*Disclaimer: All characters and situations herein are property of J.R.R. Tolkien.*
|| Wisdom's Thrall ||
| Part I |
The food spread before me is rich in mockery of an honour-feast: hearty bread and cheese, fine wine from the cellar of the Master himself. Yet it hitches in my throat, loathsome to me, and it is with difficulty that I force it down, covering my grimaces with coughing. For it is not fed to me as fare for a guest, for a nobleman of the House of Hador as I am-- nay, it is fodder, fodder for the thrall-beast that I might work to my full strength. Fodder, and I must swallow it meekly, silently, my head bowed before the Easterling who paces around the slave table, a whip coiled at his belt and the cruelty he was nursed on building smirks on his swarthy face.
I must bear his arrogance in silence, as I do the brutality of Lorgan. I must bear the welts leaking raw at my sides and on my hands-- he is careful with my back, for it must bear the heaviest loads. I must gnaw the cattle-feed from the trough, though my insides churn with revolt. I must bear it-- must bear this burden-- this burden that is wisdom.
Though many seek it, wisdom does not come without price, and often in exchange demands the submission of pride. Some think pride a weakness; yet in bleak times pride can be one's only strength.
I must hope that I will find the same fortitude in wisdom. In this place, pride will betray me to death.
My coughing has drawn the thrall-master, and he stands across the table from me with arms folded. He is not a man of exceeding stature, but he appears so for his frame is large, his shoulders broad and his neck thick, corded. His hair is dark, cut roughly about his head, and his eyes no less, keen and cutting. His clothing is worn and stained, an oily smell of sweat and blood clinging film-like to his body. The sheer presence of the slave-master sends most bowing-- with fear or with nausea, either pleases him-- and when he speaks to you, an answer means certain death.
But I am the personal slave of his master. A young man, nourished tall and vigorous by the Grey-Elves of Mithrim, and no sickly child of Dor-lÓmin. A beast still, certainly, but a valuable one.
"Hold to your health, Strawhead, for without it you are worthless," are his only words to me, curt and low.
I fix my eyes on the dull wood of the table surface, my breath cutting hard through my clenched teeth.
If slaves had tongues, Master KhamÛl, oh, such names we would give you . . .
In his silence he still stares down at me, contemptuous, appraising, and my left hand curls reflexively into a tight fist. A jarring pain shoots to my brain and with a small gasp I release the fist, gingerly opening my palm. The thin bandage is stained with rust-- prying back a corner, I find the flesh underneath glistening, yellow fluid seeping from the welt. I turn the bandage up and close my eyes, slowly working my mouthful of meat between my teeth.
If I could only chew forever, and never swallow, I might be able to stand it . . .
With a small grunt of satisfaction KhamÛl's shadow passes from my face, his heavy footsteps disrupting the dirt floor. I feel the tense shoulder of the slave next to me gradually ease into a slump, and open my eyes. With my tongue I push the meat against my cheek, mimicking the other slaves' slouch as I glance up. KhamÛl skulks at the other end of the room.
So I have held myself in place. Again.
But will I be able to do it again? And again, and again, and again?
The taste of bile claws at the back of my throat. I must, and so I will-- there is no more to it than that. I will hang my head, be silent, and submit, until . . . until I can do it no more.
And when I can do it no more?
Then I will run. I will run before my mind is broken. I will not let them break me.
My neck aches. I know not why and do not care to, but allow my head to hang forward in an attempt to ease the pressure. A lank of hair falls in my face, dull and greasy. It is foul to me and I am repulsed, knowing it to be my own. My fingers flail to catch it-- they never stop trembling now-- and I push it back, impatiently. I find a face watching me and raise my eyes to it, peering from beneath my brow.
The slave next to me gazes back, listlessly, his jaw moving with the rhythm of a pacified cow. He dips his chin to take another bite of his bread, eyes unmoving. His hair clings about his face in grimy tendrils, tumbles into his eyes, and still he does not blink, does not seem to notice. As he does not notice the dirt encrusted under his fingernails, ground into his calluses. As he does not notice the insect which crawls across his plate, nor the wine which his unsteady hand spills into his lap.
I wonder if he sees me.
Feet pad lightly from behind me. I turn from the slave, chin to my shoulder as though I continue to stretch the muscles of my neck. It is a dog that has entered the room, one of Lorgan's hounds-- a lanky beast of russet-sheen, with eyes that watch me warily as its nimble feet pick a cautious path of approach.
It looks soft, and clean, and I find myself wondering absently what it smells like. It seems a long time since I have seen anything so beautiful, so alive. Longer since I have touched . . .
I reach for it with my hand-- too eagerly. The hound snarls, mouth curling back sharply from gleaming fangs, graceful back arching as the hackles raise on its neck. Its feet skitter sideways, away from me.
Hastily, I turn my hand over so that my palm faces the growling dog. Abrupt frustration swells inside me and tears prick hotly at my eyes. I grind my teeth together, trying to blink the tears away. What base creature am I, to feel such desire to touch a hound? Nay, not a desire-- it is a need, a craven need.
"There now-- there now, lad," I murmur, and my voice is dry, barely audible, an ache in my throat. Five words and I am short of breath. I wet my lips, tongue edging cautiously against the swelling of a split. I lower the hand, fingers pointing toward the floor to show no threat, and my arm quakes with the effort to hold it there.
The hound shuffles forward, snuffling at me suspiciously. Without taking my eyes from him, I reach behind me with my other hand, fumble until I feel the moist folds of meat between my fingers. Slowly I bring it back, laying it in my open palm. The hound shies away at first, but catching the scent ventures forward again, rubbing his black nose against the warm flesh. His mouth opens and eagerly he snaps it between his jaws, eyes darting up to meet mine.
"There, there now," I say again, for suddenly I cannot remember how to form any other words in this language, my language-- it is the tongue of slaves now, a feature of shame and degradation.
The dog's head lowers as hungrily he devours the slice of meat. I hold my breath and tentatively rest my fingertips atop his head. The fur offers no resistance to my first short, light strokes-- but through my calluses I can feel little. I spread my fingers, laying my palm over his head-- oh, and he is smooth and soft, like-- like things I remember.
Like a hand, white and Elven-slim, that stroked my cheek but softly to wake me.
The hand that seized me, struck me, drew me urgently from an approaching band of Orcs and Easterlings.
I hunch closer to the hound, my hand sliding down his back as I bend my face to his neck. I inhale deeply, filling my nostrils with the scent of his fur-- fresh and sharp, hints of pine and sap blending with the animal's own peculiar odour. I squeeze my eyes shut, trying to force back the tears that sting there once more.
"Stay," I whisper to the dog, for I remember that word. It was the last Annael spoke to me.
Annael taught me wisdom, this wisdom that governs my life now. They are wise, the Grey-elves. They will not fight, not without great need-- they will not stand to face a stronger foe for the sake of righteous pride, not when they have a chance for escape. They do not rush to fight uselessly, hopelessly, against that which they cannot defeat.
No, it was I who did that. They fled.
And as Annael taught me to fight, now he has taught me to flee. He stayed not by my side-- I, the man-child he fostered and raised-- he did not stay when my blood ran hot and I ran to face the foe alone. He did not stay, for he is wise, and a wise leader does not sacrifice his people for the sake of just one, even one that he loves. He fled with his people, my people, and I love him for that, for what he has taught me.
I dread the day that I am so wise as to abandon my child to capture and death.
"Haldad!" It is a command, harsh and sudden.
The hound ducks, cringing out from under my hand even as I jerk it back, startled. A whimper escapes from the jaws which only minutes ago were thrust out in violence, and with head low the dog backs away from me, slinking against the wall toward a man who stands in the doorway.
That is what I will be in time. Snarling at friends and grovelling before my master, faithless for the wage of food. That is what they will make me. Tirelessly they will beat me, beat me with their clubs, their whips, their scorn-- and when the pain and the rage of futility have broken my mind, then with the chains, with the burdens, with the labour they will break my spirit, until I too crawl upon the ground, my nose to the dust. And crawl I will, for no pride will I allow to raise me up and hold me in place for the points of their spears. I will become a beast for them, a beast of burden.
For what does the Master have to fear from dumb beasts? Beasts do not have feelings-- beasts have no pride. They wield no weapons. They do not plot or conspire, they have no thoughts of the future. A faithful beast earns his master's trust where even a faithful servant cannot.
And yet a beast's true master is Instinct . . .
When I can take it no more . . .
Can a Man discern between what is wisdom and what is instinct? Perhaps they are not so different. Will I retain my humanity-- will I as Man control the beast, or truly become it? Perhaps we are not so different.
I twist my shoulders, returning to face the table. I swallow the meat in my mouth, tasteless pulp that it has become, and this time I do not choke. But before I am able to take another bite, KhamÛl's whip writhes above us, splitting the air with its sharp, black snap.
"Enough!" his thick voice leaves the same sting as his whip. "You have eaten all you need. You are workers, not swine. Swine have no place here-- they are slaughtered to be feed for the hounds." A cruel smile twists his mouth awry. "Or the slaves. There is little difference, eh, Strawhead?"
His eyes are fixed on me, iron-hard beneath his jutting brow. I concentrate on his eyebrows-- they are dark and unkempt, much like the rest of him, streaking toward his temples like black tongues of flame. There is a white stripe from the arch of his left brow-- strange that I have not noticed it before. Like the tail of a skunk . . .
"I said--" The slender tail of the whip cracks against my ear-- warm blood runs down my neck. "There is little difference between the slaves and the hounds. Do you not hear me? Are you deaf, slave?" Another biting lash and my other ear is flooded. "Did you hear that?"
His eyebrows are slowly pushing together-- now they meet solidly in the middle, a single straight line of raven fury. But the band of white extends downward, pointing at the corner of his eye. I watch a bead of sweat take shape on his temple. I watch it run down to the pit of his cheek.
"So his head is truly filled with straw," he says at last, rough with loathing. He turns from me, to the slaves lining up dumbly beside the door. "File out to the fields," he orders, winding his whip back at his belt. "Get up, Hador-filth, or you will spoil the food with your blood."
I grip the table edge, trying to gage the strength in my legs as I rise. The blood drops sticky to my shoulders now, and I hear the slave master's commands only faintly for my ears ring still with the crack of the whip. I shuffle for the door-- but I am not quick enough for him, and he shoves me so that I fall into the slave in front of me. The ringing in my head increases.
When I can take it no more . . .
Even beasts may go mad . . .