Banjoverse: The Full Epic
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Fallen: 16. First Circle
I recalled what one of our soldiers, a pale man with startlingly dark eyes, had once said, trying to entertain a group of the men and the workers as they sat in the south ward. “We all carry our fears in different places,” he told me. “Some men have it here, in the back, and some of us have got it in our head and neck, and then there are those who carry their fear in their bellies. It’s heavy, you see.” As he explained, he had stooped or bent himself over in a painful-looking way to show the toll of fear in different places, and we had all laughed because it had been horrid and funny at the same time and we knew what it was all about, and then, when I thought of it more, it was not really funny at all. And now I remembered him (he had marched away and was gone), and I thought that I was carrying my own fear everywhere: it had seeped like poison behind my eyes and into my temples, in my back and the bottom of my stomach and the soles of my feet and my smock and shift and my kit bag. And perhaps all of us were like this; there was no room for anything else.
“You,” said the young man from Rohan. “Sad little girl. With the knife. Will you help me?”
“What is it?” I drifted reluctantly towards the bedside.
“I want to go out to the window.”
“It’s too early for you to be up. You need to rest your leg.”
“I hate this ward. And I’ve no leg to rest, have I?”
“It’s too early. Give it a few more days.”
“I’m tired of it. And you seem like you’re better than the rest of them, anyway.”
“I’m not better,” I said, and then paused; I was beginning to lose track of all the rules, or at least about why I had once held them to such importance. “But I’ll help you.”
He sat up and circled one arm around my shoulders and I helped him stand. He was heavy against me and he winced.
I said, “You can stop if it’s too much.” But he shook his head.
“You’re stiff as a board,” he remarked, shifting his weight. I could feel every shudder that ran through him and every unsteady breath, and I hated it.
At one end of the ward there was a tall window with heavy leaded glass. The ledge below it was wide enough to sit comfortably upon. I left him there and returned with my arms stacked with pillows, one for his back and another for his leg.
I got up on to the other end of the ledge and tucked my skirts beneath me; the ledge was long enough to seat us both with a wide space between us. Through the glass, the rooftops of the Fifth Circle and then the Fourth and the Third tumbled out below us, but the thickness of the pane made it all wet and indistinct. It reminded me of an artist’s frieze tucked away in some corner of the Fifth Circle that I had once paused before with my mother when I was little. She was taking me along on some errand, no doubt, but she liked to make out that small trips to buy cloth or milk in the markets were actually grand excursions for the two of us; at least she did in those early days, and I would marvel at how adventurous she was, my mother, and how it seemed she could lead us anywhere on earth.
I had stood with my nose nearly against the frieze, trying to discern what this all might be about. “No, come back here,” my mother had smiled, and she took my hand and drew me back so that I gazed up at the entire picture, and figures and faces emerged so suddenly that I nearly gasped. I had walked back and forth like that several times, slowly and quickly, my eyes never leaving the wall as I tried to reason how nearness could not yield a greater understanding of the thing. And now I stared out over the rooftops, blurred by the window and battered by the Siege, and wondered if I ought to edge away and put my heels against the opposite wall as I had so many years ago.
“Thank you,” said the young man as he settled in. We were quiet for several minutes, and then he said, “It’s so high up. I’ve never been so high up.”
“So what are you looking for?” he asked after I failed to respond. “Staring out there.”
“Have you got someone out there? I suppose you’re waiting.”
I looked at him, but he was staring through the window. There was a hungry kind of expression on his face.
“Everyone always thinks it’s a man,” I said.
“Anytime a girl looks sad, it’s always, ‘Missing your young man?’ As if we can’t think about anything else.”
He shrugged. “Lots of us here, and not many of you, I suppose. You’ve all got your pick of the lot.” He paused. “So is it a man, then?” he persisted.
I shook my head. “It’s everything.”
“You’re not in love.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because when you are, it’s all you want to talk about. To anyone who’ll listen.”
“So what about you? Have you got a girl?” I knew what his answer would probably be, but I asked anyway.
“I had one. In my village. I had a girl.”
“Was she pretty?”
He shook his head, still staring out the window.
“No?” I asked.
“She was perfect.”
“You don’t have to be. You didn’t know her.”
“What was her name?”
“Maethwyn,” I repeated, though I regretted it, for pressed through my Minas Tirith accent the name lost its music.
We were quiet for a long time. I hadn’t seen Fíriel all day. Maybe she was walking down the corridor at this moment, listening, knocking on the door to the Warden’s offices even though it already stood ajar. I had worn her out at last. I leaned my head against the window, and even through my cap I could feel the cool glass.
“It is a man,” I murmured.
“It was a man.”
“Is he dead?”
I shook my head. “I think about him all the time.”
He said nothing.
“But I don’t know if he thinks about me, too. But he must have, at some point.” I hugged my knees to my chest.
“You must like him.”
“Wronged woman, are you?”
“You could say that.” The glass was as cool as a sheet of water through my clothes. I was too tired to stop myself crying, and I wiped my eyes with the heel of my hand in angry motions.
“What did he do?” His voice was curious, but no more so than it had been before, as if it were all one and the same to him. And maybe it was.
I said, “Tell me about Maethwyn.”
“Tell me what he did to you.”
“Was she fair, like you, or darker, like me? What did her voice sound like?”
“It’s no business of yours, is it?”
“Well, my business is none of yours, either.”
“You started to tell me, though.” Apparently there were rules for this sort of thing.
I put my forehead against my knees and waited, and then I murmured a word or two; choked on them, really.
“What was that?”
“I said, he forced me.”
The man from Rohan said nothing.
“I mean, I didn’t want to—” I went on. I was suddenly panicked, as if this had somehow turned into an act of self-preservation. “I didn’t even—”
He held up a hand. “I know what it means. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to be. You don’t know me.”
“I do, a little.”
I shook my head. “What happened to you was worse. Very much worse.”
“This was one of your own men? From your country?”
“It was worse, what happened to you,” I persisted.
“Was it one of your men?”
“Yes.” One of Gondor’s men, I thought. None of them were mine. “Would it be better if it were one of yours, then?”
He licked his lips and shrugged. “No.” He shifted the cushion beneath the remains of his leg. I turned my head away; there was something in his eyes I didn’t like. “Where’s your father?” he asked.
“One, and he’s a child. He went to the coast with my mother.”
“Don’t you have anyone to protect you?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“That’s a shame,” he murmured. “Pretty girl like you.”
“I’m not pretty.” I wiped my eyes against my sleeve. “Would it be better if I were ugly?”
“No. I meant…”
We were both quiet for a while. I was afraid for a few moments that someone might pass by and see us like this, him staring away, and me weeping like a fool, neither of us supposed to be perched up here in the first place. I suppose that if you had had a mind to, you might have constructed a fine complicated story about the two of us that was not true at all.
After a while, he said, “I want to go back, now.” I slid off the ledge to help him, folding his arm about my shoulders once more.
“She was fair, like me,” he said as we made our way back to his section of the wards. “And tall. She had a low voice, but sweet. After—I looked for her, but I couldn’t find her.”
“Well—it’s done, now.”
“No, it isn’t,” I said.
I was setting out the wet linens to dry on the long wooden racks, when Fíriel came and touched my shoulder.
“You’re done,” she said. “You’re off. Go and get some sleep.”
I said nothing. The water from the dripping cloths was pooling at my feet, and Fíriel took the damp bedding from my hands.
“Go. I told the Warden you were worn out and you needed a few days for your strength to return. He didn’t ask me any questions. He said it was fine.”
I wiped my palms on my smock and nodded.
“There’s a good girl,” she said, and she seemed to relax just a bit in her back and shoulders so that the corner of one of the sheets touched the stones of the floor. She lifted it again and spread it over the racks, being careful not to bunch the fabric anywhere so that it would dry smoothly.
When I passed through South Ward it became clear that something was happening. Murmurs about the First Circle were going around, staff members were massing in small knots between the rows of beds, and it seemed as though everyone were snapping into the same urgency that had been their air during the Siege.
“What’s all this?” someone asked.
Nauthir, one of the older surgeons accosted me and a few of the other girls. “Just when we thought it was—” he shook his head. “We’ve just got word, two of the guardhouses and a great piece of the wall on the First Circle have collapsed; they’d taken too much damage during the Siege, though apparently they’d been thought safe enough until now. There were a great many men on those walls and beneath them and the Warden has orders for everyone. You’ll all go to one of the matrons in the atrium and get your instructions.”
The other girls exchanged a glance and hurried off, but I hesitated. Fíriel had said that the Warden had removed me from the rotations. He had removed me, and yet it seemed like such a cumbersome thing to try to explain now. I was tired and my head ached, but having to explain always seemed to make things so much more difficult.
I thought of the boy from Rohan, and of Maethwyn, and his niece, and their wrecked pathetic village that was now only a smear of ash on the plains. I thought of my own sleepless nights and my own nightmares. I had nothing better to do.
“Is there a problem, miss?” Nauthir was asking me.
“Then report for your orders with all haste, please.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, and I rushed away to where the others had gone.
When I had gone down to the Second Circle to help clear away the wounded and the corpses, I had scarcely recognized it because the cobblestones had been strewn with bodies and blood. And now I found that I did not recognize the First Circle at all; houses and buildings were gutted shells of themselves and the old high walls had crumbled and shifted at perilous angles, as if reaching towards one another. Fallen stones formed piles and tunnels; there was no clear place to stand, and my shoes were soon coated in ashes and dust. The most frightening thing about it all was that it looked as though nothing had ever lived there recently, as if it were some ancient desolation that we had only just discovered. Everything smelled of smoke, and then I remembered the tall funeral pyres that they had began to light and feed just after the end of the last battle.
A long section of the high walls and part of the gate was gone; there was only a gash and a pile of cracked stones and splintered wood, rising out of the ground. The guardhouses had been crushed, their walls buckled in like a row of broken backs. If Mordor came to Minas Tirith a second time, then surely there would be no siege at all; even I could see that.
Several workers from the Houses were already there, and the largest group was gathered around where the first guardhouse had once been. One of the other women saw me and motioned me over. She was tending to a man in Guardsman’s livery who was sitting on the chalky ground, a thick line of blood running down one side of his head as if it had been painted there.
“Talk to this one,” she said to me. “Make sure he doesn’t move yet.”
“Are you all right, dear?”
I nodded and she said, “All right,” and then she got up and moved on. The air was full of the sounds of orders, moans, coughing, the smell of dust and panic. I took a clean cloth from my pocket and pressed it to the man’s face, feeling for the damage with the fingers of my other hand. His hair was sticky and smelled of iron. He looked like all the others; they all looked rather the same, in the end.
“About a dozen,” he said. He was blinking slowly as if he had just woken up.
“A dozen what?”
“Men. Right under the guardhouse when it all came down. I saw it, you know. I got the least of it.”
“Poor wretches,” he said. He blinked again and then shut his eyes and I could feel him grow heavier against me. I made myself close my hand around the point of his shoulder; he was warm, at the very least.
“Wake up,” I said. “What’s your name?”
He opened his eyes. “Sorry. I thought it would go the other way.”
“What do you mean?” I took the cloth away and took out another one, and my hands were not as steady as they might have been.
“I thought…during the Siege, I thought that Mordor would make the City crumble from the top down, somehow. But now it’s all going from the ground up, isn’t it?”
“What’s your name?”
We kept talking and he stayed awake, but he would not tell me his name. I wondered if he remembered it.
There was blood and stone and dust, and there was man after man to tend to; the pain and the tiredness swiftly returned to me after the first shock of seeing the ruined gate, and the noise and the openness of the place made me dizzy and anxious. Fíriel was right, I thought, I should have stayed up in the Houses. I sat down on a large piece of stone and wound the cloth of my smock tightly around both of my hands as if trying to stanch a wound of my own. I shut my eyes and different voices rang in my ears.
“What are you doing here?” I looked up and Valacar was standing over me.
I started. “What about you?” I retorted. It was the only thing I could think to say.
“They’ve asked for all free hands. I suppose I’m only able to be dismissed when I’m truly not needed.”
“I…All free hands,” I said, lifting my own from the folds of my smock.
He crouched so that our eyes were on the same level. “Well, you’ve not been well.”
“What doesn’t Fíriel tell you?”
“Oh, a great many things, I’m sure. Are you all right?”
“Yes,” I said, and I got up from my seat and stepped away from him through the dust. He got up and moved after me; I was vaguely, strangely satisfied to see that there was something startled about his movements, as if he were having trouble keeping me in his sights.
There was a large group of people clustered about a huge section of rubble near what used to be the gatehouse. Many of the men were working to clear away some of the stones, but it looked to be slow going.
“Look there,” one of the other women said to me, catching me lightly by the sleeve. “They think there are still some men beneath all of that, two or three, perhaps.”
“They must be dead.”
“We don’t know.”
“All of you stand aside if you’re not helping here, then,” one of the young men said, motioning us back. His face was impassive but he seemed to be taking us in with his eyes, each of us in turn, as if he wanted a moment to be sure that we were actually there.
“I’ll be wanted elsewhere, I suppose,” murmured the woman; none of us were really accustomed to being ordered about by anyone but the Warden. She walked away, but I found myself rooted to the spot, my kit bag clutched in my fist. The men were hard at work with their sleeves pushed back and their arms coated in dust, shouting cautions to one another, but I couldn’t see the use of any of it, and perhaps they couldn’t, either. The wreckage seemed as solid and hopeless as something that had been built on purpose.
There seemed to be no real hierarchy of commands. “…never clear it away in time…” I heard a fair-haired Rohirric man say. He was speaking to a Minas Tirith man in captain’s dress.
And then Valacar was beside me once more. “You look tired,” he said to me. “Why don’t you go back up to the Houses?”
“Hush,” I said.
“…not all the way over,” the captain was replying. His left palm was pressed against his forehead while he described figures in the air with his right hand. “I saw it as it went, the roof isn’t all the way in…”
“There’s a clearing here,” someone called. A section of the rubble shifted and collapsed as though it were a creature settling down for a rest. The sound was like the slow cracking of bones. Pebbles tumbled and rolled to the ground and a few of them touched the toes of my shoes like a threat. “Take care!” someone else shouted. “Don’t be foolish.”
“Stand further back, at least,” said Valacar, taking me by the elbow. He took a step back and his grip tightened and I gasped a protest; then his hand dropped away altogether. He stood with his arms folded across his chest. Opposite from us, conferring with the captain and the Rohirric man, was Lord Aradîr. I glanced over at Valacar, but his face was without expression; if anything, his features were a bit slack, as if had given up on something.
“Come around,” someone was calling. “Surgeons, as well, if there are any.”
“There’s a man under the guardhouse, perhaps two,” the captain was saying to me and Valacar and a few of the other healers who had gathered. Aradîr was still standing beside the captain; he did not look at any of us directly. “It’s not impossible that they’re still alive,” the captain continued, and here he looked at Valacar, as if he possessed some extra knowledge by virtue of his grey surgeon’s coat. Valacar returned his glance but said nothing. “One of the walls may have gone down intact. We’ve cleared a space through the stones…”
“Narrow,” one of the other men broke in, “but if we can go through without upsetting it…”
Valacar cleared his throat. “Forgive me; but even if they’re indeed alive, we’ve no idea if they can be safely moved out. Might it be better to wait until all of it can be shifted?” The wreckage seemed to settle a few feet under its own weight, and a stone about the size of an infant tumbled from the heap, as if in reply to him.
“Won’t happen anytime soon…” someone else put in.
“Half the men in my company were lost to Mordor,” said the man who had interrupted the captain, now glaring at Valacar, “I’ll not see anyone else lost to anything so needless as this…”
“Calm yourself,” said one of the other men. Lord Aradir was saying nothing; his eyes simply moved from one speaker to the next.
“…never seen anything like this…” one of the other girls said, and someone else was saying, “Why have they brought the women down here?”
The voices blended together, and my gaze wandered over to the spaces between the stones, the slender gaps and the shadows between them. I looked back at the tired, ragged company that had assembled itself here, and I saw the first young man looking at me, the one who had first asked me to move away. I stared back at him. Little one, I thought. I was exhausted and bruised, as if the world had done nothing but batter me for the past several days. But for a moment I felt as though the world might be drawing me into its confidences for once, laying a part of itself bare. And here was something I could do.
“I can go in,” I said. The arguments went on, but the captain and Aradîr were now glancing at me. “I can go and try to have a look inside,” I continued. “I’m small enough so that I won’t upset anything.”
It was quiet for a moment and then Valacar leaned in towards me. “A word, please,” he said, and he took me by the arm and pulled me aside, some distance away from the crowd. I wrenched my arm from his grip with as much force as I could muster.
“You are going back to the Houses, right now,” he said to me.
I stared back at him and said nothing.
“You could be very badly hurt, like those men. You could be killed.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Why does it matter to you, anyhow?” He put out an arm, an unusually broad gesture for him, as if to encompass the whole scene before us.
“Why doesn’t it matter to you?”
“I don’t know what’s wrong with these men,” he said, glancing over his shoulder. “They’re soldiers. They should be able to tell a wise risk from a foolish one. They should be able to leave a lost cause without bringing others into it.”
I stared past his shoulder at the mound of broken stones; unlike that picture on the Fifth Circle, it was no clearer at a greater distance. “Isn’t it all sort of a lost cause, at this point?”
“Very well, perhaps it is. And we can talk about that later. For now—”
“Stop trying to look after me. You needn’t bother yourself.”
He took a step closer to me so that he could lower his voice. “Then why did you come to my room the other day, if you didn’t want looking after?”
I didn’t have an answer to that.
“Why shouldn’t I look out for you?” he persisted.
“Because you don’t have to. We’re not kin. I’m nothing to you.” And then I remembered the day when I had come to his surgery room with the clean linens to tell him about my meeting with Aradîr, and I had tossed my basket in the air and Valacar had laughed, and I was pleased that he had. That was more than nothing, though I couldn’t be sure of what it amounted to. And now that seemed ages ago. Now we were the keepers of one another’s secrets, as if we had been crammed together into a space with very little air. And I wanted to be rid of it all, rid of the way one thing inevitably wound into another as if it were all spun out of a single tangled thread.
“What if I want to look out for you?” he said. “You’re owed that much, at least. You’re owed something.”
I thought of that day in the surgery with the dying man, when Valacar had sent me out to the gardens. I hadn’t asked for any of that day, or anything that had come out of it. I thought of what he had told me about what had gone on between him and Aradîr, all these things that made me want to shudder if I dwelled on them for too long.
“Why can’t you…” I trailed off, trying to think of just what I wanted to say.
“Why can’t I what?” he asked.
“Why can’t you do what you’re supposed to do? Just like everyone else?”
“What makes you think everyone else does what they’re supposed to?”
“That’s not the point. It would be so much easier for you, with everything, if you just…kept to yourself.”
“I suppose that’s what you’re doing, now? Keeping to yourself? Staying out of trouble?”
“Don’t tell me what to do.”
“I can tell you what to do because I am many years older than you are, and I have had much more time to make mistakes than you ever have. And I don’t believe you’re thinking clearly. So please go back up to the Sixth Circle.”
“I’m all right,” I murmured.
“You’re not.” He put his hands on my arms, just below my shoulders. “You don’t eat. You don’t sleep.”
“Not until you listen to me.” His grip tightened a little. “Don’t let yourself become a danger to others, as well as to yourself.”
We both stepped apart from one another. He looked surprised, and he had his hands slightly forwards, palms out, the type of gesture you might make to show that you are at a loss for something: weapons, or coins, or words. My heart was racing painfully beneath my ribs. He had shaken me, once, hard, and I had struck him across the face.
“Are you all right?” asked another voice, and we both turned to look. Although he had been standing in conference with the captain a few moments ago, Lord Aradîr was now a few feet away.
“Well?” he said, glancing at me. I nodded. Valacar said nothing. “Should I remind you that this girl is in no way under your orders?” Aradîr said, turning towards him.
“Nor is she under yours,” Valacar replied, his voice lower now. “The Warden’s excused her from the rotations.”
“He did the same for you, as I recall.” He turned to me before Valacar could reply. “And how old are you, good lady?” Though I had the feeling he already knew.
He nodded. “More than old enough to choose your own course,” he said, though he seemed to be speaking more to Valacar than to me. “The captain would like to know if your offer still stands.”
“Aradîr—” Valacar began.
“What did you say?”
Valacar took a deep breath, and then said, “Sir,” and the corner of his mouth tightened briefly in something that could have been either a smirk or a grimace, the sort of face you might make to yourself when you remember something particularly regrettable that you’ve done. “Have you heard anything I said? She’s tired out. She shouldn’t be here at all.”
“She looks well enough to me.”
“Forgive me, sir, but I don’t believe you were appointed to discern who is well and who’s not. That would be the Warden’s duty. And mine.”
“Duties that you’ve forfeited, Valacar.”
“You know very well.”
“No. Tell me how.”
“I’m sure you know that you’re not to speak to your superiors in this—”
“Please tell me. Sir.”
“As was made quite clear to you before, for breaches of City law and of the Healer’s—”
“On what proof?” Valacar’s hands were down at his sides, as if he believed he’d already been defeated, as if he’d taken one step too far and little cared how much farther he went, how much more irretrievable he could make himself. Aradîr looked tired, but his voice was still as calm and cordial as it had been that day when he’d greeted me in his offices and made me recite my old lessons for him.
“The records from the dispensary clearly show that—”
“The records show nothing.”
Aradîr turned to me again. “Please run and inform the captain that—”
“And will you please leave her out of this?” Valacar demanded.
I turned and saw that the captain was making his way over to where we were, looking none too patient with us.
“That was my intent,” said Aradîr. “You may be excused, Valacar,” he added quietly.
Valacar crossed his arms over his chest and said nothing.
“You may go, now,” Aradîr said, and his voice was a half-tone lower. “On your own, or if you insist—”
“My lord,” said the captain. “What have you decided?”
“First, Captain,” began Aradîr, looking at Valacar, “if you might—”
“If you might let me go in.” All three men looked at me. It took me a moment to recognize the voice as my own. “Lord Aradîr’s agreed to let me go in to the wreckage to see if there’s anything that can be done.”
Aradîr glanced at me. “Indeed,” he said, looking at the captain once more, “and if you could please see to it that this man—”
“He’s going to help me,” I broke in once more, the words tumbling out one after the other. “He needs to—he’s the best at seeing me through these things, if—if there’s something I don’t understand. He has to.”
“Very well, come along, then.” The captain had already turned away and was walking back towards the wreckage and the small crowd, the speed at which he moved suggesting that he cared little for the strange, slow ways of these healers.
Aradîr didn’t move. “Captain,” he began, though he was now looking at me. I stared back at him; there was no expression on his face that I could read.
“Yes?” The captain barely glanced over his shoulder.
“I’ll…have a word with you afterwards, please.” Aradîr glanced at Valacar, and then back at me, his words winding in upon themselves now that we were all faced again with the massive weight of the wrecked circle. The anger seemed to have gone out of him. Instead he just shook his head, looking vaguely embarrassed.
“Very well,” said the captain, whose back was to us again.
“You can thank me,” I whispered to Valacar as we followed the captain back towards the guardhouse. “I just helped you.”
“I’d rather you’d just helped yourself. You don’t have to do it, you know.” He looked at me then, and sighed, shaking his head.
And people were watching, now. I glanced up once and then refused to look again as I fastened my kit bag tightly at my waist.
“…and you’ll stop straightaway if something doesn’t feel right to you,” the captain was telling me. “Because we’re usually right about these things, aren’t we?” He didn’t seem to be asking for agreement from anyone in particular. None of it felt right even now, but I nodded.
Someone said my name. Valacar was standing next to me again, and he said, “Tuck up your sleeves. Like this. So they won’t catch.” The bruises were still on my wrists, but now they looked as though they could have been smears of grime, like everyone now wore. “And thank you, anyhow,” he whispered into my ear.
The space they’d cleared was just a narrow shadow between a curved stone fragment and a dark piece of wood whose weathered surface had now gone to splinters. I held my breath and climbed in.
Beneath the stones everything was black, like one dark room beyond another. I didn’t move. The dust was thick in the air, on the ground and filtering down from above and I thought I could feel myself choking on it. I was hunched over on hands and knees and I felt tiny sharp fragments sticking in the creases of my palms and beneath my fingernails, and I wondered if more would stick in my throat and my nose.
I waited and the darkness resolved itself into shapes, black against black. Something unbroken slanted above me and ahead of me. The men had been right—one of the walls had gone down intact. There was space inside the wreckage. I went forward, gingerly—one palm, then the other, one knee, then the other. For each movement I had to wait and blink until I had convinced myself that my eyes had grown used to this new pocket of shadow, and I remembered what Ioreth had once told me, what I had then told Beren—that because we had spent our childhoods in Minas Tirith, we had grown more accustomed to the dimness and the clouded horizon, the lack of light.
The passage seemed to narrow to just the width of my shoulders. I felt in front of me with my fingers for traces of blood or anything human. I did not want to be surprised. I shifted around a column of stone that jutted to my left, and then my right arm caught on something sharp before I knew it, and I could feel it all shuddering and shifting around me. A few small rocks struck my shoulder, then something that might have been a metal bolt or a hinge. I tried to coil more tightly into myself, to be smaller inside my own clothes and my skin, but I had already shrunk myself down as much as I could. There was nowhere to retreat to. I could have backed out then, backed out as slowly and gingerly as I had come in, and no one would have thought any worse of me, or at least they would not have said as much, but for some reason I chose not to. There was nothing to do but inch forward.
The wooden wall slanted so low now that it brushed my back. The soft part of my fingers touched stone and I groped my way forward, listening to my own breathing. I thought of my mother exploring the curving alleyways of the Fifth Circle when she was a girl, trailing her hands along the walls; back then, the Siege had only been a distant shadow looming on the horizon. Marriage and a daughter and a son, a dead sister and an inherited nephew and a refugee camp somewhere on the coast had probably never even crossed her mind. I wondered if she had ever been afraid, when she was my age.
My skirts and my sleeves were caked with dust and I could taste the grit and the chalk in my mouth, and I wondered, too, for a moment, if this was what dying was like, crawling into a smaller space and then a smaller, picking up heaviness. I wondered if Valacar’s soldier, the one who had lain gutted and bleeding on the table in the surgery that day, had known what was happening. If he would have forgiven Valacar (or forgiven me, for that matter), or even thanked him.
Was it one of your own men? the man from Rohan had asked me as we huddled on the ledge by the window. And now as I tried to see an arm’s length ahead of me and as I tried to shake the dust from my eyelashes, I realized that the men who were ours weren’t so by the simple facts of flags and colors; that would be too easy. The men who were ours were the ones who we saved or lost, the ones whose bedsides we lingered at, the ones who we cut and stitched and soothed, the ones whose blood stained our clothing and stuck beneath our fingernails. So Tarondor was mine, I thought. And Valacar’s man—he was mine, as well, at least in part. And a great many others, whether from Minas Tirith or Ithilien or Edoras or other place. Something else shifted and the stones grated against the wood, and it sounded like a moan in my ears.
The space opened slightly, and I thought I could see a few fingers of light filtering through gaps in the rubble overhead. And then the back of my wrist touched something soft.
I caught my breath. My fingers searched the ground. Stones creaked somewhere above and to my right. I thought I could smell blood, or metal, or both, and something else, as well, something that I could not place. I touched one wrist, and then another, and then a throat and a shoulder seemed to emerge before me, as if the wreckage were growing flesh on its own. I was trying to string the scene together, and my hands were clutching at fragments and endings in the darkness, and then all at once the fear came roaring back to me and I stopped everything. The walls closed in and I couldn’t move. I had crawled into a tomb, I thought, and dying amongst death would be far worse than dying here by myself, and the walls seemed to shift in towards me, the dark shapes swirling before my eyes and then behind my eyelids when I shut them. My mouth and throat were dry and my stomach hurt, and I wanted to be far away, the wish that I had first had on that night when I had left the kitchens and walked alone into the rain.
And then I took another breath, and then another. I opened my eyes. In my mind I divided up my choices and parcelled them into corners. I took balances and made calculations; I had been a stretcher-bearer like everyone else and I knew the exact weight of a dying soldier. The man lying nearest me made a noise. I touched his wrist again, touched his arms and his legs. I took another breath. I knew what I had to do.
I backed out of the crawlspace even more slowly than I had gone in. When I ducked out and stood up the light stung my eyes.
“Well?” said Lord Aradîr, at the same time that the captain said, “Did you find anything?” I shook the dust from my hands. The soldiers and healers who had gathered about seemed to ask the same questions with their eyes. Valacar stepped closer to me, not bothering to disguise his relief.
I said, “There are two men inside. One is alive and one isn’t. If you widen the entryway I think I can bring him out—the live one.”
“Good girl,” murmured the captain.
The relief had gone from Valacar’s face. Aradîr glanced at the captain but said nothing.
“His right arm is pinned beneath a piece of stone that I can’t move,” I continued. “It’s crushed. I’ll need to take it off above the elbow.”
“And you think you can do that?” the captain asked. “Do that, and bring him out quickly enough?”
I nodded. “Valacar can help, with—after that.”
“No, I won’t,” said Valacar, drawing me aside. “Because you’re not going back in.”
“I can do it. I know how.”
“It’s not just the amputation. You could barely get in, yourself; how are you going to bring a grown man out with you?”
“I can do it.”
“How?” He lifted his hands as if he were going to touch me again, and just as quickly he dropped them back at his sides.
“There’s enough space.”
“Are you very sure?” the captain asked me.
“And the arm?” Valacar persisted. “Are you sure it needs to come off?”
“You’re certain of this?” Aradîr said.
I said, “I need to take it off.”
Valacar and the captain exchanged glances, and then Valacar nodded and knelt to take his instruments out of their cases.
On the way back inside, something sharp scraped against my ankle where my skirts had bunched up. I touched the skin and held my fingers there for a moment; I was bleeding, but there was nothing to be done for it now. I didn’t mind.
For a moment the tunnel seemed wider than it had when I had first gone through, as if objects in the world had shifted ever so slightly to accommodate me. I was almost surprised that the men were still there; I suppose that a part of me had expected them to vanish like visions in a children’s story, shades put up to fool the hero. But they were there, and the one was still alive.
I touched him and he stirred slowly; it was like watching a thing underwater or perhaps through a pane of heavy glass. I had no pain-draughts with me; I thought I wouldn’t need them, and anyway there were probably no more to be had.
I shifted the thin cloth bundle over to my side, which was difficult because it was stiff, without any give. The fabric on his sleeve tore easily enough. He stirred again when I knotted a strip of cloth on his arm beneath his shoulder, tightly, like my mother had taught me.
“Hush,” I said, and I went to work.
At the first cut he jerked and made a noise in the back of his throat. I was stronger, now, stronger than I had been before, and I could keep him still. I couldn’t hesitate, I knew; after the first cut there can be no room left for doubts, but only speed and work. The smell of blood filled my nose and my mouth. Valacar had always kept his saws the sharpest of any surgeon, or at least I thought so; I thought of him in his little rooms among his knives and his towels and his tables, and suddenly I was overtaken by gratefulness, for him and for everyone. It seemed like only a few strokes before I had sunk down to the bone. It was like a destination, like coming halfway home.
I stanched the blood, held the cloth tight as I switched saws. There was more noise, now. His eyes may have been open; I couldn’t tell and I didn’t dare let my gaze travel from my work. But I talked to him. I made my voice low and soft, as soft as you could want a mother’s or a sweetheart’s voice to be, and I talked to him.
I told him that in time the end of the bone would scar itself over, that the flesh would knit itself back together. I told him that there was nothing to fear because the sun would rise again and again, keep dragging itself over the horizon regardless of our own wishes, until it came time for us to die, that this was a thing that could be counted on. And that certain things would never stop happening until Mordor tore through the skeleton of our gates, that things had always happened. That we could make them happen, like Beren had said to me, or least we might make ourselves believe that we could. Children would be born, and tiny dots of villages would be burnt to bone and ash. And people would get married, and they would nurture secrets and keep them, and people would betray one another. And that we would all make lives for ourselves out of the tiny spaces that were given to us.
By the time I had gone all the way through the bone, he was quiet beneath my hands. There, I said. That’s all right. That’s done, then.
And once that was over, it was easier, like walking downhill. I felt my way through the blood and the skin as if this was the one thing I had been meant to do all of my life. The last thing that was keeping him pinned on the spot was a fragment of his sleeve. I had already wrapped up Valacar’s saws. But I had one more knife, tucked away in my own kit bag; the knife that the grey-haired captain had pressed on me, the knife that the young villageless man from Rohan had said was for no one but me. As if he was showing me some sort of unexpected gift; and perhaps he had, in the end. I drew it out and carefully cut away at the very last of the trapped man, and then we were both free to go.
I turned him around inch by inch in the narrow space and brought him out into the daylight; what remained of his arm was wrapped up tightly, and I remember that I held him mostly by his shoulders, that I pulled him mostly by the fabric around his collar and the edges of his shirt, and that pieces of stone leaned in and collapsed behind us, as if confirming the finality of it all. I remember thinking what a lucky thing it was that only one of the men in the wreckage had been alive, and not both of them; for what could I possibly have done with two to worry about?
I brought him out and he lay on his back on the cobblestones of the First Circle, and then I could finally stand apart from him and look into his eyes. They were pale and still like the surface of a reflecting pool. He stared back at me.
Valacar was beside him right away as he said he would be, needle and thread in hand. I sat down. A few of the men came and smiled at me and patted my shoulders, saying, Well done and good work.
“That was very good,” Lord Aradîr said quietly. We both watched Valacar work; he was almost finished. “You’re a brave girl.”
“Thank you, sir.” I paused. “I hope you don’t mind it.”
“What would I mind?”
“It was against the Healer’s Canon. For me to use the knives. Sir.”
He glanced at me as if he were seeing me for the first time. I was covered in blood and dust. “Of course,” he said, “we can make short-term allowances under certain circumstances, can we not?” He glanced over at Valacar; did not seem to be waiting for a reply from me. “Be well,” he said. “Take care that you have some rest.” He got up and walked away as Valacar was tying off his last stitch.
They took the man up to the Houses along with the others from the First Circle who could now be moved. As far as we could tell, the collapse had claimed seven men, six from Gondor and the last from Rohan.
When Valacar found me I was back up on the Sixth Circle, sitting in the corner of one of the garden balconies.
“Valar,” he said when he saw me, “come and wash up.” I was still wearing my smock from earlier in the day.
“I’m sorry I hit you.”
He smiled faintly. “It’s all right. I deserved it; I shouldn’t have shaken you like that.”
“What’s going to happen to you?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” He didn’t speak for a long time. “Come inside” he said.
I nodded but I felt too heavy to move for the moment. It didn’t seem so very urgent.
“What’s wrong?” he asked me.
He got up and walked away and returned a few minutes later with a basin of water. He sat on the bench beside me and put the basin between us.
“Here,” he said. “Wash your hands.”
The water was cool. I stared at my fingers, but didn’t move. They looked like things that had nothing to do with me.
In the Houses, washing our hands is the very first thing we are taught to do. As little girls and boys, before we ever make a single cut or place a stitch, before we fold a single towel or tear a bandage or watch someone die in front of us, we wash our hands.
“Please,” said Valacar. I still did nothing, and so he reached across the basin and pushed my sleeves up from my wrists. He turned my hands palms-up, where the blood was caked thick in the creases in my skin. The water clouded pink.
“I was impressed with the amputation,” he said, looking down. “It was very clean.”
“It was hard,” I said, “in the dark.”
“I can’t imagine,” he said. He had a small flat stone in one hand and he pushed it gently between my fingers, the way my mother had taught me. He was quiet while he worked on my left hand, but he spoke again, very quietly, as he started on my right, still without looking me in the eye.
“I’ve seen crush wounds before. That didn’t look like the end of one to me.”
I said nothing. He was going underneath my fingernails with the narrow end of the stone, one at a time, the way all the surgeons learn to do. They were getting too long and I needed to trim them. The water swirled pink and red.
“It was dark, as you said,” he continued. “Not enough space or light. Anyone could have made a mistake. You brought him out alive, and that’s what matters.”
“No,” I said. “It wasn’t a mistake. I needed to take the arm off.” I stared at him, bent over the basin as if he were at work on something important, until he looked up at again.
“All right,” he said.
“It wasn’t a mistake,” I repeated. I lifted my hands from the water. They felt as soft as a child’s, as if they were new again.
Valacar nodded. He stood up from the bench and took the basin with him.
“You did well. And thank you, again.”
“You’re welcome,” I said, watching him walk away. My legs felt unsteady as I stood up, and I wondered if I should trust them right now. I leaned over the railings and stared out at the lower circles.
Later the rest of the wreckage would come down, unable to keep itself at such heights; only then could the rebuilding begin in earnest. It would take years until it was all as it was before, and even then it there would be something different about it, something that you couldn’t quite put into words.
And just a few days later the man that I had pulled from the wreckage, the man whose blood was still on my smock and my dress, would die. From the shock of it all, most likely, Ioreth would explain to me when she gave me the news. The weight and the falling and the shock of it all—there are some things that a body can’t manage on it’s own, not so unusual in the end. But you did well, my dear—you did your best by him, though I’m sorry it came to this.
But standing there on the balcony, I didn’t know any of this. The gardens were quiet and there was a hint of warmth on the breeze, and I closed my eyes for a long time. My shoulders went slack, as if something had gone out of me, something that had kept me coiled together. Then I opened my eyes and remembered the little carved figure in my kit bag. I had found it, felt the edge of it over the top of his shirt pocket along with the same carving knife that he had held against my neck in the alley in the rain. I took it out now, let it lay on my open palm. Like everything else it was smeared with blood. I stared at the wooden man for a few moments. It looked like a dead thing in my hand, and then I closed my fingers around it and tossed it over the edge.
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