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A Matter of Honour

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People coming from the sea had pillaged the land for decades, their swift ships a symbol of terror and of the approaching End of Days …That is how the chroniclers would describe the events some time later, with the benefit of hindsight, when the raids would have culminated in conquest, making this kingdom part of a larger empire.

The rise and fall of the kingdoms of Men was of scarce importance for him – he was a simple farmer, after all. He tended to his oxen and geese, ploughed his field and grew his herbs in solitude, paid his taxes when due and went to mass with the rest of the villagers; that is, when he had absolute necessity to stay in the community’s good graces. If the population began to suspect something was truly amiss, he would disappear, the power of his voice strong enough to remove traces of his passage from the minds and the eyes of the humans.

His life was not idle; aside from his need to move every few years, sometimes he had to take up arms and defend the lands in the name of the king, for wars, skirmishes, feuds – and raids by wīcingas – were frequent. Oh, he tried to avoid them as much as possible; even, if the need arose, by singing illusions so that his presence could go unnoticed. He did not relish these fights, he was rather tired of blood and treachery; yet, no matter where his feet carried him, these always seemed to follow him.

 

As did those two disturbing ravens. They had first appeared in January. It was a day like any other; the grey clouds were heavy with the promise of rain and he had been minding his usual chores, preparing his breakfast, tending to his animals and then working in his garden. His palms had ached more than usual that day, prickling and burning if he strained his hands too much.

I can’t be feeling the weather as an old man, he had thought, I do not feel that old yet. The prickling sensation had not abated during the day, but soon he dismissed any concern and continued with his work. After the midday meal, he had been baking his bread, when he saw, from the corner of his eye, two dark shadows circling above his garden and then settle on the lower branches of his beech, right in front of the window.

He remembered well how his scars had sent a stab of pain at that sight and his heart had beaten frantically. That night he had slept fitfully, his mind filled with images of death, wolves ravaging a battlefield, crows waiting for their turns and a tall figure, with a head of hair as white as the plumage of a swan, standing in front of a land bridge by the sea.

 

The two crows had never let him out of their sight ever since. He usually saw them perched on the same branches of that beech; he had planted it in his garden when he had first settled here, and now it had grown higher than the farm. They were there in the morning, when he began his day, and he could count on them being there as he returned. They always regarded him with their dark eyes and greeted him with a nod of their heads, one after the other.

He suspected they followed him when he went on his journeys to the market or the smith in the main village. Their gaze was deep and knowing, as if they were able to pierce the veil of deception behind which he hid. He knew not the meaning behind their appearance, what kind of message they were entrusted with, but he had his suspicions about the sender.

He had dreamt no more of battlefields and of that man until tonight. He saw again the same battlefield by the sea, with the only difference that other warriors were crossing the narrow land bridge, longboats behind them.

He had woken up shaken and sweaty, the light covers all tangled and damp. The sun had barely risen, though he had felt tired already. He wished he could have languished in bed, if not for the nameless restlessness that prevented him from staying still, filling him with the nervous need of doing something to occupy his mind.

With a frustrated sigh, he got up and opened the window, hoping that the air would be fresh enough to clear his thoughts. It was a morning of late summer; the weather was still pleasantly warm and the sky was clear and aflame with the colours of dawn. He breathed in the humid air, filled with the scents of the earth and the songs of birds. Soon he would hear the roosters of his neighbours greet the sun with their crows. Feeling calmer, he turned back to his room, taking in the sorry state of the bed, deciding it would be best to change the sheets, which were rumpled and stinky. He scrunched his nose in distaste: he was done living day by day as a shadow of himself, too consumed by remorse and pain to tend to his own cleanliness.

He may be still dispossessed and exiled, but he was still a prince and had better manners. So, changing the sheets it was (though he did not look forward to the washing he would have to do, all that time spent handling soap and scrubbing that would hurt his palms).

 

Then, for the first time in months, the two crows had approached him.

‘Approached’ was not the right term. They all but ambushed him, damned birds, and scared him almost into an early grave by flying into his house through the open window and scampering on the windowsill.

He lost his footing, tripping on the carpet as his arms were occupied with the dirty sheets. He cursed aloud and sent a scathing look to the two birds, which were regarding him with a thoughtful air, their small heads tilted. They seemed unimpressed by what they were seeing.

“You two have no right to judge me. Go away,” he grumbled, still on the ground.

One of them croaked. He hugged the sheets closer to his chest.

“What do you want, eh?”

Another croak – was that the other bird? He could not tell, nor did he care that much.

“Who sent you? You owe me that much, at least, after you’ve spied me for months.”

One of the birds spread his wings, his stance suddenly proud, and its eyes seemed ancient beyond measure.

“I see. And did your Lord send you with a message, or…?”

The two birds began a series of deep croaks, agitating their tail and flapping their wings. They were making an awful lot of noise and he felt a headache growing at his temples. Great.

He huffed, annoyed, throwing the sheets to the ground as he got up.

“I can’t even understand what you’re saying. Either speak or leave me alone.”

The birds stopped croaking. He waited for a long minute in silence, until the birds spoke, in unison. In Quenya.

Battle. To the sea.”

And that was all – in a flurry of black wings, they flew away. He hurried to the window and saw them circling three times his garden and then going east, to the coast. What had all of that meant?

“I think, I am finally going insane,” he muttered.

He would have continued with his day as usual, if it were not for the burning curiosity filling him with the need to drop everything he had been doing and to go out and see what was happening.

The seamen had attacked other ports in the spring, that much he knew. He was also aware that the ealdorman had begun recruiting the freemen from the shire, alongside with their thegns to reinforce the lines of the fyrd. So a raid was imminent, and it would be nearby.

The only question he had, was why would Manwë and Irmo suggest him to – do what, exactly? Go and see the battle or fight in it? It made no sense to him. Whatever the case, he would need to prepare.

First, there was the matter of his disguise. He needed to pass as a freeman, in a position wealthy enough to justify his weapons, at least. Though he would have to be extremely careful in his illusion, for he needed to be recognised as a known member of the community.

He could not use his old armour; its craftsmanship was too fine and elaborated, the materials too expensive; he would attract stares, would be too much even for the king himself. As would be the case for his sword, though he loathed leaving it behind. If he could not rely on good armour, complete with helmet, he needed his faithful blade – he could not trust the swords of men to withstand his strength. At least he had a common wooden shield.

He would travel on foot, sure that the two annoying crows would show him the way to the battlefield and then…He had no idea. How would he present himself, if he would join the fight – if any of this were worth it.

What do you want me to do, Manwë? Why now?

 

*

 

The wood behind them was a tempting refuge, where one could flee and hide, waiting for the battle to end. The hawk had certainly thought so, as soon as it had been released. There was no use in another bloodshed.

He could see the uncertainty in the men’s eyes, their trembling hands, and quick breaths. Some of them had looked longingly after the little hawk, as it flew among the trees; others had stared resolutely ahead, their posture rigid in the effort. He knew they were hardened men, used to fight, but… He also knew how many of them had their family waiting at home, children, wives, parents and siblings who did not deserve the pain of loosing a beloved before their time.

Their leader towered above his men; the horse at his side could sense the growing anticipation, snorting and stomping its hooves on the soft ground, anxious to release its energy. His white hair shined under the sunlight, as he observed the longboats of the wīcingas. The back and forth between him and the messenger had set all the men on edge – there would be no room for peaceful settlement.

When the low tide came, a narrow land bridge emerged from the waters and few warriors were sufficient to hold it. They had the advantage, that much was clear. Yet, the fight would be unnervingly long and nothing could prevent the wīcingas from fleeing and choosing another place to raid; a place that would be undefended, easier to raid.

It was then that something curious happened: they asked for safe passage, so that the two armies could fight on even ground. Makalaurë watched as if in a daze, how Byrhtnoth agreed, ordered the fyrd to step back and give ground, how the seamen left their boats, shields and spears ready, and assembled in formation on the shore. He felt out of his own body for an instant, as if he were observing the scene from a great distance of time and space, and he had the certainty, irrational perhaps, that a greater force was at work; that he was now set on a path that was meant for him, unavoidable, necessary.

Two ravens circled above their heads, their croaks breaking the spell that had kept the armies in silence for those few moments. At Byrhtnoth’s order, the two sides startled and clashed with a cry that shattered the earth.

Makalaurë felt the ground tremble underneath the force of the running men, felt the rush of exhilaration as he joined their voices in the war cry, his body eager for the fight. It lasted until his sword felled the first man and Makalaurë looked the light go out of those eyes, terribly young and fearful, as blue as the indifferent sky above their heads.

A wave of disgust at himself stuck in his throat; his desire for blood waned until it left him chilled to the bone and heavy with guilt. Had he had a wish to die on that shore, he would have thrown sword and shield to the ground and let the seamen spear him, as he undoubtedly deserved.

Makalaurë had always been too attached to his life, though, and he was no coward, no matter what some might have said. He would not leave his companions now that things were already in motion. He would see this battle to its end, trying to spare as many men as he could.

He tightened the hold on his sword, raised his chin in a proud gesture of defiance, and advanced.

 

The battle had been a massacre. The seamen had won, after a part of Byrhtnoth’s army had fled. They would return swiftly to their longboats, without sacking the nearby town. They too had had terrible losses, and they wished not to linger in that place. The resistance they had encountered, the courage of Byrhtnoth’s and his men, must have impressed and even intimidated them – for now, when their wounds were still fresh, and they needed a safe place to recover. There was no doubt, among the surviving men of Essex, that the wīcingas would return, again and again, especially after such an upstanding leader as Byrhtnoth had died.

 

That night, Makalaurë went to collect the bodies from the battlefield. He owed them that much, at the very least. He soon found Byrhtnoth, his hair no longer as white as a swan’s plumage, but matted with dust and clotted blood. His most faithful retained lay beside him, and other valiant men with them. He lifted without effort the body of the ealdorman and placed it with care on the cart; he picked up the sword, its golden hilt glinting warmly in the light of the torch; his fingers touched with reverence the intricate pattern of the adornment.

How many times had he carried out this same duty, how many beloved had he buried.

In another time and place, he had promised to himself, after his father had died and his brother had been called king, that if he were to die during that war, it would be beside his elder brother and lord of their house. It would be in the defence of their younger brothers. For his father, for their oath. Fate had never cared for his silent promises.

He placed the sword beside its owner and turned to the second body he had to tend to. The man’s name was Offa, Byrhtnoth’s most faithful follower, who had foreseen the betrayal and never abandoned his lord.

Mocking and cruel, that was Fate! Maedhros had not considered betrayal, and yet it had happened. Maedhros had vowed the same as Offa to his lord – victory or death together – and yet only valiant Findekáno had perished. Maedhros had left, and only Makalaurë remained, bereft of even the consolation a funeral would have offered.

He lifted Offa’s body, as two familiar crows perched on the sides of the cart. Makalaurë frowned at them.

“What now? Are you satisfied?”

The two birds seemed subdued by the venom in his voice. They bowed their heads in silence before flying away again. With an annoyed shrug, he went around the cart, took the bridle of the mule and continued his work, sending a silent prayer for every warrior that lay on his path.

 

*

 

Dear Professor T.,

I hope this letter finds you well. I cannot express enough gratitude for your precious insight on the matter of…

[…]

As for the poem in question, I can certainly say that I had sung of him and that battle back in those times. Those people – especially their elite classes – had a great love for songs and heroic deeds (and respected skilled poets). However, I have not composed this specific poem myself. It was written down some time later, when I had left that place already, and travelled south.

I cannot shed more light on the word of which you speak, except for what I already told you. It has to do with pride, sometimes sinful at that, but we both are aware of how deceiving words can be. Indeed, I was there, and I could tell you that it was a matter of honour, though I am loathe to cast judgement on the ealdorman. He was not, I believe, immoderate in his pride, but you know well, by now, how much my view on the matter diverges from that of the common man and is coloured by personal experience.

By all means, consider my words if they please you or find you in agreement, but do not take them for the ultimate truth, especially if you have the chance to make a good story out of this matter. Was this ealdorman’s pride of the same nature as that of, say, my father? It is probable, very probable indeed, that a common root is there, some shared traits of character perhaps.

The two, however, had a difference. My father’s was, ultimately, the result of the belief in his own strength and power, sufficient to make him defy what, among mortals, would be called gods – and maybe fate itself. Bythtnoth’s, I believe, might have stemmed from love and from his inflexible honesty.

I know what you would say now, my friend: both resulted in useless deaths! And I agree, with all my heart. Yet, whom are we talking about here, Byrhtnoth the leader or the literary character?

For, if we consider the latter, he obviously follows the conventions typical of the genre; moreover, poets like their wordplays very much; a fact which, a thousand years later, when the language has changed and even disappeared, leads poor scholars to some serious headaches. I hear you once again, hastily ask me: “You were there, you know exactly what had happened!”

And how useful would that be, in order to understand the poem itself (and how would you justify the knowledge)? The poet who composed it, clearly, had not been present – and my account could diminish the heroism the poet wishes to convey; as one myself, I could not do such a disservice to him.

We both know how wars are a bloody and sad affair, with very little to celebrate. Yet, I also think that this poem is not celebrating war itself, but the memory of valiant men, who gave their life for something that, in their eyes, was worthy and they defended it out of sincere love. This is a sentiment I can understand – for I had felt it too, once, and seen it in many.

I am well aware that my answer is not what you expected and will not satisfy you – you know the saying, “Go not to the Elves…”

I imagine that your essay will say the exact opposite of what I told you here, and I am looking forward to it.

 

May a star always shine on your path and that of your family.

Yours sincerely.

 

P.S. Please, remember to burn this letter! (I know you are tempted to keep it).

 

Makalaurë found himself once again in England. In Essex, to be precise, in Maldon, where he had been more than a thousand years before. He sat in a small café overlooking the bay, sipping his hot tea, his mind at peace. A statue of a warrior stood proud at the end of the promenade. Families with children running around filled the air with their happy chattering. It gave him a sense of melancholy (how he still longed for a family of his own!), but it mingled with joy – maybe it was the sun, hot on that summer day, that brightened his mood.

Or maybe it was the booklet in his hands, a 1966 edition of a collection of essays, poems, and short stories by his late friend. It was a well-loved book, the spine broken and the pages yellowed by usage, for Makalaurë had read it almost a thousand times, taking notes and underlining parts of it.

What a mind, his friend! He had met more Secondborn than he could count, befriended few of them and never, in all the ages he had wandered this world, had he felt confortable enough to share his story. Until he had seen this unassuming fellow, dressed in tweed and smoking his pipe, staring at a tree for a good half a hour, muttering verses in – Old English, of all things! What man of the twentieth century would do that? Makalaurë would have left him at that, considered him one of those eccentric characters that often seemed to frequent university campuses, and would have never approached him.

Yet, the man had then spoken in Quenya – though butchered by an atrocious British accent – and Makalaurë had felt his heart stop, too overwhelmed to even hide himself, as he could do nothing but raise his voice in an answering song.

Thus had their acquaintance begun, and soon Makalaurë had found himself recalling and singing tales of an ancient world long lost to a one-man audience, who proved to be an excellent listener. He would talk for hours, and the professor would sit quietly at his desk, sometimes taking down some notes on a notebook, other times reading from another book as he listened. That had confused Makalaurë at first, until he had discovered that the man had been comparing his tales to another version of them, apparently written by another Elf! How the professor had come in possession of such account, Makalaurë never knew.

Smiling at the fond memories, he leafed through the pages of his Reader, until he found his favourite verses the man had composed. He was satisfied to have entrusted the man with the tales of his people. His gift with words and for languages would have intrigued his father – a pity that he had never had the chance to meet the Secondborn.

 

Doom he dared and died for it – how well did that verse apply to all of them. Foolish and proud they had been, and dearly they had paid. He had become tired, after the battle with the wīcingas, of war, of fighting, of swords and grand acts of heroism. What good had that battle brought? Nothing! It had changed not the course of history – it had been a small, small skirmish in comparison. It had only deprived the country of the lives of good and strong people, on both sides.

And the most tragic thing had been that, if the poem had not survived the centuries by pure chance, no one would have remembered that battle in the same way.

So he had put down his sword, promising to himself that he would not raise it again in battle, if it were not against Moringotto. He had wandered again, aimless, lost, confused, as the world had changed around him and had grown more and more foreign. He had felt unsettled, restless again, as if he had lost again sight of his intended path, yet knew it was near. All he had known was that the only clothes that could have fit him then were those of the scop, yet he had had no audience. Until the Professor.

He felt liberated now, in a sense. Memories of their deeds would be kept. He was not needed here anymore. One way or the other, he would go back to the shores of his people, be it through the Straight Road or through Mandos. There, he would take up the mantle of poet and musician once again, the keeper of memories, so that no more could the pride – the ofermōd – that lied dormant in his blood and that of his family rise again and stain their hands with the blood of their kin.

 

Some miles away, two identical crow perched on the branches of an ancient beech took flight to the west.