6. Healer's Canon
When I reached the entryway of the building which housed Lord Aradîr's offices, I gave my name to the dark-garbed attendant who was standing watch. He nodded once, briskly, and led me through the doors and then down a wide windowless corridor. The hall was busy, and full of echoing footfalls. The men we passed on the way gave me brief curious glances: houses of state and bureaucracy are not places for women. We came to Aradîr's rooms, and the attendant went in before me and announced my arrival, bowing.
The man behind the desk in the office looked up and smiled, his keen light-colored eyes glancing up at me. I had seen Lord Aradîr several times before, on the occasions when he came to visit the Houses, but had seldom been in such close quarters with him, nor had he ever spoken to me directly. He had a pleasant youthful face; he had his hands out in front of him to reposition an inkwell, and I could see that the only rings he wore on his fingers were a pair of plain, slender bands; wedding rings, no doubt. Quite different from some other noblemen I had seen, whose fingers were loaded with heavy gold and silver crests and seals, announcing their station and their lineage.
"My lord," I said, dropping a curtsey.
"Good afternoon, my good lady." His voice was quiet and measured. He dismissed the attendant with a nod.
"Please, sit," he said, motioning to the single chair that stood before the desk. He did not look at me as I settled down, but kept his eyes and hands busy with the papers in front of him. I glanced about the room, which was large and airy and well-furnished; the position of Master of the Houses of Healing was a prestigious one, my mother had told me. Lord Aradîr's chair was placed so that he was seated with his back to the office's large windows that looked out on a courtyard. The top of his desk was covered in neat stacks of parchment—affairs of state must still be accounted for in these dire times, I imagined; the City must still be maintained and ordered. Now that I am older, I sometimes think of that office and wonder how our War must have looked in the corridors of the Sixth Circle during those days, with battles and deaths and reprieves all turned to the flatness of paper and ink.
"And how do you fare?" he asked me, still seemingly preoccupied with his paperwork.
"Well enough, my lord."
He smiled again. "That is what some of my colleagues might call a 'diplomatic response.'"
I was not sure whether or not that was a compliment.
"I assume you are somewhat weary with your labors, at this hour?" he went on.
"Yes, somewhat, sir. As is everyone."
"That is more than understandable. And you need always not be so diplomatic with me, though an admirable inclination it is, all the same."
"Yes, my lord."
His eyes were still not upon me, so I took the opportunity to continue my survey of the room. The wall to my left was taken up by a high bookshelf, filled end to end with volumes. Some of the neat spines were the full width of a man's palm, and others were slender as a child's finger; I was too anxious to notice a great deal more about them.
"You are fond of books?" Lord Aradîr was looking at me, now.
"Yes, my lord," I replied, turning back towards him. It was true; I had always enjoyed books. I was not particularly adept at reading, and found it a slow and frustrating affair, but I loved the smell of the leather bindings and the dry rustle of pages beneath my fingers on the scarce occasions when I had a book on hand. I admired the neat contrast between black ink and white-yellow paper, and the elegant rows and lines that the words made.
"That is well," he nodded approvingly. He laid the papers on his desk and clasped his hands on top of them. "You should know the Warden speaks highly of you. He has told me that you are a very intelligent girl, very diligent…and very obedient."
"That is…good to know, my lord," I replied. In my lap, my hands had begun to knot themselves into the folds of my smock.
"And, of course, that you are no poor healer," he went on. "You are like your mother in that respect."
"Thank you, sir."
He paused, then glanced down at his papers once more. "A pity for us all that she did not remain in the City, as well," he remarked softly.
"She would have stayed behind, my lord, had she not my brother and my cousin to care for."
"They must be young indeed, then."
"My brother is ten years old, sir, old enough to have stayed on as a message-lad if he wished. But my cousin is only seven, and they are closer to one another than any two brothers, and would not be separated. So both boys went to the coast." To my mother's great relief, I added silently. I wondered how they fared now; farther from peril than we were, no doubt, but also farther from home.
"'Twas good of her to spare one of her children, then."
I nodded stupidly; I could not tell whether he meant that she had spared her daughter for the service of the City, or that she had spared her son from certain death.
I remembered back to only two weeks before, though it seemed like years ago. Two weeks before, when Minas Tirith was bleeding itself out in rivers of people, all the maidens and children and the old ones who were headed for safer ground. When the Houses of Healing were full of talk about who would go and who would remain, especially after it was announced that the women might stay, too, if they so chose.
I would remain and aid my City, I had decided. Not because I had truly desired to stay, but because somehow I knew it might feel worse to leave. When I told my mother, there was some childish part of me that wanted her to fight me, that wished she would beg me to come with her, so that perhaps I might even be convinced to do so. But of course she did not beg me; I was no longer a little girl, after all, and could do as I pleased. She had nodded and told me she was proud of me. She had told me to be brave. Later she kissed me goodbye and let me go, and now I did not know what I would have done had the choice been mine all over again.
"And your father? Defending Gondor, undoubtedly?" Aradîr turned over a sheet of paper, which made a soft flicking noise. I swallowed.
"Dead, my lord. Nine years ago."
"I am sorry."
"There is no need, sir."
Aradîr regarded me for a long moment, then nodded briskly. I wondered what he had summoned me here for; my body refused to relax in the chair. I fully expected that at any moment I should be accused, threatened, sentenced.
"As I recall, you work mainly in the south ward."
"North and south, my lord."
"That is well," he said. "And is there ever need for you in the surgery corridor?"
Ah, so here it is…
"Yes, my lord. On occasion."
"I see. And are there any surgeons who favor your work especially?"
"No, my lord. Not especially."
He made a soft noise of assent in his throat and looked down at his papers once more. I tried to keep still; I felt as though I had done something wrong. Nothing at all, I thought to myself. You have done no wrong. Not yet, at the very least… I remembered the man lying in Valacar's surgery-room that day, and repressed a shudder at the nearness of the memory as it welled up in my throat.
"So you have aided many of them?"
"A few, sir."
"Valacar?" Lord Aradîr's tone was marvelously casual, as if this were merely the first surgeon's name he had plucked from the air, and nothing more.
"Yes…once or twice, my lord."
"He asked for you?"
I remembered Valacar's words: Just protect yourself, if it comes to that. But if Aradîr did not know something, he would not be asking me such pointed questions…
"His apprentice was ill, my lord. Valacar merely needed a second pair of hands for the day."
"And does Valacar conduct himself well?"
"I—I do not understand, my lord."
"He has never treated you in any way that was…untoward, has he?"
It was not an invalid question: some of the surgeons, steady as they were with their scalpels, were known to be a bit careless with their hands, especially where the young women of the Houses were concerned. Valacar, however, had never been one of these, and I found myself bridling at the very suggestion.
"A perfect gentleman, I suppose?" For the first time in our conversation, I detected an edge creep into Aradîr's voice. I half-expected to see his mouth curled into an elegant smirk; it was not, of course.
"Yes, my lord," I truthfully replied.
"That is well. And he has asked for you?" Aradîr's tone was still light, as if this were some small misapprehension that he needed my assistance in sorting out. But he would not have called a little healer-girl all the way to his offices for the correction of a simple misapprehension, would he?
"Yes, my lord. He asked for me."
He nodded and slowly pulled one of the papers from the stack, holding it up before him in two hands so that I could not see the markings on it.
"Know that I doubt not your skill, good lady, nor do I doubt the skills of any of those in our Houses. But you are aware, are you not, that for a woman to attend at surgery is in direct violation of the Healer's Canon?"
Had I not been so startled, I might have laughed. "The Canon? My lord, those laws were written hundreds of years ere our time; they—"
"As were many of our laws, good lady." Aradîr's voice was soft and even. "And yet that is no less of a reason to cleave to them."
"But—" I began, but then thought better of it. But we all break the Canon, now and again—healers, herbalists, surgeons and Warden, I was about to say. And it was the truth. Everyone knew it. The Canon was a set of old and elegant rules, but Gondor had been at war for years; there were edges that had to be trimmed away, formalities that must be forgone, in times such as these. We looked upon the Canon as more of a symbol of our history than anything else. Our Warden knew this, for he was there with us every day, walking the aisles between the sickbeds. We all knew that there were things he chose not to see, mild transgressions on which he did not have time to remark; the times before the poppy rationing, for instance, in which the healers might administer a slight excess of the drug to a painfully dying soldier, so that he could drift off to sleep more easily, though he might not wake up again. It was one of the many small truths of the Houses that went unspoken, but stood all the same.
Aradîr gave a lift of his brow at my aborted objection before going on. "You were made to recite the Canon upon your induction as an apprentice, were you not?"
"Yes, my lord. All of us were."
"Recall you the passage concerning women in the Houses?"
I closed my eyes and remembered the hours I had spent with my mother as she helped me to memorize the Canon in full; it was a long collection of laws, but we were all made to learn it perfectly so that we could speak it for that one occasion. In the weeks before each yearly induction, it is not uncommon to hear the young boys and girls murmuring snatches of passages under their breath as they go about their errands. Laeron had had a terribly hard time learning his Canon, I remembered; Elloth, of course, had had its entirety committed to her memory from nearly her first hearing, and had not been shy about volunteering this fact whenever the subject arose.
"And of those women who tend to the wounded and the infirm…" I began slowly, the words coming back to me after these intervening years. "…just as they shall not wield sword in war, neither shall they take a blade to the bodies of those who lie in their care, for their work shall be for the giving of life, and not for the wounding."
I stopped and opened my eyes. Aradîr was staring at me with a faint smile on his face.
"We all carry knives," I protested. "All of us, my lord. 'Twould be near impossible to treat the battle-wounds without such things, even for the women."
"When you are making your rounds on the wards, yes?"
The expression on my face must have been concerned, indeed, for Aradîr gave a gentle laugh. "Be not so troubled, good healer. I am not blind to the necessities you face, though I am…how do your old women say, 'Neither healer nor…'"
"Neither healer nor surgeon, my lord," I murmured.
He smiled. "Yes, that is the old adage, I am told. Tell me, though…recall you the very next part of the Canon?"
I traced back over the words in my mind. "…for their work shall be for the giving of life, and not for the wounding. They will withdraw…" I went on. "They will withdraw in favor of such men as are engaged in this work."
"And so there are reasons that women may not become surgeons, you see."
"But sir, I was not—"
He put up a hand to stop me. "Please forgive me. It is not my intent to make you run through your lessons like a school-child, nor is it my intent to dictate how you should go about doing your work."
Then what is your intent? I thought.
"Understand that you have done nothing wrong," he continued. "I merely wish to make you realize that some of your superiors…some of your surgeons…might draw you into a position in which you are forced to go against our laws, even if it seems to be in the best interests of your patients." The wooden legs of his chair scraped the floor as he pushed back from his desk to stand and turn around and gaze out the window, arms crossed over his chest. "I have served this City as a statesman for many years, and one of the things I have learned is that breaches of…small rules can soon lead to violations of larger ones, and larger ones still." He turned around and looked at me once more. "And you must know, as well, that to be complicit to any such crimes renders one just as much at fault as if one had carried out the crime oneself. Perhaps even more so."
"Yes, my lord." In my lap, my palms were cold with sweat.
Lord Aradîr crossed over to where I sat, and, to my surprise, dropped to a crouch beside my chair so that our eyes were on the same level.
"You are not an ignorant girl," he whispered. "You do not seem so to me, nor are ignorant men and women permitted to become healers and surgeons. So there is no way you cannot see that Gondor is dying. That Minas Tirith is dying. And that it has been so for years, that it began before you were born."
My throat went dry.
"But even in our death we are strong," he went on. He was so close that I could feel his breath on the skin of my neck. "And that is because we have an order of things. We have the codes and the decrees of our Stewards and even of our Kings, that we may hold them and cleave to them as flesh cleaves to bone. Do you understand?"
"So you understand that I…that we must not see this City fall into lawlessness, even in its ending. That we must not turn to such weakness, even in these final moments."
"Yes, my lord," I replied, my own voice barely above a whisper. Lord Aradîr stood up once more. I had to tilt my chin up in order to look at him.
"That is well. And if ever you should observe that anyone in the Houses is engaging in any…larger breaches of Canon, you would inform the Warden, would you not?"
"I would, sir."
He went and sat behind the desk once more, and returned once more to the seemingly perpetual shuffling and re-shuffling of his papers. Suddenly my anxiety about this man's words were drowned in a surge of contempt. His hands were soft and dry, and he was never with us; he was not in the wards, wading through a sea of beds and bodies. He was not there with us, plunging his fingers into wound after wound until all thought disappeared; and so he could not make any judgments about what we might or might not do. He had no right to take me from the Houses, even if it were for less than an hour, to ask me questions that led nowhere and to make me repeat a Canon he might have just as easily looked up in one of his books. It was all time I might have spent helping the wounded men, or at the very least, moments that I might have spent curled up in a dead sleep in some dark room to the side.
"You have a good memory," he was saying to me.
"Thank you, my lord."
"Might you indulge me once more before I let you go? Tell me what the very beginning of the Healer's Canon says."
I nodded again, and tried to recall the first words.
"I swear by the Valar and by all who preceded me in this craft that I will use this learning for the benefit of the wounded and the infirm. I will keep them from injustice and above all do them no harm."
"Please, go on."
"I will neither administer a deadly drug to anyone who asks for it, nor take measures to end a life before that time is fully due, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. In purity and devotion I will guard my life and my art."
"You may stop there." Lord Aradîr was smiling once more. "Many thanks for your time, my good lady. You are dismissed."
When I came back through the gardens, the soldier with the foot wound and the carving-knife was sitting against the wall once more.
"Hello, little one. Off to do more knife-work?"
I passed by without answering, my shoes crushing the soft grass.
"Well, then. Never can tell what pleases a lady, now can you?" he grinned.
I stopped and looked him in the eye.
"You don't frighten me," I said, and walked away swiftly, willing myself deaf to whatever it was he said next.
In the south ward, Fíriel was folding the clean towels. I sat beside her and began to help. After three towels, I stopped and leaned my head on her shoulder and closed my eyes.
Fíriel finished folding the towel that was in her hands, then put her arm around me.
"Is anything wrong?"
I could feel the warmth through the cloth of her dress; she still smelled of chamomile. "I don't know."
"Will you tell me when you do?"
"All right," she said. She gave me a light kiss on the forehead. I rested there for a few moments more, and then I sat up again and we both went back to work.
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.