Banjoverse: The Full Epic
Playlist Navigation Bar
Fallen: 12. Besieged
“Come here, girl. Yes, you. Come here for a moment.”
I turned to see the grey-haired captain from the second circle staring at me, the one who had told me about the Eastern River Company.
“This is for you,” he said, and he held out a straight dagger, the hilt pointed towards me. It was cool and heavy in my palm when I took it, the handle well-worn.
“You might have need of it.”
I turned the knife over in my hand; it seemed to have a good sort of balance to it. “And what does that mean?”
He took a breath. His hands were clasped together in his lap. “No one remaining in the City should be left unarmed.”
“If ever it comes to a point that the healers should have need to defend themselves, I doubt that blades will do us much good in the end, sir.” I looked at him; he must have known that it was true, as well—how could he not? For me, a weapon of war was of no more use than a trinket, a charm.
“You might have need of it,” he repeated simply, his face betraying nothing. Perhaps it was not meant to be any more than a trinket, anyway. A token to preserve our pride, to guard against the idea of a complete slaughter.
I pushed it towards him. “I would only drop it if ever I had need of it,” I said.
But he would not take it back. “You are all to be armed. Keep it for me, then.”
I found the Warden in his office at the far end of the North Ward. He was in and out of his rooms so frequently that on many days he did not even bother to close his door—that was how I found it today. I was relieved when I reached the place, for I had become so fearful and anxious that every walk through the corridors had become something of an ordeal.
“Come in,” he said when he saw me standing in the doorway. He was sitting at his desk, sorting through the pile of papers before him. The office was a small and modest room, and I had once heard him say that that was just as well, for the smaller the room, the fewer records he would be forced to keep on hand.
“The Lady Éowyn wishes to speak to you, sir,” I said.
“Very well,” he nodded, his attention returning to the papers. I wondered if any of them had to do with Valacar. “Thank you for telling me.” I took a deep breath that burned at the bottom of my chest, and I stayed where I was, and after a moment the Warden glanced up at me again. “Is there anything else?”
“Sir, I…” I trailed off. My palms prickled with sweat, because I could see things stretched out clearly before me. I could stand there, staring at my feet, and stammer out what had happened, and because he was a good Warden and a kind man he would remove me from the rotations and send my grievance to someone higher up, some captain or guardsman. And then people would talk and there would be stories passed about and I would be asked if things had actually happened that way. I trailed off because it was as though I was standing on the edge of something, and I realized that I was frightened and I did not know what I wanted.
“Yes?” He was looking at me, waiting for me.
“Nothing,” I said. “I’m sorry, it’s nothing.”
He cleared his throat. “I was told,” he said slowly, “that there was something of an incident in the wards earlier.”
“It…you might call it that. There was…no lasting harm, sir.”
“I trust there was not. I trust that you did your best; I take pride in having an excellent staff.”
I did not say anything.
“But,” he went on, “if ever anyone is having any difficulties, I much prefer to hear of it from the source, and not from anyone else.”
“That is not a reflection on you, particularly.” He turned over a piece of paper. “Simply what I prefer.” I swallowed; I had stepped away from the edge.
“Is it true what they say? That everyone who remains in the City needs to be armed?”
“There has been talk of that. I would prefer to ignore such a directive, myself. I suppose that to me, it seems an admission of a certain…” He shifted his papers, glanced out the window, and then looked back at me. “A certain desperation, I suppose. One that I do not think we ought to adopt.”
“Still,” he continued. “I suppose that I would not prohibit it, should it come to that.”
“Yes, sir. Good day to you.”
“And to you,” he nodded, and he watched me as I left.
I did not know what to do with the dagger that the captain had given me, so I simply tucked it into the bottom of my kit bag, a heavy impostor next to the delicate scalpels and white bandage rolls. It did not make me feel any safer.
I was afraid for the men who would march away tomorrow, and I was afraid for myself, inside of the City. I was exhausted from watching and wondering, of waiting for something to happen. Everything was coming apart before our eyes.
Fíriel continued to make me pennyroyal tea—by my fourth cup I decided that I loathed the taste.
“It makes me ill,” I said.
“It would make you less so if you ate more,” Fíriel said.
“That makes me ill, too.”
“Well, choose the lesser of the evils, then.” She put her hand on top of my head. “You need to be kind to yourself.”
On the following afternoon, I was turning around to ask Elloth for something in the dispensary, and then I closed my eyes and when I opened them I was on the floor. Elloth was kneeling beside me.
“You fainted,” she informed me.
“No, I didn’t,” I said. “I never faint.”
“Yes, you did. I just saw you. Here.” She got up and gathered some dried leaves from a jar on a nearby shelf and handed them to me. “Chew on some of these.”
“Was I down for very long?”
“Only for a moment. I was going to throw some water on you, but then you came around on your own.”
“I said that in jest.”
“By the Valar, it was a joke. You don’t go dumping buckets of water on people when there’s lots of perfectly good lavender lying about. Anyway, clearly you’re not well.”
“No?” I was still sitting on the dispensary floor. I knew I should not try to stand up too quickly.
“You look horrid.”
“Thank you, Elloth.”
“I mean, you look ill.”
“Well, go and rest. You’re a healer, you ought to know what to do.”
“I’ll just sit for a moment and then I’ll be on my way.”
She sighed. “Very well.” She poured me a glass of water and then she went back to whatever she had been doing. “You’ve no need to make a show of things, you know.” She said after a few minutes.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“If you’ve really gone to the point of fainting on the dispensary floor, you’ve no reason to keep soldiering along as though everything is all right. We’re all tired. We’ve all come this far.” On the table above me, she began to mix something in a basin. “What’s going to happen to us, I wonder?” she murmured. She did not sound particularly fearful, just puzzled; it was not the sort of question that truly asked for a reply. “They really will do it, won’t they? They really are going to march on Mordor. It will be strange without all the men here. Even emptier than before.”
I drank my water and made a vague noise of assent.
“What about your young man?” she asked. “What about Beren?”
“What about him?”
“Will he be leaving tomorrow with all the rest?”
I shrugged. “Most likely. He’s healthy.”
“You mean you’ve not asked him?”
“I’ve not seen him. He’s busy.”
“Is that what’s the matter with you, then?”
“What is?” I glared at her.
“You’re worried to death. Or your heart is breaking, or something.”
I stood up and I felt the blood rushing to my head, and I gripped the edge of the table.
“Elloth, no one ever worries themselves to death. And no one’s heart ever truly breaks, unless—unless they’ve been run through. It takes more than that to kill you or make you ill.”
“I know that. Don’t fault me for being concerned.” She glared at me from over her mixing.
“I know.” I sighed. “I’m sorry. It’s just—people say these things over and over. And it takes more than that to kill us.”
She nodded. “I should certainly hope so,” she murmured.
Later, the woman in charge of the laundry filled my arms with clean linens and dispatched me to south ward to make up the empty beds.
“A good time to do it,” she had told me approvingly. “Remember the week before, when we ran out of beds? When so many of them were on stretchers on the floor, in the aisles? Horrid. Must have driven our poor Warden out of his very mind.”
I told her I remembered, and that I agreed.
“Thank you, dear,” she said as I left. “There’s a good girl.”
She had piled so many folded sheets into my hands that I could scarcely see over the top, and as I stepped out into the corridor I very nearly collided with someone.
“Oh!” I said, and stepped back and peered around the linens, and my heart was racing again; today everything I could have done seemed like a very poor idea. “Sorry…oh.”
“Sorry,” Valacar said, and once again he looked apologetic and embarrassed. I preoccupied myself with righting the linens in my arms. “Will you please go and speak to Laeron?” he asked me without preamble. I looked up at him again. “He’s set on marching out,” he continued, folding his arms. “I don’t know what I’m going to tell his mother,” he added, as if this were the crux of his problems.
“And why must I go and speak with him?” I demanded. “It’s his own business; he’s not a child anymore. No one ever listens to me, anyway.”
Valacar sighed. “I don’t ask for myself; you don’t owe me any favors. Please speak to him for his own sake. You’re his friend.”
I closed my fingers around the cloth in front of me. It smelt vaguely of the lye soap we used to clean everything in the Houses that was not human.
“All right,” I murmured. “I’ll try.”
“Valacar?” I shifted the linens on to one arm pushed a few stray strands of hair from my face with my free hand.
“Why are you here, anyway?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve been dismissed. Why are you still here?”
He rubbed a hand over his eyes. “I live here, don’t I? Not here, but…” He sighed. “There’s not very well anywhere else to go, now, is there?”
“No,” I murmured, holding the sheets on both of my arms again. “We all live here now, I suppose.” A silence stretched out between us, and then I excused myself and went to look for Laeron.
When I found him, he was packing up his kit bag, his instruments spread out on a clean sheet atop a bed.
“Hello,” he said when he saw me.
“You’re not a field surgeon,” I said. “Nor are you a soldier.”
“Thank you,” he said, returning to his task. “I really had no idea.”
I sighed and sat down on the bed nearest him. “You know what I mean. You’ve no need to do this. No one wants to see you leave.”
“Do you think I’ll not return? Is that it?”
“Laeron, it’s dangerous. You know it is.”
“It’s dangerous here, as well. Everywhere, these days.”
I began to bunch up the fabric of my smock in my fists. “It is,” I murmured. “But this is different. Don’t pretend it’s not different.” For a moment there were only soft clinking sounds as he rolled the metal instruments into the linen, and then I went on. “Laeron?”
“Are you angry with Valacar?”
He rubbed his eyes and shook his head. “I don’t know. What’s that to do with anything?”
“You’ve got nothing to prove, you know. Nothing at all. You’re a good surgeon. You’re wonderful.”
He stopped and stared at me. “Is that what you think?”
“I do. The day before last, in the surgery, when—”
“No, about—I mean, thank you—but about proving something. Is that what you think I really want?”
“Because—during the Siege, when you were talking about going down to the walls, and then… And Elloth, and…” He raised his eyebrows.
“What about Elloth?”
“Listen to me! Men are always so keen to—”
“Keen to what?” He narrowed his eyes.
“I don’t know, I just—you’re not a field surgeon and you’re not a soldier and I don’t want you to die.”
“Why are you so certain I’ll die? Why are you so certain that the mission will fail?” He put down his instruments. “This past week, you’ve been here, too. You’ve been here and you’ve seen everything. Armies and beasts, elves and perrianath—and our King has come back to us. And the world seems so much vaster now. Anything could happen.”
“That’s what frightens me.”
He sighed again and sat down on the floor, his head resting against the bed frame as he looked up at me. “I was angry at Valacar. I still am. I don’t know. But that’s not got anything to do with it.”
He shrugged. “I always thought that surgeons were supposed to be perfect. I thought that he was supposed to be perfect.”
“We all did.”
“They’re always supposed to know what to do. I suppose he did what he thought was right, didn’t he?”
“I suppose,” I murmured.
“I wish he’d not been dismissed.”
I bit my lip, and then I said, “Me, too.”
“He’s quite fond of you, you know.”
“And of you.”
“He was the one who stopped me biting my nails, you know. When I was sixteen, he just said, ‘You’ll not do that, anymore,’ and so sometime later I just stopped. Just like that.” He shook his head and smiled. When I did not reply, Laeron went on. “Perhaps before, during the Siege…perhaps then I thought I had something to prove. I don’t know. But now…” He trailed off.
“It doesn’t matter. None of it does. Have you been down to the gates? Down to the Pelennor?” I shook my head. “It’s all gone. It’s wrecked.”
“When you see the land and the stonework gutted like that, it’s almost as terrible to look at as when they brought the dying men to us on the stretchers. And I thought of that, and I thought of all the men, too, and it makes me think that none of the rest of it matters. That it’s not all—I don’t know—that’s it’s not all petty politics, and who’s lied to whom, and who fancies whom, and who’s the best or the worst at everything.”
“Of course it’s not, Laeron.”
“Only this matters in the end, the City and all the people. That’s the only thing we’ve been living for this past week; what all these men have been dying for. And if you had this one chance to go out from here, and to give all you had to give, and to see it all—see everything, wouldn’t you take it?”
“If I were a boy, you mean?”
“Well…yes, I suppose.”
“I don’t know.”
“You would. I know you would. And that’s that.”
I stared at him.
“That’s that, is it?” I whispered. I smoothed out the part of my smock that lay bunched in my lap.
Laeron stopped leaning against the bed and moved forward so that he was on his knees, closer to me.
“Are you going to cry?”
“No. Do I look like it?”
“Well, now it’s my turn, I should think.”
“Your turn for what?”
“For me to ask you what’s bothering you.”
“I’m just worried, can’t you see? It’s making me go all to pieces.”
“We’re all worried. You were worried before, but you still smiled now and again.”
“That one doesn’t count,” he said. “That was just for show.”
“You can’t say that.”
“Yes I can. I can tell.”
“That’s possible,” he replied. I smiled again. “See?” he said. “That one was a bit better.”
I hesitated, and then I slid off of the edge of the bed and to sit facing him on the floor. This was the world that the children of the Houses lived in, crouching beside the empty beds—it was amazing what a row of them could stand in for: fortresses and forests, caves and tunnels. If you stayed very still and held your breath, it was even possible to become invisible in such low and narrow spaces.
“Nothing I say will make you change your mind, will it, Laeron?” I asked him.
He smiled and shook his head, and I watched him and then I nodded. My own bag was still sitting on top of the bed and I reached up for it and brought it into my lap put my hand inside it.
“You should have this, then,” I said, drawing out the knife. “One of the captains gave it to me, in case I had need of it, he said. But I shan’t need it, so you should have it.”
He looked at the dagger. “Thank you,” he said, “but you should keep it. I’ve already got one like it—it was my cousin’s.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “You can probably never have too many of these things.”
“No, you keep it,” he said. And he pulled himself up to sit on the bed again, his attention returning to his kit bag. I got up off the floor as well, and I stood up, brushing off the front of my smock.
“I’ll see you later then, will I?” I asked.
He nodded. “Of course you will,” he said, and he went back to his work.
I was passing through the edge of the southwest gardens when Beren called to me. I turned around and saw him standing against a pillar, and he had the fingers of his right hand fanned over his eyes against the sharp light of the setting sun. Looking for all the world as though he belonged there.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hello.” He took his hand away from his face and stepped towards me. I stayed where I was. “I promised I’d find you, didn’t I?” he smiled.
He nodded. “My company moves out tomorrow with the rest of the armies. I’ll not come here again; I won’t have time.” He paused and I waited for him to speak again. “Have you got a moment?” he asked, and I nodded. “Will you come and talk with me, then?”
I hesitated. I really had no reason to say no, so I said that I would.
We sat on one of the small lawns, beneath a massive tree that hunched over the greens like a tired old man. Beren stared up at the branches
“How deep do you suppose the roots go?” he asked. He was removing the sword from his belt and placing it beside him so that he could sit more comfortably.
“I mean, how much earth do you suppose it needs? How deep does it go before it hits the stone?”
I shrugged, because I could not have cared any less. I was staring at the ground and was busying myself with tearing up small handfuls of grass. Before, words had come easily to me when I was with him, but now my throat was stopped up. It was as simple as walking to the close of a dead-end alley; there was no further to go.
“I’ve no idea how long we’ll be away,” he went on. “We’re to march east with all possible haste, of course.” I nodded. My throat was closed up, and my stomach was in knots. “I shall miss the Houses, I should think. I’ve decided I like them, after all.” He paused and I could hear him draw in a breath. “Will you look at me?”
I looked at him. “Sorry.”
“No need to apologize. Are you all right?”
I shook my head.
“You mustn’t be frightened. Everything’s going to be fine.”
He leaned forward and took my hand and held it lightly between both of his. His palms were warm and rough with calluses, as the other soldier’s had been, and I drew in my breath and pulled away from him.
“I’m sorry,” I repeated, and stared down again. So this is the way it is going to be from now on, I thought. Like Laeron had said: That’s that. And Beren would go and that would be that.
“Surely you’re not angry with me for going?”
“Of course not.”
“I’ve not been too forward, have I?”
“That’s good.” He shifted and resettled himself on the grass. “Because I will be, now.” He cleared his throat. “I saw you that first time, and you were with Tarondor, and he was... And the second time I saw you, and the third, I looked at you at first and all I could see was him, and that moment when I realized he was going to die. I might have wished never to see you again, if only because you were the one who told me that. But I didn’t mind; I suppose perhaps because you remembered him, too. And you always—this is silly, but—you always had something in your hands, and you always seemed to have something useful to do, and that made it seem as though things were still…normal.”
He nodded. “As though things were still happening, as though we could still make them happen. As though someone were taking care of things.”
Pretending, I thought.
“Do you still see him now? When you look at me?” I asked.
He shook his head, and he smiled, and I remembered, too. A young man I had never seen before, pale with grief and exhaustion, blood dripping from his forehead into blue eyes.
“No,” he said. “I only see you. And I have to ask you,” he went on, and I looked away and found myself guessing at the directions of this. “If you would have— I was wondering, I suppose. If we had had more time—when I come back, I mean. Not right away, of course, but if you would think about it… If you would have liked to be my wife?”
I was silent, and I realized that the Siege had not ended with the sunrise and the sound of Rohan’s horns on that day. Everything’s going to be fine, he had said, but the truth was that Minas Tirith was still besieged, and all of us caught up in battles between I will and I would have, making the plans for which we could find no footholds.
I was still looking away from Beren, and a sad, sickly sort of feeling washed over me. Silly boy, some part of me was thinking. Sentimental. He ought to know better, ought to know the fickleness of things, the way they shifted. And in some other part of me, a small twinge of happiness unfolded, and I almost let it be. But then I thought, if he knew. If he knew he might not ask at all. And that last made me feel truly ill, as if I were deceiving him just by sitting here, this young man whose company I had enjoyed. This man whom I would miss.
I must have been silent for too long, for he drew in his breath and said quietly: “Well. That’s all right.”
“Beren, I’m sorry.” I wanted to say something good or something sweet, but there was only clumsiness. “I don’t know. I’m sorry.” I should have feigned certainty. I should have answered before he finished his question, the way I had when he had asked if Lord Elladan might have saved his friend.
“It’s all right,” he said. “I didn’t mean to…that was improper of me. But I had to ask, you see.” His smile had taken on a lopsided quality.
“It wasn’t improper.”
“We all have to take care of things, you know. Before we go. And now I’ve taken care of this.”
“I’m sorry,” I repeated. I did not know what else to say.
“I said it was all right,” he replied, and his voice was more even now. “I’d not have wanted you to lie.”
“I wish we had had more time.”
“So do I.”
“There was never enough, was there? All our lives, everything was leading up to this”—I gestured towards his sword, lying beside him on the green grass—“and we never knew. Or I never knew, at least. Part of me always thought that there would be time for everything.”
“But it seems as though it’s always been this way, hasn’t it? It’s only been a few weeks since the evacuations, since my company was called back towards the City. But I can scarce remember a time that Minas Tirith wasn’t like this, it’s seemed so long. It’s a gift, I suppose. The way things seem longer than they are. The way we can grow accustomed to things.”
“Perhaps,” I murmured, and when he did not say anything in reply I simply let the silence grow between us. By now there was a little mound of torn grass beneath my hand. And for the first time ever I wished him gone, not because I liked him any less, but because it seemed that we had finally run out of things to say. And because I was tired of waiting for things to happen; I wanted it all to be over and done.
Perhaps he thought the same, for he stood up and began to brush the grass from his uniform. I got up, as well, and as he was fastening his sword to his belt, he looked at me and said, “I don’t suppose I could ask for a kiss good-bye?” I offered him my cheek. “Prim today, are we?” he laughed, but then he stopped. “Here now, you know I’m only teasing. Don’t look at me so. What’s wrong? You can tell me.”
“You’ve not got another lad somewhere, have you?”
“Valar,” he said, “that was teasing, too. It’s all right.” He sighed. “You take care, then.”
“I’ll see you when I come back,” he said. He gave me a kiss, and then he was gone.
Playlist Navigation Bar