In the distance they could see many small fires burning, campfires that the troopers had kindled to heat the water for brewing their evening tea or strong, pungent coffee. The three men rode their mounts into the field where the horses of the regiment stood tethered to picket lines. The area smelled of horse urine and dung, of grain and an almost overpowering aroma of horse medicine.
Tooraj dismounted his horse and waited for the other two men to turn their horses over to him. "You are dismissed," Captain Kourosh said to them. Sergeant Daungha and Tooraj saluted him, and after returning the salute, the captain walked away, deep in thought. Tooraj, usually a cheerful fellow, always quick to jest, was quiet tonight.
"I hope," he said awkwardly, "that... that..." and then his words came out in a rush, "that you are pardoned and no misfortune befalls you!"
"So do I," said the sergeant quietly.
"The horses..." he said in embarrassment, "I must tend to the horses."
Sensing the youth's discomfiture, Sergeant Daungha said, "Aye, best that you do."
The sergeant watched Tooraj as he walked away, leading the horses. After unsaddling and unbridling the animals and tying them to the picket lines, he noticed that Tooraj did not tarry at the line.
"He is uneasy being around me now because he saw what happened earlier," thought the sergeant. Relieved to be left alone, he listened to the sounds of the camp and the splashing and gurgling of a small stream that flowed down somewhere out of the foothills of the Thrihyrne. The Easterling thought it good fortune that there was ample water nearby. Much of the territory between Khand and Nurn held scant water and only scattered pasturage. Now, with the long months of drought and darkness, parts of the realm of Rohan had begun to resemble that land.
Tonight there were other things on the sergeant's mind and they did not concern the abundance or scarcity of either pasturage or water. "How can the careless placement of streams that feebly flow down the foothills of the mountains make any difference now? What does it matter to a condemned man whether there is tea or coffee, and why would it make any difference if there is sufficient honey, date molasses and spices with which to flavor them or not?"
Still it might be just as well to enjoy the last few comforts that were remaining to him while they lasted. He was in disgrace and knew the only consolation he had was that he had not been publicly humiliated in front of the men and stripped of his rank. At least Captain Kourosh had not asked him to relinquish his sword. Sergeant Daungha was grateful to the captain for that boon. All that would come soon enough when they reached the main army, Sergeant Daungha reflected glumly.
As he made his way towards his company's campfire, he knew that he had to get his mind off such thoughts. He exchanged greetings with the men who were sitting around the brightly glowing fire and then eased himself down to the ground into a cross-legged position.
"Perhaps you would wish some tea, sir, spiced the way you like it?" a young orderly asked politely. "Akh, that would do nicely," he answered absentmindedly.
"Just a few minutes, sir, and I will fetch you a cup," the orderly replied.
"Go ahead," the sergeant mumbled, not really caring, and he put the thoughts of the tea and the orderly out of his mind. He sat there, looking into the fire, and in the flames, he imagined he saw glowing red knives.
The orderly walked away from the circle of the fire, and after taking a cup from a box, he returned and poured a cup of tea for the sergeant. "Here you are, sir."
"Narnûlublat." Sergeant Daungha took a drink from the earthen cup.
It was always recommended that the officers and men speak in Black Speech as much as possible, for after all, the Great One had designed the language. Sergeant Daungha and his men preferred their own native tongue, for they felt it more melodious and sonorous, and it was dear to their heart. Some of the men even gave Black Speech the dubious epithet of "orc talk" when they were among themselves. Several men in his company sat around the large fire talking or gambling, drinking tea, coffee or wine. The sergeant had always made it a practice that, when he was on a campaign, he would never drink wine until the day that the foe was bested. Then he would drink himself until he was too besotted to walk.
Others had gone to their bedrolls and were sleeping. Many men, restless, still lay awake, thinking about such things as how soon their horse would need to be reshod or whether the saddle blanket had not been smoothed properly over the beast's back and a sore had developed.
Lesions on an animal's back always called for an application of the horrendous, foul-smelling concoction that horse doctors called "sweet elixir of healing." The aroma was more the smell of something decaying than it was of any unguent that would bring healing. The sergeant had always wondered if some dark sorcery had gone into the making of the ill-scented salve. The mixture certainly smelled as though it had been formulated in the dark lair of some man or woman who used magic to create the mixture and then sold it to those whose horses were in dire need. Captain Kourosh had always laughed at this tale and said that the compound was nothing more dried roots and berries mixed with rendered lard from some unknown beast. The composition probably would never actually be known.
Sergeant Daungha listened to the muted laughter, banter, and songs of his company. He was proud of his command and fretted at how the company's numbers had been greatly reduced during the past year. Many had fallen at Pelennor, never to sit around the campfire and sing songs of the East again. A number of the old company who had managed to survive still had barely healed wounds from the South. The sergeant had been lucky at Pelennor and had received not so much as a single scratch. "Mayhap my luck has run out at last," he reflected. He had often been the victor in games of chance, and his men considered him favored by good fortune. After a night of throwing the bones, he had oft added many a copper and sometimes even a silver coin to his money pouch.
After the travails of the journey from Eastern Khand, the company's livery was ill-used. Then after the battle, much of their garments looked worse than the clothing of nomads who had been caught in a sandstorm in the waste spaces in Khand. There was scarcely an officer or man who had mail and weapons that were left undamaged or whose livery had not been rent. Others who had lost cloaks or tunics had "requisitioned" bloodied replacements from the bodies of corpses. Indeed, no longer were they the splendid sight that they had been when they had left Khand, but what they lacked in appearance, though, they more than made up for in dash, spirit and audacity.
Sergeant Daungha thought about Captain Kourosh and knew that he would be, as was his wont, surrounded by a group of men around his campfire. The captain was, no doubt, elaborating upon the words of some sage of olden days who had written about the structure of each grain of sand contained in a rock. Only the other night, Sergeant Daungha and other officers had sat, gathered around the captain, while he posited his theories about whether or not there might be some tiny, unseen indivisible particle which made up the composition of every living creature and thing in the whole world. Some man, wise and well versed in numbers, long years before had put forth the idea of a cipher in numeric notation to represent the concept of nothing, or, as it was expressed in the Mordorian Numeric System, "nar." Captain Kourosh's discourses were always astute and provoked many to ponder upon matters that he never would have considered himself.
Many times Captain Kourosh's interpretations and ponderings and reflections were far too lofty for the sergeant to understand thoroughly. Always they provoked thought and gave the sergeant cause for contemplation. He hoped that the captain did not feel too harsh towards him now for his indiscretion, for he valued the soft-spoken philosopher's trust, as did the other men in the regiment.
All the men were off duty tonight save for those who had been detached as pickets and were now patrolling the outer periphery of the cavalry camp. Corporal Babak had not been feeling well for the past few days and had been excused from the duty.
The corporal was a small, dark-haired man, hardly out of his teen years. Though it was scarcely more than half an inch long, he was proud of the fine beard that he was cultivating, and he groomed and oiled it almost every day. The young corporal would have been handsome with his two long metal-tipped braids on either side of his face and long, dark hair flowing down his back, but a large growth had swollen above his left eyebrow a few months before. Besides causing him pain, the tumor detracted greatly from his appearance. He, like the rest of the Easterling cavalrymen, used kohl to highlight his dark, flashing eyes, but lately he had worn none, for he wished to call no more attention to himself than was necessary.
Corporal Babak walked over to where Sergeant Daungha sat, and, after asking permission, sat down near the sergeant.
"How are you feeling tonight, Corporal? That eye still troubling you?" asked the sergeant.
"Aye, sir," the young man said. "It has bothered me some, but nothing more than I can take."
"When we join the main army, corporal, you must see one of our surgeons. They are greatly skilled in the procedures of surgery, far more so, it is said, than most other physicians in the lands to the East," the sergeant said proudly, "and definitely far more so than the infidels to the West!"
The corporal, in spite of the fact that he was in pain, still retained his droll sense of humor. "Perhaps the penalty for failure gives the surgeon more desire to devote himself to studying the methods of the great surgeons, and then when he wields the instruments, he does so with more care."
"Aye," said the sergeant, "you might have something there. The judgment against a surgeon who is guilty of carelessness, causing the patient either to lose his eye or to die, would be to have both his hands sliced from his arms!" He laughed grimly.
The corporal joined him in the wry humor. "Then he would be without hands and I would be without an eye, or perhaps dead. Who is the worse off? Of course, there is a deterrent for both - the patient to seek his aid or the surgeon to operate!"
"An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," the sergeant said. "That is the old law of the traditions handed down to us from our ancestors. The judgment is harsh, but it makes for highly skilled surgeons."
Sergeant Daungha doubted that the surgeon who would be called upon to geld him would be either skillful or kind. The initial dismay that he had felt upon hearing Captain Kourosh's harsh pronouncement of, "You are under arrest," had passed. Now Sergeant Daungha just felt benumbed. He could scarcely believe that he would be tried for disobeying the harsh directive when the regiment rejoined the army.
Noticing the sergeant's mood seemed subdued and grim, Corporal Babak turned to him, a concerned look upon his face. "Sergeant, you do not look very well tonight. Is something ailing you?"
"Nar, nothing." He remembered his cup of tea and took another drink.
"Sergeant, rumor has it that Sergeant Utana and a troop will be dispatched in the morning to go aid the orcs guarding the slaves on the journey to Minas Tirith." The corporal paused. "You were there in the camp tonight. Is something astir?"
The sergeant's throat suddenly constricted. "The tea is too strong tonight," he gulped as he threw the contents into the fire. An erratic thought came to him. "Those who steal honey from the hive get stung by the bees, and I have thrown away the family jewels for just three kisses! A high price to pay indeed!"
The corporal leaned closer to him. "Sergeant," he pressed, hoping for some interesting news, "did the orcs get out of line tonight?"
"Nar, corporal, the captain was just taking extra precautions, I think."
"Well, it is not my place anyway, sergeant, to delve too far into the affairs of officers." The corporal again looked closely at the sergeant and noticed there were beads of sweat upon his forehead. Since the growth had appeared above his eye, the corporal had become overly concerned with ailments and diseases. He now wore many charms, talismans, and even a pouch of vile-smelling herbs about his neck. The corporal had spent much of his small earnings to pay a man in the company who, in great, swelling words and mysterious incantations, had assured him that these things would surely "ward away all evil."
"Mayhap the sergeant has been cursed with some sort of calamity, like the Pox," Corporal Babak thought, "or the Plague. The leprosy of Eastern Khand is ill enough. Who knows what evils may befall us in this foul land? Akh, this place may prove more ill-omened than the East!" The corporal stroked the charms about his neck nervously.
"Sergeant, your color is not at all robust tonight," said the corporal. "I hope your health will be restored to you soon!"
"Corporal, I am not ill," Sergeant Daungha said, perplexed.
"I meant nothing, sir! I was just concerned."
The corporal had become sure that the sergeant was coming down with the plague or leprosy. He no longer felt at ease sitting in such proximity to him.
"Now I must be going to my bedroll," he said quickly. "Tomorrow will be a long one."
"Burz tor, pizgal," said Sergeant Daunga. "May the might of Mardu, Spirit of Light and All Destiny, guard you against demons that prowl the darkness!"
"And you, sergeant, may you be protected! Burz tor." The corporal hastily retreated, rubbing the amulets once more for good measure.
Sergeant Daungha's muscles felt cramped sitting there so long. Rising to his feet and stretching, he walked towards his bedroll.
"Sergeant Daungha," Tooraj said as he moved into the light of the campfire, "the captain wants to see you."
"Now it comes," the sergeant thought as he felt the heavy hand of doom descend upon his shoulders. "All for a maiden and three stolen kisses," he thought, "a maiden who will remember me with nothing but hatred!"
"Of course, Tooraj," he said as he joined the youth and headed towards the glow of the captain's fire.
Captain Kourosh sat reading a dispatch by the amber light. Without looking up, he said, "Get him a cup of tea, Tooraj."
The sergeant saw Tooraj's look of sympathy before the lad bent to pour him a cup of tea. "Here, sir," Tooraj said as he handed him the cup. Taking it, the sergeant stood there, feeling like a felon under scrutiny before the dock.
"Narbûlublat," Sergeant Daungha said.
"Take a seat, sergeant," Captain Kourosh's soft voice said. He noticed the sergeant's solemn face. In a voice so low the sergeant could scarcely hear it, the captain said, "Tooraj saw all that transpired, but his lips are always tight. What you have done is still unknown beyond us and will remain so until we reach the army. On the morrow, you will take charge of your company as always and ride at the head of your company. When we rejoin the army, I will, in person, submit my report to the Lieutenant, and then the matter will be in his hands. I will say everything in your favor that I can say. You have a good record, and I trust matters will not go so harshly on you, but I cannot say, sergeant. The Directive is very explicit in its language and leaves no room for argument, but I will do all I can for you."
"Thank you, sir." The sergeant thought he could discern a note of compassion in the captain's voice, but the captain was always impassive, impersonal, when he discussed military matters. The sergeant sat down and looked into his cup of tea, the contents as dark as his thoughts. When he drank, it seemed the liquid was not at all comforting like it always was, and the taste seemed bitter.
"I had already talked to the other commanders tonight before I summoned you. All have given me an account of their companies' travel, the state of their men and horses, the tack, when they estimated their horses would need to be reshod and the remaining rations and all such matters as pertain to the well-being of a company." Captain Kourosh sighed. He felt fatigued and his muscles ached. He stretched, one of the bones in his spine creaking. "A long day's ride; a longer ride ahead," he thought.
"I trust that the companies are in good fettle," the sergeant said, making conversation more than anything.
"As well as could be expected, although none of them have quite recovered from the battles in the South. And your company, sergeant, how fares it?"
The two men sat and sipped their tea. The sergeant had nothing extraordinary to report about his company, only the usual matters of how many men were sick and how many horses had to be destroyed because of irreversible lameness or injuries.
"If my estimations are accurate," the captain said, "we should rejoin the army in six to ten days. Then," he looked at the sergeant, "battle will be almost certainly imminent, if it has not already been joined." He sighed again. "No couriers have been sent to us with any news, and as of yet, we do not know what is happening." The captain turned to Tooraj. "Tooraj, I would appreciate if you would see about my horse before you go to bed for the night. The stout beast is still favoring the injury he sustained at Pelennor."
Tooraj smiled and said, "I will look after him, sir. All he wants, perhaps, is a little company. He seems to have grown quite fond of me."
"Narnûlublat, Tooraj," the captain murmured.
The captain dismissed Sergeant Daungha and Tooraj and wished them both a good night's sleep.
The sergeant left the campfire and walked to the outer edge of the camp. After relieving himself in the long ditch that served as a privy, he went to the spot that he had chosen as his sleeping place. Putting his blanket down on a piece of canvas that served to shield him from the dampness of the ground, he lay down on it and rolled himself up in the warm covering. Exhausted, he quickly fell asleep, and then he dreamed.
Captain Kourosh, Sergeant Daungha, Corporal Babak, Tooraj and all the men of this regiment of Khandrim cavalry come from the Far East in the realm of Khand. This region is not found on some maps of Middle-earth, which only go as far east as the eastern eaves of the Ash Mountains. However, Middle-earth is much larger than this, and these men once lived on one of two rivers which flow to the sea. Many of the names of the characters are taken from ancient languages of the Mid-east.
Though Middle-earth became a round world after Númenor was drowned, still all maps portray it as a flat surface, not taking in mind the curvature of the earth. Therefore, distances are skewed, and the whole of Middle-earth seems much smaller than it actually is, especially in the east. Comparing the Second Age Map of Arda found on pages 38-39 in The Atlas of Middle-earth by Karen Wynn Fondstad to the map of today's world, these two rivers in Eastern Khand are in approximately the same location as the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. The eastern seacoast of Middle-earth seems to follow the border of Iran and Pakistan, though Pakistan is under the water. Afghanistan seems to be the easternmost point upon the Second Age map, the rest of Asia not yet having risen from beneath the waters.
History notes: The quote, "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," comes from the Code of Hammurabi, c. 1780 BC. Hammurabi, a wise king who ruled Babylon from 1795-1750 BC, codified existing laws and incorporated them into this magnificent code, the earliest known record of a system of laws. Though the penalties were severe, the law was remarkable for the time, giving certain rights even to slaves. The position of free women in this society was one of dignity and protection under the law. The penalty for the surgeon is taken from the above code of Hammurabi and is a true and accurate record of surgical skills and penalties suffered by surgeons guilty of malpractice.
"Mardu" is a version of the name of the High Babylonian God Marduk, a fertility god and ruler of all creation (later called Bel).
In the days when Christianity first became a prominent religion of a country, the Christian God was worshiped along with the other gods that were pre-existing. In this Alternative Universe, the hypothesis is that, over time, men would forget more and more about Eru and the Valar and adopt local and tribal deities. Then there are also the Sauron and Melkor cults. An interesting mix.
Akh - Yes
Nar - No
Narnûlublat - Thank you
Burz tor - Pleasant evening