Beasts of Burden
A storm is coming.
Darkness hangs over the forest heavily, drenching the thick green canopies in pelting rain. The rain has been incessant for many days and nights, and now I begin to smell thunder in the air. I could not have chosen a better time to visit this unwelcoming realm.
I trudge on slowly, thick layers of mud burying me up to my calves. I stumble; a soiled hand reaches out to grab a tree, to catch my fall. A hitched breath catches in my throat. Instantly, a burning sensation in the inflamed tissue spreads throughout my throat and mouth. I swallow hard, but choke on the swollen flesh.
Panting heavily, I lean for a while against the tree, flat and miniscule in the rain. How I wish I could climb this tree and fall asleep among the branches. Curled into a little ball, resting in safety, away from the danger of spiders and orcs. But I do not make a move to climb, and remain still under the menacing clouds. At first I chose not to, because spending the night in the rain would make me undoubtedly too ill to travel any further; now I cannot, because I am too weak to drag my body upward.
Where am I? I look around dizzily. Burning heat interferes with my line of vision; dark trees and thick mud are all I see, and they are blurred together. Not only am I ill, but now I am lost. Or perhaps I have been lost for many days now. I do not know. I have lost track of the days. Drifting in and out of fevered sleep – I have traveled day and night, taking what chances of rest I could. But now I do not rest, do not sleep. For one blissful moment of sleep would prove to be eternal.
Although that idea does have a certain appeal.
Shaking my head, I move on. Dragging my legs out of the dirt, only to dip them into another puddle of mud – my body groans and creaks, and my head screams. The world is swaying, but I know that it will only get worse. The trembling weakness, the agonizing heat and pain, have been spreading throughout my body with a vengeance in the past short hour. So I do not stop. I cannot.
I step into another puddle of mud, and halt as a sharp stab of pain flares through my body. It seems to have come from my calf hitting a submerged rock of some sort, although I cannot tell for sure – the entirety of my oversensitive body is racked in hot tremors of pain. Knowing that it will only get worse, I move on, gritting my teeth, fumbling in the dark. I fall several times into the mud, for my vision is blurry and wavering. I know that I cannot go on much longer.
The thought of death had not occurred to me when I entered this forest. But now that it looms near, I know that it is a matter of time until a spider or a band of orcs finds me. I should have better prepared myself with herbs, allowed myself more rest – but no, my mind was desperate, my body agitated beyond patience. And so now, the ranger has come bumbling into the dark, rainy forest of Mirkwood, lost and alone, and deathly ill.
I lean against another tree. Another breath catches in my swollen throat. Gasping, I turn my head to see the track that I have made so far. The tree I had rested on so long ago looms so near. So near.
I am not going to move very far through the night.
And yet, yet – I must go on.
For what I continue on, I do not know. My mind is slurred, my memories fragmented – I cannot recall coherently. Only in fevered dreams do I remember all too clearly, and jolt to consciousness. And wearily start my travels again, for I wish to put off the dreams as much as possible. I know, I am running away. Running away into the depths of this tangled darkness. But there is only one person, glowing in the heart of this darkness, who can save me. Free me from these nightmares. So I go on, like a selfish fool that I am.
Lightning strikes overhead. I gingerly take my hand off of the tree. In my heated state of mind, it barely occurs to me that standing near these colossal trees of the ancient forest is not well-advised during a thunderstorm.
I briefly wonder what hour of the night it is. But I soon shake my head and slowly begin to walk again. It does not matter. I will most probably not make it through the night.
A strangely comforting thought, that.
It is quite contradictory for my desperate struggles to be backed by such an attitude, but they are. I know that I will die sooner or later, either by the fell creatures of the night or by my raging fever and exhaustion. Either way, death is imminent, death is sure. And how relieving it is to know the time of one's death. It is only a doom that I had warily looked forward to for a very long time.
I trip into the mud again, and this time, my haggard body refuses to obey the call to rise.
Clutching the mud with brittle hands, I grit my teeth, another raging wave of fever and nausea overwhelming me. My eyes water as I pant for air; the misery is intolerable. How I wish death would simply come. And yet I cannot sit here and wait idly for death, for that would be doing him further wrong.
Ah, I remember now. I remember why I am headed into the cavernous depths of this forest.
I had come to find him. To beg him to see me, to forgive me. I do not know if he will allow me to stand before him again; I do not know if he will allow me to look at his eyes instead of his silent back. I do not know if he will allow me to hear his voice, the smooth and melodious voice that ever whispered comfort and courage into my doubtful ears. I do not know, for he and I have never before parted thus.
No, wait – we have. We had once parted with tense words exchanged between us – rather, my harsh words and his silence – before being separated by force. I remember now. When I found him again, he had forgiven me.
But there can only be so many second chances.
A wry smile surfaces on my dirtied face as I pant heavily in the merciless rain.
I am afraid. Afraid that his heart has been too wounded to see me, too betrayed to speak to me, too resentful to forgive me. Oh I am so afraid.
But greater than this fear is the fear that I should let another day go by without seeking forgiveness.
My heart pounds in my ribcage; my head spins wildly. My long-purged stomach is twisting into a painful knot. Nausea rises again.
I am so afraid – afraid that I have wounded my dear friend, that I have let my blindness taint a pure soul with the darkness of my heart. That he would think that I had not bothered to think twice about my words, which had pierced him so cruelly.
Sluggishly, I pull my body up and stand with effort. As soon as I raise my head erect, the nausea hits full force, and I feel cold sweat breaking out under the drenched layers of dirtied clothing. My heart thumps wildly; I can feel blood draining from my face. The world sways so dizzily now – I cannot walk without bumping into tree after tree. I suppose one must be thankful that these are trees I am walking into, and not cliffs.
With renewed determination, I take a step forward. And then, another. And another.
And then, I am spent. I shudder and collapse into the mud, sinking limply into the dirt as lightning flashes overhead. Even the heavy raindrops are now painful to my skin.
I try to get up once again, but strength has left my body. I grit my teeth. I cannot move much more, but I must make the last valiant effort to go to him, to at least show him through my shredded corpse in the morning that I had at least died in the effort. Heir of Isildur, son of Arathorn, the future king of men – all of these titles are useless, thrown to the mud; if I cleave this storm and fall at his feet, drawing my last breath in a plea for forgiveness, that death will have been more worthy than all the lives of the countless names I carry. And so I attempt to move once again, determined to prolong my end just a bit longer – until the moment in which I can no longer take another labored breath.
Lightning flashes once again. I reach out and grab a nearby rock. The jagged edges cut into my skin, and red blood smears into the sea of dark brown mud – and gritting my teeth, I rise once again. Quite a feat, if I do say so myself.
The thumping inside my head worsens as I take step after step upon the lurching ground. The heat throbs so painfully – and the nightmares return, as vivid as they are when I am drowning in fitful sleep. I shut my eyes, and stand still. The images remain, and the voices scream into my ears; I cannot make them go away, and so I quicken my pace, trying to outrun them.
Foolish, I know, trying to outrun nightmares. But that is how one feels, if one has had enough. I would know.
So I run. And the voices follow.
It is always mine. Always my voice that is raised in harshness. I feebly shake my head, begging the memories to fade. But they do not.
Those eyes. Those clear blue eyes, so innocent, so knowing; so young, so ancient; so bright, and so sad. Those eyes had looked at me, and I was too young and too hotheaded and too much of a child to understand them. No, they had not looked at me – they had looked into me. And when encompassed in the depths of those blue pools, I am helplessly lost. Strange, how it seems to be that I am always the leader, the older – and yet when he lets that lucid clarity surface in his eyes, I return to being a lost child. And he remains unreadable.
Now those eyes haunt me, those undecipherable blue storms that surface in his seemingly innocent eyes when I unleash my young fear and uncertainty upon him. Those eyes that silently regard me, before I turn away. Because when he looks at me with those eyes, I cannot stay by him. I cannot bear the weight of the light. So I run, ashamed.
And it is always he, always the silent receiver of my verbal lashes, who comes to find me.
He apologizes, and asks for forgiveness. Sometimes I wonder why. Why he seeks my forgiveness when it is so clear that it is I who should be seeking his forgiveness. It has always been this way. And I have been too prideful, too young and confused, to ever attempt to reverse the pattern.
Perhaps he is letting me have my youthful human pride. After all, the old and wise always let the young win.
Or perhaps it is something else. He is too kind, too pacific, too gentle-hearted to let feuds stand, and to watch me seethe in anger and self-hate.
My friend, I am too foolish, too low to be worthy of you. And yet I come, seeking the solace of your forgiving eyes once more, seeking escape from my deep self-loathing.
I stumble through gnarled bushes. Bloody fingers tighten around a branch of a nearby tree; I refuse to fall. Slowly gathering myself, I once again resume my staggering gait. My eyes are hazy, and I cannot wade out of the memories. And so I continue to escape, to run to my light of salvation.
It had been different this time.
This time, he did not watch me with those wild expressive eyes as I stormed out of the room. He did not come after me with soothing words of apology on his lips, to smoothen out my fear and anger. This time, he was the one who left. Had looked at me with those indiscernible tempests in his wild blue eyes, and silently left the room with his usual grace. And how I had cried, had howled in pain as I was left alone in the room, too afraid to go after him, too afraid to look into the betrayal and disappointment in those eyes. How I had tossed and turned in my restless nights, the image and the voices replaying themselves over and over again. My frenzied shout, and his ancient, wild eyes. And his silent departure. And my tears.
I am a fool. I know.
A fool for having waited this long to come after him, somehow hoping against all vain hope that he would come to me as he always had. That he would hold out his hand and clasp my shoulder. That he would ask for forgiveness, and smile. Take it upon himself to repair the bonds of friendship that I so often thoughtlessly frayed. But all that came to me was the wind, a shadowed whisper bearing news of his grievous injury on his way home. That he had been deeply wounded, and yet did not turn back – that he stubbornly continued homeward, refusing to look back. And I had burned. Like a madman, I had burned. And set out in frantic pursuit. Having realized my mistake too late, I had blundered blindly into this deadly territory, and now I fall upon the ground, laughing at myself like a lunatic. Can't I be granted a sweet pardon of death, without his eyes haunting my vision till the end? But no, that would be too merciful.
A cackle is heard overhead. I slowly raise my eyes. A pair of glittering eyes stares at me through the dark. Ah, so an orc has found me. I slowly sit up, but my body fails me. I fall to my side, gasping for air. Pouring rainwater stings my eyes. I curl up on the cold ground, realizing for the first time that I had been shivering madly all along. And it adds to my misery.
The orc slowly bares itself before me, certain of my helplessness. I am too weak to raise my sword; I am too weak to even sit up. So I watch him, a light smile lingering on my lips, as I await my death. At last.
I will finally be free, free from the many names that bear me down, the many responsibilities and fates that suffocate my existence. I will cease to be son of Arathorn, heir of Isildur, or Estel the hope of man, or any other heavily-laden creature of the earth. I will be free. And if there is a corpse of me remaining, at least he will know that I had died while seeking his forgiveness. This death is most satisfying. I close my eyes.
A harsh, strangled cry mingles with the rain.
I flinch, sensing uneven footsteps dancing wildly around me. Since when did orcs do a victory dance before a meal? I open my eyes warily and blink a few times to clear my blurry vision; the ground sways too much for me to see clearly.
But I do recognize a circle of orcs, baring their teeth at me – no, not at me. Something else. Higher.
I raise my head a bit further, curiosity gaining the upper hand over my body's screaming protests. Before my prostrate body stands a tall figure draped in dark green. I cannot tell for sure in the dark. When lightning flashes again, I see a gleaming stream of pale hair. A lone elf, standing alone amid a circle of orcs. And unarmed, too. I can see that his back is bare. Without bow and arrow, it is virtually impossible to defeat all of these orcs in hand to hand combat – unless the elf is an unparalleled warrior like him.
I lay my head down, exhaustion getting the better of me.
Ah, my friend. I did wish to see you again. When I die, the wind shall carry me far away, away from the many shadows that bear heavily upon me. And unburdened of my anxious despairs, I shall go to you in spirit, and free the pure, untainted laughter of the young Estel that you had never known. And we shall be friends again, and love each other without the thorns of my predestined fate scarring your gentle heart.
Screeches ensue, and tearing sounds of battle rage around me. I wish to raise my voice, to yell above the sound of the battle, tell the elf to leave me be. To save himself. But my throat is too raw and swollen for the sound to come. So at last I give up, and hope that the elf sees the hopelessness of the situation. Perhaps he will go away, if he sees that I am dead.
Death is close. I breathe out into the cold night. Such comfort, this darkness. Though my body is still trembling from fever and pain, at least the image and the voices are gone. For that alone I am grateful. Peace is coming.
I do not know how much time has elapsed. When I groggily drift back into consciousness, I feel a fierce tugging at my shoulder.
Ah...that voice. I know that voice. Or am I hearing things?
I slowly raise my head, but my blurry vision can make out nothing. Only darkness. I blink, and rainwater beats against my eyes. Slowly I see a dim outline of a shadow. A shadow, and a swirl of darkness. Has he come to take me to the Gate? I relax my body, willing him to take me freely.
But the shadow bends over me, and I see a splash of red and black smearing a faint tint of gold. The grime is being washed away by the never-ending rain, but the bright red staining his body is insistent. A burning fire that dances among the darkness.
The figure swiftly unclasps a cloak from around his shoulders, and drapes it over me. It is warm. Strange, that warmth should remain despite this miserable rain. I curl into the cloak gratefully. At last, the comfort. But the shadow continues to torment me.
"Get up," he says again, sternly and almost harshly. He pulls at my shoulder once more. I groan, silently begging him to take me, to end my torment. I cannot walk to the Gate alone.
However, a slender arm encircles my body; I am faintly aware of warmth throbbing from the arm. A smudge of red. I frown. I have not been injured. Whose blood is this? Or is it fire? Strange thought, I know, but my vision cannot tell me otherwise.
The arm grabs me, and jerks me upward. With a stifled cry, I rise to my feet. My body wishes to resist, but the shadow gives me no respite. The swirl of darkness becomes more black, more frenzied. The arm pulls me forward, and as I take a step, I cannot see the ground I tread. I feel as if I am wading in a muddled pool of black.
The rain suddenly hits me loudly. My ears are reawakened by a roar of thunder. Listening to the howling raindrops, I slowly move forward, unwillingly dragged through the reeling world by this blood-stained shadow.
I look around, squinting my eyes, and see a blurry outline of dark bodies scattered in the mud. So this unarmed shadow has unleashed his dark fury upon the fell creatures. I slowly lurch forward, nausea hitting me again full force, but the arms reach up and grab me, preventing me from the fall.
"You must walk," he says urgently. I recognize the tenor voice, more clearly than before. I know him. I do.
And all of a sudden, my knees give way.
I sink to my knees, frail body collapsing against my will. My breath comes in staggered gasps; the impact of realization hits me with blissful oblivion. I have found what I had come for. It is enough; my body begins to slump against the soil. I wish to rest.
But he does not let me have my peace. He always was full of energy. "Get up," he says again, a gritty edge to his voice. "You must walk!"
My kind savior, let me be. Let me have my peace.
I ignore his call and sink lower into the ground. If I just close my eyes here, and let the blissful darkness overcome me, I can be free. I shall no longer be the hope of the Dunedain, king of Gondor, the exiled ranger. I shall no longer be heir of Isildur, or son of Arathorn. I can shed my many layers of shadows and rise high to the clouds, don't you understand? I can be free. And I shall come to you as a breath of the wind, and laugh with your clear, ringing laughter, and smile without care in my eyes. I shall run and fly among your woods, and bask in the sun, and embrace you freely after we hunt together. Have pity, and grant me this gift. Give me my peace.
"Get up, child of man."
I grit my teeth, and open my eyes. My feeble limbs scream as I try to move them, but I ignore the pain and try to move again anyway. I am left with no choice.
He always did know the right things to say to me at the right time.
He does not call upon the hope, or the curse. He has pierced the many layers of darkness covering me, lifting me up with his call for a simple child of man. I have welcomed death, I have tried to escape the burden. But he has penetrated all of the entangled shadows with his call, and I cannot disregard it. I have no choice but to respond.
And torn away from my burden of titles, I am free and defenseless. A simple beast, unburdened and naked, grateful and ashamed. For I have wounded this kind creature from behind my shield of despair and pain that comes from the burden. I am stripped of my defenses, and his eyes pierce into me as he bares me unflinchingly to the center of my guilt and shame.
My dried lips move in a whisper as I struggle to stand.
I have done you double wrong, for I blamed all upon the birthright that I myself have defied. But my friend, forgive me, for I shall hide behind my burdens no longer. If I injured you, it was the simple child of man who did you wrong, not the guilt-ridden and confused hope and curse. And the child of man shall ask for your forgiveness in all humility. I shall hide no longer.
Forgive me. I do not think I will survive the night.
I pant as he half-carries, half-drags my limp body along the mud. His lithe frame is staggering under the burden that I am, and I suspect that his uneven gait is not entirely due to my weight alone. My vision is a bit more focused now, and I can see bright red seeping against his dark form. I try to call his name, the warm, beautiful name that has formed at my lips so affectionately, so many a time. But my hoarse throat produces no sound; my mouth is burning and dry.
Finally, after what seems like an eternity, we come to a stop. I try to clear my head, but the world is still swimming around me. I doubt we have walked more than a few paces. He bends down, and slides away from my sightline. It seems as if he has melted away into the churning land. Thus I stand alone in the rain, staring at the waves of scenery that lurch around. What a beatific sight.
Just as quickly, however, he glides back into view. In his hands are a few dark leaves of wild herbs. They sway too much for me to recognize them. I stare blankly as he holds them out for me. They are drooping under the weight of rain.
"Chew," he orders.
I slowly open my mouth, but only a gagging sound escapes my throat. It is too swollen for me to swallow, and my jaw has been clenched tight and long. My body is too weak, and my head spins too wildly. Seeing this, he puts the herbs into his own mouth.
Watching the intense concentration on his face as he chews thoroughly on the raw bitter herbs, I slowly sink to the ground again. I long for respite.
However, before I can completely reach the ground, he reaches out and grabs my arm. His eyes are hard, piercing through the dark. He does not allow me to rest. If I sink down, I probably will never get up again. And the telltale blood is too dark on his clothing now for him to pull me up any more.
So despite my body's desperate yearnings, I remain standing.
The concentration on his face is almost childlike, so focused...I smile slightly, in spite of myself. He would have been called adorable had I not been so ill in body and spirit alike.
He looks at me, and spits out the contents of his mouth onto his palm. His stained hair sticks to his face and neck like drenched thread.
"Open," he orders.
I obediently open my mouth, but my parched lips do not open far enough. My jaw has been so tightly clenched that I cannot coax any further movement from it. He reaches out and gently pries my mouth open further, tilting my head upward. I feel like a small child in a healing ward as he gently places the crushed herbs into my mouth. Rainwater floods in, spreading the bitter taste of the leaves. I close my eyes against the dark sky, and press my cracked lips together. With painful effort, I swallow the herb water.
Satisfied, he wraps his arm around my side and once again leans my weight onto himself. But I slip from his grasp, for thick red blood coats the length of his body. And more blood continues to ooze from his wounds, wherever they are hidden, and dampen his feet. I collapse limply, and his body struggles to hold onto his burden, and is dragged down with me.
"Get up," he orders fervently, pulling me upward. But his grip betrays his harsh commands, for I can feel strength waning from his hands.
I shake my head. The world spins. Faster and faster. Then darkness comes.
Leave me. Give me peace.
"Get up," he orders again, his blue eyes glittering ferociously in the dark. His voice is a hiss. "Arise, child of man! Get up!"
Tears sting my eyes.
Ai, my kind elf, how long have you traveled alone with your injuries, heart cloven in two? How long did it take you to find me in the rain, as blood seeped from your unattended wounds?
I do not deserve such cruel kindness. Return to your palace, and heal your wounds. Go and save yourself, and let me rest. I want my peace. Grant me this last reprieve.
The voice viciously tears into my foggy consciousness. He tugs savagely at my shoulders again, pulling me upward. I look up feebly, and warmth mingles with the rain that rolls down my face. I am weak. Bowing my head in shame, I struggle feebly against the numbness that overwhelms my senses.
"Arise." The voice is harsh, unforgiving. "I cannot carry you. You must walk on your own. Get up!"
After long moments of feeble effort, I finally rise again with his aid. I grit my teeth and again put myself at the task of walking. I cannot ignore his desperate call – I cannot make him call me any more. I cannot keep him here, alone and injured, laden with a burden of a dying man that he refuses to leave in the storm. I cannot deny him his wish after what I have done so many times to him.
So I walk.
Why did you come, sweet elf? Why did you come to me, alone, in the dark of the night? Why did you risk your life to come to me in this unforgiving storm? Why do you continue to hold onto this burden, this heavy weight that suffocates your precious last breaths?
I look at him, sadly. But my eyes no longer see him clearly. They are dimming.
His body is breaking under my weight. But his eyes glitter with blazing determination as they meet mine.
"I will not let you die before my eyes," he whispers fiercely, helping me place one foot on front of the other. "I will not let you die like this."
I choke back a sob.
If only I could speak. If only I could part my lips and move my tongue and ask you to forgive me. If only you would let me fall to my knees, so that I can clasp your knees and weep in shame. If only you had not tugged at me with such burning ferocity, if only you had not dragged me through the storm in your own blood. If only you would grant me peace.
"I will not let you die." His voice is quieter, but he looks intently into my eyes. Slowly, my fickle vision returns – barely – and I stare back. I am lost in those blue pools – I cannot understand them, I cannot read the tumbling young storm that rages in those eyes. But they are kind. "You will live, my friend."
Tears fall warm against my muddied face, a sharp contrast to the cold rain. I bow my head.
And we trudge on, a heap of mud and blood, as thunder roars overhead. He stops in his tracks. I raise my head in askance, aware of my dimly beating heart. My body is giving way. But I struggle to live.
He taps my shoulder, and I see, half-dragged in his arms, the dark outlines of majestic gates looming in the distance. Rhythmic beating of hooves hit my ears; dark figures appear from among the trees, galloping toward us from the castle. They are calling out; their bodies glow with luminescent light akin to the bright blue brilliance that suddenly flares from the gates. Radiating in all majesty, the rune-engraved gates slowly open.
He drags me forward with light of determination shining in his eyes. The weakening arm tightens around me, sliding against a thick pool of red blood.
I obey, and continue to move, hold myself up against his slippery red body. An exhausted sigh escapes my lips, but I cling onto his breaking form, refusing to fall. Cling onto the battered body that refuses to let me fall.
And thus we struggle onward, toward the powerful light that beckons.
I close my eyes. Heir of Isildur, son of Arathorn, Estel the hope of Dunedain – all of these heavy titles will have to weigh down upon me a bit longer. For I shall not die today. Against all yearnings to be free of my burden, I have forsaken my peace, for one elf has called me friend. And he has wished for me to live.