One Who Ran"So desolate were those places and so deep the horror that lay on them that some of the host were unmanned, and they could neither walk nor ride further north.
Aragorn looked at them, and there was pity in his eyes rather than wrath; for these were young men from Rohan, from Westfold far away, or husbandmen from Lossarnach
-The Black Gate Opens,
Return of the King
Ragged breaths. My lungs burn. I must continue running, stumbling, whatever it takes to get as far away from the terror which I saw, and breathed, which so utterly changed me from a proud, but scared, youth of the Mark, to nothing more than a hare scrabbling across the ground to find a place to hide.
I loathe myself. Others stayed, though yes, others fled as well, but they went with dignity, and I don't care about their ends, their reasons for not staying to fight. I could not follow the grey-eyed commander, I turned away. Horse's mane! I didn't turn away, I raced away. It was too much. Everything was death, yet worse - you knew that once there had been life, and it had been utterly decimated. Hate and fear surrounded me, was in my nose, my blurred vision, in the very dust that coated me.
He looked sadly at us, those unable to keep going, and there was pity, too. That is the worst of it, worse than the bloody blisters on my feet, worse than the pains in my side.
I deserted him. Them. Others remained. Why couldn't I keep my feet following in their footsteps?
Every stride is laboured now, but I must go on. Must go until I can find somewhere in this life-forsaken, desolate wasteland.
At last. A tree.
I stop for a moment, leaning over shakily, my hands resting on my knees, trying to force myself to take some deeper breaths. This must be done. I am a traitor. A deserter. The time for going back, for reclaiming my honour - the honour of the people of Rohan - is over. It is done for.
I limp forward and even now, many hours' journey from those hideous grounds near the very source of evil, I can still sometimes hear a cry - no, more a terrifying scream - from one of those death-birds. Were my blood not so hot from running it would be chilled as snow water.
I am close now. It is not a big tree, but it will do. Gasping, I slow, then collapse on my knees, head on the ground. It doesn't bear much shade, but its branches will serve.
Those grey eyes haunt me. Why did he grant us pardon to leave? Why not yell at us to stay and fight, vow that we were lower than worms for turning away, even if he did grant another task? That message I could have borne, for the unspoken part is true. There is no snake hole deep enough now for me to crawl into.
But pity, that I cannot. I do not deserve life after this. I failed my comrades-in-arms, my people. Me! I know that I am but seventeen, but I survived the unreal waves of orcs at Helm's Deep. I vomited regularly, to be sure, but yet I followed King Théoden. Why, when put to this test, did I fail?
I can sit up now, and I take from around my waist the one thing that I have always worn as a belt - a long horse's strap.
It must be done. It is all I deserve.
This seems like an old ritual that I have known from childhood, and yet I have never seen anyone do this, but I know I must. I unlace my leather vest and place it to the side, then pull over my head the filthy garment that at one point was an embroidered tunic. My back bare to the dim sun, I get up on my knees, and with the strap in hand, hit myself across the back with it.
Stinging. Not enough force. I breathe in, then send it whistling through the air again across the other shoulder blade.
Again and again, I whip myself. What other way to pay penance for my desertion, for my fear, for
I flagellate myself until I can do so no more, trying to scourge from myself my weakness, to be honorable even after such an aberration. The Rohirrim do not run from anything.
The leather belt is on the ground, glistening with blood. I tilt my head, thinking briefly of those who I will never see again, but I know that they would understand. I was going to die anyway, it is only that this way is alone, instead of being cut down behind the grey-eyed lord.
Better for him not to see.
I put one end of the strap around my neck, and knot it tightly, wincing as I do with pain from the slashes on my back. Knots I know- I grew up with horses, as we all did. I climb up a few branches, just enough, as I am tired. I sit on one and tie the other end to the branch above me - looks sturdy enough. How odd to think with such a calculated mind, but I am not prepared for further humiliation. This must be done properly.
I sit for a few moments on the branch below, looking out at the utterly barren land, then cast my eyes toward the skies. There are a few carrion-birds circling up, far away. Surely they are feasting, and I shall simply add to their meal.
In a moment of self-pity, I look higher, and beg that the spirits of the horse-lords will take me soon, that whatever small spark of honour I once carried will be allowed to join my kin as stars in the sky.
Then I fall, and swing.
"'Go!' said Aragorn. 'But keep what honour you may, and do not run!'"
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