<strong>author’s note:</strong> I am very, very sorry I haven’t updated in an obscenely long time! College life was not constructed for writers! I’ll try to be a little more consistent in my posts from now on.
It was dark, pitch black, and it was hot; fiery heat surrounded him. His skin was burning, his face was boiling, and it became unbearable. There was no release, no relief, not even death which would be welcomed at this point. He burned for hours and hours, he felt doomed to perpetually writhe in this blazing inferno. It was so hot…so unbearable…he couldn’t go on…
Then there was only darkness.
…Things, or the colors and blurred shadow of things, came into vision. There was a sky above filled with white clouds, but the land all about was grey and bobbing, lapping here and there in small waves. It was strange…
Then Ladril’s reason caught up and told him that he was looking at a river. He was cramped in the corner of a narrow boat with a scratchy blanket wrapped around him. Ladril blinked a few times, and realized the fiery heat was gone. A cool wind now hit his face. His skin felt cool….
Then there was darkness again.
Colors swirled about once more and different shades pieced themselves together. This time the shape of a face emerged from the blur of shadows. It was a young, beautiful face. It was so familiar…
“Ladril, please wake up,” a voice implored him with all the softness of the day’s breeze.
Ladril raised his head and looked longingly into the sweet face. “…Iorwen? Is that you?”
“It’s Peladrim,” The lad replied sourly.
Everything was hurled into its appropriate shapes, shades and colors. The sky was grey, Ladril was in a boat, and he was looking at the young and thoroughly agitated face of Peladrim.
“Oh,” Ladril murmured as he sat himself up. “…Sorry.”
Peladrim only huffed and turned away. Ladril looked about the small stern of the boat and found Shastan just across from him, looking on with concern.
“Oh, there you are,” Ladril said to the Swerting as he eased himself up and yawned. “How long was I asleep?”
Shastan gave a meaningful cough and turned away, as if ignoring him. Ladril would have been offended if he didn’t catch the expression on Peladrim’s face. The boy practically gaped.
“Iauros, come quick!” He cried. “Ladril is fey! First he thought I was a lady and now he thinks the Southron can talk!”
Ladril looked at the boy, then at Shastan. It made sense, of course. To the other men Shastan was just a dumb Southron. If they found out he knew the Common Speech it would only make them alarmed and suspicious.
“Peladrim, get back to your oar,” Malbar ordered from the front of the boat. “Iauros will come in a moment.”
The lad grudgingly rose and obeyed his cousin’s order. Further up the boat were four seats, three of which were occupied by Malbar, Wadil, and Iauros. They were busy pulling at the oars with fluid strokes as the plains of Gondor slowly rolled by. Ladril tried to lay back and watch the scenery, but his back twinged with a… freezing sting. What was even more curious was nearly all his fingers had been individually bandaged.
As soon as Peladrim left, Shastan slid next to Ladril and whispered “How are you feeling?”
“Better,” Ladril tore his gaze from his fingers. “Just a little tired. How are you?”
“Oh fine,” Shastan sourly replied. “Apart from being turned into a slave, my day is going great.”
Ladril hesitated, then suddenly remembered. “…Oh.”
“I mean really.“
“I’m sorry Shastan-“
“You could have said ‘he’s my captive,’ or ‘he’s my friend,’ or ‘he owes me money.’ I would’ve even settled for ‘he’s my second cousin’ if push came to shove!”
The pale ranger looked at the dark face of Shastan. “I don’t think second cousins would have worked.”
“-But you just had to say ‘he’s my slave’,” Shastan continued bitterly. “And I didn’t even get a say in the matter.”
“You couldn’t get a say in the matter,” Ladril stated. “You’re supposed to be an ignorant, docile Southron. That’s the only reason Malbar let you come.”
Shastan cast a cold glare at the built soldier pulling at the oar. “So that’s his name, is it?”
“Malbar is a bit narrow-minded, but he means well,” Ladril said. “Really.”
“And who are these other people?”
Ladril tried to remember all the names. “There’s…Peladrim, the boy we saved at the Square, then there’s Wadil, he’s an….agriculturalist, I think. And there’s Iauros, my former schoolmaster.”
“You mean the old man coming towards us?”
Iauros was indeed coming their way. Shastan put some space between himself and Ladril, but the old scholar went directly to the Swerting and said in a loud voice, accompanied with hand gestures, “You…go…row…boat.“
Shastan refrained from rolling his eyes and did as he was told. Iauros watched the Swerting go with some surprise.
“He certainly catches on, doesn’t he?”
“…He’s a quick learner,” Ladril said weakly.
“I’ve come to have a look at you.” Iauros ceremoniously opened his medicine bag. “Peladrim insists you’ve gone mad.”
“I can assure you I’m perfectly-“
“I know.” The old man smiled at the ranger. “I just came to check on your fingers, that’s all.”
Ladril raised a bandaged hand curiously. “What exactly happened to them?”
“Don’t you know? They’re your fingers.”
“I haven’t been very conscious lately-“
“My boy, six of them had been twisted out of place.”
Ladril’s stomach didn’t have much to be sick on, but if felt it could manage anyway.
“…Are they…um, did you…?”
“I already put them back in place, if that’s what you mean.”
His stomach didn’t feel any better, but he said “Oh…good. Thank you for treating them, Master Iauros,” Then a little sting reminded him to say “-And my back, too.”
“You’re welcome. The ointment does have a cold bite, doesn’t it?” Iauros’ face dropped slightly. “May I ask what my former pupil was doing in Poros with six broken fingers and a severely whipped back?”
Ladril licked his lips and said “…Just another day in a soldier’s life, really.”
Iauros didn’t laugh, and the absence of laughter after a joke leaves a very awkward silence.
“So…how long have we been on the river?” Ladril asked, feeling a need to change the subject.
“It’s been a full day now,” Iauros answered. “You’ve been asleep the whole time.”
“A day on the river? Surely we would’ve run into Cosairs by now.”
“Don’t be daft, son. We wouldn’t dream of heading towards the Cosairs. We’re going north.”
Ladril was about to settle with that…and then realized there was something seriously wrong with that statement. “We’re going upstream? On the Anduin?“
“Sounds impossible I know, but a wind has been picking up lately.” The old man wrinkled his nose. “It is a most curious wind from the south. It grows stronger every day. With our sail and extra rowing we are making good time, but I fear that in the next few days this wind will be enough to blow a whole Cosair ship up the Anduin.”
Ladril shivered a little at that piece of news. The thought of the wind blowing a Cosair ship as far as the White City was not comforting.
“We hope to reach the river Erui tomorrow,” Iauros continued. “Wadil’s home village is in Lossarnach. We will all be safe there.”
“What about Shas- I mean, my slave?”
Iauros lifted a brow. “What about him?”
“Will he be safe too?”
“Probably not, but who’s to care? A Southron is a Southron.”
Ladril’s eyes widened. “But…he…”
“I know he’s your property, but we all have to make sacrifices now and then. Besides, if he didn’t cost you anything then you shan’t have lost anything, eh?”
It took a lot of control to prevent Ladril looking appalled. How could Iauros say that? He was a wise, sophisticated scholar of Gondor and-
Ladril supposed that was the point. He was of Gondor, so that was the way he thought about Swertings. Ladril thought that way once, a long time ago. What was going to happen to Shastan once they reached Lossarnach? He wouldn’t be safe there, and where in Gondor would he be safe?
Ladril couldn’t think about this now. He needed to just…
Ladril woke as the boat jolted ashore.
The sun was slowly sinking into the West and the countryside had turned into a forest. Everyone was already out of the boat and pulling it onto the rocky shore. Ladril decided to lay a moment longer as the boat jostled over the cobbles and became still. He sat up as Peladrim began unloading bags from the side.
“Master Ladril, you’re up!” The boy said happily. “How are you feeling?”
“Just ‘Ladril’ will do,” The ranger said. “And I’m feeling fine now.”
The boy knotted his brow. “You’re sure? You don’t think I’m a lady or anything?”
“Hoy Malbar!” Peladrim cried. “Ladril is all better!”
“That’s fine, lad,” Malbar replied curtly. “Give me a hand with these stakes.”
“I can help,” Ladril said as he swung a confident leg over the side…but the rest of his body was not so confident.
“…Perhaps you ought to take things slow,” Iauros advised as he watched Ladril flop onto the shore. “Why don’t you keep an eye on your slave? We’ll have camp ready in a moment. And if you could, try to tell the Southron we need firewood.”
“Come on,” Ladril muttered to Shastan as he got to his feet and headed towards the thicker wood. Shastan followed silently in suit.
The ranger and Swerting kept walking until they were out of earshot, which was only as far as Ladril could walk, anyway. He gratefully sat down to catch his breath while Shastan began breaking branches from trees.
“I can do that,” Ladril said.
“No, you can’t,” Shastan stated.
“I just need a minute…or maybe a few…” He decided to give up and let Shastan do the work. “How are they treating you?”
“Wonderfully,” Shastan muttered. “Malbar jeers at me, Iauros glares condescendingly, and Peladrim keeps poking me to see if I’m real.”
“Yes, those are the standard Gondorian reactions to a Swerting.” Ladril nodded.
“Well I say the standard needs changing.”
Ladril nodded while Shastan broke off another branch, then he asked “Do you still have that gold coin on you?”
“Yes…” Shastan looked at him curiously. “Why do you ask?”
“I was wondering if we could play the coin game again.”
“What, here?” Shastan asked. “Right now?”
“Yes. Why not?”
“What about your friends? Aren’t they expecting firewood?”
“I said ‘why not?’.”
The Swerting looked in the direction of the campsite and grinned smugly. “Why not, indeed?” He produced his gold coin and sat across from Ladril. “Only we don’t have a fire.”
“I only want to ask two questions.” Ladril crossed his legs. “I’ll start.”
“Very well.” Shastan balanced the coin between his fingers, ready to flip it. “Ask your question.”
“Do you love Elen?”
Shastan violently coughed and nearly dropped the coin. Quickly he regained his composure. “What kind of question is that?“
“A very blatant one.”
“Well the answer is no.”
“Are you sure?“
“Flip the coin, then.”
Shastan cast a wary glance at the coin, then flipped it. After spinning in the air a moment it landed soundly in the dirt.
…Blank side up.
There was silence as both men stared at it, then Ladril cried “You’re lying!“
“No I’m not!” Shastan exclaimed.
“The coin says you are.”
“Well it’s wrong!”
Ladril stared at Shastan. “You’re refuting the coin?”
“Yes. I mean no. Wait-” The Swerting started to fidget. “I mean… ah…the coin’s accuracy depends on where it lands.”
“The coin works fine when it lands on dry soil-“
“Just admit it.”
“-But on mud it’s all guesswork. And climate is a factor-“
“You love Elen.”
“I do not!” Shastan cried. “You can’t ask that girl to do a single thing! Why in Basra’s name would I-“
“Because she’s just like you.”
The Swerting glared at him evenly. “I don’t love Elen. Trust me on this.”
“I trust the coin,” Ladril replied. “Shall we ask for its input again?”
Shastan looked at the coin, then at Ladril. He tried to think up another excuse, any excuse, but in the end he blushed red, muttered under his breath, and scooted one space back.
“…How about I ask no more on that subject?” Ladril said with a teasing smile.
“Sounds wonderful,” Was the reply.
“It’s your turn then. Give me the coin.”
Shastan tossed the coin to him and Ladril prepared to flip it. He assumed Shastan was thinking of a really good question… but after a lengthy silence Ladril knew something was wrong.
“…Shastan? What is it?”
The Swerting looked up at his friend. “…Can I ask you any question?”
There was silence a moment more, then Shastan cleared his throat and said “Do you forgive me?”
Ladril didn’t need to ask the meaning of Shastan’s question. He knew exactly what he meant. There had been a time, a long time, when he couldn’t forgive him. That was when he believed only in Good people and Bad people; entirely Right versus entirely Wrong. But now…
“Yes, I do,” He answered.
The coin was flipped… and it landed heads.
“…Thank you,” Shastan said, feeling somewhat relieved.
“It’s all right.” Ladril said assuringly, then his face brightened. It was his turn. “Now be prepared for this next question. Most likely it will require some thinking.”
“I’m ready,” Shastan said. Ladril tossed the coin to him.
“…Can you really not pronounce my name, or are you just pretending?”
Just then Malbar’s voice echoed through the wood; night was gathering and he was calling for Ladril to return.
“Well, time to go.” Shastan hopped to his feet and gathered the few branches he had collected.
“Hold on!” Ladril cried. “You haven’t given me an answer!”
Shastan paused to think, then with a smile he said “Yes.”
Ladril was quite pleased with that answer as Shastan left. He knew it was “yes,”…
Then it hit him.
“Wait!” The ranger ran after him. “‘Yes’ to what?“
The evening’s victuals looked quite promising. There was an assortment of dried meats, fresh bread, and even a choice of butter or jam. Malbar made a large fire and soft bedrolls were produced from the packs by Peladrim. The evening was warm, the sky was clear, and all troubles and fears had been left downriver. It looked like a night of contentment and ease for all the men, but that soon changed once everyone sat down to eat.
“Surely we’re not expected to eat with that,” Malbar said with disgust.
“What?” Ladril asked, genuinely puzzled.
“The Southron, obviously,” He replied.
Ladril looked from Shastan to Malbar in disbelief. “I believe ‘that’ is a he,” He nearly hissed.
“Ladril, that’s not the issue here,” Iauros said. “The fact is none of us feel comfortable with the Southron present.”
“Really?” Ladril looked around the campfire. “Is that how the rest of you feel?”
The others were silent.
“There is no reason to be offended, Ladril,” Iauros spoke. “It’s just a Southron, after all.”
“It’s not as if it has feelings,” Malbar mumbled.
“And he looks a little… scary,” Peladrim admitted. “Not that I’m scared of course, but… it might be safer if…”
“Fine.” Ladril had just about enough. “If I put his meal and bedroll over there will you all be satisfied?”
Everyone looked at the lone tree Ladril pointed to and there was a general murmur of agreement. The ranger stood, collected Shastan’s things in a huff, and said “Follow me,” to the Swerting.
Shastan stared at him dumbly.
“You–come–now.” Ladril said heatedly to his slave, using big hand gestures. Shastan then nodded and followed after him.
“…You’re caring too much,” Shastan said once they were out of earshot. “It’s not good for our ruse. You’re supposed to be a slave owner.”
“I don’t care if I care too much,” Ladril snapped. “You shouldn’t be treated this way. It’s not fair.”
“Laaderil, I’ve been treated this way most of my life,” The Swerting stated. “I’ve made it a point long ago not to care what others think.”
They reached the lone tree and Ladril unloaded Shastan’s bedroll and carefully set his meal down. “Are you sure you’ll be all right?”
“I think something would be seriously wrong with me if I couldn’t handle sitting by myself.”
“Very well, but if you need anything…just…wave, or something?”
“I’ll be fine.”
After some hesitation on Ladril’s part, he left the Swerting alone and returned to the camp. Softly whistling no tune in particular, Shastan made himself comfortable and began picking at his food. Steadily his whistling dropped until there was only silence. In the distance, he could hear the other men laughing and chatting by the firelight.
Shastan didn’t mind being alone….before. No good ever came of minding in the slave mill at Belfalas. Even after he was released, he made it a point not to mind being in solitude. Then along came Ladril, who was the first friend he ever really had. Along came all the children of the wains, who were so enthralled with his stories and song. Along came Elen-
-The point was, Shastan really minded being alone now.
It couldn’t be helped, he told himself. He had to act like a stupid Southron. He had to play the part in order to remain with Ladril. He just wished that being alone wasn’t so…lonely.
He took his fork and jabbed at his food dishearteningly. As he chewed a slice of meat in silence, another roar of laughter came from the distant campfire. The other men sounded like they were having a good time, even Ladril. Why was he forced to sit alone while everyone else had good company? Was it because of the lack of understanding, or was it just the way the coin was tossed? Either way, Shastan felt he had the worst luck ever. If only he could just-
Twigs snapped and leaves rustled. Someone was blundering through the brush. Shastan could make out a stout figure coming directly towards him. It was a smaller man, Shastan managed to discern in the poor light. A smaller man with a balding head and little sparkling eyes. If Shastan recalled correctly, it was Wadil the…Agriculturalist? He was carrying his dinner plate and walking away from the campfire in a huff.
“Foolish ruffians,” He muttered to Shastan. “No respect at all. Do you know they ignored me the whole time? I mean, is it my fault they cannot appreciate the lore behind Gondorian barley? War, war, war, that’s all they’re blathering about. As if nothing else is important.”
Shastan stared at him blankly.
“Well that’s fine with me,” Wadil continued. “Let them talk about big armies and fancy swords. You and I will just enjoy a bit of peace from all that war-babble. Er…this seat isn’t taken, is it?”
Knowing the Southron couldn’t understand him, Wadil sat down anyway. Shastan noticed his jaw had been hanging and quickly closed it.
“You don’t like war stuff, do you?” Wadil asked as he bit into his slice of bread. “No, I suppose not. You don’t look the fighting type, begging your pardon. To be quite frank, you look…educated. Isn’t that odd? It’s as if you know exactly what’s going on and you know exactly what I’m saying. Of course that’s nonsense, but you look very educated nonetheless.”
Shastan tried giving a very dumb look.
“I wonder what sort of education you do have?” Wadil speculated. “I mean, what exactly do they teach in Far Harad? …How to gut things? Count disembodied heads? Boil blood? That’s what people say…” Here Wadil sighed. “Though I never believed it.”
Shastan found himself listening intently as Wadil continued. “…Can you keep a secret? Oh, of course you can. You see… Southron things sound rather interesting to me. Faraway deserts, golden idols, towering mumaks, they sound so fascinating, don’t they?”
Shastan nearly nodded, but caught himself.
“If the other lads caught me saying that, they’d be yelling ‘treason!’ or whatever it is soldiers yell. But we’ll keep this between us, eh? Just our little secret. And those war-heads won’t be the wiser!” Wadil snickered a little, this being the height of his deviousness. “Well, enough about that. How about some stories, eh? Would you like to hear the lore behind Gondorian barley?”
Wadil carried on. He was content that someone was listening to him, though he knew the fellow couldn’t possibly understand him. Meanwhile Shastan was grateful for Wadil’s company, though he knew he couldn’t possibly tell him. One man talked and the other man listened, and although they were both so different, so utterly foreign from each other, there was hardly a lack of understanding.
Of course, if everyone was Wadil, understandings would be made everywhere.