A/N: This story was written for the October, 2013 Teitho Challenge "Smile," where it placed second. It is book-verse, but contains occasional movie-verse imagery. It is unbetaed. Rated T for dark themes.
They left at noon—the ones who lack the courage or perhaps the requisite madness to assault the Black Gates. They trickled out in ragged lines or ghost-like approximations of battle formations, setting their faces towards their homelands and the dubious honor of reclaiming Cair Andros. I bear them no ill will; one of my own cousins turned back. I can hardly fault them for balking at invading this land of nightmares. Still, their loss is keenly felt, especially by the great ones.
Chance or the vagaries of fate have placed me in the first company of foot soldiers, marching near the head of the column. The men behind complain about breathing the dust of our feet all day long while the men beside me mutter that our place at the head of the army means we will be orc-bait in the first onslaught. That suicide charge is still two days away, though—perhaps three if fate is kind—and those days will be filled with the monotony of the march. This ash-choked desert has lost its chilling novelty and is now merely unpleasant. Men cannot remain terrified forever, even here. Around me, I hear men talking, joking, even singing.
For my part, I am content to trudge along in silence while I watch the great ones. The lords ride just before us as a mounted company. Banners snap in the wind as if their proud colors could somehow distract Sauron from the paltry force that marches behind. The kings likewise shine bright; they are arrayed in the finest armor our two countries can furnish, but on warm afternoons like this one, they take off their helms, allowing me to see their faces and perhaps judge their character.
The young king of Rohan strikes me as reckless. I'm told that on the fields of the Pelennor, he laughed and sang as he slew Sauron's hordes, and that the more the tide of battle turned against him, the louder his singing grew. Though I was not there, I needn't stretch my mind to imagine the sound; in the evenings, I have heard him lead groups of his people in rousing hymns with driving, furious beats. They sing in their own tongue, but the subject matter is not difficult to guess. These are no love ballads. Éomer is quick to smile, but the expression has a fierce edge to it, not unlike the manic light that never leaves his eyes. Perhaps this is merely the way of horse lords in their youth, but I can't help but think that he was never meant to be king. From speaking with the Rohirrim, I gather that he is a nephew of Théoden, not a son. This war has ravaged the House of Eorl just as it has our own line of the Stewards.
But, if Éomer is an unlikely king, then the Lord Elessar's existence is entirely impossible. We do not even pretend to follow Lord Imrahil now; our banners and our heralds announce a king. Many of the men speak of him with awe, especially the ones who followed him in the Black Ships. They say he can turn back death and command spirits not of this world. From my place at the head of the column, though, I can see that he is only a man. Sweat beads on his neck from the unseasonable heat, and towards the end of a long day his shoulders begin to slump with weariness. I am uneasy. Too little is known about this man who came up the Anduin like a storm—who assumed command of our forces apparently without objection or debate. For centuries, Gondor has put its trust in the House of Húrin, and that allegiance cannot be so easily forgotten, at least not by me.
Still, I saw something in him when he dismissed the faint-hearted. Just for a moment, his face softened, as if he understood their fear—as if he felt it himself. He showed mercy on them not by letting them turn back but by letting them march on—on to Cair Andros and a task that they are equal to. He understood their fear, but more than that he seemed to understand their need to be brave.
It was the sort of thing Faramir might have done.
They say he will recover—Captain Faramir, or Steward Faramir as I suppose he must now be called. I cannot help but think that he ought to be the one leading this hopeless charge. The men would believe in it if the order came from Faramir; we know him, and we know that he does not spend lives for naught.
I do not know what will happen should we return. Perhaps if we survive, Faramir will oppose this king apparent and try to retain his father's seat. For us, that would be a choice between a myth and a man, and I do not know which might prevail. As jagged black rock rises around us, though, a power struggle in Minas Tirith seems a remote possibility. It is far more likely that we will all die, and Faramir will rule over the remnant of our people for whatever time remains until the tide of Mordor washes them away.
I am torn between wishing Lord Faramir were with us and wishing him a thousand leagues from here.
Heavy, black fabric flutters in the wind, and I tell myself it doesn't matter. If the banner of the old kings frightens Mordor, then that is reason enough to fly it. This Lord Aragorn is an enigma to me, but he proved himself a capable commander on the Pelennor Fields. I might as well die under his banner as any other man's.
But woe unto him if he wishes my Steward harm.
The watch is set, but I suspect few of us will sleep tonight. I sit by a fire with a few others from my company, holding a spoon and a bowl of something I cannot identify. While my comrades speak in murmurs, I simply eat, slowly and mechanically. The brownish mash tastes like lard and is seasoned with enough salt to dry and preserve my own tongue, but we go into battle tomorrow, and I need my strength. I refuse to shame myself as I did at Minas Tirith, even if no one survives to remember.
In all my life, nothing has ever humiliated me more than being found unfit to defend my own city. It was nobody's fault—or so the healers told me. I was ready to stand with my company in defense of the outer walls, but illness gripped me at the worst possible moment. It was some disease of the bowels—bad water, perhaps. Forget about holding a sword; I could scarcely hold down my own breakfast. So, I was obliged to spend that long day shut up in my barracks in the fifth circle, all but chained to my chamberpot as I listened to distant horns and the thunder of catapult fire. It was only in the evening, when the ragged remains of my battalion limped home, bleeding and spent, that I realized the full cost of the battle.
None of my company returned. The others spoke with awe of their heroic stand at the gates before the iron crumbled and terror entered.
I was still weak the next day, but when the captains began to speak of a final march on Mordor, there was never any doubt that I would go, just as there was never any chance that I would turn back to Cair Andros. I am the Chamberpot Soldier, after all, and that will never be forgotten—not by me at least. I was relieved when my former commander sadly told me that because of the loss of my company, I was to be shifted to the head of the column to strengthen the vanguard; I could hardly hope to regain my honor by fighting with the reserves.
In between bites, I glance out at the camp. Most of the men are as subdued as my own companions. Even the Rohirrim sing no songs tonight-not in the very shadow of Mordor. As always, the men from the north sit around their fires like ghosts.
One man is moving, though. Lord Aragorn. He is unmistakable, even from a distance. He walks from one fire to the next, speaking with knights and common bowmen and Rohirric riders. He talks and jokes and laughs. He draws from them stories of recent troubles and dreams for the peacetime that may yet come. In our days on the march, I have never seen him so effusive. Still, his smiles and assurances do little to convince me. I've seen enough campaigns to understand the strategic importance of morale, and apparently so has he. He sees how few we are and how weak, and he seeks to avoid further losses. I suspect it does not come naturally to him—this posturing. Given the choice, he might spend all his time with his closest companions—with the wizard and the dwarf, the elves and the north-men—rather than this army of strangers. Nearly a thousand men turned back, though, and he has no more to spare so he does what he can. In his wake, the men seem heartened, but there is only so much that words can do to dispel the palpable tension that weighs us down.
I think suddenly of Lord Boromir. The Steward's elder son was a master at raising men's spirits. Those who served with him remember him as brash and bold, but few seem to realize how studied his show of bravery truly was. War was an art form to him—one he was determined to perfect for the good of Gondor. Bolstering morale was simply one more skill that he practiced and refined. Just being in his presence could make a man feel braver. We remember him fondly not simply for who he was but for who he helped us to be. If there is anyone who could have convinced us—could have convinced me even—that this assault is not in vain, it would have been Boromir the Bold.
Truthfully, it surprised few of us to learn of his death. I think we had long suspected that a spirit that burned so bright would burn out just as quickly. It seems cruel, though, that his end should come in a foreign field far from the home he fought to protect.
I've made myself far too morbid with these thoughts of Boromir. One of my new comrades notices my drawn face and asks if everything is alright. I shake the question off. Of course it isn't, but for their sake I let them draw me into their conversation. We speculate on tomorrow's battle plan, revive the age-old infantry debate on the value of spears as compared to pikes, and roundly mock one of the younger men for his plans for "after the war," which apparently include opening a bakery despite his complete inability to cook. I force a laugh as the others regale me with tales of the poor fellow's culinary mishaps. It takes energy to appear engaged with them, especially when all I want to do is crawl under a rock and hide there until all the world has forgotten my existence.
Perhaps that is why I do not notice him at first, even when he approaches to within a few paces of our campfire.
One of my companions glances up, starts, and cuts himself off in mid-profanity. "My . . . my lord," he stammers. Heads snap around, and several of the men start to scramble to their feet, but Lord Elfstone waves a hand.
"There is no need to get up," he says with a warm, seemingly careless smile, "Valar know you have been on your feet long enough today." To my amazement and mild dismay, he folds his cloak back and lowers himself to sit on a boulder right beside me. "Have you all had enough to eat?" he asks.
"Yes, my lord," a captain answers quickly, "We are well provisioned."
Lord Aragorn arches an eyebrow at that. He lifts a bowl from a stack by the fire and ladles up a bit of our . . . stew. I think it is stew. It's hard to say, really. The captain pales a little. "My lord, I am sure we could find better for . . ." But it is too late. Elessar takes a bite of the colorless mush. He chews thoughtfully. To his credit, he does a better job of hiding distaste than I did when I first tasted our meal.
"Your cook has been a bit liberal with the salt," he says at last, his diplomatic voice carrying just a touch of irony. The would-be baker flushes red, but it is such an obvious understatement that the tension lessens and a few chuckles break out around the fire. To my surprise, Lord Elessar actually takes a second bite. "It is no easy task, to make these provisions edible," he says lightly, "The cooks in my own camp have done little better."
I arch an eyebrow at that. I'd not thought of the lords eating this same poor fare, though we are hardly provisioned for feasting.
He has just a few minutes to spend with us. He asks for all our names, though I am sure he will remember none of them. He draws from my new captain a quick account of the fall of Osgiliath. He praises Faramir's leadership in that battle which, I must admit, endears him to me somewhat. His face goes solemn as the captain's account trails off. "Gondor lost many good men in that defense," Elessar says quietly, "But it was not for naught, and they will not be forgotten."
The men are silent for a moment. Suddenly, the would-be baker speaks up. "Do you think we'll be forgotten, my lord?" His voice is tentative. "I mean . . . after . . . ?" He trails off and we all wince. The boy should have kept to ruining our supper and bearing our teasing; by opening his mouth, he's given voice to what we all are thinking and broken the fragile taboo that protected us.
Lord Aragorn reaches over and clasps his arm. He smiles gently. "I mean to remember everything that we do here," he says softly, "I'm sure you will as well. And for Gondor, this will go down in history. How could we forget the battle that finally frees us of Sauron's evil?" He has carefully avoided the point, but his optimism seems to give the men heart. Most of them, at least. I look down at my half-full bowl, clutching my spoon so hard my hand hurts. I mash the brown sludge with a bit more force than is warranted.
It isn't long before the lord—the king—must take his leave, but before he goes, he drops a hand onto my shoulder and squeezes. "A word in your ear, Gadron?" I blink. Not only has he remembered a name, but he has remembered mine. I stand and follow him a few paces away. In close quarters, with no other to distract his attention, his gaze is uncomfortably sharp. "Are you alright?" he asks, once we are out of the others' earshot.
I blink. "I . . . do not understand, my lord."
His face does not change. "You've the look of a man who seeks his own death," he says bluntly.
I close my eyes. I'd thought—I'd hoped—that no one would notice. I'd never dreamed that the king, of all people, would see through me. "You needn't worry about me, my lord," I tell him, "I know my duty."
"Yes, and I am sure you will be equal to it," he says, "But, I fear for you. Men who expect to die often fulfill their own prophesy."
For a moment, I cannot speak. His words seem to lodge somewhere in my chest, loosening something that ought not be loosened. I struggle to keep my face still, but a half-hysterical sound forces its way out of me.
It is unmistakably a laugh.
His eyebrows rise. "I did not mean to jest." He sounds bemused rather than stern, which merely adds to the surreal nature of it all: me, the Chamberpot Soldier, standing on the very edge of Mordor discussing certain death with a man who might just be a king.
Another gasping laugh follows the first. Nothing about this is funny, and a wiser man might be sobbing, but I cannot seem to stop myself. Somehow, Elessar understands. He takes me by the shoulders and helps me sit and then simply waits, his face solemn and concerned until the strange sounds subside and I am able to catch my breath. "Denethor," I say, when I am finally capable of speech once more, "They say that's how he died. A prophesy made real."
Elessar's expression tightens a little. "I cannot speak to the manner of Lord Denethor's death," he says, "I was not there."
"They say he saw our doom."
"No more can I speak to what he may have seen."
"Was he mad?
"Who can say—"
"Or was he the last sane man in Gondor?"
"Gadron." He waits until I meet his gaze. "Denethor did as he did because he believed in a lie—Sauron's lie. All is not lost—not yet. I can tell you no more than that."
I swallow, regaining control of myself at last. "You truly think we can win?"
I've given him the perfect opportunity to offer assurances and platitudes, but he pauses. "Win?" he says at last, "If you ask whether we can take the Black Gates and defeat all the hosts of Mordor with six thousand men . . . then, no. But, if you are asking whether we can defeat the Dark Lord and free future generations of his evil . . . then, yes, I think we can win."
The answer is all but nonsensical—we will certainly be defeated, and yet we can win?—but as he speaks, I see a spark of . . . certainty or belief or hope or something in his eyes, and it makes me want to believe too.
I draw a slow breath. Then another. "Forgive me, my lord," I say, "I was wrong to doubt."
He waves a hand. "There is nothing to forgive." Still, he hesitates. "Are you alright?"
"I will be." I meet his gaze. "I will be ready."
"That is all I can ask."
It isn't long before he has to go—he has six thousand other men to look after, and every one is as terrified as me—but a sense of calm lingers in his wake.
Perhaps I will sleep tonight.
I neither know nor wish to know what was said at the parley with Sauron's foul emissaries. It is enough to know that Elessar came back changed. His expression, as he rallies the ranks, is stern and unyielding, but beneath that mask, his face has drained of all color—all life. Mithrandir rides close beside him, speaking low words into his ear, but the king does not look at him. After a moment, the wizard looks down, his aged hands tightening on something that looks like a scrap of cloth but shines like the sun.
There is no time, now, for debate or regret. Already, the Black Gates are swinging open, releasing a seething horde of orcs and trolls and men. Elessar calls us to arms with rousing words, but I watch his face, looking for the spark of hidden hope that brought me out of last night's darkness. I see nothing but resolve.
Sauron's armies swarm towards us. So great are their numbers that they do not even bother with battle formations. Elessar stands just ahead of the front ranks, his bare sword held in a white-knuckled grip. I realize then, even as we ready pikes and nock arrows, that this gambit has become Elessar's pyre. Long he resisted the despair that overthrew Denethor, but it has ensnared him at last. And we, the Men of the West, are the ones chosen to burn with him.
The thought does not trouble me like I thought it would.
The enemy has nearly reached the base of the hill where we will make our stand. Time is short, but still I watch the king. I see him turn one last time to look at last at Mithrandir and the others at his side. His face now holds no shields and no masks. He smiles, though his eyes shine with tears, and speaks softly. I am too far away to hear his words—they are meant only for those who had the privilege to call him friend—but that does not matter. His face says enough.
My king turns and throws himself at the advancing lines. He does not look back, nor does he need to; we will follow.
I would follow him anywhere.
A/N: Thanks for reading! Reviews and concrit are much appreciated.