Through a Glass, Darkly|
“More Men going to Mordor,’ he said in a low voice. ‘Dark faces. We have not seen Men like these before, no, Sméagol has not.”
From: J. R. R. Tolkien. “The Two Towers.”
“He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace – all in a flash of thought which was quickly driven from his mind.”
From: J. R. R. Tolkien. “The Two Towers.”
I had the dream again last night. I am a wolf, a great cat, fast as the clouds swept up by the swift-gathering storms of the steppes. In my dream the dusty plains are soft and yielding, and I am running. Always into the east. Chasing the sunrise. The lands are empty, and desolate, and I feel I can run until the beginning of the world. Then the music starts. I am alone. I do not mind being alone when the world sings like this.
The brooding silence does not wake me, nor the echo of approaching trumpets, nor the words of an unbidden whisper on my lips. The King Elessar has come. But then there is Kaz, shaking me, a sharp kick in my side, and finally the dream slips away. I sit up, blinking, disoriented, a distant hum refusing to leave my ear. After another jab I get to my feet. In the relentless dark of the day, I have but two legs, clad in black and iron. There is no need to dress; after the long march west, my armour and clothes cling to me like a second skin. Kaz passes me a cup of brackish water, and I drink, and then something stronger, and I drink that also. When I hand back the cup, our eyes meet and I take a step back in wonder. Only in the earliest moments of the morning do we still have faces, and a jolt of memory passes between us, as we trace features almost forgotten. It does not last. I don my helmet. And then I am just eyes, eyes encircled in black kohl.
Another dawn wrapped in the mist and smoke of Mordor. We wait. The Lieutenant of Lugbúrz exchanges biting words with our Captain from atop his steed, his eyes sweeping over our ranks, and the familiar chill of fear seeps through the dirt and smell of our rotting garb. It matters not. All those of us that could be broken shattered long ago. All that is left is discipline, iron will and fire, and one soldier with a strange dream.
“You were always too precious to someone,” said Kaz when I first spoke of it, the music and the empty plains. Each word was punctuated with contempt. “And now your life has become precious to you.”
Kaz disapproves of my dream because it is solitary, selfish. Kaz’s dreams are whole-hearted; filled with thousands of others, the cries of people waiting for justice, the hungry eyes of our allies from the south, dreams of bloodshed and victory and vengeance. And sometimes, glimpses of a country promised long ago. A country drenched in so much light that the sky and the rivers seem white. A country of four seasons, and weather of all kinds, and strange, soft grass.
I know that dream, for that is a dream which belongs to us all. They are stories, perhaps they are lies, but they are beautiful, and so we hold on to them. Kaz, firmly, I, loosely, like a drop of rain rolling off the back of my palm, a fleeting thought among others.
Hours pass; the winds are still; the air is laden. From behind the gates the trumpets sound again, and then the challenge. Some armies are still moving; a final, long-rehearsed dance before we will take them in an uncontrollable storm. Silent black waves cover the mountain sides, slow and deliberate, ready to cascade down the rocks when the dam bursts at last. But for now, we wait. Kaz is brimming with excitement, revelling in the nervous energy on both sides of the imposing dark gates, in the joy of this final, seamless trap. We sharpen our knives, our movements fall into a rhythm, harmonise and pull together. Kaz is of my blood, born during the same sun-turn, a mere eleven moons older. Same mother, different father.
“Yours was better,” said Mat to me once, twice, too often. “A better lover. A better man.”
On days like those she would let me sit on her lap and play with her hair.
“I kept yours, for a time.”
That was when we lived in the rickety wooden hut with the porch, Papa, Mat, Kaz and I. Days drifting into each other, hunts and traps and trips of goats. Papa would beat Mat sometimes, and that was right, she said, leaning back in her easy chair, because it showed that he was strong. Sometimes, she would show him she was strong too. And when the rains came, and the steppes turned to brown, Papa would chase her, and pin her down, and then he would hold her. Her eyes would shine, and her face would move from one expression to another, and for some I still have no words.
“A better fighter. But not good enough.”
She only said that once, and that time they did not laugh when they fought. In the end Mat punched him and broke his nose. And then the war came and he was called away and Mat was proven right. He was not good enough, my father. But I am better, a born killer, a great cat, a wolf of the steppes. I practice with staff and axe and bow. Kaz observes me through heavy-lidded eyes, and misses another shot.
“A better soldier. A better archer,” murmurs Mat. Kaz’s eyes flash, and the next arrow hits the target.
Until the day we also are called west, to Mordor, where the sun sets, and beyond that, the land of living death, of pale-faced giants who cannot be touched by sickness, by passions, by anything human and real. At least Orcs wear their malice outwardly. The fouler the beast, the crueler its bite. Kaz and I learn quickly. Their desires are easy to predict but hard to curb. The Great Commander, the Mouth, sneers at our discomfort. He calls them a means to an end, disposable, expendable. Orcs are fear made flesh, and no Man should let themselves be ruled by fear. Still, I sleep with a knife in my hand. And after the night when the invaders first proclaimed their King’s name, when the Lord roused in his Great Tower, and the wraiths took to the air; the night when they took Orel for their sport and his screams echoed thin and high off the walls, I sleep with two.
That was two rests before the news reached us: the enemy could not win, we could not lose, and they had managed to waylay our ambush and cross the river. Kaz said to me: “Mat is dead.”
“I know,” I said. We spoke no more on the topic then, nor in any of the days after, but when I turn my back, I imagine that Kaz is laughing.
And now they have come, I know not why. I wonder if perhaps they have dreams of the lands beyond the barren wastes of Mordor. If they see the dusty plains when they close their eyes, if they do justice to the colours of the land of my home: the blue lakes and red fields of the tundra, and the endless grey of the steppes. The challenge sounds again: “Let the Lord of the Black Land come forth. Let justice be done upon him.” And in one last mocking gesture to their twisted code of honour, the challenge is met.
We wait again, an hour, an age. When the gates open, I laugh with the others. They are so few, so pitiful few, and at last the odds are right. Because a fair fight means a fight by their rules; rules that bend and twist and change in their favour; rules that are immutable, impermeable; rules that say: we always win. It is our birthright. Because although the sun rises in the east, every day they drag it west, until it disappears into the ashes of Mordor in bursts of red dismay. And we, we must pass through the shadows to claim it back.
At last I get a look at them. I start. They have our colouring. They are pale as Kaz beside me, melting into the mist, with skin that does not remember the sun. Black hair, most of them, but some have hair from which all the colour has been drained, like old hair kissed with metal, but theirs is gold and bronze, and their faces are unlined. They look nothing like us. They look like death: splendid, but fell and distant and indiscriminate.
And there is no escape, not for them, not for us.
“The King Elessar has come.”
He has come. A tall man upon a tall horse, with a sword as long as my glaive and the stern brow of one who lets no passion touch him, of one who believes death to be a friend. He is speaking, commanding, dictating, and the obedience of his army twists into reverence. Then he turns and faces our company, faces me, and for a moment the world collapses and I fall into him. He is so close, and he sees me. His eyes are kind; there are stars in them. A silver twilight that would draw you in; and dazzle you with beauty beyond anything human. What right has he to claim the stars for his eyes? And in that moment I wonder if he believes in what he stands for, in the stories he spins for his people in their green and fair lands. He must have a clever tongue, to lead them here to certain death and all for the promise of a life in meek submission. The fair lords of Gondor - fair of skin, fairly arrayed, perhaps - because unfair in everything that matters; unfair when they took our land and steeped it in their sinister secrets. A land where they sacrificed my kin to their gods, where they used our blood to stain their rich garments in brilliant hues of red, where they lock their women in gilded cages, or keep them enslaved in houses of stone. They have caught the stars in their eyes, and who knows what else?
The discipline instilled by the endless march falters, and I reach for my sister’s hand. “Kasia.”
To my surprise, Kaz does not pull away. She grips my hand and turns to me, eyes glittering with fire. “You owe this to me. Shura the Better. You cannot run.”
If we die today, we die in victory. If we die today, we die in justice. If we die today, we will never die, but meet again beyond these mountains, in a further and fairer place, and we will dwell forever in these lands we have just been handed, so easily, so readily. It is the part I dread the most.
In my dream I am fleeing east, on four legs, a lone wolf of the steppes. The sand yields beneath my feet, swiftly rising and softly falling, and then the sun is there, bathing the plains in yellow, and the world is flat, so flat and far and wide as the eye can see. Land beyond the stars, my wild and empty lands, where death is just death, a proper end. But as the drums roll and the horns cry, my heavy legs start to move west. One last time.
- - - -
The inspiration for this little one-shot was a fan discussion over whether the Easterlings at the Black Gate in the film - the ones who nearly discover Frodo and Sam - were women.
The names are Slavic (Kasia = a Polish form of Catherine, Shura = a Russian diminutive of Alexander and Alexandra): Mat is a Russian word for mother. I needed something that sounded sufficiently different from other ancient European cultures encountered in Tolkien’s legendarium. No other cultural parallels are intended.