Banjoverse: The Full Epic
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Our Seventh Sense: 1. Our Seventh Sense
- T. H. White, The Once and Future King
“Silly Sili, under the moon,
Oh, she shall hit me with a spoon,
Silly Sili, dance with a star,
I wonder, wonder where you are.
Iorlas pressed his nose into the girl’s dark curls, drew his hand up to brush his knuckles against her soft, delicate cheek.
It was late, and they were walking down the sixth circle’s main street. The nursemaid was further ahead, carrying a fast asleep Menel. Ana walked beside him, strolling slowly.
Iorlas could still hear the distant strains of music drifting from the Harvest Ball, the voices and laughter of people leaving the festivities and going home. The black dome, glittering softly above them – the sky – Iorlas fancied (this was the wine) that he could feel the stars’ cool touch against his beard, or in the cold air which shifted Silivren’s inky strands.
The Harvest Ball had ended, and what was left for him now was a hazy puzzle of meetings and conversations and dances and mulled wine (tickling his nose); he could still see Ana, gorgeous dear, as she danced with Bergil…
Iorlas shifted Sili’s position in his arms; she made a small sound of protest before falling again asleep on his shoulder. Her breath was warm against his skin. He could feel her small, cold nose nudging against the vein in his neck – a shudder passed through him.
“Silly Sili, oh-de-la-la-la…
Pretty Sili, oh-de-ley…”
“Three dances with Lord Elboron,” Ana’s voice was soft, “and she is exhausted.”
“Three?” Iorlas asked, laying his cheek against his daughter’s hair. He scowled. “That knave.”
Ana laughed. A pair of boys walked past – the taller boy elbowing and speaking loudly with the younger. When they laughed, it was high-pitched and fast, punctuated by one, loud hiccup from the younger. This caused them both to laugh harder, followed by the older teasing the younger, jabbing him, which led to good-natured wrestling, some chasing – Tar! Stop it! Ai! Ha ha ha, ooooh!
They were passing through the tunnel now – all turned dark and echoing, and a patch of cold air made Ana move closer to Iorlas; the nursemaid was singing a lullaby to Menel – before once again they reached the glowing, lamp-lit street. The voices behind them became ghostly and loud as others passed under the Citadel’s walls. And Iorlas could feel the edge of his uniform’s collar digging into his jaw. He began to arch his neck up. As he did so, he staggered.
“Here, give her to me,” Ana whispered. “You’re going to drop her.”
Perhaps that was not a bad idea. Too much wine.
While the sleeping girl was gently moved from one shoulder to another, Iorlas cooed in her ear, “Silly Sili, Silly Sili, my lovely love, oh I love my pretty Sili…”
He buried his face in the space between the faces of his wife and daughter, yet both women disagreed – Ana swatting him away and Sili mewling lightly before burrowing herself into Ana’s shoulder. Iorlas chuckled, slurring a soft, Very well, very well…
His steps were loose, and he arched his head back – eyes closed – to fill his lungs with the crisp night air. Some laughter and loud talking erupted from the pair of boys in front of their group. He could feel himself zigzagging…
The voice was right behind him – a man’s voice, level and controlled, and now annoyed. Iorlas turned: there was a couple, the same age as he and Ana (and therefore veterans of the wretched War; silly Sili, never again, never for you, and never on fen, when, then…), walking several paces behind them.
And Iorlas recognized in the couple the dark-haired healer from the Houses of Healing.
“My lady, we see each other again!” Iorlas called out. He stopped and bowed. “Good even to you.”
“Captain Iorlas,” the woman smiled in recognition.
Ana turned as well, and both she and Iorlas waited for the couple to catch up with them. Iorlas towered above everyone, as usual. And as he studied the approaching husband, he recognized a faint scar on his brow – do I know all men by their scars?
The man must have known Iorlas by sight as well, for he bowed crisply.
“Captain,” he said.
“Captain Iorlas,” the woman said, “this is my husband, Beren.”
“Aye, aye, I know you from the arms grounds,” Iorlas said. He stepped aside. “Ana, I told you of the healer who gave us those herbs? This is her. My dear, I present you Beren, and his wife, – ”
The older boy from before came tearing through with a sharp cry, quickly followed by the younger.
“Lads!” Beren called. “Enough!”
But it was too late, they were sprinting away. Iorlas could just see their wiry bodies tearing down the street – boots slamming on the cobblestones – passing under each lamp, glowing fiery orange before fading into shadow. They were screaming back and forth, yelling obscenities, before they disappeared from view as the ground sloped.
When Iorlas turned back to the group, Ana and the healer were speaking and laughing. The nursemaid carried Silivren now, while Menel was awake and holding her hand.
Beside the women, Beren was watching his sons, his face stern. Aye, Iorlas knew this man. He recognized the clear, blue eyes – the way the left one drifted to the side when the man was lost in thought. (It was doing that now, and Iorlas wondered whether Beren was looking down the street or looking towards a particular house, or whether he was thinking, and if so, what was he thinking about? Oh, everything was spinning terribly.)
“Ah, lads,” Iorlas smiled. He hoped he was not swaying.
This broke Beren’s trance, and the man, though he remained serious, looked up.
“Aye, my lord,” he shrugged. “Forgive me.”
“Pffft!” Iorlas waved his hand. Beren smiled.
They began to walk with the group again. Ana was nodding as the healer spoke.
“Beren, then? You’ve trained some of the First Company, I believe.”
“Aye, my lord. I train the soldiers on the Southern Grounds.”
“Ah, yes, yes, I remember now. You work with Gardhon?”
“Aye, my lord.”
It was easy to speak of day-to-day business, to ask where the man lived, whom he worked with. Iorlas had seen him here and there on the training grounds, he knew him to be a hard-working, stern man – a master of the broadsword or spear or something.
And while they talked, Iorlas watched the women walking before them. Ana and the healer were of the same height and build, and yet, in his poetic (and drunken) mood, Iorlas mused: they were like the bright, laughing sun next to the pale, sober moon. Like the sweet dandelion next to a white tulip. The…
He looked to his side: Beren’s left eye had drifted; the man was thinking about something. What were they speaking of? No matter.
“Were you ever in Osgiliath, Beren?”
Beren looked up, caught off-guard.
“Aye, my lord.”
Neither spoke again for the length of several heartbeats. The dizzying world – rocking, back and forth, like a broken bridge…
“We shall have supper sometime,” he grinned at Beren. “What do you do tomorrow?”
“Nothing, my lord.”
“Wonderful. I’ll send a page. This – this is our house – right here.”
“Very well, my lord.” Another bow. “Thank you, my lord.”
When they arrived to the gate, and the doorward stood at attention, they all bade each other farewell. The nursemaid went forward with Menel and Sili in tow, Ana followed, and Iorlas trudged after all of them, mouthing a frustrated my lord my lord my lord.
“I spoke with Hirlaeg’s boy, he was very kind.”
Iorlas snorted. His thick fingers fumbled uselessly with the buttons of his jacket.
“The lad’s – the lad’s pampered… you don’t see the Lord Steward coming to visit Elboron a month after the boy arrives, eh? Nay, ‘tis only Hirlaeg that pampers his children so. And, by my troth, Ithilien is closer to the city than Pinnath Gelin is, you know…”
Ana turned away from the mirror. She had been pulling the pins out of her hair, letting the golden strands fall against her shoulders. She was scowling at him, half of her hair still done up. The candles flickered, and the room smelled like chamomile balm and clean sheets. Iorlas finally managed to undo the last button and he pulled his black jacket off. Ana watched him work.
“What?” he scowled.
“You’ve been strange tonight.”
“’Tis just that I’m tired… and I do not feel well,” he added in a mumble.
“You should not have had so much wine.”
He muttered something inarticulate and tugged at the laces at the neck of his undershirt. Once they were loosened, he pulled the shirt over his head and got stuck in the white, billowing thing. As he struggled to loosen one of the wrists and pull his hand in, he heard the scrape of a chair and footsteps. He sagged forward in surrender and waited.
“My silly dear,” Ana sighed, and he could tell she was smiling, “you wage war on your shirts just because you are tired and do not feel well.”
One arm was still over his head, while the other was curled up against him, half in the sleeve. He spoke from within the shirt, “I invited Beren and his wife to sup with us tomorrow evening.”
“Good. I invited them as well.” Ana began to undo the laces at one wrist. Iorlas waited. Once his hand was free, he yanked it in and worked to pull the rest of the garment over his head. She placed her hand against his bare gut, scratching the trail of dark hair under his navel, and he twitched away, giggling.
The shirt was off.
“Ana…” It came out as a whine.
She draped the garment over the chair, and turned to see his expression. “What?”
He pulled her into an embrace. “I am sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong…” He sighed. “You are such a lovely girl, and I have been terrible – did you enjoy the Ball? I fear the girls did, they’ll want to come again next year – but, oh Ana, there is a weight on my heart, and I was thinking of young Tethron, he was in the First Company, you know; just a good, young lad – his heart, always in the right place, you know, always…”
“Oh dear,” Ana sighed, “you have had too much wine. Come here.”
And before Iorlas knew it, he had been guided to the bed, and had flopped down onto it, wrapping himself up in the cold sheet, while Ana began to tug on his boots. The room was spinning uncontrollably as he closed his eyes, so that he had to drag his lids open and fix his stare on the bed-stand so as not to be sick. And he must have still been mumbling, because soon Ana was cooing,
“Now, shush, you’re becoming nasty. Why are you thinking of such things? ‘Twas because you spoke with Ragnor and that Beren fellow – I heard you mentioning Osgiliath; aye, I did – well, no matter. Try to sleep. Here, I’ll tell you of what little Menel did yesterday…”
He was dreaming, and he saw before him a broken bridge. He was running – his boots slamming on the street; uneven stones – and the water was exploding around him. The Anduin rained over him, slipping into his armor and chilling his neck and armpits and spine. Someone was screaming, Tarondor! Tarondor! Brethon! Ai! Ha ha ha, ooooh! And there was a narrow rivulet of blood zigzagging down his sword and onto his palm.
There was a woman’s scream, and he knew it immediately to be Ana’s. He tried to turn, but he could not fight against the tide of men, running, pushing him along the swaying bridge. A suspension cord snapped – he saw a blond boy, Tethron, get whipped across the face by the twine, blood spraying, eyes gouged out – while the bridge fell completely to one side; everyone screamed, scrambling as they tumbled into the bloody river.
His sword was gone, and his armor was becoming heavy. He was pushed into a man who turned around – it was Boromir. The Captain-General’s head was cracked open, and dark, mulled wine oozed liberally from the skull’s insides, coating what remained of Boromir’s hair, his face, beard, on… while his eyes gleamed green madness as he took Iorlas by the shoulders and pushed him over the bridge’s side – down, down, down – and splash!
Iorlas struggled, drowning. He screamed and tossed and threw his head back; he began gulping back the red water. It was thick and sweet – tickling his nose – while frigid hands grabbed at his legs and arms, pulling him down into the Anduin’s unseen bottom.
Fire in Osgiliath, burning through the water, chasing him… and Iorlas knew that Ana and his daughters were still in the city, he had to get them out of Osgiliath, but he was digging down into the red mud now, joining the others, joining Boromir, and Tethron, and Bergil, and Borlas, and…
…as they sank into the mud, burrowing down into living graves, watery screams, Iorlas choked and wept – he could not stop himself – he sobbed aloud, so that the tears cut clear lines down his red-soaked cheeks.
When Iorlas awoke, Ana had just clicked the door closed and the sunlight was pouring in from the windows. The curtains had been pulled back, and the sun’s glare struck him soundly in the eyes – he groaned and turned over onto his other side. His head was pounding dully, and there was a fierce burn in the back of his throat. Birds chirped outside.
The bed creaked as Ana sat.
“Finally awake with you,” she said softly, and she threaded her fingers through the tangle of his hair. “Do you know what time it is?”
Without opening his eyes again, but leaning into her touch, he shook his head.
“Midday!” she exclaimed and he winced so that she immediately dropped her voice. “Forgive me.” He felt her shift her weight, and a cool palm was laid against his brow. “Your rascally nephews came by this morning to pick up the girls; they’re at the fair now.”
Iorlas acknowledged this information with a grumble. The nightmare was still tugging at the edge of his consciousness. He felt the panic growing in his gut.
“I suspect your head aches and you have no mind to eat?”
He smiled with his eyes closed.
“Well, Mag sent this up anyway, and you know how she is when you don’t finish things, so I suggest you sit up and take your breakfast.”
“Oh, Ana…” Iorlas turned laboriously onto his other side, away from the window and away from his wife. He felt the sun’s warmth on his bare back. “What was in that wine last night? ‘Twas poison.”
“Blame it on the Queen, my dear. She throws the Harvest Ball.”
There was some rustling, and Iorlas suddenly felt a weight against his side and arm before feeling the soft press of lips against his ear. Ana pressed her hand against his chest. He sighed.
“Love, are you all right?”
“You were… rustling ere I came in. You scowled as you dreamt.”
“I did not sleep well.”
“Would you like to speak of it?”
He felt another kiss against his temple before the weight disappeared and the curtains were pulled shut. The room was plunged into comfortable shadow. He thanked his wife softly, just hearing her warning that they had guests for supper, before he pulled the blanket up to his neck and fell again asleep.
As the days went by, Iorlas was annoyed to find that the dreams persisted. It had been nearly fifteen years since he had suffered through such routine nightmares, and he could not understand what would have provoked their return.
They were never the same. Some nights he was fighting his way through orcs in Osgiliath, other nights he was collapsing under the blocks of the second circle during the Siege. Every nightmare featured Ana and the girls, in varying degrees of danger, and he could never escape that panic which gripped him by the throat – the threat to his family, the destruction of his home, all these fabrications of a violent youth, returning with vengeance on middle-aged ease.
The dreams left him irritable. Iorlas began to snap at the younger guardsmen – he no longer accepted his nephews’ invitations to go out to The Tree and Tavern or The Laughing Oliphaunt. During council meetings, or while giving reports to the King, Iorlas would fidget and sigh and feel a restless anxiety gnawing at his bones. Sometimes the nightmares featured his daytime conversations – so that it was not Boromir who dragged him into the water, but rather King Elessar. Sometimes he saw the armsmaster Beren teaching five- and six-year-old boys how to wield a spear, and Iorlas would find his dream-self arming these children with too-large helms and clumsy-looking shoulder guards. One dream showed him Elboron, dressed as his father, galloping over Osgiliath’s ruined bridge, screaming his orders – in the exact same manner as Faramir had done so the day eastern Osgiliath had fallen.
Ana noticed her husband’s foul mood, and mostly avoided him. She kept herself busy with the girls in the evenings. The couple argued occasionally, yet apart from bickering, the discussions never degenerated enough to give her a good opening to ask him what was the core of this anxiety.
One night Iorlas had awoken with a jolt, kicking back. The vibration and noise of knocked wood had woken Ana too, and she had sleepily asked what was wrong. He had wanted to explain then, because it was in that moment of heated fear, of rushing panic, that he had felt truly vulnerable. Yet apart from a clumsy explanation, and Ana’s generic reassurance – it is finished now, my love, you may rest easy; sleep… – nothing was accomplished that night.
(Iorlas wanted to weep. It would have been easier. He could have knelt down at his wife’s side, hugged her with both arms, and wept into the crook of her arm. Perhaps if he had been younger, and more inclined to let this general distress spill over – he could have filled the cup of anxiety and let it brim full before bubbling over with sobs – he would have simply spent an evening confessing his fears and letting the tears heal everything. Ana would have been more than willing to help, then, and it would have been easier for both of them. But he could not weep, not anymore, he was too old for that. The nightmares were not bad enough to lead to such a breakdown – they were just bad enough to cause discomfort. Such is middle-age, he told himself bitterly one evening, growing fat and lazy, even in my fears.)
Weeks passed. They were having an after-dinner drink with Beren and his wife. Ana and the healer were seated, and they were speaking animatedly about the trials of working women such as themselves. Every so often they would call to their husbands, teasing them that they would start a Women’s Guild for all the working girls in Minas Tirith; they were in a good mood.
Iorlas and Beren were drinking their brandy and standing by the windows, where white flakes of snow were being swirled by gusts of wind. Beren was swirling the rusty drink in his glass, looking down into it. The women laughed about something. Iorlas and Beren had been speaking of tactics.
“…aye, but Lord Boromir employed a similar strategy in Osgiliath during that summer in 3018, I recall, though it worked poorly in that case.” (After some resistance, Beren had finally refrained from calling Iorlas my lord after every clause.) Iorlas clenched his teeth; he did not want to speak of this.
Beren must have noticed, for he looked at Iorlas intently in the eyes – just a flash – and then looked away quickly; looking down at his shoes, over to the hearth, into his drink.
“Ah, forgive me. Let’s not speak of the old times, eh?” Beren smiled and raised his glass.
Iorlas forced a smile and raised his own glass. “Aye! Enough with old times.”
They drank. Beren gave a satisfied pant.
“You know, I know not why one day I may speak so freely of those things, and another day I may not. It comes and it goes, I’ve noticed.” He looked up at Iorlas. “Have you ever noticed that, Captain? I do not mean to be forward – ”
“Nay, nay, please, go on. What do you mean?” Iorlas watched Beren intently. The shorter man shrugged.
“Ah, well, I do not know…” Beren frowned. “’Tis only that, sometimes I think… perhaps there is some balance? Some balance between today’s peace and yesterday’s war? There is that proverb, there is no joy, only grief that makes it so. At least,” Beren snorted, “I keep that in mind on those mornings when I wake shouting.”
While Iorlas digested this, Beren chuckled, sheepish, and shook his head.
“Or perhaps there is too much of this in me?” He raised his glass.
Iorlas laughed and slapped the man’s shoulder. “Ha! There can ne’er be too much of that, my friend.”
Ana was looking at him from the other part of the room in that moment; he met her eyes. And then, with a smile and a slight nod, he raised his glass to her and drank. She frowned before smiling, half-understanding.
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