know you were the last man let into the Square before the slaves were cut loose!"
That was it. The last defense, feigning ignorance, was now gone. "Then what will you do now, Men of Umbar?" Shastan said as if he was daring them.
Here the Cosairs hesitated. "That’s the thing, isn’t it? We don’t like killing our allies. It raises a lot of…questions. We don’t care much for questions. But if you show us where the trouble-making rat is, we could say he got loose and set the rest of the Stone Men free, then there’s nothing to accuse you of, is there?"
"…What makes you think I have him?"
"Playing fool is not your game, Son-of-the-South," They jeered. "You’ve been seen dragging that sick rat about."
Ladril dared not to breathe. One of the Cosairs was only a few feet from him. The man only had to look down and it would be all over for the ranger.
"We know you’ve got him somewhere. Hand him over and we’ll have no qualms with you."
"No," Shastan flatly replied.
The good humor of the Cosairs dropped into steely silence.
"…If you know what is best, you will give him to us."
"He is not mine to give to you."
"Have you forgotten the Black Wave?"
Again, there was the illusive mention of a Black Wave. Ladril noted that the words had a strong effect on Shastan; the Swerting went as stiff as a board.
"…Of course not. I would be condemned if I had forgotten."
"Your actions say otherwise," The Cosairs countered. "The ruin of your land and ours, and you do this? Your ancestors would be moaning in their ashes."
For once Ladril saw Shastan blanch. "It’s not applicable. Not now…not to him."
"Then you are a fool!" The Cosairs spat. "And be you a Son-of-the-South or no, we do not tolerate fools!"
They moved forward and quickly laid hands on Shastan. Ladril looked up helplessly, but Shastan did not even cast a glance at him.
"Don’t kill him here," One of the Cosairs ordered. "Bind him and take him to the West Harbor. Remember, we don’t want there to be questions."
With that they dragged the compliant Shastan away. They went far down the street, turned to the right, and were gone. Ladril waited a moment longer before staggering onto his feet.
He should have tried to stop them, but if he did he’d have been no help to Shastan. He would have feebly fought and then he would have met a quick death. But what could he possibly do now?
"Fate," was the last word Shastan said to him. Ladril didn’t believe in fate. Coincidences maybe, but not fate. And it was going to take a large coincidence to get out of this mess.
He couldn’t rely on that sort of thing now. He was a factual man, and he had to look at the situation at hand: he was weaponless, he was alone in a city occupied by enemies, he was so sick he could barely stand….
And Shastan was about to be executed.