Chance's Strange Arithmetic
4. The Sum of the Equation
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
(Anthem for Doomed Youth)
The odd book had proved a puzzle indeed. Rarely had he found himself so engrossed.
He'd struggled for weeks before he had managed to finally translate the first page. Deciphering the strange flowing script had been relatively easy; not so mastering the hitherto-unknown tongue those graceful symbols encoded. An apparent member of the Indo-European language family, highly inflected, with a complex case structure - oh, the language was a lovely thing! But utterly unfamiliar; it did not seem closely related to any particular modern tongue. Where were its speakers now? What could have befallen them, to erase any trace of their speech so thoroughly from history? The language remained a mystery, even though he could now haltingly translate it.
And as he read further, he discovered to his delight that the puzzles the language itself posed were matched by the ones the book's subject matter raised.
For the book contained a collection of fantastical stories. Tales about an immortal people who lived in a city lit by glowing trees, who sailed across the sea in defiance of both the Gods and Fate itself to fight a demon. Dragons and other fantastic monsters, heroic warriors struggling against Doom, unbreakable oaths and cursed objects: the elements of these stories were common to most old European mythologies. But not a single mythology he was familiar with combined those many elements in precisely this way. The tales themselves were not clearly identifiable as Norse, or Celtic, or Germanic, despite sharing some common elements with those cultures' mythic stories. Had the writer of them been influenced by the Eddas, and Beowulf, and the Kalevela? Or (and he hardly dared imagine it could be possible; surely the little volume couldn't be that old) had the influence gone the other way? Could these wonderful stories represent the original proto-European legendarium, from which the later tales grew? They somehow seemed much more vivid than the sagas he was now so familiar with!
He hadn't known exactly what he'd been hoping for when he first set out to unveil the mystery of the old tome - but he knew he'd never expected to find something so captivating. And there was still so much more to study, so much more to read; he'd finished a bare third of the story so far -
"Lieutenant Tolkien? Sir, the supplies are in order; we're ready to leave for the front at any time now, sir."
Tolkien closed his book and sighed. He had other responsibilities now that took priority over intellectual pursuits, no matter how compelling these odd tales might be. Well, he thought, we still have a week on support duty before we're rotated back to the trenches - I'll have time enough to study this later. Assuming, of course, that the Hun's aim is poor tonight.
He looked up at the sky; the sun hovered near the horizon, casting a long golden light over the stubble in the fields. "I think we should wait another half-hour, Corporal; I don't want to chance our arriving before full dark."
"Understood, sir. No point in making Fritz's job any easier! I'll tell the men we'll leave at 1600 hours, sir."
After the corporal was gone, Lieutenant Tolkien resumed his study of the strange little book. A philologist these days, he mused as he started to read, must settle for whatever scraps of time he can find between shellings. I find the heroics of war are far more entertaining in rhymed meter than when experienced first-hand.
* * * * * * *
Lieutenant Owen wanted him to sing tonight.
He knew his music no longer had the power it once possessed; he could not shake people's hearts to their very cores as he had a lifetime ago. But his foster-children seemed to find his faded voice pleasant anyway, and to his surprise Maglor had found great comfort in singing to them. He remembered singing little Elrond and Elros to sleep so long ago, when the children awakened from nightmarish dreams sobbing in terror. He'd sung then of simple things, the glimmer of starlight on the water, the beauty of the woods and fields, the slow dispelling of night's shadow by the rising sun - images of beauty to chase the terrors away. It had worked, and the boys had slipped back into peaceful dreams again.
What was the war that raged around them now, if not a nightmare of another sort? Maglor knew this evil dream was beyond his power to dispel permanently, even had he still possessed his gifts of old. But for a time, while his voice floated on the filthy air, both he and his adopted kin could forget its horrors.
And sometimes when he sang, he felt the faintest stirring in his heart, and almost, almost he could believe he was still alive inside.
The western sky was splashed in blood; above it hung his father's star, burning fiercely. He'd seen so much blood during his lifetime, sacrificed to that terrible star; he did not want to think about such things now. Nor did he want to remember the endless years of wandering and pain, the loneliness that had shadowed him wherever he had roamed. Tonight, Maglor decided, he would not sing any of the usual love ballads or stirring victory hymns his foster-children so adored. No, on this night he would sing of other things far dearer to his heart: a city sitting on a hill, its white walls gleaming in the silvery light, with a high tower facing out towards the quiet sea. A mountain, its peak shining white, reaching up to pierce the clouds. A garden filled with fragrant blossoms, in which a woman he once loved danced in time with his harping...
Tonight he would sing of home.
Maglor closed his eyes and tried to remember Tirion.
"There is a city that far distant lies
And a vale outcarven in forgotten days ..." **
And as his voice began to swell, he unexpectedly felt a touch of his old power running through him, and silently wept in gratitude.
* * * * * * *
They heard music as they approached the front lines; strangely, for once the night was not riddled by explosions and rattled bursts of machine-gun fire, which would normally have drowned out the tune. A battlefield truce, apparently, Lieutenant Tolkien marveled; apparently, even the Hun was too busy enjoying the singing to shoot. He'd heard tales of such temporary cease-fires occurring, but had never actually witnessed one. Doubtless it would end as soon as the singer finished his performance, so he and his men needed to move rapidly, taking advantage of the precious lull to reach the shelter of the trenches. Once there, they could quickly unload the supplies, and with luck head back to their camp in the rear lines before the would-be Caruso concluded his song and the shelling began.
"Bloody opera! Why doesn't he sing something good instead of that foreign gibberish?" Tolkien heard one of his men mumble. Until that moment, he'd been too preoccupied with his own plans to listen closely to the music. Now, he noticed for the first time that the haunting melody was in a strange key, and the lyrics were not English - or any other language he recognized. Surprised, he listened more carefully, but he still could not identify the language, although something about it seemed oddly familiar.
They'd reached the trench and Lieutenant Tolkien had taken up a sentry position, watching for any signs of enemy activity while his men hurriedly began lowering the bulky crates down to the soldiers waiting below, when images began to form in his mind. As he listened to the music, he slowly began to see visions of a city forming before his eyes. A white city, with a great tower soaring heavenward, the walls lit by a strange shimmering light, sitting on a hill in a gap flanked by enormous mountains. The streets and gardens were filled with beautiful people, grey-eyed and raven-haired and tall...
It was, he realized with a shock, the same city portrayed in the book he had been reading earlier.
The descriptions in the odd little volume matched exactly the visions now swimming in his head. Had the singer read the same tales? What other explanation was possible? Perhaps the musician would know something more about that mysterious book's origins. He had to meet the man!
With an effort of will, Tolkien forced himself to see past the wondrous sights the music was evoking in his mind, and began to look about for the singer. Where was he? The music was coming from his left, but in the darkness it was hard to see anyone hidden in the shadows of the deep trench. Well, I will just have to inquire as to his identity once we're finished, he finally decided. We're running a bit ahead of schedule; I should be able to manage a quick chat with the fellow before we must depart. With that comforting thought, he relaxed and gave himself over to the pleasure of the music once more. And as soon as the last crate was lowered, he hopped into the trench.
No! Tolkien wanted to shout, not now! But he bit his unvoiced protest back; as an officer, his official responsibilities took priority over speaking with that unknown musician. Reluctantly, he turned around and found himself facing a strange corporal. "Are you all right?" the man asked, a quizzical expression on his face. "You seemed a bit dazed."
"Yes, quite all right," Tolkien mumbled. "Just a touch distracted by the music. Tell me, Corporal, who is the singer?"
"Private Maglor sure does have a good voice, sir, no mistaking that. Pity he decided on opera tonight; I can't say I've ever cared much for it. Now his usual songs are first-rate! Maybe you'll hear them the next time you come." The corporal pointed to a tall man pressed up against the dark earthen wall of the trench; at the same moment, the man turned towards them, and Lieutenant Tolkien was able to see him clearly.
The singer had a narrow, angular face, and wisps of dark hair peaked out from beneath the edges of his helmet. Against the dark background of the trench wall, the man's pale skin almost seemed to be glowing. An eerie otherness, the likes of which Tolkien had never felt before, clung to this soldier; when he met the man's eyes, Tolkien shivered at the radiance he saw in their grey depths. Not human, he thought dimly as the strange man continued to sing and images of the white city filled his mind once more, can't the others see that he's not human?
Noldor. They call themselves Noldor...
And that city, those fantastic tales - not myths, but history? The history of a Faerie folk?
The Noldor sailed eastward across the sea to fight a great battle, long ago...
"Nice enough chap, but a bit touched," the corporal prattled on. "Too long in the trenches, is what I think. Now come on, sir. Captain Albertson has a message he wants you to take back to headquarters with you when you leave..."
Reluctantly, Lieutenant Tolkien allowed himself to be lead away; by the time the captain had finally finished with him the first hint of dawn was starting to kiss the eastern sky. There was no longer any time for him to speak to that unhuman private; his men dared not be caught traversing the open ground near the front lines once the sun started to rise. The covering night stripped away, they'd be easy targets for snipers. He had no choice; they had to leave now if they were to return in safety.
Fortunately, we still have a week of supply duty ahead of us, Lieutenant Tolkien thought as he and his men slogged their way back through the thick mud towards the rear lines. It's likely I'll be returning here soon; perhaps then I will have the chance to speak with Private Maglor. There's so much I want to ask him, so much I wish to learn! It's the opportunity of a lifetime, one I won't squander...
* * * * * * *
The orders had arrived yesterday; they were going over the top tonight, in yet another attempt to force an opening in the German line. An intense artillery bombardment would proceed their attack; the high command was confident that this would weaken the German defenses enough for a sudden, sharp assault to break through.
The men in the trenches feared otherwise.
They waited, huddled deep in the protective embrace of the earth, listening to the concussive blasts of artillery shells, dreading the moment when the guns would fall silent and they'd be forced to leave the sheltering confines of the trenchworks. But when the time finally came and the order was issued, they did not hesitate, but launched themselves over the edge of the trench and began racing across the desolate waste of No Man's Land.
And then the enemy guns opened fire, and the men of the 2nd Manchesters began to fall.
Hotchkiss went down first, struck full in the face by a jacketed round, his suddenly limp form falling into a line of barbed-wire fencing where it hung suspended, a gruesome sigil of combat. Then Archer, and Richland, and Bradfield... But there was no time to mourn, no time to even register the deaths; to stop, even for an instant, was to die. As he ran, Maglor heard the moans of his dying children, left behind by their compatriots, and the whine of bullets passing by his head, and the incessant gunfire. The smell of blood and cordite quickly overwhelmed the other noxious odors drifting on the night air, and the darkness of the moonless night was pierced only by the bright flashes of muzzle fire that issued from the German machine guns.
The strength and terror of the Great Worm were now great indeed, and Elves and Men withered before him...***
It seemed to Maglor in that moment that even the carnage of the Nirnaeth Arnoediad paled against the devastation his foster-children were now wreaking on each other in this war with the aid of their new mechanical dragons. How could this conflict end before every man on either side was slaughtered? His children's apparent joy in murder surpassed his ability to comprehend, even stained as his own hands were by the blood of countless innocents slain during his own pursuit of folly so many millennia ago.
Ye have spilled the blood of your kin unrighteously, and have stained the land... For blood ye shall render blood...
Tears unnumbered shall ye shed...
Something broke inside of him, and Maglor felt himself slowing, watching with indifferent eyes as the others of his platoon rushed past him in the night. His voice was drowned out by the chaotic sounds of the battle raging around him, lost to all ears but his own.
He'd barely begun the second verse of the Noldolantë when he felt the first bullet strike him.
* * * * * * *
The only music that greeted Lieutenant Tolkien and his men when they returned to the forward position held by the 2nd Manchesters was intermittent bursts of rifle fire, tapping out a light cappella in the night for his platoon to dance to. They somehow managed to reach the cover of the trenches without taking a loss, but it had been a close escape. Obviously the battlefield truce that had previously held here was over. While he and his men worked, Tolkien tried to spot the strange soldier whose song had so bespelled him on his first mission to this spot. He saw no sign of him, and his heart was uneasy when he asked the officer who was assisting him, "Where is that chap who sang so well? Private Maglor, I think his name was?"
"Dead," came the subdued reply. "Along with a third of our forces. All killed two days ago when the damn fools back at headquarters ordered yet another frontal assault. We didn't last ten minutes under those guns before I was forced to sound a retreat; it's lucky Fritz didn't press us hard afterwards or this whole line might have been breached. As it was, all that blood was spilled for nothing - we're in exactly the same position we held before the attack, a stalemate."
Dead. The Faerie is dead! I came back too late! Tolkien thought, dismayed. The memory of that prior almost-meeting mocked him now. He'd come so very close to touching a mystery that night, but fickle chance had chosen to snatch his opportunity away forever. Now all that was left to him was the remembered sound of an intoxicatingly beautiful song and the vision of a glorious white city, both of which he feared would soon begin to fade, as dreams always do. Must even the memories of such magic now be lost? That even the mere existence of those people should now be forgotten is a monstrous wrong! Aloud, though, he only said, "I would have very much liked to have heard more of that fellow's songs. His voice was magnificent. What a waste."
"War is nothing but waste, in the end," the other lieutenant replied. "That's the truth of it. But most people prefer to prate on about 'Martial Glory', refusing to look at the graveyards that follow in Glory's wake. Private Maglor had a little talent; I'll always wonder what use he would have made of it had he survived this butchery."
"So will I," Lieutenant Tolkien replied sadly. "So will I."
* * * * * * *
The temporary respite of supply duty over, Lieutenant Tolkien returned to the trenches, and their filth and their vermin which inevitably bred disease. As he began to shake with fever, still haunted by the memory of ethereal music floating on the autumn air, he slowly fell into a delirium in which snatches of song and images of glowing trees and gem-paved streets intermingled sickeningly with visions of a pale, black-haired man lying motionless in the mud, staring at him accusingly with lifeless grey eyes. Will you let my people be forgotten? those eyes seemed to ask. Will you stand by silent and allow such beauty as I showed you to pass forever from the earth? "I cannot tell your tale properly, for I do not have your magic. Please, leave me alone!" Tolkien pleaded in the dead man's secret tongue; the hospital staff took his cries for raving and sponged him down with alcohol to lower his fever, but the dead man only continued to gaze at him with a mournful expression.
And then his fever broke, and he found himself in his own white city, a world of crisp clean sheets and starched nurses' uniforms and air that smelled of disinfectant rather than of corpses. Almost as soon as he could sit up unaided, he asked for paper and a pen and his shabby red book, that he might amuse himself during his recuperation. And picking up the pen, he began the arduous process of translation.
"High and white were its walls, and smooth its stairs, and tall and strong was the Tower of the King. There shining fountains played..."
Such magic to move hearts as he could invoke with his mere words, he would. The war had already claimed beauty enough. Probably most readers would remain unchanged by what he wrote - but if even one person was stirred by the tales of the Noldor and their deeds, he felt he would have accomplished his purpose. Rest now, Maglor, he whispered silently as he worked. You and your people shall not be forgotten. I, at least, will weep for you.
* * * * * * *
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 mourns in man
Before the last sea and the hapless stars;
Whatever mourns when many leave these shores
The eternal reciprocity of tears.
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.