2. Greater Need
Of all the boys, there was one death that I remember better than others from the early days.
There were, in truth, a great many dying boys brought to us in those lightless hours. Perhaps I should not speak of them as "boys", for many had more than twice my years, but even the most tired and haggard among them looked, in some strange way, fragile and new as the life yet drained from their bodies. By March of that year, the City itself seemed a brittle shell of what it had once been, emptied now of all but the soldiers and guards, the statesmen and healers. I was one of precious few women in a vast martial camp of men and boys, a suddenly alien terrain that only played at being a real place. I came to dread those rare occasions in which I had need to leave the Houses and venture out onto the streets. I feared no assailants from the outside, not in those early days, but the vacant avenues and darkened windows of unpeopled shops and dwellings prompted me into a skittish, stumbling run on more than one errand, so eager was I to be out of their hollow-eyed sights.
In times of peace the Houses are reserved for the gravely ill, and they are light and airy and quiet. As a much younger girl, just learning my craft, I would keep watch at bedsides or go on tasks for my mother; on some silent afternoons I would come sharply into an awareness of myself, learning when I should shift and when I should keep still. I listened to my own breath and could feel the exact weight of my limbs, the way the skin stretched over my bones, there beside those whose own bodies were slowly failing.
But I was a grown-up young lady now, and all our land was being bled, and Gondor's strength was ebbing away. Situated as we were in the sixth circle, we healers were nestled in among countless councilors and clerks and the comings and goings of messengers, so news of the war should have come swiftly to us. As it were, we were rather isolated within our own wards and gardens. I learned little of the movements of companies and hosts, but knew what was coming, by way of the orders given to us. We took up our own defenses. We brought in what extra beds and pallets we could, laying them down so that their square edges touched, marching in columns down the lengths of the long halls. We stockpiled every scrap of clean cloth we found; in our storerooms we massed every herb known to our craft, and also some known only to our lore. All this we did as the light was leached from the sky, until one day seemed to emerge darker than the night which had preceded it.
I sat with Fíriel as we cut and folded countless yards of linen, watching as our finished work grew in soft piles at our feet.
"We could bind the wounds of several armies, now," she remarked, surveying the floor.
"Yes," I snorted. "Perhaps our good Warden wishes that we should tend to the legions of the East, as well as our own?"
She rested her knife-hand in her lap for a moment, eyebrows arched. "The Warden? Nay, thus far all our supply orders have come directly from the lord Aradîr." She shook her dark head in a manner that put me in mind of the way white-haired goodwives did when trying to ward off bad luck. "Neither healer nor surgeon," she added quietly.
This utterance was a long-standing refrain amongst those who worked in the Houses of Healing. Tradition held that while the Warden oversaw the staff and patients, it was the Master of the Houses, a statesman, who represented the Houses' interests in the City-councils. The Master was the one to whom the Warden must answer, and it was the Master who made the final decisions on many matters of supply, salary and the like. A good Master, my mother had told me, took care to listen to the Warden, and closely followed his counsel when making choices. A poor one, however, did not take the time to well acquaint himself with the workings of the Houses, and looked upon surgery and leech-craft as any other common trades, as they were in less enlightened nations. And the worst Masters were pure statesmen to the marrow, using the post only as a way to curry favor with their liege-lords, eager to ascend to higher appointments—neither healers nor surgeons, indeed.
In my lifetime, however, we had not had any Masters such as this, for it was said that the Lord Steward was a shrewd man who did not suffer opportunists kindly. The saying was mainly used to express mild annoyance or amusement at misunderstandings between men of the council and men of the scalpel. Lord Aradîr had been appointed Master some six months hence, when his predecessor had grown too feeble of eyesight and frail of hand to keep up with his required duties. I had never had any call to speak to Aradîr personally, of course, but he seemed a pleasant enough man, and as far I knew, he had yet to do any great wrong by us. Still, I found myself nodding in assent with Fíriel's statement, as I hoped his generous estimate would prove unnecessary.
I took another piece of fabric from the pile. "Do you think we'll really need all these dressings?" I asked, trying to sound as if I were inquiring about that evening's supper, though my voice rose slightly as I went on. "And will all those beds be filled, Fíriel?"
The other woman looked at me with large grey eyes. Of all the women in the Houses, Fíriel was somehow at once the gentlest and the most blunt. She was slender and fair, at least ten years my senior. She crouched at bedsides, patient as a cat, and occasionally told us lewd jokes when there were no men in earshot. Now she sighed and looked weary as she ran her fingers over the cloth.
"In truth? I cannot say one way or the other. 'Tis better to fill up the waiting hours, at any rate, though we may have fewer than we like, in the end."
* * *
From then on it seemed no long wait until the large groups of the wounded began arriving. Soon I could scarcely recognize our familiar Houses. The light streaming in from the windows was greyed and muted. The air was close, and swiftly became thick and tortured with the groans and pleas of injured men. Every bed was full, and the steely odor of blood lingered on, no matter how we tried to scrub it away. Practiced though I was, I was one of the younger women in the place, and had little experience with battle injuries. Though I carried knives in my kit, I had seldom had chance to use them. When I saw the first men brought in and laid out, ashen and soaked with red, I went round the corner into a little alcove off the main room, and sank to the floor with my head against my knees, hoping in my shame that no one would see me. Beads of sweat dotted the back of my neck; flecks of shattered bone danced against the darkness when I pressed my eyes shut.
"Come." I opened my eyes to the clear, low voice and saw Fíriel standing above me, her slender hand extended towards mine. There was no judgment on her face. "We are all needed now." For a moment, I fixed my gaze blankly on the hem of her plain blue dress and pale smock, a mirror of my own garb, save for the new pink spots on her garments. Then I took her hand and she helped me up in one taut, strong motion, and led me back to our patients so that I might bloody my own fingers in earnest.
Fíriel was a fine teacher, and so was necessity. I soon learned not to flinch when I probed a wound to see how deep the damage went. I stopped flinching, as well, when I had to push out an arrowhead, or clamp shut the source of the worst bleeding until the surgeons could come. I fetched water, cleaned and dressed injuries, and gave what words I could to comfort the men, although it seemed at times that anything I said would be deflected by the hard, flinty terror in their eyes. Still, we saved more of those earlier ones than we lost, which was no small comfort. All of the workers in the Houses had fallen into our own weary, uneasy rhythm by nightfall, our voices strained and hushed and our hands red and aching. Even as they stumbled and gasped and bled, the men brought news from the shattered outer defenses, tidings we both yearned for and dreaded. There were rumors of warriors from the South, tall and fell, and armies that swarmed like insects, and a Black Captain before whom horses went mad, and valiant men bent and quailed in horror.
* * *
"It's a miracle that this one made it to us at all," Fíriel murmured in my ear as we stood over one of our newest arrivals, a soldier brought in on one of the wains that had borne the survivors of the wreck of the Causeway Forts through the City Gates that morning. Word had come that day, passing from station to station: Lord Faramir could not hold the Pelennor, and now the river was overrun. It was only a matter of time. Men and women alike, we in the Houses lowered our voices and tightened our fingers round our instruments, biting back our fear.
This young man's lack of color contrasted starkly with his dark, mangled livery and damp brown hair—his face was nearly the same shade as the bandage I had carefully applied to his throat, though a spot of bright scarlet bloomed swiftly upon it. His eyes were closed, his mouth open, and he was terribly cold to the touch. His breathing was a shallow, pained rasp. Wounds to the neck like this one were almost sure to kill quickly. "He may live through the night, at best," Fíriel added. "Ioreth wants me," she sighed, drawing a blanket up over the boy, "and when I find her it shall be no less than a quarter-hour 'til I discover what she actually wants. Until then I am sure I will hear all about her cousin from Lossarnach."
"No doubt," I smiled wanly. "I'll see to him." I drew a black scrap of cloth from a pocket of my smock and tied it to the bedpost; in the Houses, this was the marker we gave to those we deemed beyond help, so that none of us need waste our time. I was running out, I noticed; I would have to go and find more, soon.
"Thank you." Fíriel patted my arm lightly and walked down the narrow corridor that passed between the rows of beds. We had all learned to live in tight spaces in the past few days, and even many of the women and girls had begun to resemble soldiers on watch, passing one another with the briefest of nods as we moved through the aisles.
I turned my eyes back to the boy. Above the bandage was a round face that reminded me somewhat of my youngest cousin's countenance. Merely a week ago I would have wept right there, in grief and revulsion, but now I had taught myself to float over it, my mind as clear and clean as the surgeon's knife before the first incision. I could look with something nearing indifference, everything clamped back neatly into a vague, manageable sense of dread. I wondered who had dealt this soldier his death blow, be it a Southron, or an orc, or some fouler creature of which we yet had no inkling… For the Pelennor is overrun, and now only time stands between the Dark Tower and the White City…
"Tar'!" A voice called out somewhere behind me, and then a young man in the same dark garb the dying boy wore was at my side, kneeling beside the bed. "Tarondor," he whispered, seeing the full extent of the damage. "Valar, no…" He turned to me, and I saw that he had a bright red streak across his forehead, over his weary blue eyes. Another gash was apparent on his left shoulder; not a clean one, either, as whatever blade had given it had torn raggedly through the cloth. Still, he had fared better than most of his comrades-in-arms. "Is… is there any chance for him?" he asked quietly, although from his subdued tone it was clear that he had the answer already. "Any at all?"
"Very little, I'm afraid." He swallowed and nodded. "He may live through the night," I added, allowing him to take in the information for a few moments before I went on. "Now, let us see what we might do for you, shall we?" I suggested softly. The soldier nodded again, resignedly, and pulled himself slowly up to sit on the edge of the narrow cot, very careful not to disturb his friend as he did so. He had the air of one who felt he ought to rend his clothes and daub his face with ashes, but was strangely grateful that the deed had already been done for him. Normally I would have asked him to follow me to the north ward, where we treated those wounds which threatened neither life nor limb. But why not? I thought, excusing myself to replenish my supply of water and dressings. Let him stay here. I will be ready if a case more needful than his should present itself.
* * *
"We were boys together," the soldier explained as I tended him, and his voice had a hoarse edge to it. I nodded.
"I have not the time to give you stitches for this," I said as I cleaned the cut on his forehead. "You may have a scar, but 'tis not too deep." My mother had taught me very early on that I should always explain to my patients what I was doing. These days, I found myself able to follow this advice only intermittently.
"Should I live long enough for the skin to grow over," he murmured.
"We're thankful to all of you."
He was silent for several minutes more, and when he spoke again I saw that he wore the calm, glazed expression I had grown familiar with over the past few days. I had seen it on too many faces to count.
"Perhaps one day," he said slowly, "there shall be wars where no one needs to touch anyone else." He was smiling now, a thin ghost of a smile. "You would not have to touch a man to kill him, nor be close to him." He shut his eyes. "Perhaps you would not even have to look at him."
I finished with his forehead and moved on to his arm. He opened his eyes again. They were the color of the sky, the last time the sun had risen.
"You see, it would all be so much easier that way. No skin," he said, his voice catching slightly on the edge of the word, "and no blood."
* * *
There were a small number of rooms set aside, so that the healers might get some rest. We took turns sleeping, a few hours at a time. I bypassed the basin of thyme-and-lavender water we used for hand-washing, instead scrubbing my hands until they chafed from the ash and lye of the hard brown soap that we kept. The women's quarters were dark. There were only five pallets in the close space, all of them occupied. I shrugged lightly to myself before stripping down to my shift, folding my dress and smock into a corner of the room, and sliding onto a mattress beside Fíriel. The older woman was already asleep, and as I curled my own body next to hers I could feel her warm, regular breath on my skin. She smelled faintly of chamomile, and I recalled she kept a private supply of the stuff in a pouch at her waist. The scent reminded me instantly of my mother—her hand resting on my cheek as she and my young brothers and cousins bade me farewell—she would have stayed here, my mother, had she not the children to look after…
Your City has greater need of you now, dear one. Go, and be brave, and I will see you again soon…
That night I dreamt of chamomile, and black wings scraping over a sky bluer than any I had yet seen in my waking life.
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.