First their eyes dart everywhere like a cornered animal’s, searching desperately for a way out. When they don’t find one, they try to bargain. When that fails, they try to plead. When that fails, they try to lie.
Except the Orcs. The Orcs are vile and filthy and barbaric and a hundred other disgusting things, but I’ll give them this much: they never try to pretend to be anything other than what they are.
But the Dourhands? The Easterlings? The Variags of Khand, the Haradrim of the far south? Oh, they always have some excuse.
“Sauron tricked us!” they’ll say. “He deceived us, he forced us, he threatened us, we’re the victims here. Have mercy on us and we promise we’ll change our ways!”
Mercy? For them? After everything they’ve done? The Orcs, they’re bred for evil. It’s in their blood. It’s what they do. Wolves howl, fish swim, and Orcs are bad to the marrow. They never had the choice to be anything else.
But the Enemy’s other servants are a different story. The humans and Dwarves and other ilk who do his bidding do so because they chose to. They had a choice and they deliberately made the wrong one.
And they expect mercy.
Mercy? Forgiveness? A second chance?
Not for them. Not now. Not ever.
Human blood is different than that of Orcs, you know. Orc blood is thicker, more like a sludge. Man-blood is thinner, more like water. Sprays everywhere when you split the skin.
The blade of my sword is smeared with it. Splashes of it have turned my armor a deeper red.
The Easterling camp through which I walk now is a burning ruin filled with the slain. Around me, my brothers and sisters of the Company move methodically through the bodies, dispatching any foes who yet live to the Hall of Mandos to await their judgment. Gore squelches beneath my armored heel.
I barely notice.
The Easterling chief is wounded but not yet dead. A broken arrow shaft protrudes from his chest, oozing blood. He’s lying on his side and he blanches with fright as he sees me approach, tries to frantically to crawl away. He doesn’t get far. The pain of his injury prevents him from moving. He can do nothing but stare up at me as I loom over him.
“Attacking at night? While we sleep?” His Westron is heavily accented but understandable. The contempt in his tone is as obvious as it is ironic. “You have no honor.”
“Honor?” I squat on my haunches, locking eyes with him. My eyes are the only part of my face he can see; the rest of it is hidden by the metal helm I wear. “What do Easterlings know of honor, or the Men of Harad? Where is the honor in raiding villages, slaying and enslaving women and children? Do not speak to me of honor. It is a foreign thing to you.”
He spits blood from his mouth, his face twisting in a mask of helpless rage. “If you are going to kill me, red one, do it. Do it, and be damned.”
I stare back at him. “Hm. I don’t think you appreciate quite how this works. My job—the job of the Red Company—is to hunt down any and all enemies of the Free Peoples who, by their action or inactions, aim to further the designs of Mordor upon Middle-Earth, and introduce them to a world of unremitting pain. We’re not picky as to how we go about doing that. You showed no honor in the way you’ve conducted yourselves, so we decided not to waste any on you. All’s fair in love and war, eh?”
I stab a finger at him. “You invaded Gondor. You pledged your fealty to Sauron. You are the aggressor here. Do not act indignant when those whom you’ve wronged decide to fight back.”
He gazes at me for a long moment. “I know you,” he says suddenly, recognition dawning in his eyes. “You are Agawaer. The masked one.”
“You’ve heard of me? I’m flattered. But I've never really thought of my helmet as a mask before, though I can see how it can come across that way.”
“Don’t be,” he hisses. “You are hated and feared among my people, as are all those who wear that wretched scarlet cloak.” He spits again but doesn’t quite manage it. His chest tightens and he lets out a pained gasp.
I’ve seen death and dealt it too many times not to know what that means. His wound is mortal, and for all his bravado he's clearly in great pain. By goading me he hopes for a swift release. It's an old trick, and I've seen it too many times to take the bait.
“Coming from you, that’s a compliment,” I say. “In fact, it’s such a nice compliment that perhaps I will allow you some…small courtesy.”
I lean in close. “Do you have anything else to say before I kill you? Anything more before I send you to whatever hell you’ve earned? Think carefully—and quickly. We both know you don't have all day."
“Your helmet. Take it off.”
I go still, and when I do not reply, the Easterling repeats himself. “Take off your helmet. Let me see you. You’re a coward, Agawaer, wearing such a thing. Hiding your face so deliberately…what are you so afraid of others seeing? What are you trying to conceal?”
Once again, I say nothing.
He’s not the first dying man to catch me off-guard, and he's not the first to ask me that question. I never respond when I hear it, but this time...
This time, I come close.
This time, as I tighten my grip on my sword hilt, I nearly say:
I do not wear this helmet to hide some disfigurement. I do not wear it to intimidate my enemies, and I do not wear it to protect my face from sword or spear.
I wear it for moments like this, when I decide not to give someone a quick death.
I raise my sword high. Its glittering edge reflects the glow of the flames.
I wear it so that when I decide to discard restraint, when I decide to cut loose, when I decide to indulge myself—