Кирилл Еськов: The Last Ringbearer

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The Last Ringbearer: краткое содержание, описание и аннотация

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© 1999 Kirill Yeskov, © 2010 Yisroel Markov (English translation), For non-commercial distribution only

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No indeed! We are not strong,
But we know Peoples that are.
Yes, and we'll guide them along
To smash and destroy you in War!
We shall be slaves just the same?
Yes, we have always been slaves,
But you – you will die of the shame,
And then we shall dance on your graves!

Rudyard Kipling

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

Winston Churchill

Part I – Vae Victis[1]

“Gold is for the mistress – silver for the maid –
Copper for the craftsman cunning at his trade.”
“Good!” said the Baron, sitting in his hall,
“But Iron – Cold Iron – is master of them all.”

Rudyard Kipling

Chapter 1

Mordor, Hutel-Hara sands

April 6, 3019 of the Third Age

Is there a sight more beautiful than a desert sunset, when the sun, as if ashamed of its whitish daytime fierceness, lavishes a bounty of unimaginably tender and pure colors on its guests? Especially good are countless shades of purple, which turn dunes into a charmed sea – don’t miss those couple of minutes, they will never happen that way again… Or the last moment before sunrise, when the first light of dawn interrupts in mid-movement the staid minuet of moon shadows on the lacquered hardtops – for those dances are forever hidden from the uninitiated, those who prefer day to night… Or the never-ending tragedy of the hour when the power of darkness begins to wane and the fuzzy clusters of the evening constellations suddenly turn into prickly icy crumbs, which by morning will rime the bronzed gravel of the hamada?

It was at such a midnight hour that two men moved like gray shadows along the gravelly inner edge of a sickle-shaped gap between two low dunes, and the distance between them was exactly that prescribed by the Field Manual for such occasions. However, contrary to the rules, the one bearing the largest load was not the rear ‘main force’ private, but rather the ‘forward recon’ one, but there were good reasons for that. The one in the rear limped noticeably and was nearly out of strength; his face – narrow and beak-nosed, clearly showing a generous serving of Umbar blood – was covered with a sheen of sticky sweat. The one in the lead was a typical Orocuen by his looks, short and wide-faced – in other words, the very ‘Orc’ that mothers of Westernesse use to scare unruly children; this one advanced in a fast zigzagging pattern, his every movement noiseless, precise and spare, like those of a predator that has scented prey. He had given his cloak of bactrian wool, which always keeps the same temperature – whether in the heat of midday or the pre-dawn chill – to his partner, leaving himself with a captured Elvish cloak, priceless in a forest but utterly useless here in the desert.

But it was not the cold that bothered the Orocuen right now: listening keenly to the silence of the night, he cringed as if with toothache every time he heard the crunch of gravel under the unsure feet of his companion. Sure, to run into an Elvish patrol here, in the middle of the desert, would be almost impossible, and besides, for Elves starlight is not light at all, they need the moon… Nevertheless, Sergeant Tzerlag, leader of a scouting platoon of the Cirith Ungol Rangers, never relied on chance in his work, and always tirelessly repeated to

new recruits: “Remember this, guys: the Field Manual is a book where every jot and tittle is written with the blood of smartasses who tried to do it their way.” This must have been how he managed to lose only two men during the entire three years of the war, and in his own estimation he was prouder of that than of the Medal of the Eye, which he received last spring from the Commander of the South Army. Even now, home in Mordor, he behaved as if he was still on an extended raid on the Plains of Rohan; although, what kind of home is it now, really?..

A new sound came from behind – something between a moan and a sigh. Tzerlag looked back, estimated the distance, and, dropping his sack such that not a buckle clanged, made it to his companion just in time. The man was slowly sagging, fighting unconsciousness, and passed out the moment that sergeant grabbed him under the arms. Silently cussing, the scout returned to his sack to get the flask. Some partner, dammit… useful like a doorstop…

“Here, drink some, mister. Feeling worse again?”

The moment the prone man got a couple of swigs down, his whole body convulsed with tortuous gagging.

“Sorry, Sergeant”, he muttered guiltily. “Just wasted water.”

“Don’t worry about it, the underground collector is really close now. What did you call that water then, Field Medic, sir? Some funny word.”

“Adiabatic.”

“You live, you learn. Alright, water’s not our worry. Leg giving out again?”

“Afraid so. Listen, Sergeant… leave me here and make for that nomadic camp of yours – you said it was close, like fifteen miles. Then come back. If we run into Elves, we’re both done for. I’m not good for much now…”

Tzerlag thought for a while, drawing signs of the Eye in the sand. Then he smoothed out the sand and rose decisively.

“We’ll camp under the yonder dune, looks like the ground should be firmer over there. Will you make it there yourself, or will it be easier to carry you?”

“Listen, Sergeant…”

“Quiet, doctor! Sorry, but right now you’re like a little kid, safer under supervision. Should the Elves catch you, in fifteen minutes they’ll know everything: how many in the group, where headed and all that. I value my skin too much for that… So – can you walk a hundred fifty paces?”

He trudged where he was told, molten lead rising up his leg with every step. Right under the dune he passed out again, and didn’t see how the scout first painstakingly masked the vomit, foot- and body prints, and then dug out a day hideout, quickly as a mole. He regained conscience as the sergeant was carefully leading him to the fabric-lined hole. “Think you’ll be better in a couple of days, mister?”

Meanwhile, a disgusting pus-and-blood-colored moon rose over the desert. Now there was enough light to examine the leg. The wound itself was superficial, but it refused to scab over and bled at the slightest touch – the Elvish arrow had been poisoned, as usual. On that horrible day he had used up his entire stock of antidotes on the seriously wounded, hoping for a break. There was none. Tzerlag dug him a hideout under a fallen oak in a forest a few miles north-east of Osgiliath, and for five days he lay there, clutching with his fingernails to the icy windowsill of life. On the sixth day he managed to surface from the purple maelstrom of excruciating pain and listened to the sergeant’s tales, drinking bitter Imlad Morgul water, which stank with some unknown chemical (there was no other water in safe reach). The remnants of the South Army, bottled up in Morgul Gorge, had laid down their arms, and the Elves and the Gondorians drove them somewhere beyond the Anduin; a crazed mûmak from the defeated Harad battalion had trampled his field hospital, wounded and all, into bloody pulp; looks like there’s nothing else to save here, time to make for home, to Mordor.

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