When my mother was young and unmarried, and the women at the market heard that she worked in the Houses, they would raise their eyebrows beneath their cloth caps and grin at her, asking if she had yet met her sweetheart there. As if the wards were the choice place for courtship, the place where suitor after ailing suitor lined up to meet you and gaze up at you with grateful, lovelorn eyes. My mother would just smile shyly at the market-women as they wrapped up her purchases and counted her coins, for she was always too polite and in too much of a hurry to disabuse them of their notions.
(Had it been me, I might have told them that it was work, just like any other sort of work. I would have told them that, yes, there were men, but most of them were there for a reason. My hand holding a dying man's hand was as good as any other woman's. By the end of the War, I had been called by the names of so many wives and sweethearts and daughters that my own seemed to matter very little.)
All the same, there was some truth to it: many of the girls who worked in the Houses met the men they would marry there (as many still do). My mother, however, was not like many of the other girls, and even if the Houses had had in their air some surefire elixir for inevitable, wounded love floating amongst the scents of blood and lye soap, she would have found some way to hold her breath and sneak around the back.
Which is essentially what she did.
I can imagine her, twenty-six and pretty, before the long years of her marriage and the long years leading up to the war had stiffened the lines of her back and shoulders and put crease marks about her eyes and mouth. When she was a girl, she and her best friend had made a practice of wandering the fifth and sixth circles in their spare moments, finding the narrowest alleyways and the most secluded courtyards (those unexpected pockets of stone), marking in their memories the swiftest routes and also the strangest and most unnecessary ones, the dead-ends and the spiraling paths. I can almost see her, twenty-six and pretty—when her best friend is already wed to that slender, watery-eyed young butcher from the fourth circle, already at home with one baby and another on the way. So that my mother finds herself, more often than not, walking alone.
It is midday and her morning-shift is finished and she is indulging in one of their old shortcuts. She is wearing her blue healer's dress, but she has taken the knotted cloth from her head and her hair is the color of rich garden earth, dark and arresting next to the stones of the corridor (her sole vanity; she always uncovers her head the moment she leaves the Houses). She weaves her way between the side-streets—too many of the windows that line the walkways boarded like heavy-lidded eyes—footsteps echoing as she ducks beneath a line of colorless laundry. My mother loves the emptiness, though, even if she does not love what it means. She loves how quickly she can weave through it, as if she can outpace the crumbling walls and the shadowed faces she sees every day in the Houses and the market. Her shortcut is almost ended, and she takes one last step through the broad archway that leads out to the main street.
One last step, and she has not looked ahead well enough, and she collides with another body—a barrier at the end of the shortcut, a wall where there should be no wall. She catches her breath and steps back and then she sees the other object in the collision. A tall man who has said something like Oh! Driven sideways and backwards by the force of my mother's confidence, the assuredness of her steps. Leaning slightly back, large hands hanging his sides, two or three cloth bags lying heavily, dropped on the flagstones beside his feet. He is staring at her now, and he is maybe eight or ten years her elder, or else he is simply that much more tired today. She catches her breath, opens her mouth for an apology, begins to stoop to retrieve the bags.
But then she stops, because he is laughing. His eyes are wide and bright, and he is laughing loudly, and there is a strange edge of relief to it too, of expectations gratified, as if this is some joke that he has suddenly, finally understood.
She is twenty-six and pretty, and she arrests herself in her stooping and looks at him, and then she begins to laugh as well. The man is my father, and my mother is happy not only because she is laughing in the broad archway, but also because she has no idea what will happen later.
My mother told me the story about the shortcut and the laundry and the laughing. Later I imagined some of it, as well, patching the cracks in the masonry, indulging in my own side-routes and embellishments. But I know that there will always be something I am missing, something that I have not taken into account. Things I could never have dreamt of. So I try not to imagine too much. Really, I can only tell you the things that actually happened.
* * *
It was raining and I stood up with one hand braced against the wall. It hurt to stand and it hurt to move. I was filthy. My fingers were chafing on the stones of the wall because they were shaking. I could not leave and I could not stay there, so all I could do was stand, trembling. It was raining and it was dark. I should not have been out alone.
I was breathing the damp air, over and over, gasps that only went halfway through my chest, and that hurt, too, to breathe like that, but I could not make myself stop. My heart was beating quickly, and the rest of me could not keep pace with it. I did not belong to myself any longer. I only wanted to be where he would not be.
I kept my fingers on the wall and moved down the alleyway. It hurt to walk. I felt ill and I wanted to stop and double myself over, and perhaps I did, once or twice. I would go a few steps, stop and look around me, listening hard through the rain, imagining I heard noises that were not there. I thought for a moment of going down to the fifth circle where our house stood vacant and dark, finding some way to crawl inside and stay there. But then I thought of crouching behind the boarded windows, all of our things in the same places they had been since the final day of the evacuations, stowed and locked away, and it only made me shake harder. I could still smell him on me—he had smelled of metal.
It was a long way to go and I was not sure of it. He had wrenched my bones out of joint, I thought, and I thought that I could still hear him breathing at the back of my neck. One turn moved into another and then I was at the of the east wing of the Houses, at the edge of one of the very small gardens. Few patients ever came here. I had seldom come here, either, but the entryway was open and I stepped inside and I thought I could make my way from there, slip through and find an empty place to sit until I could think again.
* * *
No one who comes to the Houses seeking aid is ever turned away. Still, we rarely see those from the lower circles, unless they are near to death. Carpenters or stonemasons badly injured at work, the very occasional drunkard whom someone has had the care and the time to pull from the gutter.
"They have their own healers on the lower circles," Fíriel once told me. "Women who work in their own houses, or go to visit the ill in their own beds at home."
"And who teaches them?" I had asked her. I was eleven or twelve years old, and Fíriel then was a few years younger than my mother had been when she had walked too quickly through a crumbling archway and into her future.
"Their mothers, most of the time," Fíriel said.
"Only their mothers?"
"Yes, I suppose. Perhaps their friends, sometimes. Why not? Your mother teaches you."
"Yes, but not only her. So do you, and Ioreth, and the other ladies, and the Warden. And have they got a Canon that they have to recite, as well? How do they know what they are supposed to do?"
Fíriel smiled a little. She was pretty and very grown-up, and I loved being with her because she seemed to know everything, even the things you might not suppose she would. "Well, not all places are like here. Which is probably just as well."
She was the one to whom they gave the rare girls who came to us from the lower circles. There seemed to be some unspoken rule about it. Thin, ill-treated tavern girls with bruises on their faces and furtive looks in their eyes; they came in quietly, with their heads down.
"Don't stare," one of the matrons told me when I was very young. "Besides, those are not good women."
Later I asked Fíriel if this was true. She looked at me for a moment before she answered.
"No, not bad women," she sighed, a measure of distance in her eyes. "Working girls."
* * *
There was a low bench under the eave and I sat down. I was shaking harder. In the Houses during the long days of the Siege we had always had to keep moving through everything. The murk pressed in from the outside, the rumbling of the battles came from below, and we did our best to work the dread into the ground. This was a different sort of fear. There was nothing for me to hold to.
I heard a noise that was not the water dripping down, and I felt myself stiffen. Someone was walking past; I found myself on my feet again. It was a man, and he stopped and came near, and—
"Valar, there you are. What are you doing here?"
* * *
"Are you all right?" he was asking me. It was too dark to see his face very well.
"I—" All I could do was shake my head. I sat down again. At least I could breathe a bit more deeply, now.
"You're bleeding." He reached over to touch my shoulder, and I flinched away. "What happened to you?" When I said nothing, he went on. "How long have you been here?" He was taking off his coat. He leaned towards me and I started. "Here—it's all right." He put it over my shoulders, and it was heavy. "You should come inside."
"Where were you?" I finally managed to whisper.
"Here, take this." He was holding out a handkerchief and I took it and wiped my face. My hands were still shaking. "You're staying here in the Houses, aren't you? North wing, is it?" I nodded. I thought of the wards. I thought of the talk in the wards and how crowded they were. "I'll take you back there, then. See that you're looked after, all right?" I thought of the wards, and of all the men, and I could feel myself shaking harder still. It was the sort of sensation I sometimes got when I ran up the stairs too quickly and missed a step—where you had needed there to be a landing, there was only the shock of empty space and lost balance. I put my face in my hands and began to cry.
"Here now, what is it? It's all right. Don't you want—" I shook my head. I was not sobbing loudly, only choking on it all at the back of my throat. I thought I could hear him sigh. "All right. It's all right. Come inside, at least."
* * *
His handkerchief was still crumpled in my right hand as he stood outside the door in the dim corridor, out of the rain. ("You can come in for a while, at least," he had said. We were still in the east wing.) He patted at his side, and then looked at me and said, "Coat pocket." As I took his jacket from my shoulders and gave it back to him, he smiled at me for a moment, the way a person might smile when he is hoping for unlikely good news. I only dropped my gaze downward, and when I looked back up at him he was taking out a key and working it into the lock.
Inside, I stood by the wall while he started a fire in the grate. He was in his shirtsleeves, kneeling with the yellow light reflecting on his face, and he looked like someone I scarcely knew. The corners of the room began to emerge from the darkness as the fire began to blaze.
This was wrong, I thought. I should not be here. I would have given anything for a proper bath at that moment, or, even better, to find some way to crawl entirely out of myself.
"Come and sit," he said, and he watched me as I hesitated, and then as I walked over and sank down gingerly before the fire, the heat prickling against my skin. I began to tuck my dress in around me but my fingers dropped away when they found tears in the cloth. I half wished that he would not look at me at all. I knew that in all likelihood I was bleeding underneath my skirts, though I was trying not to think about it. He stood up, walked a few paces off, and sat back down with a towel and a water basin. "Here, look," he began. "Loosen your collar." I had a straight cut just below my left collarbone which I could not remember receiving.
He was hesitant and solicitous and he kept his distance. Was I warmer, now? Did I want something to drink? To eat? I could only shake my head. He brought me a blanket.
"Who did that?" he finally asked, gesturing towards the damp towel I was pressing against my skin. I stared at the floor. I did not want to give him an answer that would only lead to other questions. He cleared his throat.
"I spoke to Laeron," he said.
"You did?" I looked up at him again. He nodded.
"After the evening-shift."
He nodded again, slowly. "It's been over for a long time," he said softly. "He was worried for you."
"And for you," I said. I was trying to keep my voice low and even, but it seemed to have taken on a will of its own. I swallowed. "Did he…"
Valacar smiled again, that brief, uncertain expression. "He wasn't pleased with me, I think."
He shook his head. "Don't be. You did nothing wrong." He stared into the fire, then looked back towards me. "Laeron said…you had gone to ask after me?"
When I nodded, he rubbed a hand over his face, and he looked very tired. "I'm sorry," he said. "You shouldn't have—" he began, but then he stopped and was quiet.
"How is that? Better?" he asked after a few moments.
I took the towel away from my collarbone. "Fine."
He leaned closer to me, and I shrank back. "It needs a few stitches," he said.
"It's not that deep," I said. He got up again and went to where his jacket was hanging by the door. He seemed to be going into the pockets once more.
"You'll have a scar."
"I don't care."
"You might care, later." He lit a candle on a small side-table. "You know it won't take long."
"Why won't you tell me what's happening?" I asked.
He had a needle between his fingers but he stopped and looked at me for a long moment. Then he sighed.
"I've been dismissed," he said, pushing the needle through the center of the candle's flame. "I think you should probably lie down for this, don't you?"
"I've been dismissed from the Houses until I receive further notice." He was threading the needle.
"They can't dismiss you. We're still at war." I pulled the blanket more tightly about myself. Everything was less than real. All I wanted was a bath. I wanted to feel clean and safe and I wanted the pain to go away. I was trying not to think much further ahead than that.
"It would seem that they can. They can, and they have. I don't want you to worry about any of this. Now, please just come here and—"
"You keep saying that, Valacar. You've kept saying that, but you know I'll worry, anyway, don't you? If you didn't want me to ever worry, maybe you shouldn't have done anything in the first place!"
"You're shouting," he said quietly, the way he had said it to me on the day that Laeron had been laid low with a fever, and Valacar had called me in to help. The needle and thread were still in his hands, and he crossed the room and crouched down beside me. I moved away, felt a fresh pang of soreness at my side. "You're shouting. I'm sorry," he said. "And I'm sorry that I don't know what to say to you." I looked away. "Now, I am going to try to help you. But I can't unless you let me."
I had gotten closer to the fire. My face was too warm by now, and I stared at him. He had been dismissed in the end, after all, I thought. Then I nodded.
"All right. Now come and lie down."
* * *
"Always remind them not to touch their stitches," my mother had told me. I was still learning then, and it had been odd, trying to make myself put a needle and thread through someone's skin as if it were a piece of cloth. "They will always want to touch them, but they'll only make them dirty."
And now I was passing my fingers over the small seam of thread just below my collarbone, making it sting a little bit more. And why not? I wondered. Valacar probably made the smallest stitches of anyone in Minas Tirith, tailors and seamstresses included, but he was not here to tell me not to touch them. ("Get washed up, if you like," he had said, pointing me towards the washroom after he had tied off the thread. Embarrassed, as if my reticence had become contagious. The same tone of voice he had used a few days ago when he had asked me if I thought he'd been right.)
I stared at the back of the screen for a few minutes before taking off my dress, thinking of what I would do if a girl came to me in such a state, came to the Houses like this. My back ached where he had pushed me into the wall, my ribs ached where he had shoved against me. He might have raked his hand through my hair, once. It was only after my fingers were wrinkled from the water in the basin that I realized that I could try to get him off of me for the next three hours and still not feel I had succeeded.
* * *
"He never lifted a hand to me," my mother sometimes murmured after my father had died, speaking to me or to one of her friends at the Houses. "He never lifted a hand to anyone." As if this were almost enough to make him a good man. The other women would cover my mother's hand with theirs and nod, silent and large-eyed, but I would simply look away. I did not like to see my mother regress to this timid, apologetic creature that she was not, save for the times when she spoke about my father.
Of course he never lifted a hand to us. That would have taken some enterprise, at least. It would have taken a bit of effort, especially in those last days. How could such a heavy, sodden mass of a man, propped stupidly in the corners of rooms, ever lift a hand to do anything?
My mother had gone back to the Houses to work when I was still very small. She had had little other choice. She had worked, and I had sat and played in the kitchens ("Look how small she is," Cook had clucked at me. "Have another sweet roll.") or in the gardens. Beren had been right, in the end; I had loved the gardens. At times I had loved them better than my own house.
So of course I would be a healer. I stayed there in the gardens and in the Houses as I got older, after I was old enough to be of real help. And I stayed there after we learned that Mordor would come, and after most of the others had left. After my mother had left. Of course I had stayed.
* * *
"Have a drink?" Valacar asked me. He was at the side table again, pouring something dark into a glass. He looked at me and I shook my head and found myself disliking him.
I was sitting on his bed, on top of the coverlet, tucking the extra cloth of a robe about me ("That's clean, if you like," he had said, handing it to me). Now that my cut was neatly stitched he seemed to no longer know what to do; any surgeon in the Houses would have long ago handed his patient off into the care of someone else, getting ready to receive his next case. I would not let him check me for broken bones and cracked ribs. "It's fine," I had murmured, and he had quickly dropped the issue. Only by knotting my fingers into the folds of the coverlet had I been able to keep myself still as his hands had hovered over my shoulder. Under the robe there were still wet spots on my shift, where I had scrubbed hard at the blood and anything else there that I did not care to contemplate in the least. I was hugging my knees to my chest like a small child, trying to see if curling myself around the pain might help lessen it.
Valacar poured a second glass, anyway, and set it on top of the night-table beside the bed.
"In case you change your mind," he said. "It might help you to sleep, if naught else."
"Do you want your bed back?" I asked him. He looked very tired.
"No." Still holding his own glass, he settled down into a chair near the bed. "I'll just sit here, if you don't mind." He took a sip of whatever sort of drink it was.
"I don't." Before, I had not studied the room in detail, but now I looked around. Even in the flickering firelight, I could tell that it was small and neat, although things were not as straight and square as he kept them at his surgery (which was not his surgery anymore, I reminded myself). A larger table against one wall, and some chairs. There was a book and an inkwell and writing implements, plain quills and knives, on the table. On the opposite wall was a small shelf with more than a few books, and I wondered at this, for I knew that surgeons' salaries were comfortable, but far from princely. There were windows above the bed, and the curtains were drawn.
He must have seen me looking, for he simply said, "Bachelor quarters," and took another sip. I wondered if he was always such a slow drinker. Not everyone liked to space it out like that.
"Have you lived here long?"
"Aye…ten years, perhaps. And I've not had company in a while," he added. I shifted on the bed, which made me grimace. In spite of everything I found myself reaching for the glass on the night-table. The drink had a strong flavor, not unpleasant, and I could feel it immediately, warm and heavy at the bottom of my stomach. I did not drink very often at all, but I had always thought that perhaps the warmth was part of the reason some people seemed so taken with the activity.
"Lossarnach brandy," he said. "It's not bad."
I nodded. He was watching me.
"Are you going to tell me what happened to you?" he asked softly, after a minute or two.
I could hear the soldier's voice, feel the blade at my neck, his weight against me. Eat you alive, if they could. I was ruined, I thought. That was what they called it. I was wrecked.
"Because if someone has hurt you, there should be consequences for him." He shook his head. "I don't want to see you hurt like this."
I clutched my glass more tightly. "Then don't look at me."
"I think you might feel better if I fetched one of the other women to look after you." His voice was kind, but all the same I hated the way he said it. All these men. They all thought they knew something. I did not want to be very near to him, but I did not want to be alone, either.
"I can look after myself."
"I know you can," he said, setting his glass down on the table and clasping his hands in his lap. "But you shouldn't have to."
I took a deep breath and I put my head against my knees.
"I don't want people to talk."
"And what will they talk about, sweetheart?" he asked very softly, and something in the softness made my stomach turn.
"Why won't you stop? It's no business of yours! You can't—" I could feel panic rise in my throat once more, the meager benefit of the fire and sitting and the resting all suddenly lost. I knew I was shouting but this time he did not tell me so. My back to the wall, and the cries of the Black Captain clawing at the inside of my mind, the glower of shadow in the East, and the rain—
"I just want to die," I said, and I lifted my head and stared at him. My voice was breaking. "I'm sure you could be of aid with that, Valacar," I added.
He did not say anything to that, just stared at me, then leaned forward so that his forearms were resting on top of the bed. I shrank back quickly.
"Valar," he murmured. I had made myself small in the opposite corner of the bed. The shaking was beginning to return. "You know I wouldn't hurt you."
"You could if you wanted to. That's the point, isn't it?"
"But I don't. I would never."
"You could." I was blinking back tears and loathing myself for it.
I could hear him sigh. His elbows were still resting on the bed and he had his face in his hands. "Valar," he repeated. "I'm sorry. I just don't think I can—" He broke off and shook his head and did not say anything else.
I was wiping stupidly at my eyes with the cloth of my sleeve.
"I must be in a terrible state," I said.
"I've seen you looking better," he conceded.
"No," I said, wiping at my eyes again. "I must be awful. Because you called me 'sweetheart.'"
I could feel him taking his weight off of the mattress, and then his hand was only over his mouth. He made a noise as if clearing his throat.
"Well. I promise I'll not do it again, then."
* * *
Somehow I managed to fall asleep, and then I woke up breathing hard. Cool sweat dotted my forehead. There it was again, that missed-step feeling. For a moment I forgot where I was, and the panic stretched for a moment into my waking, but then I remembered, which was not much of a relief, either.
"Nightmare?" Valacar was sitting in a chair on the opposite side of the room, near the bookshelf. A single candle was burning on the table.
I nodded. I was sitting up and I had both arms folded in towards myself.
For a while, neither of us spoke, and I stared down into the dark folds of the blanket that was lying across my lap. I looked up at him again. He was still watching me, his head inclined slightly to one side. He had a book in his lap.
"You're reading?" I asked. He nodded. "What are you reading?" My voice sounded rough. I had been dreaming about eyes and teeth. I did not want to go back to sleep.
He shrugged. "Just looking at an old book."
"Can I see?"
He nodded and got up and went over to where I was, taking the book in one hand and the candle in the other. I was relieved that he did not seem puzzled or hesitant; perhaps it never even occurred to him to question the fact that anyone else might want to see what he was reading.
"Do you like to read?" he asked as he sat down beside me, setting the candle on top of the night table. He moved slowly and cautiously, either because of weariness or because of me.
"No. I mean, I can't, very well," I admitted.
"You could always learn." He was sitting beside me with a book and everything was wrong, and I could not make it feel right. "This is a very old book," he was saying, slowly turning the pages. The candlelight was flickering and the words passed in and out of the shadow. "My uncle gave it to me when I was a boy, and his grandmother gave it to him. I don't know who gave it to her."
"What's it about, then?" It was a small book, but thick, and the covers looked as if they were dark blue, though I could not be certain. The paper smelled of dust and age.
"Just a book of histories," he said, slowly turning the pages. "The writer was very much part of the older tradition—a bit scattershot, and perhaps he relied a bit too much on anecdotes, but lively. Good reading for young boys, I suppose." I nodded, and he smiled a little. "Of course, my favorite part was always the one about King Valacar. They say that it was he who started the Kin-Strife, depending upon how far back one's reckoning goes."
I pulled the covers a bit closer around myself. "What did he do?"
"Well, he…I suppose he married the wrong woman." He put the book into my hands, as if giving me permission to judge for myself. It was heavy, and I studied the pages open before me, as if the spindly black letters could resolve themselves into a pattern for me. I wondered what Beren must be doing right now. And I almost wondered what he was doing.
Besides the original lettering and illuminations, there were also passages here and there with lines running beneath them, notes scattered in the margins beside the old black letters like ill-fed stragglers trying to keep pace with an army on the march. "Did you make these marks?" I asked.
He looked to where my fingertip hovered above the page, and shook his head. "Those were already there when I received the book. I like them, though."
"Why?" I carefully turned the volume in my hands. "It seems wrong to mark in books."
"I used to like to think about it, sometimes. The writer is dead, and most likely whoever made these markings is dead, as well. But the words are still here. That's what I've always liked about books, I suppose. Knowing that they outlive us."
I was quiet for a long moment, and I ran my fingers over the page. I did not know how long it would be until the sunrise, but I knew that the sharp spine of the mountainside would be casting its shadow over the western half of the City, and that the greater Shadow would glower, distinct, in the East once more. I knew that I would have to make myself go back to the wards to help the men and talk to them, even though I wanted to stay quiet and folded in on myself.
"A lot of things outlive us," I said.
"True enough," he replied.
"Perhaps it's good," I said, "to think about such things. Because it means that nothing we do can ever matter. Not really. Or it matters very little. I mean, not being kings or stewards or anything."
"Is that what you think?"
"I don't know." I closed the book with the slow care which I believed was warranted by any such object. "Have you heard anything more about this King of ours?"
He shook his head. "Most likely no more than you have. I have heard that his lineage seems to be true."
"My brother always used to ask if he could climb up the wall of our house and into the next circle. And my mother would always say, 'Of course, dear. When the King returns.'"
"She'll have to think of something different to say, won't she?"
I nodded, and then I looked away. "I miss them. I miss my mother. I wish I had been with her more before she had to leave. Everyone was so busy—there was no time. I suppose that was good, in a way. There was no time to think about it. I wanted to believe that I would see her again."
"You will," he said.
I shook my head. "I don't know anymore. I don't know about anything."
"You will," he repeated.
"I wish she were here."
I was still aching all over; it was almost worse than before, as if lying there had driven the pain further into my bones. I opened the book again, almost expecting it to creak in my hands like the hinges of an old door, and slowly turned the pages. I wondered idly if there was any namesake of mine tucked somewhere among the black words. Then I thought of something else.
"Who dismissed you, Valacar?"
He was quiet. He did not pretend that he had not heard me, or make a remark about the book, or fuss with the candle wax that was dripping upon the night-table, as I might have done had I wished to evade the question. At any other time, I would probably not have pressed him any further, but I was wounded and miserable, and at the moment I also felt oddly reckless and entitled.
"Lord Aradîr's not fond of you, then, is he?"
He smiled; a brief concession. "No, not terribly fond."
"And all because of that man? And because you might be the next Warden?"
"Might have been," he corrected me. He got up from his chair, and then he retrieved his empty glass and was filling it again.
"Why do you do that?" I asked.
"That." I gestured towards the drink in his hand as he sat down again.
He shrugged, looking puzzled. "I like it, I suppose. Why?"
"I was just wondering."
"Did you want anything else?"
"No." Nothing that you could give me, at least, I thought.
"But you'll tell me if you do?"
"Yes. So is that why Aradîr doesn't like you? Only because of what you did?"
He sighed heavily and he took a drink. "I first met him many years ago," he said, as if that explained everything.
"So, were you friends with him, once?"
"Not really." I remembered what Laeron had said to me outside the laundry; it had seemed a hundred years ago, and I had been a different girl.
"Someone said that…I heard that…one of the lords said that Aradîr disliked surgeons."
"Oh?" Valacar's voice was mild.
"And that he had a pretty wife."
He raised his eyebrows. "So that's what they say, now, is it?" he asked softly. I nodded. He took another drink. "Well, she is very pretty. And probably he does not love her as well as he should."
"What does that mean?" A perfect gentleman, I suppose? Aradîr had asked me with only a trace of a smirk on his face.
"It doesn't have to mean anything."
"But it does, doesn't it?" I watched him, sitting there with his drink in his hand, and resentment seeped into me once more. He had no right to be evasive with me, not now. The wall of the alley was still hard against my back, the rain still in my ears—I had not escaped. I would never escape. And then I remembered—
"It's your fault, anyway," I murmured before I could think better of it.
I closed the book and turned my attention to the top of the coverlet, twisting it in my hands again and again.
"What's my fault?"
"All the men in his unit were killed. He was the last one. He said it was not for others to decide which of them lived and which of them died."
"Who said that?" Valacar was staring at me now, intent.
"I thought—" I swallowed and wiped my face on my sleeve, just as clumsily as before. "I thought he would kill me. I really did. It's not fair." I was finding it difficult to breathe again, as if my ribs were still being crushed. "I never decided anything." I thought that Valacar would ask another question, but he was silent. "I thought he would kill me," I repeated. "Maybe it was my fault. But he didn't… Hadn't any right…" I trailed off. My throat had closed up again. Even that, I thought, was more than I should say to him; more than I needed to say.
"Did you know his name?"
I shook my head. I had seen him about, now, and then, I said; that first time when I stood in the garden, clutching a knotted cloth full of slightly burnt sweet rolls.
"It was you," I said. "I thought he was angry with you, more than anyone else. Perhaps he is."
Valacar slowly rubbed one hand over his eyes, the way he only did when he was very, very tired. How many more to go? he had asked on one particularly bloody day in the surgery; a question of diagnostics, not of impatience, but he had touched his own face in that same way.
"Then why didn't you tell me?"
"I didn't think that…until…and then no one had seen you. Eastern River Company; one of the captains told me. He had a wounded leg. I have to go and do my shift tomorrow, but I don't know where he…"
He put his drink down and he had both hands clasped in his lap and he was staring at the floor. He said, "I suppose it would not make any difference to you whether or not I apologized?" It doesn't have to mean anything.
"I'm tired of keeping your secrets for you."
"And that was very poor of me."
When I said nothing, he went on: "I'll speak to the Warden for you; he can—"
"No," I said, louder than I needed to. "You'll not say anything. To anyone."
"He'll only make sure that—"
"I said no." My voice caught in my throat. "It doesn't matter, if anything else should happen to me."
"Why not?" He reached for my left hand, which was still twisting at the folds in the coverlet. I drew it away from him.
"Valar, why do think? Suppose you—if you… If it were your daughter, who… You wouldn't want anyone to... It doesn't matter, anyway." My face was wet.
He had withdrawn his hand. "Does it matter to you?"
"Here's your book," I said, handing it back to him. He took it wordlessly and set it down on the night-table. "Just don't. Please. I can look after myself." Which was probably half a lie; I only wanted my mother.
In some ways it was clear that Valacar had always worked in the surgeries and never in the wards. There were times when he forgot to take all of the edge out of his voice, and perhaps he asked the wrong questions at the wrong times, and besides that he did not know the proper way to tuck in bed covers. But there are also those things that cannot truly be taught or practiced, but that everyone who works in the Houses seems to learn if you simply let them go about their duties for one or five or ten years. And one of these things is being able to recognize the moment at which you should turn around and simply allow your patient to roll over and cry until she is finally able to fall asleep.
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.