“They say that ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people’.Well I think the gun helps. If you just stood there and yelled, “BANG”you wouldn’t kill too many people.”- Eddie Izzard, Dressed to Kill
Frederic Nietzsche once said ‘Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes into you’. The young Vanyarin elf Rion had never heard of Nietzsche, but he would have understood exactly where he was coming from.
In the heat of battle many things happen, but mostly it is as if you were in a microcosm; a little world of things happening immediately around you. Your primary concern is to deal with things that are thrown at you so that you can stay alive. The rest of it – your family, your life back home, the rest of the world even – pale into insignificance beside this motivating force.
The noise of a battlefield could be unbearable if it weren’t for that little vacuum you exist in. In modern times, battle is full of gunfire, explosions and noises of all kinds interspersed with deathly silences in which you can hear the cries of the wounded and the shouted orders of officers and senior NCOs or the strange garbled noises through radios. The smoke from seemingly unquenchable fires is thick and acrid. It stings the eyes and clogs the nose, fear manifests itself in a metallic taste at the back of the tongue and throat and yet the soldier carries on, ever mindful of duty first.
Soldiers wrap a mantle of duty around themselves as a form of protection and don’t allow themselves to think about the consequences of any action they may be forced to take. In this way, and only this way, can they deal with the ultimate moral crime of the killing of other human beings. If they didn’t do this, then conscience and moral values would take over and they wouldn’t be able to function as soldiers.
To this end, modern soldiers are constantly desensitised to killing by their superiors. The enemy is never referred to as anything other than ‘the enemy’. To give them a country or a nationality or any human attributes is to admit that they are fellow humans. Soldiers will often find their own words, usually derogative, to describe the people they fight. ‘Jerries’, ‘Gooks’, ‘Ragheads’; the list is endless.
For Rion and his comrades in arms there was little need for this kind of desensitisation, or so it was thought. The orcs were creatures that arose from the malice and envy of Morgoth who was the personification of all that was evil in Arda Marred and could not be considered to be like elves or men. Likewise the Balrogs of Morgoth; although these last were Maiar like Eonwe, Curunir and the others of their order, this was where the similarity ended. Those Maiar who had chosen to follow Morgoth were now as corrupt as their master. There was no goodness from the music left within them.
In this way the line between murder and justifiable slaughter was made crystal clear. Morgoth’s creatures could be killed with impunity simply because they were evil and consequently without souls or feä.
“Whither does their feä fly on death?” A puzzled young Vanyarin had asked on the passage over to Arda Marred.
“Nowhere, or at least nowhere that we are privy to.” Was the firm answer. “There is no evidence that they even have feä. They are simply creatures bred to Morgoth’s evil intent and they are wholly evil.”
In this way the warriors from the Blessed Isle were convinced that not only was this war a necessary evil to rid Arda of Morgoth once and for all, but also that they were, in fact, doing a service to his evil and inhuman servants by killing them. Consequently, when they disembarked at Brithumbar on the coast of Beleriand, they shone bright and fierce with the intensity of justifiable and justified wrath.
Now, seven years further on, after having spent most of that time routing out massive groups of the servants of the enemy, the shininess was beginning to fray a little around the edges. In the midst of battle it was now only possible to separate ally from enemy by the look in the eye and the kind of weapons and armour worn. However even the shiniest of armour can be covered in both black and red blood. At the beginning the bright golden hair of the Vanyar had shone like a beacon, but now that beacon was dulled with the exigencies of battle, skirmishes and the slow but steady march northwards toward the final target.
The eyes have it all, they are the windows to the soul. Much can be told from an expression, yet in up close and personal hand to hand combat which is often necessary; a soldier seldom dares to look into the eyes of their adversary. Instead they repeat the litany of ‘the enemy’ over and over to themselves in an attempt to overrule the series of moral values they were taught as children by their parents and society. To look into the eyes of the person you kill is to court madness. If you do look then the eyes of the first person you kill are the first things you see when you wake up in the morning and the last things you see when you go to sleep at night. They will live with you until the day you draw your last breath.
Best not to look.
In their own way ancient battles, despite there being none of the explosions and gunfire of their modern counterparts, were just as filled with noise, fear, smoke and confusion.
At the end of the day, killing for peace is neither a chivalrous nor a gloriously shining thing filled with self-righteousness and justification. It is an exhausting, bloody, noisy, dirty and lethal thing.
Killing for peace is like fucking for chastity.
When Rion and the other young ellyn had been taught the art of sword fighting, the Swordmaster had impressed upon the group the elegance and beauty of movement incorporated in the various parries, swings and arcs together with the co-ordinated movements of the body and feet. He had described it as an incomparable dance rather than a necessity in order to defend oneself. Truly, since the departure of Melkor and the Kinslayers there had been no need to teach the art of weapons for defence, therefore it was taught in much the same way as the dance mistresses taught the young ellyth how to move in the ethereal yet joyous dances that were habitually performed for the delight of everyone present at festivals and parties. Swordsmanship was taught as a part of culture rather than an art of war.
Indeed when the males practised their intricate sword fighting moves under the watchful and stern eye of the Swordmaster, the young ellyth would gather around the edge of the area, giggling softly behind hands and casting veiled glances at the objects of their admiration. They constantly had an eye to the curve of smooth muscled thighs and arms or the dance of golden hair woven into one long braid down the back to keep it out of the way.
More love had blossomed and been pledged in that practice area than in any of the festivals, gardens, beaches and private living areas combined. Rion himself had a number of admirers but had yet to meet the elleth who would ultimately capture his heart and soul.
Now, many of those ellyth would be grieving for the loss of their beloved on battlefields on what was, to them at least, foreign soil. So many had watched the warriors sail and given the tokens of their love. So many would now wait in vain for the return of those warriors and could only hope that Mandos would be kind and allow rebirth before too long.
As the battle raged around him, Rion took a moment to wonder what the Swordmaster and those ellyth would say about the perfection and flawless technique required to be a good swordsman now.
That was in a fantasy world. This was now and real.
Oh, he had tried to assign the lessons learned in the practice area when the Host joined in battle against the first enemy group, he really had. He had pirouetted and twirled gracefully and swung the sword in the perfect arc, but nothing had prepared him for the reality of that sword biting into living flesh or the speed at which the killing commenced. He simply hadn’t expected the creatures’ flesh, bone and sinew to provide so much resistance and he hadn’t bargained for the absolute steadfast enmity and determinedness of an enemy who was just as set on living as Rion was of depriving him of that life.
While he was struggling to pull the sword back out through bone, muscle and flesh, the dying orc was still biting and slashing at him savagely and if he had been the only one doing it Rion would have managed just fine. However, real life is what happens when you’re making other plans and the reality of battle is that there are umpteen enemy out there who each have your swift death on the top of their ‘things to do today’ list.
As he finally drew the sword out and the orc slumped to the ground in a heap he had no time to reflect on the situation and certainly no time to chastise himself for a lack of technique. He was immediately flanked by two more orcs with the result that panic and self-preservation took over. By the end of the skirmish he was hacking, slashing, yanking hair, headbutting and smacking heads using the flat of his sword with the best of them.
What price the perfect elegance of the swordfighting dance?
A massive blow to his shield brought him back to the here and now. He staggered under the onslaught and fell to his knees, sword clattering out of his hand. Holding one arm over his head to try and shield himself he looked up and fruitlessly groped for his sword at the same time. His mouth dropped open in shock as the biggest and ugliest orc he had ever seen loomed over him huge sword lifted overhead and already arcing down to cleave him in two. Rion gulped and tried to roll aside only to find a pile of dead orcs and elves in his way. He prepared himself to receive the call from Mandos and closed his eyes and ears to the snarl and expression of triumph as his adversary started the killing blow.
And nothing happened.
A strong hand gripped him by the arm instead and hoisted him to his feet. Friendly grey eyes twinkled at him in a slender face framed by dark hair in warrior braids. The Noldorin elf who he had met on the march a couple of days earlier dusted him down and handed him his sword.
“I think this belongs to you, and you must have a shield around here somewhere…” He glanced around and spotted it lying a few feet away under the dead orc. “Ah, there we are.” He shoved the orc aside, put the shield firmly back on Rion’s arm and stood back like a dressmaker assessing his finest creation. “I think you will do, but if you take my advice young one, you will not lose concentration in the middle of a battle again lest you wish to make an early visit to the Halls of Waiting. Although I hear it is very nice there at this time of year.” He winked boldly at Rion and swung around to rejoin the fray.
Rion watched in fascination as the Noldo pivoted gracefully, swung and slashed his way through the enemy and sang an Elven battle chant as he did so in a clear silvery voice. Despite the fact that he was being every bit as brutal as his opponents, there was a fire about his movements that lent an air of grace to the killing blows he was dealing out. To Rion he looked like poetry in motion and the young Vanyarin could only wish that he looked as graceful.
A moment later he was defending himself a lot less gracefully against two orc warriors. He managed to dispatch one of them by decapitating him, but the other one dealt a blow to his sword arm numbing it from shoulder to fingertip. The sword dropped from his nerveless fingers and he only just managed to swing his shield around in time to prevent himself being cloven in two by a heavy axe.
Dazed with pain and exhaustion he knelt with the shield over him, but once again the killing blow never came. Instead the handsome face of Eonwe himself peered over the top of the shield. “Thank Eru you are alive. I thought he had you for a moment.” He stared sharply into Rion’s slightly glazed eyes and then held out his hand. “You are in pain and exhausted child. There is no dishonour in this. Battle fatigue comes upon us all eventually, even those of us used to combat.”
Rion grasped the hand and allowed himself to be stood upright. He flexed his numb hand trying to will the feeling back in it. All the time he was aware of Eonwe’s piercing gaze assessing his battle-worthiness. Eventually the gaze softened. “Can you fight left-handed?”
Rion nodded. “After a fashion. Not so well as my right hand.” He whispered.
Eonwe’s gaze swept around the field. “The battle is nearly done and we have the field. There are just a few more to take care of so that we can reach our lines and get you some healing.” He smiled at Rion and the deep dimples peeped out. “Come then. Stay behind me and help where you can.”
The Herald launched himself forward and piled into an oncoming group of screaming orcs. He was an imposing sight as he strode ahead and those orcs who did not scuttle away at the sight of that terrible and shining figure were scythed like so many sheaves of corn under his sword. Rion had little to do other than to stagger along in his wake and jump aside as the enemy fell to the left and right. He stumbled over a rock concealed in the grass and was steadied by Tulcas who had sped to Eonwe’s side and was now trotting alongside Rion behind the Herald as he disposed of obstacles in their way.
“Is he not splendid?” Whispered Tulcas conversationally in Rion’s ear. “My best project, the consummate warrior.” Rion looked over at the Vala but couldn’t conjure up sufficient breath to speak, instead his head just bobbed up and down in a nod. Tulcas winked conspiratorially at him. “We will just stay behind him. After all he does this so well do you not think?”
“I heard that.” Eonwe spoke without even turning his head or missing his stride and lunged at an orc who was brave enough to face him head on. The long sword slid through flesh like a hot knife through butter and was withdrawn smoothly in time to sever the head of the next orc foolish enough to take on the Maia. “What was it that you were saying earlier about leading from behind?”
“Ah yes.” Tulcas chuckled. “But as you are so eager to remind me, it is not I who lead the Host, therefore you are in the correct place at the head of battle and I am dutifully following behind as any good warrior should.”
Eonwe did turn around at this and glared. “And using me as a shield while you are doing it.”
Tulcas roared with laughter. “I am merely assisting this wonderful young elf. He keeps tripping over all these bodies you are so carelessly throwing in his path.” He winked at Rion again. “Is that not so young one?”
“Yes my Lord.” Rion finally managed to gasp out. The sound of the two most powerful warriors in the Host bickering with each other had almost completely undone him. They sounded just like everyone else!
“There, there.” The Vala patted him on the arm. “Don’t try to talk, the tents with the healers are just a short distance away now.”
A few hours later in the healer’s tent
“How is he?” Eonwe spoke softly so as not to wake the more desperately injured.
The healer bowed respectfully. “You can see for yourself my Lord.” He indicated a cot at the end. “His shoulder is sprained and bruised badly, but there are no bones broken. The numbness is merely from the force of the blow. His exhaustion is common among the warriors. They are simply worn out with the constant fighting and marching. The evil that suffuses this land saps the strength and will of the strongest even. Rion is young, he will recover. Until the next time.”
Eonwe detected a hint of reprimand in the healer’s voice and smiled wryly. The task of commanding the Host was a thankless one in many ways. All looked to him for guidance and when things went wrong he was the first to receive the reproachful and accusing glances. He placed a comforting hand on the healer’s shoulder. “If he is asleep I will not wake him...” He began, but a voice interrupted him from the cot in the corner.
“I am not asleep my Lord.” Rion struggled to sit up on the cot and Eonwe swiftly went to his side. He gently pushed him down and tucked the blanket around his chin.
“Did I give you permission to move?” He asked in mock severity.
Rion blushed. “No my Lord. I am sorry my Lord. Are you well?”
Eonwe looked a little taken aback. He couldn’t remember anyone other than Tulcas actually asking him if he was well. The Eldar mostly assumed that since he was Maiar he was tireless and invincible. “Er…yes, a little tired perhaps. The fighting went on longer today than I anticipated. The enemy resistance grows stronger the further north we travel and the closer we get to Thangorodrim.” He sat down on the edge of the cot. “I have a task for you when you are rested.”
Rion looked confused. “A task? What kind of task?” Was this because his attention to the fighting had failed in today’s battle? Perhaps it was the Herald’s way of reprimanding him.
The anxiety showed on his face and Eonwe hastened to reassure him. “It has nothing to do with today’s events. I can see on your face that you feel you let us down and that is a great nonsense. You are tired. Even Tulcas and I are. We need to rest from these constant skirmishes and refresh ourselves for a while. To that end we will march a little further on and camp near the western edge of the forest of Brethil not far from Amon Rûdh. The scouts tell me that although there are parties of the enemy in the woods, they are not large. A skirmishing group should be able to deal with them while the main host rests. There has been little game for us to hunt and it seems that as we push forward the animals and birds leave in our wake, yet the scouts also tell me that there is game in the forest still. We can replenish our supplies there.”
Rion frowned. “And my task my Lord?”
“I wish you to take a companion and travel back towards the area of Nargothrond. I have reports that Ereinion Gil-galad travels with an army of his own.” He hesitated slightly as if reluctant to say more, then he sighed. “It is not Gil-galad’s destiny to fight alongside the Host. Soon he will be embroiled in something a great deal more pressing than joining us. I have need of him to perform a task for me.I need you to carry my requestand I also need you to remain with his force for the moment and be my eyes and ears.”
The young Vanyarin looked utterly taken aback. “You want me to spy on Lord Gil-galad for you?”
Eonwe’s rich laugh rang out and then stopped abruptly as he caught the disapproving eye of the healer. “I should go before he makes me roll bandages as a punishment for disturbing the sick.”
Rion gave a snort of laughter and then winced as it jarred his injured shoulder. “He would not dare, surely. You are the Herald of Manwe and Commander of the Host.”
“And where the sick are concerned, the healer’s decision outweighs mine.” Eonwe smiled at him. “Besides which, healers are always bullies, they know the patient will nearly always obey them if they threaten him with worse medicine and they use their knowledge and other’s lack of knowledge to beat people like me over the head into submission.” He rose to his feet. “Take your rest now. When your shoulder is healed attend me in my tent and I will give you the details of your mission. While you are lying here give some thought to the companion you wish to take with you.”
“I will my Lord.” Rion could feel sleep pulling at him and it was becoming hard to ignore.
Eonwe looked down at Rion thoughtfully as his eyelids drooped over his eyes, then he smiled and left the healer’s tent. His pace quickened as the healer glared at him.