Author’s note: This is a story in which an Ithilien ranger, a Southron (referred to as ‘swerting’ due to Shastan’s preference), and four other boat-mates have to learn how to get along. Thanks everybody for your comments and support!
The next day was spent with great exertion on everyone’s part. Though a fair wind blew from the South, rowing the oars had to be a diligent task to make good speed. And so it was with near exhaustion and relief that the company reached the mouth of Erui, forking from the river Anduin, as the afternoon faded to evening.
As the men heaved the boat onto the shore they met a grotesque sight: mud and debris from the river bottom had clung onto the hull of the boat, making it heavy and foul smelling.
"Whoever has to scrap that off, it’s not me," Peladrim said, quickly backing away at the prospect of this dirty chore.
"We can’t do anything for the boat until we’ve unloaded it." Malbar stated plainly.
"Unload the boat. Right. The Southron and I can do that!" The young lad quickly scrambled for the luggage and began heaving it onto the shore. It’s amazing how energetic a child can perform other chores when a particularly ugly one is looming on the horizon. Shastan quietly joined him, and the other men prepared camp as the sun made its descent in the West.
All jobs were done in silence until Malbar felt pressed to dig up a long, unanswered question for Iauros.
“Master Iauros, how is it you are acquaintances with Ladril? You neglected to tell me how you knew each other.”
“So I did,” Iauros said. “I instructed Ladril when he was but a boy in Minas Tirith.”
“Of all coincidences,” Malbar wondered. “On what subject did you instruct him?”
“Ladril was but one of two dozen children in my class of Grammar and Language,” The scholar answered. “But he required many a private lesson, what with his speech impediment.”
Malbar found himself leaning forward. “What speech impediment?”
Ladril was also listening, but he made no motion to stop the conversation. Iauros was going to blurt it out sooner or later, so it might as well be now. Besides, the only audience was Malbar who, thankfully, had no apparent sense of humor. Iauros would leak out the painful story, Malbar would give an indifferent response, and there would be no embarrassment endured.
Ladril failed to notice, however, that Shastan was also listening.
“Well to begin, the poor boy could barely string two words together,” Iauros said. “He would only say a handful of discernible words while he filled in the gaps with ‘dah’s’ and ‘goo’s’.”
Over by the supply pile, Shastan’s shoulders slightly shook.
“-And on top of that, he had a terrible lisp,” Iauros continued. “He couldn’t say anything without spitting a bit.”
There were a few severe coughs as Shastan tried to refrain from snickering.
"I remember an exercise we would recite: ‘I saw the little lamb.’ All the poor child could say was ‘I thwaw the thwiddle lamb.’"
Shastan’s restraint was quickly failing.
"But he got better, eventually. By the age of five he all but beaten his impediment. Alas, at that time his bed-wetting was still a severe issue."
By this time everyone realized that Shastan was doubled over, turning red and clasping his mouth. It seemed like he was about to explode.
“Ladril, is your Southron all right?” Iauros said as he looked at Shastan quizzically. “It seems he’s going through something quite painful.”
“I’ll handle it,” Ladril said flatly. He got up and half-dragged the contorted Swerting out of the campsite and into the woods. He and Shastan kept going until the ranger judged they were far enough away so none could hear, then he said to the Swerting “All right, go ahead and laugh.”
Shastan exploded into laughter, grabbing his sides and nearly falling over. He laughed and laughed, and all the while Ladril just watched patiently. Finally Shastan managed to compose himself and the laughter subsided into giggles, then the giggles eased into a few snickers, then there was silence.
“Finished?” Ladril calmly asked.
“…Quite,” Shastan said, dabbing a tear from his eye.
"Good. Let’s go back, then."
As Ladril led the way back to camp, Shastan couldn’t help but eye him suspiciously. "…You took that too well."
"Did I?" Ladril asked innocently.
"I just laughed at you."
"You’re not mad? Not at all?"
"Now why should I be mad, old friend?" Ladril sweetly said.
Shastan didn’t know whether to remain in confusion or switch to panic, but now they had returned to the campsite and Malbar stood and pointed to the wreaking hull. "Ladril, what are we going to do about this mess? Wadil is sorting supplies, Iauros and I have to cook, and Peladrim has wisely chosen to disappear. We cannot sail unless we get all this muck scraped."
"Hold on," Ladril snapped his fingers. "I just had a brilliant idea! We can get my slave to do it!"
Shastan’s eyes widened as they shifted from Ladril to the packs of river mud. Before he could even open his mouth, Malbar gratefully shoved a piece of wood and a bucket into his hands.
"Go on now," Ladril said cheerfully to the Swerting. "Happy scraping!"
Shastan gave him the most foul look he could contrive and lumbered to the muddy hull, now dearly paying for his delivery of laughter most unwise.
Light was slowly failing. Camp was laboriously prepared while the sun was sinking behind the trees. As Iauros and Peladrim cooked the food and Shastan began the arduous chore of scraping mud off the hull, Ladril was appointed with the light task of fetching firewood.
The ranger entered the thick forest with a feeling of rejuvenation. His health had almost fully returned, and saddling Shastan with a sticky chore certainly lifted his spirits. He let himself wander under the quiet eaves at a stroll, his head clearing and his troubles draining away. The woods were a sight to see at sunset; the trees glowed with an orange tinge, shadows made patterns across the forest floor, moss was red with spattered blood…
Ladril froze. He stared at it a long time, then slowly he bent down. It was…definitely blood, but there were no animal tracks, no remains, no sign of-
It was up ahead that he saw footprints.
Ladril wished he had brought his sword…then his memory caught up and he realized he no longer had a sword. It wasn’t as if he had strength to fight, anyway. The only thing that was surging with energy right now was his curiosity. With his caution and sensibility too weak to refuse, he let himself follow the footprints deeper into the woods.
Other things soon came across his path. A couple of knives, a few stray arrows…then the arrows turned into broken bows, and the broken bows turned into fallen swords. The more weapons Ladril found, the more his pace quickened until he started to run. Suddenly the trees gave way into a clearing and Ladril stumbled into a site of carnage.
A dozen men all told, strewn about the small field. Some were pierced by arrows, some died by the sword, but each body, much to Ladril’s puzzlement, was wearing a sheet of brown canvas with a hole for the neck and head. They looked almost like…costumes. Ladril went to a body, lifted up the flap of canvas, and saw black and ratty garb that was all too familiar.
That was it, then. These men were scouts or spies of Umbar, sneaking up the Anduin and donning canvas in hopes of blending with the forest. Given that dozens of Lossarnach-made arrows now prickled the clearing, it was clear that Gondor had not been fooled.
By the look (and smell) of things, the ambush took place only two days ago. Ladril wished he had been there: sword in hand, in the heat of the fray, extracting revenge for what they did-
A ragged, guttural noise sent a chill up Ladril’s spine. He spun about and saw a body sitting against a large rock in the pale grass. A long knife was protruding from its stomach, but it was still alive…and awake.
As their eyes met the Cosair laughed, cracking the blood that had dried around his mouth. “…Come back to finish me, eh boy?”
Ladril stared, then he realized that a discarded blade at his feet had somehow made it into his hand.
The Cosair noted the anger in Ladril’s face and smiled wryly. “Better make it quick and clean,” He glanced at the knife in his middle. “The last fellow was a bit sloppy.”
Steadily, Ladril advanced towards the Cosair. The memory of darkness resurfaced. The darkness of a tent…questions barked over and over again…strange devices…his fingers stung and his back was on fire. They tortured him. They showed no mercy, so he ought to give none. Those foul, heartless sea-rats tortured him-
But this one didn’t.
The wheels of menace in Ladril’s head ground to a halt and his advance stopped short. The Cosairs had tortured him…but not this one. He wasn’t even in Poros at the time. Why should he have to pay for what someone else did? True, killing any Cosair would make Ladril feel better, but-
His blood froze. Killing…would make him feel better.
When that thought hit, Ladril dropped the blade like a hot coal. The Cosair, who had watched the wrath and fire build up in Ladril’s eyes, was surprised to see it so suddenly die away. His puzzlement grew when he saw the ranger slowly approach him and, after reaching some internal decision, carefully kneel at his side.
“Can I help you with that?” Ladril said.
The Cosair’s eyes tried to focus on him in the confusion. “What?”
“The knife. I could try pulling it out, or I’ve got a healer that could-“
He stopped when the Cosair spat on him. “Stone-man’s trick, that is!” He hissed. “What kind of man doesn’t kill his enemy?”
“One that has learned tolerance.”
“Tolerance means nothing in war, boy! I’ll make pleasantries with you when waves roll backward!”
In his sudden anger the Cosair erupted into a fit of coughs. For a moment it looked like the ragged, heaving breaths would be his last, but he eased back again and his body was still.
Ladril watched him for a while, then said “Can I ask you a question?”
“…If it’s not too painful,” The Cosair replied.
“What is the Black Wave?”
The Cosair managed to laugh. “You mean you don’t know?“
“I know it brought ruin to Harad and Umbar, but I don’t know what it is.”
“You wouldn’t want to know, either.”
“If I didn’t want to know, I wouldn’t have asked.”
The Cosair thought a minute, then shrugged. “Doesn’t matter to me.” He tried shifting position but under the pain of the blade he had little success. “I’ll tell you…providing you do something for me afterward.”
“Agreed. Now what is the Black Wave?”
The Cosair licked his lips. “Thousands of years ago, Umbar and the South were doing very fine. Filth, we were empires. We had shiny palaces, big cities, and all good things. We were a sight to see, once.” The Cosair wheezed a little between breaths. “…But one day a foul wind blew over the sea and a big wave rose up from the West. It brought terror to us all.”
“So it was a tidal wave, then?”
“The wave itself wasn’t the terror. It was what it brought that spelled the doom of us.”
“What did the wave bring?” Ladril asked impatiently.
The ranger hesitated, unsure if he heard right. The Cosair only stared back at Ladril’s quizzical face as he pieced things together. Thousands of years ago…
“What? You mean the Numenoreans?”
“That’s the lot,” The Cosair said sourly. “They came from the West in their fancy ships and shining armor. We should have spotted from the beginning all the trouble they’d bring.”
“What are you talking about?” Ladril said. “The Numenoreans had the wisdom of the Eldar, and they came to your people as teachers and friends.”
The Cosair had to refrain from laughter because of the pain. “Good lad…to be so sheltered from such disturbing things like history! Of course it’s not a story Gondor would want to tell its children-“
“Enough games!” Ladril cried. He could feel uneasiness welling inside him.
“I’m not playing games,” The Cosair stated. “Sure, your fathers were nice and kingly at first. They called us brothers and taught us all sorts of things, but as soon as we showed ’em what we had, namely gold and jewels and wealth, the avarice seeped in like poison in water. Suddenly we owed them for services they never gave us. We had to pay tribute to kings we never heard of. Our gold went on Westward ships and wasn’t seen again. And we weren’t allowed to question, cause they were smarter and they knew what’s best. Finally we got sick of it, gathered a militia, and told ’em to get off our land and hop back on the wave that brought them.” Here the Cosair grinned. “And you know what they did?”
Ladril was too dumbfounded to answer.
“Oh they went away all right,” He continued. “But they came back. They came back with more ships, more men, more swords. They burned our fields and villages. They knocked down our buildings, enslaved our children, widowed our women, and razed our palaces to the ground. They took all of Umbar and turned it into an impregnable fortress. They ladened the Sons-of-the-South with heavy tribute. That was the price you pay for making threats to Numenor, they said. There was nothing but misery for us for the next thousand years. It only ended when the avarice devoured your own kingdom and plunged it into the sea.” The Cosair developed more ragged coughs. “…After that…well, we had been so stricken with death and poverty that we could never build our kingdoms back to their former glory-“
“It’s not true!” The ranger suddenly spat.
“You’d like to think it’s not,” The Cosair said calmly. “If what I told you was just a pack of lies, where did you hear ‘Black Wave’ from? That’s what we call those evil times, named after the foul tide that brought you here in the first place.”
Ladril wanted to shut everything out. It couldn’t be true…not Numenor. They were the highest race of Men. They couldn’t do anything so evil…
Then Ladril remembered the slave mills of Belfalas. He didn’t want to believe that either, but they existed all the same. For all its splendor and wisdom, Gondor had a dark and ugly side hidden in the shadows.
He thought of the Cosair Captain, and exactly what he said when he mentioned the “Black Wave”…
“Is that what this war is about?” Ladril demanded. “Is that why Umbar and Harad are invading Gondor?”
“Of course,” The Cosair said. “You don’t think the Dark Lord just says ‘I summon thee’ and we come barking? We hate him. He’s a smoke-sucking monster. But if it means getting revenge, getting to see how you feel when your villages burn and your castles topple, then it doesn’t really matter who we ally with, does it?”
Ladril was only half listening. He had just established a few days ago that the enemy could carry good men. It never occurred to him that the enemy could carry good motives too. He just assumed that the leaders had evil, sinister plots and the rest…well, came barking. But a nation enduring hurt irreparable and finally getting a chance for revenge…that was just human. That was understandable.
That was exactly how Ladril felt, once.
Every country, whether scorched under a desert sun or impoverished with pirate ports or blessed by the Eldar themselves, had dark sides that needed to be uprooted and lessons that needed to be learned. Wars happened when countries refused to admit that.
It was a major blow to discover that your enemy was not as guilty and your homeland was not as innocent as you perceived. No doubt that was why Shastan never broke the tale of the Black Wave to Ladril…
“All right,” The Cosair interrupted Ladril’s thoughts. “I told you about the Wave. Now you have to do something for me, remember?”
“What do you want me to do?”
The Cosair looked at the knife protruding sloppily from his stomach. “I want you to do it right.”
Ladril blinked. “…What?”
“You heard me. Do it right.“
“No…” Ladril stared at the knife with growing horror. “No… Look, let me get the healer, I’m sure we can-“
“I’ve been dying for two days!” The ragged man cried. “Two days, and it hurts to even move! If I pull the knife out I’ll bleed to death, and if I sit here I’ll just die even slower. I’m beyond saving, boy. It might as well end here and now.” The Cosair glanced down at the knife with sheer loathing. “I said I’d explain the Wave if you did something for me in return. I kept my word…now you keep yours.”
“…You can’t ask me to kill you…” Ladril began.
“I’m not,” The Cosair looked grimly into the youth’s eyes. “I’m asking you to end the misery.”
Ladril stared at the Cosair for a long while. Underneath the agony, the man was thoroughly resolute.
Reaching a decision himself, Ladril slowly rose and picked up an abandoned sword. As he looked at the dying Cosair one more time, with his pained eyes and sheet-white face, the ranger felt his reluctance steadily draining away. He didn’t believe in an afterlife, anymore than he believed in a Maker, but he found himself saying to the Cosair “…I hope your spirit will go to a better place.”
“Better than here,” The Cosair conceded.
As the sun wholly faded from the bleak horizon, black crows scattered from the treetops at the sound of a slicing sword.
“Someone ought to look for Ladril.”
The fire had been prepared, the food had been cooked, and the men were already serving themselves. The forest was darkening in the twilight hours and there was still no sign of Ladril.
“I suppose I’ll go and look for him then,” Malbar said, setting aside his food. “It would be rather futile to ask you, wouldn’t it?”
Iauros, bent over a board in deep concentration, glanced up. “Ladril is missing?”
Malbar sighed wearily and pinched his brow. “I cannot believe in our desperate circumstance you choose to be consumed by a game.”
Iauros looked down at the board. Flat, hand-painted pieces were strategically positioned across richly carved tiles. “It was passed down to me by my great-grandfather,” He said reproachfully. “And it is more a contest of wit and skill between two opponents than a mere game.”
“But you are playing by yourself.”
“Most unfortunate,” Iauros sadly concurred. “Despite years of searching, I have not found a man who understands the rules of play.” He picked up a colored piece and slid it a few squares back. “…Or who has patience enough to learn them.”
“I don’t have time for this!” Malbar picked up his cloak and clasped on his sword belt. “I am going to look for Ladril. Just keep an eye on Peladrim, will you? Peladrim!”
The young lad, playfully trying to fit a finger into one of the rings in Shastan’s hair, bolted upright.
“What did I tell you about touching the Southron?” His cousin sternly ordered.
“If I touch him, I might catch a desert plague.” Peladrim duly recited.
“But Malbar, it’s not as if he’s been in any desert recently-“
“That’s enough, lad. Now give the Southron his food. He eats over there tonight.”
With that the soldier strode off into the woods. Peladrim gave Shastan his plate, muttered “sorry,” and pointed the direction he should go.
Shastan decided something ought to be done about Malbar, preferably in the dark of night with a pointed stick. Of course Iauros wasn’t any better; in some ways he was even worse. But at least he had enough sense to be preoccupied with frivolous objects.
Shastan was half-tempted to sneak away and look for Ladril himself, were his meal-spot not in plain view of Peladrim and Iauros. Such as it was, he wasn’t about to prod at cold meat and shiver all night. After reaching the spot Peladrim had chosen for him, Shastan scrounged for wood and started a fire.
Then, at a moment Shastan could almost time, Wadil arrived with his small dinner plate.
“I say!” Wadil exclaimed when he saw Shastan’s fire. “Did you make that yourself? How absolutely splendid! That’s even better than the fires Malbar makes!”
Shastan hid his proud smile as Wadil sat on a log next to him.
“We should get the other lads to see this. It really is a good fire.” The little man bit into his meat thoughtfully. “And if you could learn to do this, I’m sure you could learn all sorts of things…” An idea took shape in Wadil’s head. With hopeful, beady eyes he pointed at the wood on the fire. “Can you say log?”
Shastan stared at him.
“Lo-g.” Wadil pointed at the wood expectantly.
Shastan glanced at the man, then at the fire. Well…why not? He didn’t want to disappoint Wadil, and just because he was an “ignorant slave” didn’t mean he couldn’t learn anything, right?
Shastan slowly raised a hand and pointed at the wood. Feigning great effort he said
“Excellent!” Wadil clapped his hands with delight. “How about fire?“
Shastan furrowed his brow. “Fy-e-er…”
“Not to worry. That’s quite all right.”
“Thasqitollrite,” Shastan piped.
“Well done!” Wadil was genuinely impressed. “Can you say my name? I am Wadil.”
“I-m Wa-dil,” The Swerting responded.
“No, no, that’s me,” The stout man patted his chest. “That is my name. What’s yours?”
Shastan looked at him quizzically. “…Lo-guh?” He said.
Wadil pointed at him and asked “Who are you?“
“Whoare yoo?” He mimicked.
“We’ve been through all that. I’m Wadil. And you are…?”
“No, no, we cannot both be Wadil!”
Wadil stared at him for a moment. Then he chuckled, and began laughing. It was hard for Shastan to refrain from joining him. Wadil the Agriculturalist laughed so hard that he nearly fell off his seat.
At this time two figures came into the clearing. It was Malbar leading a very dazed Ladril. All the color had drained from his face and he wore a very disturbed expression.
“Ladril, over here!” Wadil motioned to him as he wiped a tear from his eye. “Where have you been, son? Everyone was worried.”
“I’m sorry if I worried you,” Ladril said. “Everything is fine. I just…got lost, that’s all. I was looking for firewood and I got lost. I know you are concerned and you want to ask questions, but please don’t ask about it right now, all right?”
Wadil tilted his head. “Are you feeling well, Ladril?”
“What? Of course I am. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Only, you were talking to the Southron the whole time.”
Ladril paused as he looked from Shastan to Wadil, then his head jolted. “Oh. Right. Sorry. I’m just…a little tired.” He turned to Malbar. “If you would be so kind as to direct me to the tents…”
The soldier led Ladril away, leaving Wadil and Shastan to watch them in puzzlement. The small man then turned to the Swerting with a raised brow.
“And I thought you were hard to understand,” He said.
“Ollrite?” Shastan replied.