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Death and Glory

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For a hard-bitten warrior, he likes to talk a lot.

About himself, I notice, always about himself.

Afterwards, or anytime really, he likes to lie together and – and talk away.

His hands on me, distracting; I only listen with half my attention, too aware of him and me, and all that is still new and wonderful, to understand.

This room, this small world we can make together, this quiet glade in Epirus, Thrace, Attica, wherever we are, I don’t need his tales, his words. I only need him, his arms, his love, as I tell myself it is.

 

You know why we were there, in the bloody Crimea.

Pride.

Ownership.

Money.

Fighting the Ottomans, again. Plus ça change, plus ça même chose, isn’t that the phrase, Kitten?

All the usual empire stuff.

None of it mattered in the end.

It never does, not when it comes to it.

You don’t fight for King – or Queen – and Country.

You fight, in the end, you fight because the lads with you, your lads, your friends, are in danger.

Knew it was a bloody silly order.

No, before that.

Bloody Tennyson. That wasn’t the only mistake made. Just the only one he could be bothered to make up a bloody silly poem about.

Everyone knows that was a bloody silly order.

There were other orders, nearly as silly.

But – I told Ecthelion, we should have just ignored him – an old priest-type, wandering, bit mad, scruffy, dirty, pockets full of – lizards, some other bloody animals.

What harm was he going to do?

No weapons. Clearly.

Mad. No way was he carrying vital information, spying, anything like that.

But Ecthelion – my friend Ecthelion – he was always such a stickler for doing things by the rules. Always had to be doing the right thing, and seen to be.

So no.

We couldn’t just let the wandering old fool past, take his own chances. We had to take him into custody, take him to a superior officer. Watch them frisk him down, worry at him with questions he couldn’t answer, didn’t understand.

All he could do was stand there, shaking, dribbling a bit – and fuck me, but he smelled like he hadn’t washed for a bloody century – gibbering. Didn’t have a word of sense in him.

Poor old sod.

And of course, in those days, those unenlightened days – no-one spoke, no-one even tried to speak, his language.

Remember our brigadier, leaning into his face, and god knows that was no fun, the way he stank, the way he was quivering, and shouting, ‘Name? Your name? Your business here?’ over and over.

All the poor old chap could manage was

‘Ra-ra-radagast.’

Never knew what that meant. Whether it was his name or what.

And then, eventually, ffoulkes gives up, and sends him off – with muggins still in charge of him, thank you Ecthelion – to be fed, washed, tidied. Forcibly, whether he likes it or not.

And shipped back to somewhere behind the lines.

Only.

I don’t know.

The way he looked out, looked to where we could see the city, see it burning, hear the people, and he trembled, pathetic he was.

‘Sebastapol,’ and he sounded as though he would cry.

I couldn’t do it.

Oh, I got him fed, tidied a bit. As much as he would let me, no more.

But – poor old sod.

And I remembered, when I was younger, how you used to get the wandering hedgerow priests, the holy fools, the gentlemen of the road, and I – I thought of Gildor bloody Inglorion, and I couldn’t honestly see much difference.

Oh, Gildor is a bit cleaner.

Not much, not as much as he should be – but – anyway.

He doesn't talk gibberish? But maybe – if you don’t speak Quenya, or Sindarin, or whatever – maybe he does seem to.

Honestly, there’s times when Gildor bloody Inglorion speaks gibberish even when you do recognise the words. Never gives a straight answer, that's for sure.

So.

I waited.

When it was quiet, when no-one was looking – no, not in the middle of the bloody night. Idiot, Kitten. That’s just when everything looks suspicious. Innocent or not.

No.

Mid-afternoon. Lazy time of day, no early morning push, no light falling desperate attempts, just – sleepy quiet time.

Like now.

Mmm.

Anyway – do you want to hear this story or not?

Me and – whatever the old boy’s name was – took a little stroll.

Because really, what use would he be to anyone – us or them?

Reckoned they were better to feed him.

Off he toddled.

Made some kind of complicated sign over me, muttered some gibberish. Disappeared into – well, looked like a rat-run, but I suppose he knew his own way well enough.

Wasn’t until much later I saw him.

After the siege broke.

He was in the council, surrendering the city over.

Don’t think he knew me.

And I – I wasn’t in much state to care.

Always wondered though – if that was some kind of blessing. If that was what made the difference.

Don’t scoff, Kitten. Something did.

Oh chance. Yes, if chance you call it.

But – why me?

Of all of us – so few survived. And it wasn’t skill, no thought involved.

Blind luck, or something else?

Me and my Asfaloth. Not a scratch on us, not a mark, not a stumble. All through.

Took my worst hurt though.

Worst ever.

I’d’ve given anything to have it different.

Lost Ecthelion, you see.

And worse.

I found – when he was gone – I found I never really had him. Never knew him. Never had a chance.

Near broke me.

No, Kitten, at the time, I’d’ve taken any pain – even Asfaloth – rather than that.

Stupid bugger that I was.

Didn’t know I had so much waiting for me, did I?

Mmm.

 

 

Stop, I think, stop there, please, I don’t want to hear anymore.

But I shift, unable to help myself, uneasy at the thought of him caring so for another – uneasy at the thought of him hurt.

And he talks on, unaware of my feelings.

 

 

 

Alright. You want to hear it, I suppose you’re going to say you need to hear it.

Bloody Kitten.

Pulling and pulling at loose ends of wool, of stories.

And if you even think about saying I need to tell it – just don’t.

So.

Yes. We were there.

Siege of Sebastopol.

Cold. Boring. Being shot at.

All the usual.

We.

Ecthelion.

My friend – my oldest friend. Known him from School.

Yes. I told you.

By then – by then I think I knew – had begun to know – to realise – that I felt – different. Differently about him.

Wanted – something.

Circles we moved in, one didn’t show affection, ever.

Maybe a mother with small child.

Sisters to each other.

But not much else.

We would – you know – slap each other on the back, punch arms, insult one another. You know how it goes.

But at the end of the day – he was there for me, and I for him, always.

At least, I thought so.

We argued. Over the years, quite a lot.

When I did something stupid, lost my commission, did something else stupid, got reassigned, sent to a failing regiment, told to turn it round. Did something else, stupider, got sent off to lead a Forlorn Hope as punishment. Heroic victory – no, really, Kitten, that's what they called it – restored to rank. Back to ordinary stupid, lost commission again.

Spot the pattern.

Always he would sigh, tight-mouthed, and carry on without me.

And then – when I turned up again, like a bad penny, grin, and slap me, and call me a fool.

He was always so – upright. So virtuous.

I think that’s what I loved about him.

Sorry, Kitten. You asked.

I did love him.

Not – not like this, like us, but – maybe it could have been. If things had been different. If he had been different.

Anyway.

The orders came down.

Advance.

We knew it was mad, knew it made no sense.

I remember wanting to go and – shout, protest, only – Ecthelion looked at me, and grinned, and said,

“Not another six months demotion, Glorfindel, please.”

And I didn’t.

I just followed orders.

I probably would have anyway, without that, because after all, who am I to know what’s best in that situation? I’m no general, no commander, I can’t see the whole of the game, can’t see which – oh what’s that damn silly game – chess – which bloody pawn or knight should be sacrificed to win the war.

You sign yourself over, you accept the risks. The glory, the guts of it all, the heroics, that's what it comes down to in the end. You take the coin, you do your duty.

But I hated myself after.

Wondering if it could have made a difference.

They said, after, that it was a glorious charge.

A heroic moment.

All the discipline and courage that makes this country worth so much.

It didn’t feel like that at the time.

I don’t suppose these things ever do.

Just the usual jumble of impressions, of keeping the line, of shouting orders, of holding one’s own course.

Of looking to right and left, seeing each of us where he was supposed to be.

Realising how many were falling.

Hearing the horses scream.

Not just the horses.

Out of the corner of my eye, seeing Ecthelion go down.

Not able to stop, to do anything.

Hoping – praying – it was the horse. Poor old Argent, but praying it was only him. That Ecthelion would be – wounded, broken leg, anything.

But still alive.

Screaming aloud – not just the usual cry – oh, it isn’t done to have a battle cry, but you find me one regiment that doesn't – but this time, screaming aloud to all the gods, the Valar, anyone, to keep Ecthelion alive. Not him. Anyone but him.

Making it through the lines.

Not many of us did, but some.

More than you might think, the way it’s spoken of.

Seeing red.

I don’t know how many I killed, what happened.

I only know, when there was chance, when things calmed, when – when it was over – going back, still with my Asfaloth, and finding Argent.

Seeing him still struggling to rise, crying out, struggling, panting, as he must have been for hours, not understanding what had happened, poor bastard.

Putting a bullet through his brain.

Only thing to do when a horse’ back is broken.

Kneeling by him, stroking his mane, saying poor old Argent, well done Argent, good old boy.

Staying there.

I don’t know how long.

One of the nurses coming up – brave little gels they were – one of Florrie’s poppets, we used to call them. I don’t suppose they liked it, but that's the way it was.

She tried to take my hand, to lead me away. Said they’d be coming to take Argent away soon now, that Asfaloth needed caring for. Don’t know who told her their names. Suppose someone must have – must have seen how things were.

Not listening to her.

She saying I needed to leave now, to let them come out, take the bodies away.

I needed to be with those who were alive, to cheer up.

That’s how they talked in those days. Not so long ago, really.

I remember saying I couldn’t leave Argent. That Ecthelion would be furious if I left Argent. That, that he had just paid for all his new turnout, that I needed to take it for him.

She – she didn’t know what to say, what to do.

Poor little poppet.

I suppose she must have gone off then, left me.

They came, soon enough, moved Argent.

And I couldn’t but see Ecthelion.

Ecthelion.

Fairest, most beloved Ecthelion, as I always thought of him.

Sorry, Kitten. Not now. Never fairer than you, never more beloved.

But I didn’t know about you then.

He must have died – not as quick as you hope for, pray for – but not as long waiting as poor Argent.

Asfaloth just stood by me, the whole time. He’d sniffed a bit at Argent, but no more than that. They’d never been friends, not the way Asfaloth was with Ecthelion’s previous, Diamas. But Ecthelion – he’d known him as long as he’d known me.

People talk bollocks, you know. They say horses don’t understand when someone dies.

Of course they do.

When they’ve seen as many battlefields as my Asfaloth had, they do.

None of this nuzzling Ecthelion, looking for treats, nothing like that.

He knew.

It was me – me that didn’t understand.

Didn’t know what to do.

Just sat there, and once they’d moved Argent, once I couldn’t pretend, ignore him, stroked his hair, made him tidy. Wiped some of the blood away.

I don’t know why, what I thought I was doing.

I just – couldn’t see how to walk away.

Couldn’t bear to.

They came out, got me in the end. They were taking Ecthelion away, with all the others.

Someone – I don’t remember who – led me back to – to wherever I was supposed to be sleeping that night.

All I could think was – but Ecthelion will be cold out there.

Then they told me I had to sort out his – effects – that’s what they called them. All the things that he collected, pointless crap, old rocks, I don’t know, all the little interests that made Ecthelion, Ecthelion – suddenly they were ‘effects’.

And I had to pack them up, write a letter to his mother, his father, his sisters, brothers. All of the family.

People I had known for – years.

I had to write, say I was still alive, but Ecthelion, Ecthelion was dead.

All the usual platitudes.

Doing his duty.

Pride.

Honour.

All that.

Valiant sacrifice in a worthy cause.

Hollow words.

I knew it, they probably knew it.

But I wrote it.

 

 

 

His hands tighten on me, and once more I want him to stop, I don’t want to hear all this. I need not the reminder that he lives dangerously, that he is not one to settle down, to hold tight, to build a life around.

More than that, I do not want to hear of his pain, of any pain that I cannot heal, cannot comfort.

But he continues.

 

 

 

That wasn’t the worst part, Kitten.

The worst – the worst was when I came back on leave, and all London, all the talk was about what a wicked mistake it had been. How we shouldn’t have been there, the orders were wrong.

And I kept thinking if only – if only – we had – I had said something.

I don’t, now, suppose it would have made a difference, but at the time, it hurt.

And then – they were very kind, his parents, they asked me down.

Fool that I was, I went.

One afternoon, this girl – ellyth – nice enough – forgotten her name now – came over. From the next country house, or nearly.

She’d known Ecthelion forever. I think I’d met her before – know I had – over the years, at balls, dances, meals.

And then – she showed me her ring.

That Ecthelion had bought her.

Told me they had been engaged. Should have married that summer.

She wasn’t the type to be – obvious – but I’m not stupid. I knew what was expected, what the conventional happy end is in such cases.

She still wanted her chance at – not love, I suppose, but – happiness, an establishment of her own, children.

I daresay she would have made someone a lovely wife.

Probably did.

She’d loved Ecthelion, that was clear enough, but – life goes on.

He didn’t love her enough to stay home, stay safe, build a life – she didn’t love him enough to fade.

All I could think, when I looked at her, was – but he never told me.

Took me years to understand why. See past the hurt, the feeling that I never knew him, that our whole friendship was a lie, that all those years meant nothing.

Now – now I think I do.

He knew.

He must have known, known how I felt, how I loved him. Known how much it would hurt me.

He didn’t – couldn’t – feel the same, couldn’t change his nature, his love for this girl, but – maybe he just wanted to hang on to what we had as long as he could.

For a long while, I thought – thought it meant that everything was worthless.

Now – now I see – if he could hide so much from me, we were only ever friends, only ever able to be friends.

I thought I loved him.

But it took his death to show me the truth.

I didn’t love him enough to fade – not when it came to it.

Don’t you go dying on me, Kitten. There’s too many places I haven’t been, too much still to do in this world.

I don’t want to leave yet.

The twentieth century looks too much fun.

 

 

 

Fun? I think incredulously, fun? Machine-guns, these new – tanks – poison gas – though I suppose he will not have heard of those yet, not being as well-informed as I – fun?

I am in love with a dangerous lunatic.

But – he is my dangerous lunatic.

For a short time, for these months, he is mine, he loves me also.

So I laugh, and kiss, and the days slip by.

It is only after, long after, that in my mind I hear again those tales, and I understand.

He loved me, then.

He loved me, and he tried to talk, to tell me who he was, to give me – all that was him.

For a time, he loved me.