Banjoverse: The Full Epic
Playlist Navigation Bar
Fallen: 14. Stitches
“Shall I do that?” Fíriel asked when she came into the sleeping-room. I nodded and she settled down behind me.
“The men will be leaving soon, won’t they?” I asked as she combed out my hair with her fingers. There was a hesitant and careful way about her movements and I was reminded of my mother.
“Fairly soon, yes.”
“Beren asked me if I would marry him.” Her hands stopped, then resumed.
“Oh? When was this?”
“And what did you say?”
“No.” She was quiet, and I twisted round to look at her. “Was that right?”
“Of course, if you don’t want to marry him.”
I turned back around and she resumed her plaiting. “What if he dies?” She said nothing. “I should have said yes, shouldn’t I?”
“No. You should say what you mean.”
“But it wouldn’t have mattered, would it? It would have made him happy.”
I could hear her draw in her breath, then exhale with a sigh. “He is not one of your patients. You did the right thing and you mustn’t worry yourself now.”
“Do you lie to them, Fíriel?”
“Do I lie to whom, dear?”
“The men. If they’re dying, and they ask you if they are.”
“I try not to say one way or the other. It depends upon how much time I think they have, I suppose. Sometimes they need to know.”
“I lie all the time, Fíriel. I don’t mean to. But it’s so easy to lie to them.”
She finished off the end of the plait, and then she took me gently by the shoulders and turned me around.
“Why don’t we talk about something else, now?”
“All right..” I was quiet for a long time, until it became apparent that she wanted me to suggest the topic. Very well, then, I thought.
“Why did you never marry?”
“I never wanted to, I suppose.”
“Not really. Of all the things to talk about,” she said, sounding amused, as if I had wanted to discuss dragons or talking cats. She shook her head and laughed softly and patted my wrists and my shoulder, and her palms were warm. “Well, once, maybe. Once or twice.”
When she did not go on, I said, “You won’t tell me about it, then?”
“It didn’t work out.” She had a way of this, too, at times, of compressing whole ideas and histories into small handfuls of words. It was not an evasion, as it would have been with most other women; it was simply an abbreviation. It was the short version of things.
“You’ll not tell me, will you?” It was more statement than question and I almost wanted to smile.
“It’s not really my story to tell. Not all of it, at least.”
“Oh.” I paused. “I suppose I can understand that.”
“A wise girl you are, then.” She stood up from the mattress and brushed off her skirts. “Shall we go and fetch you your tea?”
I told her that I didn’t need it.
“Oh.” She paused. “You’re sure about that, then?”
“Good,” she smiled. “That’s very good, indeed.”
I nodded again, and then I burst into tears. I suppose it was from relief at first, but at some point when I had my face buried in my palms I realized that this was the only thing I had to be happy about at the moment, and then the crying twisted itself around into something else.
She sat down beside me and put her arms around me. “It’s all right,” she said, and she held me tightly against her. “You’re all right.” Poor Fíriel, I thought. What has she done to deserve me?
She spoke quietly to me—about what I can’t remember, because I think I was becoming like an animal to which sounds mattered more than words—until I could calm myself. And I did, and then I had to get up and leave her because I knew that I needed to say goodbye to Laeron.
I found him standing in a knot of the other young men from the Houses who were preparing to leave, but I managed to pull him aside for a moment. He was humming and pretending to be unconcerned. All around us people were moving and jostling and making ready, and I had to lean close to him so that he could hear me.
“You’re sure this is what you want?” I asked him, and he nodded. For a second I thought the color of his eyes had a new clarity, as if the light grey had been strained and folded in upon itself.
“I think I asked you that, once,” he said.
“Did you? When?”
“Before the evacuations. When we all had to decide whether we would go or whether we would remain. And your mother was leaving to look after your little brother and your little cousin, and we were talking about what you should do. I asked you if this was what you wanted, and you straightened up, like this, and you looked me in the eye, and said, ‘Of course.’” He smiled. “Of course.”
“I wasn’t sure of myself. But I thought that if I seemed like I was, then I really would be.”
“Did it work?”
“I don’t know.”
“It must have worked, for you’ve always seemed so sure of yourself.”
“Laeron…” I began. When we were thirteen years old we had drilled one another on the words of the Canon as we padded through corridors and gardens: I swear to, I swear not to, I swear. We were so much lighter then; we brought very little weight to the world as we walked. We made no marks. And now he was still the boy I had walked with, but he was also this young man whom I scarcely knew, and I could not reconcile the two in my mind. For a moment I thought I could tell him this and that I could tell him other things, too, and speak just long enough to keep him rooted to the spot as the armies filtered away and the windows closed, and that then he would be safe.
“Laeron, for the sake of the Valar, look after yourself.”
“I will,” he blinked. I had raised my voice and he looked surprised. The moment had come and gone.
“I mean it. I’m not just saying it. The others will be able to look after themselves. You have to look out for yourself. Really.”
“And you need to look after yourself, too,” he said.
“Promise me you’ll be all right?”
I swallowed. “I promise.”
“You need to hold everything together while I’m gone. This place will fall apart without me, I just know it.” He gave me a wry smile, and the young boy he had been was walking down the corridor, away from me, and I knew then that I had lost him. I put my hands on his shoulders and stood on tiptoe, kissing him once on the forehead and then once on the nose. He chuckled, and I smiled.
“There’s my girl,” he said, and he leaned towards me and quickly kissed my cheek.
“I’ll be here when you come back.”
“Take care,” he said.
He was thin and warm and he smelled of soap. I held on to his shoulders a moment more, and then I let him go. I drifted through the crowd, saying goodbye to some of the other apprentices and to a few of the last soldiers who were on their way out. When I was finished I stood in a corner of the ward, leaning back into the wall, my arms folded over my chest, and I watched the other women giving their farewells. I saw Fíriel speaking to one of the men, the ranger who had come looking for her before. They were talking quietly and he had his hand on her elbow and his head was bent down towards her. I watched them until it seemed somehow indecent of me and I looked away.
One of the other girls came and stood next to me. We had begun to do this just before the Siege, all of us in the Houses. We would place ourselves next to one another with no expectation of conversation; we were too tired to talk and words seemed silly and flimsy. There was simply the common understanding that sometimes you only wanted another body breathing next to you, and that that was all right.
She wiped her eyes once on her sleeve, but when she finally spoke her voice was clear. “One hour more,” she said.
Everyone who was born afterwards or who was too young to remember has always heard these stories from the other side of the arc, from safe and solid ground, and sometimes the rest of us have nearly gotten used to telling things this way, as well. Because the very fact of our existence is the proof of our happy ending, the light that emerged after the storms. Now you can pick out any moment in the story like a grain of sand and point to its loneliness or its despair as simply proof of perseverance and heroism, the depths out of which we had to pull ourselves. But pull ourselves out we did: that’s the finish, everyone thinks, there’s the moral. But very few people really seem to think about the moments we spent with our feet halfway over the cliff’s edge, staring down into the darkness that gave us back nothing. Before we knew how it was all going to end.
“One hour more,” I repeated. We stood together until I realized what I wanted to do, and I left her without a word. That sort of thing was all right, too.
The Second Circle was a sea of men and arms and movement, and I held my breath and walked forward. I asked after Beren’s company once, then twice, and the third man I spoke to pointed me in the right direction. I weaved my way through the crowd and I swallowed when I saw him leaning against the crumbling battlements, polishing his sword, because I had honestly not expected to find him at all, or really ever to see him again. I placed myself in front of him, not knowing what to say, and watched him until he glanced up and saw me. He opened his mouth.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hello.” The look in his eyes was mild but guarded. “What are you doing here?”
“I wanted to apologize.”
“For what?” he asked. He sheathed his sword and tucked away the cloth he had been using. He had a soldier’s neatness, a soldier’s efficiency. “For yesterday? I told you that you had no need to apologize.”
“No, for…” I drew in a breath and held it until I realized what it was. I took a step closer to him and held my breath again, because this was also like walking into the sea. He was still slouched against the wall, so that I could reach up and put my palm to his forehead where a brown scar had formed, where he had been marked with red the first time I had seen him. “I’m sorry I didn’t give you stitches.” I took my hand away, and he blinked, bemused.
Then he gave a short laugh. “That? That’s nothing. You mustn’t be sorry for that, either.” He put his own hand up to his head where my fingers had been, as if I had left something there.
“No, I mean…” In my mind, I fumbled for the right thoughts or words, and I tried to remember the person I had been before all of this. I had only bits and pieces left and I had to push them blindly together and hope that some of them would fit. “Because I would have made you lie down with your head in my lap.”
He smiled and lifted his eyebrows. “Is that so, then?” He folded his arms and leaned closer in to me. “And then what would you have done?” he whispered.
“Given you stitches.”
“And then what?”
I was silent and he watched me for a few moments. He stopped smiling, perhaps because I was not smiling at all.
“I don’t know,” I finally said. “Just sit there, I suppose. I like sitting with you.”
“And I like sitting with you, as well.”
“So I’m sorry. I do a great many things wrong. And I own to that.”
He was staring at me intently, as if I had something written over my eyelids. “What are you trying to say to me?”
“I don’t know.” I shook my head. “But we can talk about it when you come back. I expect we can talk about a lot of things, then. When you come back.” My voice broke over the last word.
And then his arms were around me and his chin was resting on top of my head. Panic flared in my chest, but he was holding me lightly so that I would not be crushed against the armor he was wearing. His breath was slow and warm on my forehead. The clanks and shouts of preparation still churned around us, but they were now more distant.
“I don’t know what will happen,” he murmured.
“No one does.”
“I’ll not say goodbye,” he said. “And neither will you.”
“You’re just going to walk away. And I’ll see you soon.”
“All right, Beren.”
He closed his arms more tightly around me. Someone was calling his name.
“In a moment,” he replied.
“Beren?” I said. “Will you please look after Laeron if you can? He’s quite brave, but I think he could stand to be looked after.”
He laughed softly, and I could feel it more than hear it. “Well, we could all stand to be looked after, couldn’t we?”
“Of course. I promise to do my best.”
The same voice called for him again, this time more urgently.
“In a moment!” he repeated, and then he sighed and released me. I felt cold; it was like leaving a room.
“All right,” he said, looking me in the eye once more. “All right. I’m glad you came here. Thank you.”
I could only nod.
“Be well,” he said.
“Now you need to go.”
I nodded again. I looked at him for a long moment and then I drew in my breath and turned around and pushed my way through the crowd without a backwards glance.
I stood on the walls and watched the column of men move out of the city. From this height, the banners they held above them looked like little more than child’s ribbons, green and blue and silver and black. The mass stretched out before the walls, and then grew smaller and smaller until it was difficult to think that it was made up of men at all, of bones to be broken and skin to be torn.
There was something, there was a rumor or a movement around the edges of my vision; later I could not remember exactly what it was, but it was there and I knew it. Something snapped in my chest, and then I had the sensation of a vise clamping over my ribs until I had to gasp for breath. I was dizzy and my palms and face were cold with sweat, and my legs lost their strength beneath me. I could not breathe or move. I was down against the wall, aching with panic. My gaze darted from one spot to another, unable to focus: a doorway, a soiled piece of cloth on the ground, a corner of the stonework, and on and on. So this was the end of it, I thought.
Have a deep breath, I heard someone say to me. Open your hands and relax. Have a deep breath; that’s good, you’re all right.
And then I was breathing again. I looked and saw that it was one of the young soldiers. He sat down beside me and I recognized him.
“Hello,” I said.
“Good morning. You’re all right. You’ve just had a bit of an attack. We see it often out in the field.”
It’s you, I said. I tilted my head so that I could look at him more closely. Well, that’s healed nicely, hasn’t it?
Yes, it has. All it needed in the end was time. And now I have all the time in the world.
I suppose you do.
You were the only one I remember, you know, I told him. The only one I really remember. All of the others, they only passed through my hands like water. Like blood. And now I can’t remember any of their faces. Or very few.
There were a great many of us, weren’t there?
Thousands, I repeated. And now I can’t remember.
Just as well. No one wants to be remembered as you saw us. I don’t want you to remember me like that.
That’s why my mother always told me to think about the dying patients as they lay there. So that I could remember that they were once alive. That they were once just like all the rest of us. At least that’s how it seems to me, now. I think I understand, though I never quite did before.
So now you can remember me like this.
I suppose I can.
Have they gone yet?
Yes. Just now.
He nodded. Good day for a march.
Will they be all right? I asked.
I don’t know.
I don’t suppose anyone does, do they?
No, he smiled. And he had a lovely smile—probably no one had ever accused him of not meaning it when he smiled. You’ll just have to wait and see, he said. That’s the nature of the beast.
I nodded and shut my eyes for a long moment. When I opened them, Tarondor was gone.
I stood up, bracing for support against the wall with one hand. The world seemed to tilt sharply for a second, but then it righted itself and I was on my feet, and I walked away. I made my way along the outer walls of the sixth circle, and by that time the men were completely vanished from sight, as if they had never existed in the first place.
I walked back to the edges and the out-buildings and the houses, trailing one hand along the stone of the corridors, checking over my shoulder every few moments as had become my habit. My chest was burning but somehow I was lighter, I was somewhere apart from myself.
I stopped at a door and knocked once, then twice. When it opened I stepped back. Valacar looked me up and down with a quizzical expression on his face.
“Laeron’s gone,” I began, before he could utter a word. It seemed that I could only manage apologies today. “He’s gone and I couldn’t stop him. I don’t know what will happen. I’m sorry. I might have gone too, if I were him. I couldn’t stop him and I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.” He looked as though he were still trying to blink away his surprise. “He was set on it, and no one could have swayed him otherwise, I think. Boys are like that. You mustn’t be sorry.” He paused. “Is that the only reason you’ve come here?”
“I don’t know.” My right hand had wandered up to my collarbone as easily as I had wandered here. “Will you look at my stitches? They might be ready to come out.”
He stared at me a long moment more, and then he nodded. “All right.” I held down the collar of my dress with two fingers so that he could see. “No, not yet,” he said. “We’ll give it another week, perhaps.”
“We’ve not got that long,” I said. I took my fingers away from my neck.
“You don’t know that.”
“Are you sure they can’t come out sooner?”
“It needs another week.” He folded his arms and leaned against the door frame. “Why is it so important to you?”
“I don’t know.” I stared away and we were both silent. I realized that I had been biting my fingernails.
“Why are you here?” he asked softly.
“May I come in?”
“If you like.” He stepped back inside, looking puzzled, and I followed. He offered me a chair and shut the door behind me.
“Can you lock it?” I asked. He nodded. There was a clicking of metal and then he came to stand in front of me.
“What is it?”
“I wanted to tell you about Laeron.”
“And to ask you about the stitches.”
“You did that, too.”
“And…” I bit my lip. “He’s still here.”
I touched two fingertips to my collarbone where the cut was. “Him. I know he is.”
“You saw him?”
“All right.” Valacar ran a hand through his hair. “What do you want me to do?”
“I don’t know. I just wanted to tell someone.”
“And what will you do?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know. I’m tired.”
There was a long silence, and then I said, “I think I’m more afraid of him than I am of Mordor. That’s wrong, isn’t it?”
“It seems so.”
“I think you ought to tell someone.”
“I told you, didn’t I? And you told—”
“You know what I mean. Someone else; someone who can help you better than I can.”
“I don’t want to.” That was the best I could explain it. A short answer, like Fíriel’s . An abbreviation for a number of other things.
He only looked at me and sighed, as if all the preciseness had been worn from him and there were only these inexact gestures. I stared into my lap. “I think I’m dying.”
“You’re not dying.”
“I might be.”
“You’re not. You’re being very difficult.” He paused and raked a hand through his hair again. “No, I didn’t mean that.”
“I might as well be dying. Am I the only one who understands?” I asked, my voice louder than it needed to be.
“They’re not coming back. Laeron and Beren and Mablung and all the others.”
“Who’s Beren?” he asked.
“A boy,” I said.
“I would have assumed.”
“They’re only going to die, and then all the rest of us are going to die a little while later. Why does everyone keep pretending?”
“We don’t know that,” he said. “We mustn’t give up. Not now.”
“Stop it, Valacar. It’s too late for you and me both. We can’t help anyone anymore, neither of us.” I mopped at my face with my sleeve. “We can’t. I’m sorry. I’m so afraid. I’m tired of being afraid.”
He was quiet for a long time. He took a breath as if to speak, then hesitated. Then he said, “It’s a gallows crime, you know.”
I could feel myself flinch, and I looked away from him. “I know that,” I whispered sharply. “Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
“It’s the truth.”
“Murder is a gallows crime, too, Valacar,” I said slowly, looking up to meet his eyes once more. I was not sure what, if anything, I wanted to exact from him, but in that moment the desire was there. “So is adultery.” His countenance did not change at that; he only tilted his head slightly to one side, as if waiting for me to go on.
“I—” I hesitated, then took a deep breath. “Maybe you ought to tell me something about yourself. Since you know a great deal about me, now.”
He opened his mouth again, but then he only gave a weary sigh, and smiled. “Clever girl,” he murmured. “Fair enough. What do you want?”
“What about Aradîr, then, and why he hates you so? What was it all about?”
He stared away for several moments, and then he turned his head to look at me. “Things,” he said, “that happened many, many years ago.”
“So it’s true, then? About you and his wife?”
“No. That never happened.”
“But you said,” I began. “You said that she was very pretty, and that he did not love her as he should.”
“So what is it, then?”
He raised his eyebrows. “You’ve really no idea, have you?”
“There was…” he began, then shook his head and gave that weary, rueful smile once more. “Well, yes, but not with his wife.”
“What do you mean?”
“Think about it.”
I thought about it, and then I said, “Oh.”
“Oh,” he repeated, and there was a brittle sharpness in his voice that I had never heard before. He clapped his hands together and stood up. “Clever girl,” he said, and he went to face the window.
“That’s even worse,” I murmured. His room was the same as it had been when I had spent the night there: furniture lined up neatly against the walls, books on the shelf, brandy-bottle on the table, the simple trappings of a bachelor life. But now it all seemed to slowly take on a different taint. Something sickly and smirking sinking into it all. I wouldn’t have guessed, I thought. I felt vaguely ill.
He turned around and folded his arms. “Juvenile, perhaps,” he shrugged. His tone was brisk and impersonal, as if he were a tutor delivering a history lecture. “He wouldn’t have seen any real trouble, of course. Not with who his family is. But here in the City, when one advances in his career, things like that are bound to become a liability, even if they happened many years ago. Best to eliminate them when the opportunity arises, one could reason. Take the safe route. At least that’s what I assume.” He smiled mirthlessly. I wouldn’t have guessed, not on my own. “I can’t blame him, I suppose. Not really.”
I contemplated the folds of my apron in my lap, and my lips were pressed together tightly. “That’s disgusting, Valacar,” I said.
“You wanted to know.” He paused, and then added, lightly, “You sound like my father. But as you were saying,” he went on, “it doesn’t matter anymore, does it? None of it.” I wiped my face with my apron and did not look at him. “Oh, I didn’t mean that either,” he sighed. “I’m sorry.”
“For how long?” I asked.
“About a year.”
“How old were you?”
“Twenty,” I repeated to myself, as if there were something especially significant about the number. I considered him, and it was like that first time I had come here and he had knelt at the grate in his shirtsleeves, and he had looked different. And why not, I thought. The walls were crumbling and at this point nothing was going to be a constant.
“It was a long time ago,” he said.
He asked me when I had last eaten, and I shrugged off the question. I simply wasn’t hungry and I hadn’t been for some time now. For the time being I had nowhere to go and he certainly didn’t, either, so we just sat for several minutes in the half-light behind closed drapes.
“You were always my favorite, you know,” I said. “My favorite surgeon.”
The past was becoming its own story, now, part of something that I could recite to myself by rote if I needed to, but that I could no longer be bothered to believe. It was strange to think that I had ever been small and had a father who lifted me into the air, or that I had a brother who had been small and would crawl into my bed on the nights when something had frightened him and he could not sleep, his weight beside mine, and the facts of his slow breath and dirty bare feet next to me were stories of their own. Of course, to my brother our father was only a story and nothing more because he had not been old enough to remember. He loved you very much, I said to my brother when he was old enough to ask questions. You were his young man; he called you his grand young man. And I was his lovely girl.
And now my brother was ten, old enough to have stayed on as a message-lad if he liked, but still not old enough, it had seemed, to receive the full story beyond bits and pieces. But perhaps that was sufficient; he was a clever boy. And now it made me feel ill, remembering that he was only ten and that our cousin was a mere seven. It was not a very long time at all; I had had more time than both of them put together, which seemed at the moment rather greedy of me.
“When did you last sleep?” Valacar was asking. This morning, I replied. But it’s been a long day.
“It has,” he said.
I let him walk me back to the wards, neither of us saying another word, a wide space between us as we moved. The sixth circle was a hollow shell; echoes of noises were exaggerated and bits of rags and rubbish sat idly on the cobblestones. In a strange way it was almost peaceful and I felt a sort of betrayal at that; as if the City were almost too eager to accommodate its newest and emptiest state.
Playlist Navigation Bar