20. The Wheel of Fate
Chapter Written by Angmar
"Oh, Tarlanc, that is so horrible!" Elfhild cried, edging closer to her sister. "Dezi must have been a terribly frightening man!"
"Aye, lass, though he had the mind of a child, he was a monster," Tarlanc stated frankly.
"Tarlanc, there is something I do not understand." Resting her chin upon her hand, Elffled leaned forward and gazed up at him.
"What is it, lass?" Tarlanc asked, his gray eyes reflecting his puzzlement.
Straightening slightly, she tilted her head to the side and put a finger to her lips. "Why did Dezi's broken leg not heal completely?"
"But it did, lass. The leg healed, but never in his mind."
Elffled's hand fell to her lap and she stared at him, an utterly bewildered look upon her face. "You mean the bones knitted together and the leg was mended?"
"Aye, lass. That is what the healer told the family, but Dezi refused to believe him. He had let his mind fester too long upon all the imagined wrongs that he was convinced that I had done to him. He accused me of taking Tabahanza from him and even blamed me for his broken leg. All the venom in his mind concentrated at one point - his leg. He would not accept that it was restored, and he walked about using his crutch long after he had need of one."
"How awful," Elffled murmured, shaking her head.
Elfhild sighed heavily, her shoulders slumping. "What a pity to be so consumed by hatred."
Tarlanc paused a few moments to meditate on what he would say next. "Although I was elated that the proof of my love for Tabahanza had taken root in her womb, I found that my mind continued to be oppressed by dark, brooding fears. Wherever I went and whatever I did, I could hear the dire warning in my mind - 'Flee! Flee north!' There was no comfort or solace for me, for I could tell no one of the fear which ate at my very soul. No longer did I consult with my mother-in-law, for upon that dear woman's face there was written her own sorrow. The depths of the crystal were still clouded with the turbulent storms of a malevolent fate." A look of sorrow crossed Tarlanc's face, and he reached down to pat Haun's head.
"With each passing day, the warning to flee north grew stronger and stronger, and though I drank myself many times to insensibility, no amount of wine or ale could silence the ominous voice of doom." He swallowed hard. "One afternoon whilst shoeing a horse in the smithy, I heard the doleful cadence pounding in my head with each tap of the hammer. When I was finished, I lay aside the tools of my trade. I had made my decision: I would return to the north with my wife as soon as I could make the preparations.
"As I watched Wedri working at the forge, I pondered what I would say to him. Why was I leaving the tribe in the middle of winter? Surely he would think I was insane! Before I could bring up the subject, though, we heard a commotion outside. A Randirric youth had just galloped his steaming, sweat-lathered horse into camp. We left the smithy and joined the crowd that had gathered around him to hear what was the cause of alarm. The boy's words came out in a frantic rush as he relayed the direst of tidings. With trembling voice, he said that he had been returning from 'plying the art' in the city of Linhir when he came upon an accident along the road." A slight smile softened the solemnity of the miller's face. "If you have not already guessed, the boy was up to a bit of thieving in the city, much like the recent work of two fair lasses."
"We had guessed that," Elfhild giggled, a knowing look upon her face.
"At least he was better at it than we are," Elffled put in mischievously.
"Aye, lass," Tarlanc chuckled softly. "The boy was never caught, and he had been at it since childhood. Now where was I?" He scratched his head. "Sometimes I am a trifle forgetful."
"You had just told us that a boy had seen an accident on his way to the Randirric camp," Elfhild reminded him.
"Ah! Now I remember," Tarlanc muttered. "As the youth explained it, a local farmer and his son had been returning from selling pigs and chickens at market day in the city when their wagon hit a deep rut in the road. The cart was old and ramshackle, and the impact splintered a spoke on one of the wheels. Perhaps they were in too great a hurry - I never knew exactly - but the young man tried to lift up the side of the wagon while his father replaced the wheel with a spare one." Tarlanc sighed heavily. "Unfortunately, the young man had more muscle than sense. As he was lifting up the side of the wagon, the cart had shifted, knocking him to the ground and pinning him beneath it. The father was too old to do anything for his son, and when he saw the Randirric boy approaching, the old man hailed him down.
"Promising to bring back help, the boy left them, not sparing the whip as he galloped back to our camp." A brief flash of light illuminated Tarlanc's shadowed face as he lit his pipe with a burning splinter from the candle. "Lasses, while the Randirrim are sometimes unscrupulous in matters of business, they are not a wicked people. After some discussion, the men decided that a cart was needed to transport the injured man. Xabe, a lame man who could no longer ride, offered his wagon for the task if someone would help him harness his team. Wedri agreed to assist him and told us that they would come along later. Moved by the plight of the young man, the rest of the men saddled their horses and quickly galloped away. My own concerns were temporarily put aside, and I went back to tell my wife goodbye. Tabahanza had to settle for a hurried kiss before I rode away to catch up with them.
"As my horse raced over the frozen ground, I thought about the wisdom of leaving Tabahanza if only for a little while. I tried to convince myself that we would quickly free the boy and be on our way again. 'She will not really be alone,' I told myself. 'The other women will be close by.' I tried to justify my actions and concentrate upon the boy whom I was riding to help.
"Even before we reached the scene of the calamity, we could hear the boy's agonized groans and shrieks. Such a heart-rending sound!" Tarlanc closed his eyes and pressed his hand against his forehead. "Sometimes in the silence of the night, I can still hear him screaming..." Shuddering, the miller tried to drive the dreadful memories from his mind. "When he saw us approaching, the father came to meet us, begging us to save his son.
"While some of us lifted the wagon off the boy, Pere and another lad pulled him to safety. The injured youth reached up a trembling hand and feebly mouthed the words, 'May the Valar bless you,' before falling into a faint. None of us were healers, and we could do little for him as we waited for Wedri and Xabe. At last they arrived, and while the other Randirrim loaded the unconscious boy into the cart, Wedri called me aside. I noticed that his face was almost as pale as the injured youth's.
"'Son,' Wedri whispered, 'did you see how the lad was barely breathing? There was a froth of blood at the corners of his mouth... An evil sign! I reckon that his chest must be crushed, and he is bleeding inside! He is as good as dead right now... probably will never wake up.'
"'Yes, I fear you are correct,' I mumbled. 'There is not much we can do for him. I doubt even a healer could help him.'
"'I have been considering all this, and I almost wish that I had never agreed to send any of my men to help him!' Wedri shifted nervously, and I saw fear etched upon his weathered face. 'That boy is not one of us, and is none of our responsibility. I will not allow him to be taken to our camp, because when he dies, the Gondorians will very likely blame my tribe. As chief of these people, I will not have that! He must go to the city.' Wedri looked at me as though I might disagree, but I could see the reason in his words, and so I nodded my head in agreement.
"'Wedri, I can understand your position, but why are you telling me this?' I asked apprehensively, for I felt that he was about to ask me to do something unpleasant.
"'Because you are a Gondorian!' He almost shouted as he gripped my arm tightly. 'You are one of them and you can speak that damned Elf talk the way they do! I want you to go along with Xabe and explain to those people that we did nothing to the boy or his father. I do not want any trouble because of this.' His dark eyes were filled with raw terror as he looked up into my face. 'You will tell them all this, will you not, son? Think of Tabahanza and the child!'
"'Wedri, I cannot do it,' I told him quietly, not wanting to become involved in the situation but still not wanting to agitate my father-in-law any more than he already was.
"'And why not, Tarlanc? Why can you not do this?' He gripped my arm so hard that I winced in pain, but he was wild with panic and impervious to my discomfort. 'Ashamed to let the high and mighty Gondorians know that you have bedded and bred a woman of the 'lesser men?' Do not want to be shamed in the eyes of your kinsmen?' His eyes blazed with desperation.
"'Wedri, that was beneath you,' I replied as calmly as I could, although I was greatly offended at his cruel barb. 'You know that is not true. I am proud to be accounted as an adopted son of the Randirrim and that I have married one of their lovely women.'
"'At least I can be glad of that,' Wedri remarked dryly, a chilly smile on his face. 'Then what is it? Why will you not go?'
"'The journey would take too long, and I am worried about Tabahanza. I promised her I would be back soon.' From his attitude, I was certain that Ahãma had not told him anything of the prophesy of the crystal. It was impossible for me to tell him now, for I had given her my word, and to break my promise was a breach of honor.
"'Is that all it is?' Wedri's face lost its tenseness and he chuckled. 'Fretting about the baby? It is always that way with the first one. When Ahãma was big with the twins, I catered to her slightest whim. Once I was up half the night with her, for she was sure that her water was about to break. My restless night vigil was for naught, for her distress was caused by nothing more than flatulence. The child did not arrive until weeks later! Tabahanza will be all right, son.' He gave me a friendly slap on the shoulder. 'It is you I am worried about.' He laughed heartily at his joke and looked around at his men for approval. Their laughter irritated me even more, for I was thoroughly angry by this time.
"'Surely Xabe could explain all this.' Brushing aside the laughter, I glanced at the driver of the wagon, who looked back at me in surprise.
"'Me?' Xabe tapped a finger against his chest. 'I am no good with words, only with horses! Every time I speak in front of a lot of people, I start stuttering! I will surely make a fool of myself before these foreign people!' Acquainted with the man almost since I had first come among the Randirrim, I realized how foolish had been my suggestion, for Xabe was indeed backward.
"'Tarlanc,' Wedri remarked, growing impatient, 'you see that you are the only one!'
"'Is there no one else?' Desperately, I looked around to the assembled men.
"'I have explained all this to you before. The Gondorians suspect us of every mischief, from stealing to sorcery. You are one of them, and so the people of the city will believe you. It is your duty to go! Do not worry about Tabahanza; she will be fine in your absence. Now go so that you can return before night.' Giving me another pat on the arm, Wedri retrieved his horse, which had been tied to the back of Xabe's wagon, mounted up, and grinned at me.
"Unwillingly I consented. After bidding them farewell, I hitched my horse to the wagon and climbed into the seat beside Xabe. Rocking back and forth and moaning softly, the old man sat beside his son in the back. I folded my arms across my chest and stared resolutely ahead.
"Xabe was a kind-hearted soul for all his backwardness, and he drove the wagon slowly so that the man and his son might not be jostled. Nothing I could say would hurry him along the road. When we arrived at Linhir, the gates were about to close for the evening, and there was a long line ahead. Riders, carts, wagons and people on foot blocked the road and made it impossible for us to enter the city. Cursing at the delay, we waited until the traffic ahead of us had thinned. I called to one of the guards at the city gates and asked where we might find a healer. Looking us over dubiously, the man came swaggering out of the guardhouse.
"'I see by your outlandish dress that you are Randir,' he told us as though the word tasted foul in his mouth. 'What is your business in Linhir?'
"'This man has been seriously injured in an accident.' I gestured with a nod towards the back of the wagon.
"The guard moved closer. 'And who is this man with him?'
"'His father,' I replied, none too pleasantly.
"'Can he not speak for himself? Is he an idiot?'
"'No,' I bristled. 'He is not simpleminded, but if you had any wits in your hard head, you would see that he is occupied with his injured son!'
"'Is that right?' the guard challenged as he stepped up to the back of the wagon and peered down. 'And who are you who speaks with such an impudent tongue?' He flicked his head back towards me.
"'Tarlanc of Anórien,' I replied. 'Now tell us where we may find a physician. This man is nigh onto death.'
"'Nigh onto death? Most likely dead already from the looks of him,' the guard laughed coldly. 'If you insist on seeing a physician, drive straight up this street until you come to a crossroads. The road to the right leads to the Street of the Healers.'
"'Then our thanks to you and good evening.' I motioned to Xabe to move the wagon ahead.
"'Just a moment now.' The guard sounded irritated. 'The driver has permission to pass through to the city, but not you. Not yet anyway.'
"'What do you mean?' I challenged him.
"'Get off the wagon!' The guard walked closer and brandished his spear at my chest. 'Men, to me!' he called back to the guard station. 'There is a troublemaker here!' Before I could reply, two large fellows had stepped to the heads of the team and gripped the reins. I had no choice but to climb down and follow the guard. Casting a nervous glance towards me, Xabe cracked the whip over the horses' heads, and the wagon lurched forward.
After being searched and relieved of my dagger, I was taken to the guardhouse and brought before the captain. A stocky man with a reddish face, the captain looked me up and down disapprovingly from behind his fine mahogany table. Beside him sat his secretary, a sharpened quill pen in his hand. A long, miserable hour awaited me as I was bombarded with endless, repetitious questions. The minutes passed by as slowly as the time it would take for a lame turtle to make its tortured way through a field scattered with rocks.
"'Tarlanc,' his eyebrows arched, 'you say that is your name?'
"'Aye, Captain.' I replied respectfully, watching his secretary take note of that in a leather-bound book of parchments.
"'Very well then. And you say you are eighteen years of age and are from Anórien, the son of a miller in the service of Lord Caun?'
"'Aye, sir, that is what I said earlier.' The guard to my right could barely conceal the contempt he felt for me.
"'Your trade is smithing, yes?'
"'And you are an honest man?'
"'I would hope so, sir.'"
"The captain interlaced his fingers together and took a long look at me. His next words were as sharp and unexpected as death creeping up unawares, and I involuntarily jumped. 'Then what the hell are you doing associating with the Randirrim? Initiating them into the ways of civilization and good manners, perhaps?'
"'No,' I replied, 'that is not necessary. They have both already. If you will remember, I explained all this before. I ran away from home when I was fourteen years old. Their chief took me in and he and his wife brought me up. Before I married their daughter, I was adopted into the tribe. I am an honorable man, Captain. Perhaps I do not look it, but I am.'
"'Well, Tarlanc, if that is indeed your name, the Randirrim have a poor reputation in Linhir. Whenever they are in this area, they come to the city and steal everything they can get their filthy hands on. If they get half a chance, they seduce our women with their honeyed words and lying lips. Noo,' he rolled the word on his tongue, 'we do not like the Randirrim, and it is my fervent wish that an edict be passed forbidding them to camp anywhere near our city.' He began tapping his fingers on the edge of the table. 'You have taken a wife from among them. What kind of man are you to beget a mongrel upon a Randirric woman?'
"By that time, I was sure that the captain would have me whipped and thrown into the gaol, but then a guardsman came in to the room bearing tidings for his commander. The captain looked almost disappointed as he read the parchment. When he had finished, he looked up at me. 'Tarlanc, it appears that you were telling some part of the truth, at least about the unfortunate farmer and his son. They are indeed of Gondor. Now the boy,' he paused. 'His chest was crushed horribly, his lung punctured, and he bled to death internally. Poor fellow, from the sound of it, he never could have survived.' The man shook his head sadly, looked down at the parchments in front of him, and then back to me. 'You are a strange one. You dress like the Randirrim, you smell like them, you live among them, you say that you have produced a half-breed on one of their women, and you expect me to believe that you are not one of them?'
"'Aye,' I replied, keeping my voice as respectful as I could, well aware that he had taken a strong disliking to me.
"'Then prove it to me. If you can pass a test, I might free you.'
"'If I can, sir. What is the test?
"'Recite the tale of Lúthien and Beren in Elvish. Do a passable job and I will free you. Fail, and you will be spending a long time in our gaol.'
"'Captain, do you jest?'
"'I have never been more serious in my life,' he replied, his face as solemn and stern as any judge.
"I laughed then, not caring if he had the power to cast me in prison or not. The task he had set before me was an easy one, albeit unpleasant. I did not tell the captain, but I hated the poem, for when I was a boy, my father forced me to learn the ancient rhyme by heart. Whenever I stumbled over a line, he would order me to pull down my breeches so that he could whip my bare buttocks with his belt." Tarlanc listened to the twins' appalled murmurs and then continued.
"I was smiling when I told the captain, 'Though I am a dirty, filthy, thieving Randirric son by adoption, I can handle the task which you have set me most easily. Surely you could have found a more difficult one.' At first I began to recite slowly, calling upon memory almost forgotten. Though my throat was dry and I was licking my lips like a thirsty dog, by the time I reached the part about Tol Sirion, I was caught up in the poem and did not stumble over a single stanza.
"The captain's eyes widened and he stared at me like an old owl. Finally he exclaimed, 'Enough! I am amazed. You have passed the test, perhaps even better than I could have done. Have a goblet of wine, Tarlanc, and settle your throat. The draught will be payment for entertaining me. Perhaps I should have had a lute player accompany you. You did as well as any bard who earns his bread by his recitations.' The sarcasm dripped from his words like vinegar poured from a jar. After I had finished my drink, he ordered, 'Now get out of my city and return to your precious Randirrim!'
"Bowing to him, I bade him farewell and followed the guards out the door. As I walked with them back to the city gate, I had a mad urge to sing the Lay of Lúthien at the top of my lungs, but better judgment prevailed."