It was the silence that awoke Ronald. Not the fear filled, tense silence that sometimes descended upon the trenches, and which he might have been expected on this of all days. No, this was a silence filled with awe, with a peacefulness that cut like a sword. He found his eyes drawn upwards, away from the mud and the ragged men, to the dark fields of the heavens, sprinkled with a multitude of stars. His gaze was drawn to the east, and, as he watched rapt, as if this were the first dawn he or any other man had ever beheld, the eastern sky began to fade, a pinkish light driving back the dark. “Rosy fingered dawn,” he whispered, his schoolboy Greek not wholly out of place in this desolation.
A random thought emerged, for, transfixed as he was, he did not, could not, put wholly aside where he was and what he was soon to be doing. “Eos drives back the night as soon we shall drive back the enemy.” He shook his head, and that thought was gone. Time enough for that sort of thing later.
Now there was one lone star in the eastern sky. It’s light bright as a spear point driving at his eye. He could not look away, for it seemed to him that all the beauty remaining in the world was gathered into that one last star, that it alone made this drabby, fear-filled place endurable. The beauty of it smote his heart, and, as he looked again across the this forsaken land, the thought pierced him that in the end this war was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.
And even as the bugle resounded that would begin this worst of all days, a name came to him, a name from the long past of his people for this very star, a name he found beautiful even in its very sound, doubly so when coupled to this bright star, and he whispered, “Thank you, Eärendil.”
This was to be the day, July 14, 1916. For 14 days, B Company had huddled in the trenches, watching in horror as the broken men of A Company returned from “there,” those that returned. He was a Lieutenant, a signals officer, but that really meant little. A year or so in training camps scattered through the Midlands, that was all he knew of war, that and the ancient poetry he loved so well, that seemed so removed from what he now faced, though so often it spoke of something it called by that same word, “war.” The old warriors, though, could look their foemen in the eyes.
Across but a score of yards of mud his foes waited, but he would never see their eyes. Just mud and tangles of wires that HQ had signaled had surely been cut in the nightly barrage. A Company had heard the same message, and found it not to be true. He’d passed the word along nevertheless, that was his duty. The men would know enough to judge its truthfulness.
Again the bugle sounded. He’d been so star-enchanted, he’d almost forgot to eat. He hastily swallowed a few handfuls of – did this stuff have a name. Cram, he smiled, a good name for something you’d cram down your throat.
He checked his rifle, again without thought, that at least the drillmasters had taught well. The third bugle. This was it. “Over the top, men!” called out the Captain. Next to him a soldier muttered “Watch out, Fritz, B Company’s coming for your blood.”
They fairly leaped out of the trench and were running, barely feeling the mud sucking at their boots. Silence, the flew on. Where was the enemy? How far really were their holes? Ahead, a wall of tangled wire. The remains of a man was hanging from it. “Animal horror,” came the words, but Ronald let them go. No time for that, for now the silence was torn apart, the new day filled with thousands of explosions and flashes, the air filled with a deadly hail. The man beside him collapsed. Ahead the Captain had a pair of wire cutters, was cutting a second strand. He too collapsed.
Ronald thought he saw a gap in the wire to his left. “This way, to me!” he called as he angled towards it. Such was his concentration on the gap that he was unaware if any of the men followed his lead. There was a gap, and now he was through. He fired off a few bursts, blindly, for still the enemy did not show himself.
Then he felt a blow, and a fire erupted in his chest. He was burning and drowning. Around him, the bright day was darkening, until, again, all he could see was a single star in the east, piercing in its beauty.
“Eärendil,” he moaned, in a language he would not come to know. “Brightest child of Elbereth, Namarie.”