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The Quality Of Men
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The Quality of Men

For Acacea and Lindorien.


The Haradrim do it best. That, if you didn't know, is a joke in Ithilien.

Of course everyone smiles silly, childish smiles when they say it. Those rumours and sharp ones about how the Haradrim spend their nights on leave are so old as to be dead, but flogged to a frenzy all the same. The captain sees right beneath the sarcasm. Any red-blooded male would understand. When the enemy has been beating you back with poisoned arrows and fearful tusked monsters that you never dreamed of as a boy sleeping in your dear motherís lap back in Anorien, why, then you attack his morals all you can, kill his dignity with jokes about what he does when heís flat on his back (or not) with a woman, or women (or not) because Valar bless, the world is full of shafts and spears and big woolly animals. The heat makes the Haradrim do it, thatís what they say, grinning. The wise captain tells them to polish their own weapons. But they donít want to laugh at themselves. The Haradrim do enough of that when they come, bless the wise captain. They run steel through menís backbones and look down at them and laugh, because thatís what the Haradrim are taught. Blood is good, better when spilt, white-skinned blood is most excellent. (Rumour: They drink it.) Itís all very sordid and the good captain believes that they shouldnít be thinking about such things. But everyone thinks about dirty things in a war. Dirty business, war.

The captainís soul must feel tormented when he hears these murmurs floating around from the back quarters of the beautiful hideouts in the garden of Gondor (an elf said long ago that Valinor must be like this, thank you very much). He is better than the other men. Knowing him, that probably torments him too. Why should he be better than other men? Why should anyone be better than anyone?

No one knows whether Aragorn the King laughs at low-brow jokes about the Southron breed of warrior. The esteemed soldiers oí the North seem a bit deficient in the laughter aspect of things, truth be told, same way they lack consonants at the end of words, although theyíre polite enough, all thank-you-kindlys and sorry-for-your-losses. All said and done heís every inch a king, looks it and talks it. They say the High Elven lingo flows off his tongue like fine wine. Stars know they all drawl like their life depends on it. But, to come back to the good captainís moral dee-lem-ma: some people are better than others, and Aragorn is their proof of existence. Thatís the sort of thing the other kind will twist, the kind who polishes up wickedness and settles an accent that clinks of money over it. Theyíll try and hide behind him. But the ones who have gone to war wonít do any such thing, or such is the hope of the old heart. Itís not to be borne, the thought that the lords who shared bunks with the commoners and carried them home when they died in the slush of battle and called them brother will go back to their castles and turn their noses up at barmaidís boys and bakerís dozens (five of whom died fighting) again. Everyone knows that some men are better than others, now, but not for money and castles. Thatís real philosophy, and the captain neednít be ashamed of it. Some men just donít laugh at low slurs, however leaky their roofs are, and some men feel ashamed that they ever did it when they see the proud dark generals matching the captain and the king dignity for dignity when they surrender to them. Thatís how it is.

They speak funny, those Haradrim. Itís not a good language to hear, although the captain used to read their old poetry in secret and spend the night pacing the floor. Thereís no way to ask them if they do it best. Try to ask an occasional prisoner when the good folk werenít around and heíd stare straight at the wall, as though he didnít understand, which is stupid because you canít be a spy unless you know the enemy lingo, and then heíd earn a jab in the ribs with a spear-butt and he would turn his eyes on the weapon-wielder with such dark hatred, like the dawnless day or the bottom of a pint of bitterest bitter, that there wouldnít be enough air to fill a pair of lungs. Sorcerers, those Haradrim.

The king, he knows this Southron language too. Aye, thereís not a shred of doubt that heís a sorcerer in armour. (That wizard, to make a joke of it, now heís a soldier in sorcererís garb.) Thereís no accounting for the quality of men. But its not really magic, jokes aside. Maybe thereís truth in the stories about elvish blood and elvish what-not, although elves must be people too, if Master Legolas who hunkered down and shot orcs in the eye same as the rest of them is anything to go by. Elvish magic doesnít matter in a Kingdom of Men, all said and done. The Northerners let it slip that the king used to muck around in seedy taverns before he got here. Maybe they do have some twisted inside-jokery going on after all. But it just goes to show itís not the grey eyes and elvishness. Some men have quality, even when they do what he does, walking out to the middle of the forest in Ithilien for a meeting with the Southrons, and treating them like good people. He makes them good people. Itís not him being hoity-toity. He drank a bit of their liquor even, that clear brew what our boys used in surgery when they ran out of opium. Sure, and he coughed and spluttered over it too. Itís hard not to remember the time before the war, when the company overran an old enemy hideout and found all their stores left behind, fantastic amounts of food and drink, and so many cried and got blind drunk and fell over each other in misery because they thought the enemy had more to eat than they did themselves.

He took that drink like a Ranger, now, the King did. Handed it back with a steady hand even, saying faith, but that is every bit as bad as I remember, commander. The Haradrim brew it best, after all. And Valar, how good it feels to see everyone smiling and shuffling their feet and him looking non-plussed, not knowing the thing about the old line. The Haradrim brew it best. Thatís not a bad start to a new year. Wipe the slate clean. Tell better jokes. Warís over, after all.


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