Banjoverse: The Full Epic
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Fallen: 15. Brave
We were all waiting, but no one knew for how long, or even what for. When people spoke, it was as if another language was hiding behind their words, one that no one could speak openly, a language of possibilities and death. And some people only wanted to speak, regardless of how many languages there truly were. I missed Beren and Laeron but I was trying not to think on them too much.
I had only seen the man from Rohan once or twice before he tilted his head towards me and said “I need to tell you something.” His right leg had had to be taken off above the knee and now it was healing well, the bandages tied neatly at the place where his thigh ended.
“Yes. I need to tell you something.” He had a lean, sun-tanned face and wide-set eyes, and he looked as though he could have been seventeen years old.
“All right.” I did not know him and I was uneasy around him. I looked at him again and he could have been forty. I sat on the empty bed next to his. “How is your leg?” I asked mechanically.
“It hurts,” he said, but there was no self-pity in his voice. I nodded. “And the part that’s not there. That hurts the most.”
“That’s not uncommon.”
“But I don’t mind it.”
“Because that way, sometimes I can trick myself into believing that everything is all right.”
“Listen,” he said.
He came from a tiny village in the Westfold (so small you might not even name it as a village, a Minas Tirith girl like you, he said), all who lived there knit tautly together by marriage or blood, by gossip and history. And it had been one of the first villages to fall to the Uruk raids. He was in his older brother’s house, and he could not remember exactly—but there was the smell of smoke, the screams of women or horses, or both. There was no time for a plan of escape or of battle; there was no warning at all.
The brother was outside, but the brother’s wife was inside with him and with their baby girl. And there was the noise and the smoke and someone had come rushing in, and then someone was thrusting the baby into his arms and shoving them both into the small cellar of the house. There was a terrible moment of quiet, and then a moment of begging and pleading, and then of screaming.
He huddled behind an old rotting barrel holding the child tightly, and he tried not to listen. He was afraid that her cries would give both of them away and so he tried to quiet her. In his mind he sent up a million exhortations to the spirits that the Rohirrim swear by, which seemed to be like the Valar but in different cloaks. And mostly he kept himself from listening and thinking and weeping by making silent extravagant promises to his brother-daughter (Is that your word, “niece”? he asked me. I don’t like that. It’s too short and there’s no tale-telling to it, not like our words). He promised her that he would be her father from now on, that he would take her far away and that somehow she would never be unhappy. That somewhere he would find a plump, good-natured woman to cook for them both and to sing her songs. That she would have a soft bed to sleep in, and buttermilk and cream and sweet things every day. That he would always keep her out of the cold and the rain. He tried to quiet her and he rocked her and he made these promises so he would not hear the ways in which his brother and his brother’s wife, and his mother and father and grandfather and sisters and their husbands and children all died.
He did not know how long it had been before it was quiet again. And even then he did not trust the quiet, and so he waited and waited until he could no longer bear it. Cradling the child in one arm he stood up, knees and back aching, and pushed up the cellar door. Where his brother’s house had once stood there were only ashes and fragments, an overturned cooking pot and other things that he told himself were only different types of ashes. Where his village had once been there were only ruins and smoke. He walked very slowly and hoped that it was a dream. He called the names of the members of his family, and the names of his friends, and the names of everyone who had lived there, but no one answered him.
It was only then, he told me, so sick and half-crazed that I was, that I noticed that the child had not stirred in my arms. In the dark of the cellar I hadn’t known it, but I was so desperate to quiet her to save us both that I had smothered her.
He dug a shallow grave with his hands, kneeling on the burnt ground, the ashes tearing his fingernails. He covered the girl with her swaddling-blanket and laid her in and then covered her up with the earth. He lay down on the ground and stared up at the sky, waiting either for the Uruks to return and put him to rest with his village, or for death to come and take him on its own. His mouth was dry and his lungs burned and he did not weep. He did not know how long he had lain there before a group of Riders, out on patrol and alarmed by the rising smoke, came to the place. They lifted him up and fed him and took him away, and soon he became one of their numbers; he could see nothing else that he could do.
“Now you,” he said. “You talk.”
“No,” I said.
“Tell me something.”
“All right,” he said, and he rolled over so that his back was facing me.
I had nightmares, but in that I was hardly alone. A few of the women would take turns saying theirs out loud when there was a cluster of the girls gathered at their mending or their scrubbing, and some of the men would say theirs when they were huddled with their friends over a flask; perhaps so that the dreams would be spread thin among all of us and lose their power, so that we could all see how easily they might be pierced with a needle or smeared with a washrag in the light of day. There was sometimes a twisted easiness about the whole process, I thought, as if they were someone’s aunts or older brothers telling us frightening tales for the good fun of it. A lark for a summer’s night.
I did not share mine, of course. I probably could not have even if I had wanted to, because I would wake only in a dry panic, remembering only a dropping sensation, the flash of a dark wing or piece of cloth. And then the images would come back to me piecemeal throughout the day, at the sight of a pile of bloodied bandages, perhaps, the noise of a door creaking on its hinges. I won’t tell you any of the dreams; they’re not worth my time now, and certainly not worth yours.
I became short-tempered and nervous; many of the others began to avoid speaking with me. For several days, when I did not have any work to do, I would sit in the corners of rooms with my knees drawn up to my chest. Because of the dreams and my own hungry, gnawing fears, it was sometimes the closest to sleep that I could come.
“Little mouse,” Ioreth once clucked, smiling over me with her warm wrinkled hand resting on top of my head. “Hiding away. Are you worried, poor dear?”
“Try and rest your mind a bit, then. Everything will be all a-right in the end, you’ll see. I’ve seen many a thing you’ve not, I’ll wager my purse and all my best herbs, so you should listen to me. You’ll be with your mother and the boys and that young man of yours again soon enough, soon enough.” Light chuck under my chin. “Little mouse,” she repeated, and the hem of her skirts whispered against the floor as she walked away.
Lady Éowyn had been moved to the Warden’s own rooms, which faced to the East. Every time I saw her she was staring out of the windows, arms folded across her chest. So absorbed was she with this watch-keeping that sometimes, after I came in with her meal, she would forget to dismiss me. On these occasions, instead of slipping quietly from the room, I would simply stand by the door and watch her as she gazed at the dim horizon, and I would wonder what she might have been thinking about. When she chanced to turn around and see me, there was neither anger nor surprise on her face, though she could have claimed a right to both. She would simply tilt her head to motion me out.
A few times she spoke, though her words seemed to be more for herself than for me. One day she might have murmured something like, “Two days since he rode hence.” She was still facing the window.
“‘He’, my lady?”
She looked over her shoulder to consider me with a glance, much as one might briefly consider a housecat, and then stared out again. “The Lord Aragorn,” she said. And Beren, I thought. And Laeron. And all the men.
There was a loveliness and a completeness to her sadness that I supposed at the time was the sole provenance of daughters of kings. I was only small and pale and anxious and useless, tripping over my own words; little mouse, indeed. I cleared my throat.
“What was it like? When the Lord Aragorn came to the Houses and…”
I nodded. “Yes. And the Lord Faramir, and Master Meriadoc.” It was much too forward, almost insolent of me, really, but I was beyond caring anymore.
She shrugged. “He summoned me,” she said. “He called for me and I went to him.”
One morning, Lady Éowyn and Lord Faramir could be seen strolling together in the gardens, speaking in low voices; and then the same the next day and the next, his dark head bent towards her fair one. Lord Faramir had been a quiet presence in the wards for the past several days, visiting with those of his rangers who lay wounded and conferring with the occasional councillor in his rooms. He must have known about Lord Denethor and the fire by that point—surely someone must have told him, unless a lie had been fashioned about his falling on the walls. But it was impossible to tell what he thought of it all, at least just by glimpsing him; he looked weary and careworn, of course, but then again, most us of did. I thought of Lord Denethor, whose wife had died many years before I was born—to me he had always been the widowed Steward—and I thought of Boromir, of whom none had heard. And now here was the last son, drifting through the gardens like the last lingering trace of that line.
“They look lovely together, don’t they?” Elloth said of him and of Éowyn. We were at the edge of the southwest gardens and she was bracing herself against the trunk of a slender sapling. “Suppose they’re falling in love? That would be nice.” Keeping her grip, she leaned out and spun slowly around the tree in a dramatic fashion. She was loyal to me in her way; I suspected she would never have avoided me no matter how ill-tempered I became.
“I doubt it,” I said flatly. “Though I suppose the match would be good for Rohan.”
“Jealous, are you? He is quite handsome after all, and—”
“It’s not that.”
“People can’t—when things are like this, they can’t fall in love. That only happens in those silly stories and songs.”
“Hm.” Elloth had taken off her cap and was adjusting her hair with one hand. “Suit yourself, I suppose. I always hoped to marry someone wonderful,” she added.
“Really? I always hoped for someone dreadful.”
She reached out and hit me with her cap. “You know what I mean.”
“Of course,” I said, and then I walked away.
Those last days were stagnant and slow and they ran into one another like raindrops on a window pane. My fingernails grew brittle, and it seemed to me that my bruises refused to heal properly—if anything they seemed even darker and uglier than before. There was still the ache in my ribs and my back, and my insides were still sore, as if my body had turned traitor on me.
“Eat,” Fíriel said. At least once a day she would come to me with something in her hand, brown bread and some cheese wrapped in a cloth; some preserved fruit or dried meat. I would oblige her with a small bite or two before my stomach would turn and I could no longer swallow.
“It all tastes the same,” I said to her.
“That doesn’t mean you can’t eat it,” she replied.
“I’m not hungry.”
She drew in a breath, pausing before she next spoke. “Try to eat something, anyway. Don’t let it kill you like this.”
“Don’t let him kill you.”
“It won’t matter who kills me in the end, anyway, will it? I’ll be dead all the same.”
She tucked the bread back into the cloth and knotted it up, pressing it into my hand. Her palm lingered against mine. “What can I do to help you? What can I say?” So, this is it, I thought. I did not want to have this conversation at all.
“You can’t work like this. You’re a strong girl but you can’t work like this.”
I was quiet.
“Ask the Warden to take you off the rotations.” I persisted in my silence and then she said, “If you don’t, I will.”
“What would your mother want for you?”
“Don’t talk about my mother.”
“Very well, then. There is only so much I can do for you, though.”
“You’ve done enough. You don’t need to do anything else.”
“Valacar told me—”
“I hate him.”
“I don’t care—” she began, and there was an edge to her voice that I had never heard before. Then she shook her head and rubbed a hand over her eyes. “He said that you were in a very bad way, and I have to agree with him.”
“It won’t matter if I’m taken off the rotation.”
“You could get some rest.”
“I can’t sleep, anyway.”
“What do you want?”
“I don’t know. I want things to be as they were before.”
“As do we all.”
“You have no idea.”
Her mouth tightened. “More than you think,” she replied. “Will you come to see the Warden with me?”
I shook my head. “You’re not my mother, Fíriel.”
“Clearly I’m not. But you need to trust me. You wouldn’t do this to one of your patients. You’d not starve her or deprive her.”
“It’s not starving myself if I’m simply not hungry.”
“That isn’t the point! We could talk round in circles all day like this, and it wouldn’t change a thing.”
“I shouldn’t be one of your problems.”
“That’s not the point, either. You’re not a problem to me; I only want you to ask the Warden to take you off of the rotations. You’ve no need to tell him about what happened. Just say you’re ill from working so hard. Say you’ve lost your appetite and you sleep poorly. It’s all the truth; he’ll understand.”
“But isn’t that the same for everyone, Fíriel? No one is eating as well as they should; no one is getting enough sleep.”
“You know it’s different for you.” She paused and considered me. It had always been rather difficult to tell exactly what she was thinking, and now trying to do so would have been as fruitful as attempting to discern the thoughts of a stone wall. “And I don’t think you know what’s best for you, anymore,” she said quietly.
“How can you say that?”
“If you don’t speak to the Warden before tomorrow, I will.” And then she was gone. I was still holding the cloth with the food she had given to me; I handed it to the first soldier I passed in the corridor and walked off before he could say a word. The truth was, I didn’t want to speak to anyone, anymore. If I could have melted into the stone walls and disappeared, I probably would have.
During the first days after the evacuations, I had sometimes made a game of trying to imagine what my family doing, far away with the other refugees. My hands would be sticky with blood, and my eyes would be watering and my feet and wrists sore; but I would think of my brother and my cousin bickering over something silly and stomping away from each other, only to skulk back together an hour later. I would think of my mother humming absentmindedly to herself as she went through her belongings, or introducing herself to strangers and asking them interested questions, and I would feel better, because I could tell myself that they were the same through everything, after all of this.
It seemed strange that after all these years they should finally have a life apart from me and I from them; it seemed almost funny that they were somewhere else, spinning out a separate existence in which I had no part. But somehow, I could no longer think of them. I tried to imagine these small episodes, and my mind only became blank. Nor could I imagine the men who had marched away with the armies; they were simply gone, and anyway it mattered little. Had I been a superstitious girl, I might have taken this to mean beyond doubt that they were dead; but I was not. I only knew that something inside me had been cut away, that I was left with myself and nothing more.
Sometimes I was alarmed by every noise and movement around me, as if I were wearing my nerves on the outside of my skin. But sometimes I was only dimly aware of things, just as I thought only of that emptiness when I tried to imagine my mother and the boys. Everything was a vague grey haze, and voices were muffled, as if I were observing everything through a skein of linen bandages. I stopped speaking unless directly addressed, and sometimes not even then.
“You,” someone said to me in the wards. “You, again.” I turned around and it was the Rider who had told me the story.
“Will you tell me something?”
“Why aren’t you afraid?”
“What makes you think I’m not?”
“I don’t know. You don’t look it. You look as if you don’t care.”
“Are you brave?”
“You sound very sure.”
“I’m just as afraid as everyone else. Probably more,” I said sharply.
“But how do you know you’re not brave?”
“Why do you care?”
He shrugged. “I’m tired of talking about the weather, I suppose. That’s all anyone wants to talk to me about. And the lower circles, and how they’re all crumbling to bits. It’s not safe to be down there, I suppose.”
“It’s because they don’t want to talk about the things that might happen.”
“What do you think will happen?”
“I don’t know.”
“What did they tell you? There must be something. Some sort of plan.”
“No. I don’t know.” Then I remembered the grey-haired captain, and I reached into my kit bag and drew out the knife he had given me. “They wanted to arm us all,” I said, holding out the dagger in its sheath. “All of us, even the women.”
The Rohan soldier took it from me and hefted it in its palm, as if testing the truth of my story. Up until now his face had been as blank as I guessed that mine had been, but now his mouth tightened just a little.
“Very little good it would do me, against—against them. That’s what I tried to tell him, at least. The captain, that is, the captain who told me to keep it. But he wouldn’t take it back.”
The soldier held the knife out to me, handle facing me so that I could take it again. He was looking at me with something very much like pity.
“But it’s not meant for them, you see,” he said. “It’s for you.”
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