The Burial of the Dead
But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns,
That they should be as stones.
Wretched are they, and mean
With paucity that never was simplicity.
By choice they made themselves immune
To pity and whatever moans in man
Before the last sea and the hapless stars;
Whatever mourns when many leave these shores;
The eternal reciprocity of tears.
Wilfred Owen, Insensibility
Do you wish then that our places had been exchanged?
Aye, aye, I wish it; would swap you in an instant were the choice mine, were I able. No contest between you, between the one who brought hope to the land and you, who even now lets the wizard speak for him. A fine trade it would be indeed.
It was not hard to love him, and thus we parted, with words of love and a prayer for his safe return to me, to his land, that needed him. But the summer was hot, with threat of drought, winter cloaked the land in silence, and in the East the shadow grew and devoured our lands. I heard the horn blowing, but the unfaithful air meant you heard it first, and the river bore him to you, denying me the last sight of him. And I would yield all for another sight of him, whose nature was a wonder to me, who was my hope. I would trade the earth to fill the land again with hope.
Seeking clarity, I climb the stairs and sit and watch, the hands I set before me dry as parchment. To the left, half of a horn; to the right a globe of glass. But I watch for a while instead the shaft of light the candle casts before me, the slow spiral descent of the dust disturbed by a whisper of air. And when at length it settles, I turn to the right, seeking clarity.
If I should return, think better of me.
I say something in reply, but do not recollect what, and those standing and seated about me fall silent; a whisper halted by a sharp hiss, a hand set upon an arm in warning, the air crackling. Dol Amroth wishes to speak, I see; but refrains, bows, departs. A wisp of smoke as the candle flickers, fades, and dies.
A lesson in obedience, in duty, one given again and again down the years, and one that there should be no need to give at this late hour. What use to me, a tool such as this? By now it should be tempered. What use - and worse, what danger?
For I saw early on where the danger lay, from and for him, watched for it, had gauged his temper before even he himself. This land cannot sustain the whims of those who would abandon reason, pursue dreams, risk enchantment - and such fancies are my duty to extinguish. Yours to command, he has said, again and again, and each time I wonder - are you a fool that you believe this still, or is it that you are a liar?
Your son has returned, lord, after great deeds.
Cities burn quickly; flesh burns slow. A lesson learned today. It behoves me, no doubt, to treat this new evisceration as a blessing - since it brings me time for reflection, for recollection, before the end. So I sit and watch and wait and search my memory - for some foundation, for some common ground. And since I do not recall my final words to him, I must look to the past.
Thirty years gone, two boys in a garden. I step forward to admire the older one's fluid swordplay, and then look down at the younger beside me. He has closed his book and lies staring at the ground, as if it contains some secret which he might wrest from it with sufficient concentration.
'What is it you are reading?' I say; in a kindly fashion, I think.
He looks up wide-eyed and silent.
'Speak up!' I say, exasperation rising. It had not been my intention to find myself the sole guardian of two boys.
He whispers into the air and passes the book for inspection. I frown at the title, open it, see the name inside written in a light hand.
'How came you by this?'
His voice seems now completely quenched. He ever wavers before me! What is it he would conceal from me? A vein of anger opens.
'I fetched it for him, father,' the other says swiftly, filling the gap.
I look between them, the younger pale and shaking, trying to crack the code of the ground again; the elder staring at me, back straight and chin out. Lies, I fear, might flow from him like liquid - on the other's account. A tremor of annoyance at this influence, that can spark this other loyalty in my heir. I must watch for that.
They are only boys.
It is not, I suppose, beyond the realms of possibility that he speaks the truth.
'Very well,' I say at length. 'But in the future you will not retrieve items that have been put away for good reason. Either of you.'
As I turn to walk away, something quakes within. I set her book back on the ground. A pale finger twitches and then rests upon it...
His hand twitches and falls against my sleeve. The flesh, I see, is ashen now. When do sons become mere strategies?
No long slow sleep of death embalmed.
We shall make an end together, you and I. We shall array ourselves and go as if to our funeral, save at the end there will be no-one there to bury. You are well-versed, well-lettered, have an eye for beauty, and thus I think you would appreciate the proportions of these your ends - one son sent to the water, the other brought to the fire.
And you, who understand so well the nature of visions, I think too that if you knew what I have seen, then you would thank me for this. For I have seen indeed the fate in store for us, unless we make our end, and swiftly! Your faith in the wisdom of folly has proven ill-founded, and the Enemy prevails. If you could only see what I have seen, the clear vision that I have been granted, of the hordes swarming from the east, of the black ships drifting up the river down which our hope departed... These fires and this night are but the beginning, and if we falter now, here, at the end, we shall burn on a fiercer fire, live only long enough to die in a darkness deeper than that which moulds the souls of men. And I will surrender nothing to this fire - not myself, not the West, not you. Where lies the honour in self-abasement? Better to make an end.
For our own fire will cleanse and purify, and in it we shall find forgiveness. For indeed I have forgiven you your part in this, forgiven you for abandoning reason in favour of madness, for trusting the wizard, for letting it go. For the fault, as I can see now with such clarity as I have never had before, lay in me. I should have tried harder. I should have protected you, from yourself and those that did you harm. Forgive me. For I would make amends. Perhaps even now, at the end, I might yet save you.
His house is in ashes.
Thirty years gone and her ghost yet lingers, drawn in with every breath, watchful and reproachful. The dead air weighs heavy with her disapprobation; her voice, soft and spectral, whispers its accusations. What have you done with all I left in your care? Why have you squandered my legacy? Can you hear her whisper? Sons spent in sacrifice, surrendered up to steel.
She speaks more dead than ever she did living. 'A breath of fresh air,' my father called her, when I brought her to the city from the coast. 'Like the scent of roses.' But I myself was unprepared for the fissures caused by passion, watched for them, and here in the city she withered - or was choked.
'Eat,' I would tell her, 'You cannot live on air.'
And she would force down a little bread, as if it or the grain from which it had been ground were poisoned, or perhaps the land itself. And when at last she passed into the ether, we sealed what remained in stone - but oft I would catch a glimpse of her, dust adrift in a shaft of light, dismissed with a wave of the hand.
Night falls and day breaks in mockery of morning. The globe defies the heat, is bitter cold in hands dry as dust and turning dryer. As if some phantom breathes upon it, the mists within clear and I perceive an image that has long haunted me. Thirty years gone; a boy with a sword and a boy with a book; quick as a river and keen as a flame, possessed of a spirit that is not mine. Smoke rises; the vision departs. They are gone, all gone, into the dark, and I follow. For it all goes into the dark - duty, reason, honour, love. All comes to naught. All is consumed by fire.
Thank you to Kshar, who controlled the elements.
Altariel, June 2002