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Numbered Tears: 1. Angel of Mercy
Retreat, a desperate retreat, but not a rout: any disarray would mean certain annihilation. The right flank was a blaze of silver against the black horde following, while the left, ah the left. Arrayed in green and gold, they were surely doing their part bravely, but Glorfindel as their captain could spare little attention to supervise them. His lieutenant was a good fellow and he had trained the man well; doubtless he was leading them well now.
His standard-bearer was also an excellent fellow. Without a word, the wise and gentle standard-bearer tied Glorfindel's hair back securely so the blood wouldn't get in it, and helped Glorfindel get back to his feet.
"No good," Glorfindel managed to say tightly. "I need something to hold the wound closed."
Practicality kept fear at bay; the business of finding an unpunctured breastplate to bind across his opened body distracted Glorfindel from the yawning terror of the wound, and with a dead man's wadded-up undertunic stuffed into the wound and a salvaged breastplate bound tightly across it, Glorfindel found that in between waves of blood-flavored nausea, he could function.
Which was well, as his men needed him. The lieutenant was down, stricken, wounded, maimed, and as they hauled his gasping form away in a vain hope of healers somewhere amid the host ahead, Glorfindel discovered that he could still raise his voice, could still raise his arm, could still rally the men of the Golden Flower.
But in the absence of Manwe's mercy, the coldness behind the wound was spreading, and Glorfindel knew for the first time what it was to fear death. He shouted and sang to drive it away, and considered it fortunate that his comrades thought he was doing it to hearten them.
Turgon's clear voice summoned him back towards the host, and he darted to the rear of his battalion to take counsel with his Lord. But the sudden sprint was rather too much for him, and instead of merely bowing to his lord he wound up on his knees retching blood again.
Turgon's hand helping him up was oddly gentle despite the metal gauntlet. "Glorfindel," Turgon said, and Glorfindel shuddered at the pain, a little embarrassed that the blood was coming from his nose and he had nothing clean to wipe it away.
"Lord," he grunted, and spat a little forlornly. His broken body was strange to him and was not obedient.
"We must move quickly," Turgon said, and his face was drawn with grief and pity. "I see you are hurt. Fall in behind my House's company with your men, and I will tell Ecthelion to bring in his company behind yours."
"My House is still strong, lord," Glorfindel said, but he could not swallow, and the blood drooled from his mouth as he spoke.
"I would spare them, for now," Turgon said. He laid a hand on Glorfindel's shoulder, almost tender. "Will you live, kinsman?"
Glorfindel shook his head, stubborn and moved. Turgon never called him that. "Will any of us? I will assess my chances once I know that." He made a sketchy salute and staggered back to his concerned standard-bearer.
The hand fell onto Ecthelion's shoulder-plate with such force that it turned him quite without any motive on his own part. Turgon's face was tear-streaked and pale, spattered with gore. "Ecthelion," he said, "we must retreat with speed." The king's dark hair had come loose and his helmet was missing. Ecthelion clasped his shoulder in return, and in the other's eyes saw a reflection of the flare of light that had heralded Fingon's passing. Turgon's grip was as tight as his, and they were silent only a brief moment.
"When we reach the pass," Turgon said tightly, "you must fall in behind the left flank. I want you as the rearguard. Have you strength enough for this?"
"I am unhurt," Ecthelion said, "and my House remains steadfast." He hadn't counted the losses yet. There were gaps, but they were as nothing compared to the gashes he had seen in the ranks of the Hammer of Wrath, or worse still the Pillar of Snow. "We will hold the rear."
"I need more from you than that," Turgon said, and his face was closer to Ecthelion's now. "Listen well. We can leave none alive for Morgoth's tortures. Do you understand me?"
Turgon's hand tightened on his shoulder, moving closer to Ecthelion's neck and finding flesh instead of metal. Flesh yielded to his touch and Ecthelion bit the inside of his lip so as not to wince at the grip or at the realization of what Turgon was asking of him. "Do you understand me, Ecthelion?" Turgon repeated.
"I understand," Ecthelion said, and swallowed blood.
The hordes behind no longer pressed, held at bay by the sickening sacrifice of the faithful Edain. The surviving host of the Eldar now made its swift desperate way into the mountains. At the rear came the silent silver ranks of the House of the Fountain, many striding backward to ward off ambush. They knew their assignments, and the foremost among them made swift work of picking up the wounded who had dropped out of the march. If they could be saved, they were borne forward again to be reunited with their companies, and given a more secure position among their friends who could carry them.
But those that could not be saved, who could not get up, who could neither walk nor be carried: they were left, at the last, by the side of the road, with their breastplates unfastened for the mercy they would need.
And last of all came their grim captain, clad no longer in silver but in blood.
He knew no time, knew no geography, his awareness tightened down to admit only what was needed. Only the dust, the pain, the blood, and the death-rattles. His sword was stained and crusted with red blood, his clothing and hair and face spattered and clotted and running with it. Even the more lucid, the ones he still tried to save, the ones he sent forward to be carried again, no longer recognized him until he spoke. He did not weep, even at the killing of men he had known, and could feel the blood on his face that tightened his skin. But he had no time. Always he and his band of grim rearguards must hasten, to keep from falling behind. There was no time for lengthy goodbyes, only a hasty valediction in song and the heavy fall of steel.
Some wept, and Ecthelion had no words of comfort to them. He spoke little, but sang softly, any song that came to his mind, to quiet their cries. Some were so far gone that they never knew he was there, and sometimes they were already dead when he came to them. Even the already-dead he stopped to arrange, to cross their arms over their chests and try to close their staring eyes, and he sang nearly without cease.
"Mercy," a man of the Heavenly Arch moaned, and Ecthelion raised the long pale sword.
"I have only one kind of mercy," he said. "If you cannot get up I must give you the only mercy I have."
"Mercy," the man said again, lips white with blood loss, and Ecthelion brought the sword down obediently.
"Mercy," Ecthelion whispered, and closed the man's eyes, but his hand was coated in blood and it left a dark smudge over the pale dead face. Ecthelion retched at the sight, and stumbled to his feet, wiping at his own face and coming up with only blood. The horror of it beat at his senses and he knelt in the middle of the road, holding his face in his hands.
"Get up," Elemmakil said, and his voice was flat, lifeless, his hands pulling at Ecthelion's arms mechanically. "Get up, Captain."
Ecthelion retrieved his sword grimly and stood up, wiping at his face with a sticky hand. "Have you anything," he said hoarsely, "a rag or anything that isn't covered in blood?"
Elemmakil's hand lingered on his shoulder. "No," Elemmakil answered, and they looked into one another's faces and saw the shared horror. It made it a little easier, and Ecthelion picked up his sword and shook himself.
"Nothing for it," Ecthelion said hollowly, steeling himself. He took a shaky breath. "We go on."
His voice had begun to fail as the light failed, and now he staggered with weariness. Few were falling now, few needed his services, and of those few, most were already dead when he came upon them.
Here was one in green and gold, by his trembling not yet dead: a slender form curled on one side, shoulders shaking as he seemed to try to sit up. Ecthelion, in his more lucid moments, was aware that those before him were growing weary, and they had not always prepared the fallen for him. This one might still get up. His breastplate was still fastened.
Ecthelion put his hand on one of the narrow shoulders and knelt to look into the face. "Get up," he whispered, his voice gone. "Can you get up? I cannot leave you here to be taken alive."
The dusty hair fell away from the face, and the Golden Flower's captain looked up at him, grey-faced and red-mouthed.
"Ecthelion," Glorfindel said, and strained again to push himself up, but subsided in a moment, curling around an evident injury in his gut. If there was blood in his mouth it must be serious. And his men would not have let him fall easily.
Ecthelion sat back on his heels and bowed his head. He was entirely numb now. "Glorfindel," he said. He glanced forward: this eternity of dust and death was measured for him only by his constant awareness of how far ahead the column was, how little time he had to linger. He was behind. He was too weary to catch them up if he lingered longer. "Glorfindel, please get up."
Glorfindel looked up at him and set his jaw in determination, and Ecthelion gave him his hand to pull him upright. He sat up, but doubled forward, shuddering. "I can't," he said, his hand frail and tight around Ecthelion's sticky gauntlet. "I can't get up." The blood was dripping from between his teeth; Ecthelion could see that his tongue was swollen from dehydration, his lips cracked.
Ecthelion stared dully at him for a moment. "I can leave none alive," he rasped. "If you can't get up I must kill you."
Glorfindel bowed his head. In a moment, he nodded. "You must," he said.
Ecthelion picked up his sword, which he'd dropped to help Glorfindel sit up. It was overheated, crusted with gore, filthy with dirt caught in the sticky blood, and he regarded it a moment. But the cutting edge was sharp and silver still. He looked at Glorfindel.
Glorfindel coughed, and rolled ono his back. His eyes were dull, glazed with pain, and his swollen tongue was between his bloody teeth. But he looked up at Ecthelion, calm and trusting and sad, and tipped his chin back in an intimate gesture to expose his neck.
Ecthelion stood over him, both hands on his sword-hilt, and the last of his composure crumbled beneath that unfocused but aware regard. Even maimed, Glorfindel was beautiful from his soul outwards, and the pulse beat visibly beneath the radiant-white skin of his throat. Ecthelion dropped the sword again and put his hands over his face, and suddenly his last internal floodgate gave way and the tears were searing at his eyes.
"Get up," Ecthelion gasped, his limbs coming unstrung and depositing him in a heap beside Glorfindel. "Get up." The horror of what he had to do assaulted him, and the realization he had been keeping from himself of the horror of what he had done: suddenly he could remember every blow he had struck, could vividly see every face, watched the light go out in every pair of eyes simultaneously. He had no voice to sob, could make no sound, but locked his filthy hands over his head and shuddered. He could not endure this. It was beyond him.
Glorfindel's hand found his knee, as far as the other could reach. "Ecthelion," he said.
Ecthelion shook his head, shook his whole torso, as if he could escape his pain by twisting. But it was futile, and he wound his fingers through his gore-clotted hair and rocked back and forth.
Elemmakil knelt beside him and embraced him, untangling his loosening fingers from the hilt of his sword.
Elemmakil put his hand on Ecthelion's head, stilling his rocking. "I can't, I can't," Ecthelion tried to cry out, but with no voice it came out a disjointed whisper, creaking and ruined. . "No more. I am death. Help, Elemmakil."
Ecthelion took one of his freed hands and put it against his forehead, trying to recover himself. He looked at Elemmakil, blurry through his tears, and blinked hard, seeing Turgon there instead.
"I have asked too much of you," Turgon said gently, putting the sword down and pulling Ecthelion into a fatherly embrace. "Your task is ended, Ecthelion. I ask no more of you. We will halt for a few hours, and from here out we carry all with us, living or dead. Your task is ended."
Ecthelion sobbed, ashamed that he could not stop, ashamed that he was clinging so to his king, ashamed at his own collapse, but so suffused with horror that he had no strength left to compose himself. Turgon held him gently, rocking him like a child, and it was a long time before his shuddering eased.
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