Banjoverse: The Full Epic
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Fallen: 11. Remain and Defend
When I woke up, sunlight was filtering through the closed drapes and Fíriel was kneeling by the hearth, prodding at the embers with a poker. I blinked and watched her for a few moments, until she turned and saw me.
"Good morning," she said.
I cleared my throat and rubbed my eyes and tried to sit; my head was throbbing.
"What are you doing here?"
"Making you tea."
I pinched the bridge of my nose. There was a bad taste in my mouth. She rose slowly, and I saw that there was a kettle in the grate. I felt her weight beside mine as she sat down on the bed, and then I felt her palm against my forehead. Her hand was warm from the heat of the fire, and she smelled of wood smoke and mint leaves.
"How are you?"
I shrugged. She took her hand away and drew back, considering me at arms' length and looking me up and down with the same mild-eyed, appraising glance that we gave to all of our patients. There were bruises on my forearms.
"I've brought you some clean clothes and some breakfast."
"Where did Valacar go?"
"He is speaking with Laeron, I believe."
My lips were dry, and when I licked them they tasted of blood. "What did he say to you?"
Fíriel looked at me for a moment. Then she sighed, and began, "He was worried for you. And he said that you would be angry with him. But he did not want you left alone."
I stared down at the mattress. "He was dismissed, you know."
"I know that, dear." She reached towards me again, and at first I moved away from her hand, but then I let her push a few strands of hair off of my face. I took a deep breath and shuddered.
"How long have you been here?"
"An hour. Perhaps a bit longer." She slid off of the mattress to minister to the hearth once more. I thought of her sitting here in Valacar's rooms, watching me sleep. It was a well-known fact that Fíriel was the best watch-keeper in the entirety of the Houses. She could sit with slumbering patients for hours on end, watching and listening for changes in their breathing or in the way they stirred or did not stir. She seemed to hardly ever fidget, or even shift in her seat a great deal. "How do you do that?" I had asked her when I was much younger.
"I just think," she replied.
"What kinds of things?"
"Of very difficult chores that are perfect for little girls to do," she had smiled at me, and I had left it at that, even though I was sure that she could not think of this all the time.
Now she was taking out the kettle and pouring a cup of tea. She got up and placed it on the night-table, pushing it towards me. "Let that cool for a bit."
It smelled much like mint leaves, but the odor had a sharper, stronger edge to it. "What is it?" I asked, though already I had some idea.
"Pennyroyal. I'll make you some tomorrow, as well." I stared down again and did not say anything. "It's all right," she said, and covered my hand with hers.
"I told him not to say anything."
"I know." She put the kettle back into the hearth. I was touching my stitches again, my fingers at my collarbone. I watched Fíriel, sitting patiently on her heels between the fire and the bedside. She looked natural, almost as if she was supposed to be here. Besides the patience, this was another thing about her—she never looked in the way or out of place. Probably she could even be sitting in the Citadel courtyard or down in the armories in her plain blue dress, and still find some way to hold herself so that no one would think of the strangeness of it. I watched her, and some part of me knew that I could not truthfully say I wished that she had not come.
"Have you said anything to anyone?"
"Of course not," she said. I took the cup from the night-table. The tea was still hot, but I took a sip. It was strong, and the taste was so sharp that it seemed to have a separate burn to it. "When you finish that, I'll give you some chamomile." I nodded and took a longer drink, and she was still watching me. "You can ask me anything you like," she said. "About anything at all."
I swallowed, staring down again. "No," I said. I put the cup back on the night-table. "I know what happens. I know how girls like me end up."
And then she was kneeling beside the bed once more, and her fingers were under my chin.
"Look at me," she said. "Nothing is going to happen to you. Do you understand?"
When I did not say anything, she got up and sat beside me at the edge of the bed. She slid her arms around me and pulled me in close to her. "You'll be all right, dear," she murmured into my hair, and then she placed a kiss on my forehead. "Not now, perhaps, but soon." She was warm and she smelled like chamomile.
She let go of me after I had stopped crying. "There, now," she said. "We'll have a look at you, and then you can get changed and have something to eat." She had a cloth in her hand and she was dabbing at my face. "And be sure to finish your tea."
* * *
"I suppose he's read all of these." Fíriel was standing, facing Valacar's bookshelf with her arms crossed. "I've heard that many men keep a great deal of books so as to seem learned, but never actually read any of them. But he would make a point of having read all of his, wouldn't he?"
I said nothing and she turned around and looked at me. "I'm sorry. I was only talking to myself, I suppose." She glanced at my nearly-intact portion of breakfast. "Try to eat a little more."
I had not had anything to eat since last evening's meal. Still, even the good, plain kitchen-food that Fíriel had brought for me seemed about as appetizing as the pile of bloodied towels that Laeron and I had taken to the laundry. I felt hollowed out and not hungry in the least.
Then I remembered something, and I stiffened in panic.
"Fíriel, I was supposed to do a shift this morning."
"Tuilin is taking it for you."
"I took one of her shifts two months ago—she's owed me a favor for quite some time, now," Fíriel said, adding, "I only told her that you were not feeling well."
"She gets distracted too easily," I murmured. "She forgets things."
"She'll be all right. Just for this one morning."
I was silent for several moments, and then I said, "I suppose it doesn't matter, anyway. People will find out sooner or later, won't they? Everything's so close here."
When I looked back up at Fíriel, she had an odd expression on her face. "I doubt that anyone will talk about that, dear," she said. At first I thought that she was only trying to soothe me, but then she went on. "You see…" she began, and she walked away from the bookshelf to sit down beside me. "We heard just this morning. The Captains have finished their council."
She pushed a piece of bread closer to me, and then she rested her hand on my shoulder. "They are all making ready to move out. The armies are marching for the Black Gate in two days."
* * *
I went back to the wards; there was nothing else that I could have done. Everything looked different to me. Everyone was speaking of the march to the Gate.
No few people asked me if I were ill, but Fíriel had been right; I needn't have worried about any idle talk, not with all the other things that people now had to discuss. I made sure to keep my sleeves down about my wrists so that the bruises would not show.
I could scarcely do my work. I was afraid of the men, and I was afraid to be alone. I felt as though everyone were looking at me.
I all but refused to look at Laeron when he accosted me in the corridor.
"Are you all right?" he asked me.
"Yes," I replied, but then I shook my head. "No." I was staring at the floor.
"What's wrong, then?" he murmured. I shook my head. I had my arms crossed in front of me and I was pressing them against my body.
I only shook my head, once.
"Then what's wrong? You look—"
"How do I look?"
He opened his mouth as if to speak, then closed it again. "You look tired," he finally said. "Anxious."
"Why shouldn't I?" I demanded.
"I mean, you look like you want to run away," he said quickly. I could think of nothing to say to that, and we were both silent.
"I've been talking to some of the men," he finally said. "Most of them are arming to leave, our men and the Rohirrim alike, and a few will remain and defend. They reckon they will send some seven thousand—perhaps more, if there are that many."
I nodded, and there was a long pause before I said something.
"What was that?" Laeron asked me. It had been so quiet that it was almost a murmur.
"I said that it's a death sentence." I still was not looking at him.
"You mustn't say that. It isn't true. And even if it were, you still should not."
"It's only what I think. So it can't matter a great deal."
He was quiet for a moment, and then he said, "This isn't anything to do with Valacar, is it?"
"Because I want you to know that I never breathed a word to anyone."
"I know that." I lifted my head and looked him in the eye. "I have to go now, Laeron."
* * *
I did not see the soldier, although I was always certain that he was somewhere just beyond the edge of my sight. Nor, for that matter, did I see Beren. All of the able-bodied men were busy in the barracks, in the stables, and the armories, and there was no longer any time to walk in the gardens or make long visits to the friends who lingered in the wards.
I decided that I did not want to see Beren. At some moments I thought about all of our talks and I very much wanted to see him, but then I thought about the space between us that he would want to cross, and I thought that he might try to press his palm against mine or slide his arm around me again, and that I would not want that at all, and that he might want me to explain. I could see it all stretched out quickly before me, one thing after another, and it made my palms prickle with sweat. So I thought that in the end it would be easiest if I did not see him.
* * *
For those left in the Houses there was a sort of quiet awe about the plan, still punctuated by the dull rhythms of all the old chores.
"And if they fail?" I asked Fíriel. We had gone back to making bandages; our great supply had dwindled, after all that had happened.
"They won't," she said. She had been good to me, taking some of my work when she was able, fetching things for me so that I would not have to go for them myself.
"But what if they do?" I persisted.
Fíriel was quiet, and for a time there was only the sound of rending cloth. Then she said, "You know that it will do you no good to think on such things, dear. Not now."
"I can't help it." I knew I should not be short with her, of all people, but I went on anyway. It was like pressing my thumb into one of the bruises over my ribs just to see how much pain I could draw out of it before I had to stop. "Neither can you, I expect. No one can. It's only that everyone's afraid to speak of it."
"Speaking of the worst does not help a great many people."
I stared at my bandages, and then I asked, "Have you seen Valacar?"
"No, not lately." When we had left his rooms, Fíriel had let us out herself, locking the door behind us and pocketing the key.
"Oh." We were quiet again, until I made a noise and set down my knife.
"Did you cut yourself?"
I nodded, my finger in my mouth. "I've never done that before."
* * *
After my shift was over, I took a pile of mending and sat in a corner of the northeast gardens to work on it. "I'll take care of that," Fíriel had told me earlier, but I did not want her to have to do all of it, especially after I had been cross with her. It was very slow work, as I stopped and looked around every few moments. I was still aching and I wanted to go and lie down.
The rain clouds had rolled past to leave a clear day, which served all the more to set off the glowering shadow in the East. I could see a hint of it, hovering just above the line of the sixth circle walls. I thought it had grown bigger since last I had glimpsed it. Just like me, that I should choose the eastern gardens today, I thought. Perhaps it meant that I was still capable of a private jest.
Things were quiet except for the barest of breezes, and the occasional sound of a door opening or shutting in the background. I could hear Fíriel's voice coming from the other side of the hedgerow, perhaps chatting with a patient or with one of the other healers. It was good to know that someone else was nearby. And then with a start I recognized Valacar's voice, as well.
"…last thing she needed was to be alone with a man," Fíriel was saying, her voice still quiet. I hunched over my mending and gritted my teeth.
"And what should I have done, then?"
"You could have taken her back to the wards."
"I suppose I should have forced her?"
"You could have sent for me right away, then."
There was a pause, and then Valacar said, "You'll excuse me for not thinking with all possible lucidity at that moment. I did what I thought was best at the time."
Another pause, longer this time, and I could hear Fíriel say, more slowly, "You've always had that problem, haven't you?"
Valacar snorted, and then he said, "And what is that supposed to mean?"
"Perhaps we should all think about what will be best for the next day, or the next year, or the next twenty, Valacar." Her tone was soft.
"Are you reprimanding me again?"
"Of course I am."
"Well, you're too late."
"I'm going back to work, now."
"Of course you are."
"Take care. Really, this time."
There was the noise of shoes crushing the grass, and it was quiet again. And then Valacar appeared on my side of the hedgerow.
"Oh," he said, looking as surprised at me as I was at him. "Hello."
I said nothing and stared down at the mending in my lap.
"I think I owe you an apology," he said softly, stepping closer to where I was sitting. "More than one, most likely."
I bit my lip and made the barest of shrugs. I did not want to look at him. He stood there until I could no longer bear it.
"I don't want to speak to you right now," I said, glancing up.
He nodded once and turned to go. A few seconds later I drew in a sharp breath, and he turned around again.
"I can't work," I said, and my voice was flat.
He nodded slowly.
"And what are you doing, then, now that…" I began. "Doing more reading, I suppose?"
"It's not been a very long time," he said.
"Do many people know?"
He shrugged and licked his lips before answering. "Not many, at the moment. Now that the Siege is over, there are a great many surgeons who haven't much to do. They are not all needed at the time, not all at the same instant."
I glanced down at my mending. The last several minutes' work was a horrid mess, the stitches large and uneven, as if an old woman with poor eyesight and shaking hands had put them in. I tried to pull out the thread, but my movement was too fast and it snapped. I swore, and threw the whole cloth down on the bench beside me.
"What are you looking at?" I demanded of Valacar, who was still standing there before me.
"Nothing." He reached down beside me and picked up the cloth slowly, as if I were a sparrow he was trying not to startle. He began to carefully remove the stitches with his fingers.
"Fíriel said you were talking to Laeron. What about?"
Valacar's hands stopped for a moment, then started again. "Several of the apprentices are considering leaving with the armies. There's been some sort of a call for field surgeons."
"But they're not field surgeons."
"And that is what I said, as well," he replied without looking at me. "Perhaps you could speak to them, if you had the chance. Speak to Laeron." He spent a moment picking at one of the smaller, more recalcitrant stitches. "Chances are good that he'll listen better to you than he did to me."
"How long of a battle do they think this will be? To think that they'll need men like that?"
"I don't know."
"They'd want to travel without too much weight, wouldn't they?"
"They might. But they might also take any man who offered himself up."
"He's your apprentice. If he won't listen to you, he'll not listen to anyone else."
"He's no longer my apprentice."
"Oh." I had pulled my knees up to my chest. "I saw him work," I added. "The other day. He's very good."
Valacar nodded. "He works hard. He's a clever lad."
There was a noise somewhere behind us, and I started.
"Are you all right?" he asked. I nodded. "People ought not slam the doors like that," he said.
I shook my head, catching my breath. My heart was racing and my palms were prickling with sweat. It took nothing to set me off like that, I had soon learned after returning to the wards.
"You've not seen him, have you?" Valacar asked quietly.
"Who? Laeron?" I said, though I knew very well who he was referring to.
"No. And you'd do best not to press it any more."
"You're not. And you should not have said anything," I added. "I told you not to say anything. To anyone."
"I know." He set the mending back on the bench beside me.
"I know you do."
"Do you understand why I did it?"
I closed my eyes, but then all I could see was the alley wall, so I opened them again.
"I'm sorry," he said.
"I'm going now."
He nodded, and his face was a blank. I picked up my mending, and then I got up and turned around and walked into the Houses without looking back.
* * *
"Begging your pardon, Miss."
The tall man who stopped me in the north ward was wearing the garb of an Ithilien ranger. He looked nervous, but healthy enough, and I wondered what he was doing here.
"Would you happen to know where Mistress Fíriel is?"
"No. But she should be somewhere around here."
He nodded. "Thank you kindly, Miss."
I watched him go and wondered what business he might have with her.
* * *
Lady Éowyn was slowly walking the floor of her room when I went to bring her meal to her. She looked paler than ever, and her hands were in fists.
"You'll send for your Warden," she said without preamble. "I wish to speak with him."
"Yes, my lady."
Before I left, she also said that these walls were like those of a prison, though at that point she seemed to be speaking more to herself than to me.
* * *
There were always wounded men who were stronger than you might suppose they would be. In the afternoon I crouched beside a sleeping man's bed to change the bandage on his arm, which had been amputated above the elbow. I was unraveling the bloody linen, and then without warning he jerked away from me, and the cloth was coming away from my hands, and there was blood everywhere, and he kept moving and making everything worse. He was making sharp, panicked noises and he would not be calm when I tried to put my fingers on his shoulder and say something soothing, and he was stronger than I was, and he was going to hurt himself.
This kind of thing had happened to me before, and I knew that I had to speak softly to him and perhaps call for someone else to come and help me quiet him. I knew that very well, but then I had one hand clenched at his wounded arm and another at his chest so that he cried out, and there was blood everywhere and I was saying Now stop that, just stop that in a voice that I could not recognize as I my own until someone pulled me away.
Then I was standing back from the bed, and Fíriel was there, calling for someone else. One of the other girls rushed over and took my place, putting her hand on the gasping man's forehead, easing him back down and quieting him and doing all the things that I had not done. Fíriel got up and put her hand on my shoulder and led me away.
"I'm sorry," I whispered. I felt lightheaded.
"Go and take a rest," she said.
"But I can—"
"Go and take a rest."
I nodded stupidly and turned and walked away.
"I'll have a word with you, please," someone said as I neared the end of the aisle. Lord Aradîr was standing at the edge of the ward section.
There was nothing I could do except nod. I had blood all over both hands and on the front of my smock, and the shaking was beginning to return.
"I would not have expected that of you," he said. I remembered his tone of voice from the moments in which he had knelt beside me and told me that the City was dying.
I shook my head and looked down.
"Not in the least. Not from you."
"No, sir," I mumbled.
"Look at me when I am speaking to you, please." There was no anger in his face, but his eyes were hard. "I understand that these are very trying times for everyone in this City, not least of all for the folk of these Houses. Nevertheless, you—we must all work at controlling ourselves, no matter what else troubles us these days. Do you understand?"
"I do, my lord."
"So I have your word that this sort of thing will not happen again?"
"It won't, my lord."
"Very well. We owe that to our men, at the very least, do we not?"
"Yes, my lord."
I was so dazed that I did not drop a curtsey until he had already turned and was walking away, pausing to say a few words or to nod at this or that wounded man in the north ward. There were red marks on the fabric when I brought my hands away from the sides of my skirts.
* * *
I was sitting by myself in one of the sleeping-rooms when Fíriel came in.
"Is he all right?" I asked a few moments after she had seated herself on one of the other pallets.
"He'll be fine."
I nodded but did not look at her.
"Should I apologize?"
"No. He'll not remember you. He was in a poor state."
"I would remember me. If I were him."
"You should put it out of your mind. It was probably my fault; I should not have left you by yourself."
I shrugged lamely. "Not your fault," I murmured. "A man came asking after you," I added. "A ranger."
Fíriel raised her eyebrows. "A ranger?"
"Tall, sort of. Dark. Though that's what most of them look like, I suppose."
"Well, that's interesting," she said. "Thank you for telling me. Do you want anything?" I shook my head. "When did you last eat?"
I shrugged again. "I'm not hungry."
"You need to eat. And you should rest."
"I don't know what to do. I've got nothing left if I can't work."
"Other people can take care of things for a while."
"What will I do?"
She looked at me for a long moment, and then she said, "You're going to lie down and go to sleep."
I wiped at my nose and my eyes with my sleeve. "Will you stay?"
"I can't. I'm sorry. You'll be all right here."
She left, and I curled up on my side and stared at the wall and did not fall asleep. I blinked, and now and again a shudder would coil and uncoil somewhere inside of me.
I had never understood the people who unreservedly disliked our City, the people who had come here from Lossarnach or Amroth, from the coasts or the fields or the mountains to complain that the walls and the noise chafed at them. I knew that they were simply not looking well enough; that there was always another hidden corridor to discover, always another way to slide in amongst the stones so that everything looked differently. But now I finally understood why those outsiders hated it so; there was simply no way out. It was all a maze that led nowhere but back into itself. I curled up more tightly against myself and ran through every passageway in my mind, until there was nowhere to go but out, out to where the shadows stained the sky. In a way, Lady Éowyn was right, I realized. The City could hold you and protect you, shield you so well that in the end you could not escape.
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