Chance's Strange Arithmetic
2. The Private
Happy are men who yet before they are killed
Can let their veins run cold.
The assault was heralded by explosions and followed by a soft hiss, as the enemy's shells landed in their trench and began to discharge their toxic contents. "Gas!" the sentry's cry sounded, and all around him he heard the frantic scrabble of sleepy men desperately struggling to pull on their gas masks before the fumes could overcome them. The first faint acrid whiffs reached his nose: not sickly-sweet phosgene, but chlorine this time. For a moment he considered not donning his mask. Perhaps it would be best to do nothing and allow the harsh vapors to claim his life. He had no particular fondness for it, after all. But as the cloud of acrid gas began to thicken and he started to choke, he discovered that living had become a reflex of sorts, for he pulled the mask on almost before he was aware of his actions. Then came the shelling, and the rush of troops heading across No Man's Land towards his company's position, and there was no longer any time for thought.
Then suddenly Morgoth sent forth great rivers of flame... and the Mountains of Iron belched forth fires of many poisonous hues, and the fume of them stank upon the air, and was deadly. Thus Ard-Galen perished, and fire devoured its grasses; and it became a burned and desolate waste...*
He'd wandered through this land many times over the course of the millennia, returning again and again to the Sea that sundered him from his now-forgotten kin. It was a beautiful land once, green and fertile. Now, rent as it was by pits, trenches, and craters, covered in barbed wire, and seared bare by the flames of his foster-children's mechanical dragons, it could have passed for the Anfauglith. He remembered fighting there, a lifetime ago; though the weaponry he now held in his hand was different, the butchery its use inflicted was the same. And so were the screams of the wounded, muffled only slightly by their gas masks, who lay shattered by the lethal rain of machine-gun fire and were left to die slowly in agony as their compatriots rushed ahead, pressing on with their assault, desperately trying to reach the cover of the trench ahead before their enemy's fire tore them to pieces, too.
He aimed his weapon and fired, not at the oncoming soldiers (who were welcome to kill him; his life, he knew, was not worth even one drop of their spilt blood) but at the sky over their heads and at the spaces between their bodies. It was the act of shooting that mattered; so long as he continued to fire steadily, no one would question his aim, certainly not during the press of battle. Let my foster-children kill their brothers if they wish, he though wearily as he watched the slaughter unfolding before him, a massacre lit only by the brilliant flashes of artillery shells exploding. The yellow-green mists of the chlorine wafted all around him, mercifully obscuring the stars overhead and lending a surreal ambience to the night. I no longer care, and by what right does a dead soul interfere with the choices of those still living? I would not stop them even if I could. But I will not abet their butchery, either. He continued to methodically fire over the heads of the attacking troops, awaiting the inevitable end of the assault.
Thus the great fortress upon the Hill of Himring could not be taken, and many of the most valiant that remained... rallied there to Maedhros, and he closed once more the Pass of Aglon, so that the Orcs could not enter Beleriand by that road.*
And as suddenly as it had begun, the attack was over. He watched with weary eyes as the last of the onrushing men was shot down. How many had come charging out of the German trench - 30 men? 40? He doubted more than a handful had survived. So much blood spilled, on both sides, and nothing had been gained by it. The endless stalemate still held.
He tried to remember how he'd allowed himself to become trapped in this nightmare. His memory played tricks on him, the passing days blurring one into another; it was hard sometimes to think. I must have let myself become too close to them again, he realized. But I cannot help it; they are my foster-son's distant children, after all, my adopted kin. Wander though I may, I have always returned to them in the end. I am so lonely, and they are all I have left to me. And who else is left of my kind to watch over them? They must have asked me for my help, and so I agreed to give it. How was I to know that the monstrous enemies they were so desperate to fight were not Orcs, but their own sundered people?
The last of the chlorine had drifted away; beside him, others of his company were removing their masks. As he pulled his own gas mask off, his nose was again assaulted by the ever-present reek that hung in the air of the battlefield. Rotting flesh, urine and shit, lingering traces of poisonous fumes, the musky odor of unwashed bodies, the damp smell of earth - all mingled together sickeningly to form a stench that made his senses reel. The Aftercomers seemed to grow used to the odor in time; though they blanched and shivered when they first arrived at the trenches and caught whiff of the smell, this reaction passed. After a few weeks, they seemed oblivious to the odor. But his own senses never adjusted to the foulness, and each time he removed the gas mask and breathed in the unfiltered air again, the impact of it was doubled. Unable to stop himself, he leaned over and retched, then sank down, exhausted, into the slime at the base of the trench.
I cannot endure this! he thought. I am dead inside, yet I still feel pain. Perhaps if I plead, my children will let me go. Or I can steal away unnoticed in the night; I have faded, yes, but I think I still have power enough in me for that, for such a simple glamour, surely... For a brief moment, hope flared in his heart as he imagined walking away from this horror, washing the filth from his body in the clean waters of the Sea. Then he remembered the penalty for desertion, and his own weakness when the chlorine had washed over him, and he knew he would not try to leave. No longer was he one of the mighty of his people; he had dwindled over the course of innumerable centuries of suffering. Even his voice was reduced to a whisper, all its once-famed power gone now. He could not hope to leave unnoticed. And to be caught deserting was to risk being executed. Though he was dead inside, he was afraid to stop breathing and be dead outside, too. He was hopelessly trapped, by his own weakness and by his fear.
He curled into a ball, letting his head fall onto his filth-encrusted knees, and silently wept.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.