Banjoverse: The Full Epic
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Fallen: 17. Gone (Interlude)
It’s always dim in the bedchamber, at least when he’s there, because the drapes are never open. The window hangings are made of cloth so heavy and dark that they nearly defeat themselves, because simply to look at them would be to assume that they were made for the sole purpose of concealing indiscretion.
Or at least the younger man thinks so, staring at the fabric from the inside. It’s quiet enough that he can hear his own slow breathing, hear his companion shifting on the blankets beside him.
“What are you thinking?” the older man asks.
Valacar takes his gaze away from the window, looks over at him.
“I met your wife. Yesterday, by the fountain.”
A pause. “Pretty, isn’t she?”
“What did she say?”
“She misses the coast.”
“Ah. She’s one of your people. I’d almost forgotten.”
Valacar lies back on the bed, stretches and folds his wrists on top of his head, thinks about how she looked like so many people do upon coming inland from Amroth: still dark from the coastal sun, a vaguely shocked look in her eyes. Expectant. “No, you didn’t,” he says. “You don’t forget anything.”
“I said, almost.”
“I wanted to be a sailor like my cousins, you know, because I lived so near the shore. I wanted to be buried at sea.”
“You’d be devoured by fish, I’d imagine.”
Valacar closes his eyes and shrugs. He is thin and listless and guilty. “What would I care? I’d be dead.”
“If you didn’t care, then why would you want to be buried at sea in the first place?” And before Valacar can answer, Aradîr leans in and kisses his eyelids, the bridge of his nose. Tender but careless. Valacar is nearing twenty-one and already picking up regrets with every step he takes. He is listless and guilty and happy, and he cannot see any other way to do things.
“I don’t know,” he murmurs. “Never mind.”
Sixteen years later, Mordor smokes and fumes before them, and Beren marches with the others. The hours slide together and he watches the back of the man in front of him and for the first time he truly begins to doubt: to doubt his captain, to doubt himself, even to doubt this man who calls himself their king, and above all this fool’s errand they’ve been set upon. Doubt that he fights, that he chokes down every morning with his rations, but that’s there all the same. They keep moving and the world folds into night.
“Are you all right?” Laeron asks, walking beside him.
“Fine,” says Beren. “Fine. You?”
“I’m all right,” he replies, and in spite of everything, Beren doesn’t doubt him. Laeron is staring ahead, not at the man in front of him, but up and into the distance, as if he’s seen something perched on the horizon. Staring up and ahead, waiting for whatever it is that comes next.
And many miles away, in the city they’ve left behind, a soldier lies dying, far from home. Nothing special about that. Women in blue move around him and at times there’s only this strange half-light and the rustle of their skirts as he drifts in and out of this place. His arm still hurts, or at least the part of it that’s gone.
And for a moment he remembers the weight of a woman’s fingers in his, so many years ago when his hands were still fit to hold anyone. Before he grew unreachable, before he began to waste and wear away, piece by piece. He almost remembers the light on her hair, like something from a dream. But then it’s gone, like everything else.
The wheels turn, and history groans into place: three figures stand high above the flames in the deep-shadowed mountain, and then one of them tumbles. The Ring goes into the fire, and that is the end of that story.
You may close the book if you are so inclined.
And years after that, a woman sits in a garden, delivered to peacetime. The sky is clear and the breeze stirs her skirts and for the moment she is not thinking about anything extraordinary. A small worn book lies closed in her lap. A little dark-haired girl, bored with playing, runs to her, clambers up to sit beside her on the bench.
“Tell me a story, Mama.”
The woman sets aside her book and cannot help but think, as she does from time to time, that she has both too many stories and too few. At times she suspects that the weight that pins down her words is an absence and not a presence, the sharp edges of loss and disappointment.
“Which story, my dear one?”
But now the weight in her lap is that of her daughter, warm and bird-light, and she realizes that the sound she is now hearing is her own voice, no different from the last time she spoke, and no different from the time before that. Just another part of the sound the world makes, the way it creaks on when no one is really listening to it.
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