Banjoverse: The Full Epic
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Fallen: 18. Lighter
The next morning I found myself sitting beneath the high curved ceiling when one of the messenger boys came by.
"Hello," I said. "How are you, today?"
"I'm tired," he said. He sat down beside me; he was nearly as tall as I was, now. "Much the same as everyone, I suppose."
"Yes, much the same. I'm tired, too."
"I heard that you saved that man the other day, when the Gate and everything came down."
"I brought him out."
"You must be terribly brave. Especially for a girl."
"No more brave than you, for staying on with your father."
He grew quiet and he scuffed his foot back forth on the stone floor for a moment, and then he was still.
"It's been nearly a week, can you imagine?" he said. "It seems more like seven years have gone by."
"You're not alone in saying that."
"My father went forth with the King, you know."
"And my uncle Iorlas. Do you know him?"
"I've met him."
"When do you suppose they'll return?"
"Quite soon, I hope."
Another pause, and then: "Do you suppose they'll return, at all?"
"Of course they will," I said.
He regarded me. "That's what everyone says." It might have been an accusation.
"And what is that supposed to mean, Master Bergil?"
"It means what I said. That that's just what everyone says to me."
For a moment I thought I saw the young man that he would soon be, if indeed his father and uncle and the King did return. Clear-eyed and generous, and perhaps not the sort of person who answered children without thinking. For most of us, comforting a child was as natural as breathing, even if the things we said went against our truer feelings. After all, I was no longer a girl myself, anymore, but a grown-up young lady, and that was all part of the bargain.
There were foreigners in Minas Tirith in those days, men from much further away than Rohan. They had surrendered themselves and they were prisoners. Mostly they were kept to themselves and out of the Houses, save for the very ill or gravely wounded among them. Even before the siege had begun, there were all manner of rumors going about the Sixth Circle as to what sort of men these were, men that would willingly follow Mordor into battle. There were reports of skin that was blacker than jet and eyes that glowed yellow and red like embers. It was murmured that some of these southerners had teeth that were pointed like animals' teeth, and that they spat every word of their language like a curse.
The first of these men that I ever saw was lying in the South Ward, and I could tell right away that he was not from our lands. His skin was far from pitch-colored, but he was dark, darker than the most weather-beaten sailors who used to come up to the City after a summer at sea. His face had a different shape than those of most of our people; rounder about the jaw, sharper around the nose. He caught me staring and lifted his head to return the look.
One of our men was sitting at his bedside, perhaps to keep watch over him while he was away from the others, though the prisoner lay still.
"A word, Miss," the Gondorian said, beckoning me over. There were sharp gathers of wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and he wore the blue livery of the Amroth men. I nodded at him but as I came near I still could not help looking at the other man. There was a broad bandage wrapped over his left shoulder and he looked feverish, but his eyes were well alive. They were neither red nor yellow, but dark brown, darker than his skin, and his gaze followed me. I wondered if I ought to be afraid of him.
"Might you see that this man gets a fresh dressing soon?" the Amroth man asked. "I asked another young lady well near an hour ago, and now she's nowhere to be found."
"Fussy little thing, she was," he continued. "You aren't fussy, are you?"
I shook my head.
And then the southerner turned his head and said something to the other man. When he spoke it was as if each word came from the back of his throat. The Amroth man looked at me again.
"And he wants to know if he might trouble the healers for something to drink."
"I don't suppose it matters."
"I'll look in the kitchens."
The southerner shifted his hands over the covers as I changed the bandages on his shoulder, and I saw that his palms were much lighter than the rest of him, nearly as light as mine. His breathing was slow and regular. I almost wanted him to be one of the monsters of the rumors, snarling and black, because then I might have understood why he and his people had dragged themselves across the plains to kill us. But his palms were pink like mine, and the blood caked beneath his dressings was red, and there was sweat beaded at his hairline and he wanted something to drink. Beren told me that he had killed men as well as orcs, I remembered. I couldn't understand, and the thought of all of it turned my stomach.
The dark man turned his head again and said something to the Amroth soldier, who smiled and murmured a few words in return. It all seemed rather wrong to me, that they should be speaking together instead of the Amroth man speaking only about him to me, and it made me anxious. I could feel myself growing indignant.
"What did he say?" I asked.
The Amroth man said something to the southerner, who smiled and nodded.
"He says you look like his middle daughter."
"Surely I don't."
The two men exchanged words again.
"Not all of you. Mostly about the mouth and the eyes."
I paused for a moment, and then I looked the southerner in the eye as I tied off the last section of bandage.
"I look like everyone's daughter," I said.
"Do you, now?"
I stood up and wiped my hands on my smock. "So why isn't he at home with his children, then?" I asked. "Why did he come here?"
When the Amroth man spoke his voice was low. "I don't know, Miss," he said. "And perhaps he doesn't, either."
I went to the kitchens and came back with a cup of chamomile tea, part hot water and part cool so that he could drink it right away, the way I had always done when I made tea for my brother and my cousin. I sat by the southerner's bed and held his head while he drank. He was warm and his hair was coarse. When he was finished, he said something that might have been thank you.
"You're welcome," I said.
"He says it was good," said the Amroth man.
"How do you know their speech?" I asked.
"There was a man from their country in my father's household when I was young."
"And he taught you?"
"I asked him to. I thought the words sounded like music."
"Music?" He nodded. I looked at the southerner again.
"They've thrown in their lots with ours, haven't they?" I asked.
"In a way, yes."
"And what if Mordor returns, then? I can't suppose they would be kind to him. What would he think of dying so far from home?"
The Amroth man raised his eyebrows, and he was quiet for a moment. "You can't expect me to say aught to that, can you, Miss? No more than I would expect him to."
"Have you asked him?"
"No. And I don't expect I will."
That day the air was sharp and it tasted like a strange food in my mouth. The Houses were quiet once more as I passed through the corridors and out to the northeast gardens. Everyone had been nervous and hushed ever since the Gate had collapsed, as if raising one's voice would upset the stones. I had been afraid that everyone would want to look at me and speak to me after what I had done, but I saw few people on my way, and they said nothing.
The hours were stretching out into small eternities, and I was idle and anxious through most of them. The fear had not left me, but the edge of it was dulled. I played games with myself, imagining the things I would do or think if the alarms went off that instant, if the call went out that the King's host had failed, that Mordor had come again. The first time I almost made myself believe, and the feeling was sharp and hard like a knife to my ribs. But I soon grew tired of thinking of the end; it was like looking into the sun, too bright and painful to do for very long, with the shapes burned on the insides of your eyelids long after you had closed them.
My shoes were soundless on the old floors and then on the grass, and I could move through the halls and between the hedges like a ghost.
At the edge of the gardens there was a clearing and a section where the walls and the railings came up to the middle of my chest. It was a place at which you were supposed to lean over and breathe in the City, the blossoms of the gardens and the lye of the Houses, traces of smoke and rot as they rose from the lower circles. I stepped on a stone at the base of the wall, then lifted myself up to sit on it facing the clearing. The flat piece at the top of the wall was about two of my handsbreadths wide. I held on and got the flats of my feet on it, and then I let go and stood up.
I put out my hands out for balance and I saw my fingertips against the clear blue of the sky. It was strange not to be holding on to anything. Beneath my toes it was a sheer drop to the base of the Fifth Circle. The breeze shifted my skirts and the strands of my hair that were loose, and I shivered. At first I was dizzy, but then things stayed still. I took a step along the wall, right heel against left toe, then another and another. I wondered if I could go about the whole circle this way, and how long it would take me. I felt light; if I lost my footing, I thought, I would not fall. Maybe the wind would pick me up, but I would not fall. I stood for a while and looked down, at the layers of the City below me, and beyond that, the fields.
"Hello," a voice said behind me. I turned myself around and Valacar was there, standing below me.
"It's a nice day."
"What on earth are you doing?"
"What does it look like I'm doing?"
"You're balancing on a very narrow section of the wall."
"I always wanted to do this when I was younger, you see. But my mother would never allow me."
"With good reason."
"It's nice up here."
"I suppose it is. But come down, please. You're making me nervous."
I looked at him for a long moment, and then said, "Very well."
He stepped forwards and I crouched down on the wall and sat before lowering myself to the ground. The rough top of the stone wall ground itself into my palms.
"Are you all right, today?" he asked me.
I nodded, and suddenly I felt shy with him.
"About the stitches…" I began.
"Let me see, then." I held down the edge of my collar and he leaned in towards me. "I suppose it's about time, isn't it?" He put his fingertips on my shoulder, and I shrugged away. "That's healed well enough. Did you want to take them out yourself?"
I thought for a moment. "You had better do it."
He nodded. "Very well. You can come with me now if you have the time."
I lay on my back on the bed in his rooms as he picked out the thread with his smallest knife. I made a noise in the back of my throat as he sliced the first knot.
"Does it hurt?"
"No. It just feels odd."
"Stitches are a bit odd, aren't they?" Pick. "Rather unnatural." He was doing the old trick of speaking steadily as a distraction. It was not working for me because I had done it so many times, myself.
"You didn't make a sound when I put them in," he continued. Pick. "I was impressed with that."
"Did you?" Pick. "Done."
He pulled the bits of thread away and sat back.
"Yes, I did," I said.
He cleared his throat. "Well. At any rate, you didn't make a sound."
I touched the place where the cut had been. "How does it look?" I asked.
"You wouldn't be able to tell there was anything there, unless you knew to look for it."
I sat up and swung my feet over the edge of the bed. "Thank you."
He shrugged. "It was no trouble."
It was a bright day outside, and the sunlight was straining through the window coverings and falling in patches on the bed. The place where the stitches had been felt tender and strange. Suddenly I was very tired; perhaps I had sat up too quickly. I lowered my face and pressed it into my palms.
"Are you all right?" he asked me, and his voice sounded distant even though he was sitting beside me. I nodded without uncovering my eyes.
"I worry about you," he said. "Terribly."
"Why do you suppose?"
I said nothing, but I lifted my face from my hands. I thought that the world did not seem that much brighter for it.
"Why do you always keep the drapes shut?" I asked.
"Have you eaten today?"
'That hasn't anything to do with it. You answer me, first."
"It had been so dark, lately. It didn't seem to matter." He paused. "You haven't eaten, have you?"
"I can't remember."
"You'll be lighter than a sparrow, soon. You'll be nothing but bones."
"You aren't so stout, yourself. None of us are."
He snorted. "That's true enough. But you should eat."
We were both quiet for a few moments. Then he said, "Tell me what I can do to help you."
"I don't know."
"Not at all?"
"You looked after me. You gave me stitches. That was fine."
"That doesn't matter. I still worry."
I lay back on the bed and stared at the ceiling. I did not want to have to look at him anymore. My shoulders ached and my body had settled against the coverlet in a way that felt peculiar; maybe I was growing lighter just as he had said.
"Well, perhaps you'll just have to worry about me."
"Will I, now?"
"Yes. Sit here," I said, patting the space beside me. There was a long pause before he finally got up and sat at the other end of the bed.
Neither of us spoke. I rolled my eyes up to look at the sunlight that was muted by the drapes, and then I took a deep breath. "Valacar?"
"What was it like, when you killed that man?"
When he didn't say anything for several moments, I turned my head and looked up at him. He was not looking at me.
"Well?" I said.
"I'm not going to answer that."
"It wasn't like anything."
"You can't mean that."
"Why on earth would you want to know, anyhow?"
"I don't know. If you were dying, would you want to know that you were?"
He sighed. "I suppose I would, yes. And you? Would you want to know?"
"I don't know. No. No, I don't think I'd like to."
"I don't know if I believe that."
"And what would you do if you had to die here?"
"What do you mean by that? I don't suppose I would have any choice in the matter."
"You hate it here, don't you?"
He snorted. "You must hate it, too."
"No, I mean, even before the siege. Before everything."
"No, I suppose this is not the place I would choose to die. Even if I were an old man, and a happy one."
"So why did you come here in the first place?"
He rubbed a hand over his eyes. "My father sent me. He sent me away when I was younger than you."
"For my apprenticeship, of course."
"And you never went back to the coast?"
"I never went back to the coast."
"Because…" He smiled for a brief moment and then it was gone. "Because my father told me not to come back until I was respectably married."
"Is that all?"
"Of course it isn't all. There are a lot of things. My father doesn't like me particularly well. Though I'm nearly as stubborn as he is, I suppose. I'm more like him than I would like to admit. And then it simply became easier to stay away, more than anything else. It sounds foolish when I say it."
"Do you miss your home?"
"Terribly, some days. Not so much as I did when I first arrived. I suppose that we all settle into our own ways of living here, in the end."
"I would have married you."
"You?" His laugh was hard and short, and for a moment I was reminded of Beren. "I'd not have it. You'd be miserable."
"More than I am now?"
He was quiet; he made a hesitant gesture, and then he reached across the space between us and rested his hand on my forehead. His palm was cool against my skin.
"You're a good girl. I'm only afraid that I don't know what to say to you anymore."
I swallowed. "I met one of the southerners. He was out on the wards. He said I reminded him of his daughter."
"I thought that was odd."
"It is, a bit. Perhaps he wanted to see her badly."
"Valacar, do you remember when my mother used to go about singing to herself sometimes?"
"I think so, yes."
"Nothing is ever going to be the same, is it?"
"No, it won't. But you knew that. We all did."
"Are you afraid to die?"
"I think I am, as well. I don't know. I don't think I want to die."
"No, I don't think so."
He was quiet.
"Well," he finally said. "There's one good thing, at the very least."
Neither of us spoke for a long while. Eventually he took his hand away from my forehead and he got up and slid open the drapes. The light was startling, but I did not turn my head away even when it stung my eyes.
And later, when I was outside once more, the light shifted. The breeze picked up and for a moment I thought I saw a bird circling overhead, its fringed shadow gliding over the grass of the gardens. The wind had a murmuring quality, and then what might have been a shout going up in the distance, and then:
"They're coming back!"
Elloth was beside me and at first I didn't know what she meant, but then I saw that she was laughing. She had come at me at a run or at a leap, and then her arms were around me and it was too much for either of us to hold for long and then we were both on the ground.
"They've come back! They're coming home! It's over," she said, and she was still laughing and when I sat up I could see that her eyes were wet. The world was spinning, and the breeze had picked up about us, and I did not know what to do or what to say and so I simply threw my arms about the other girl and I held on tightly.
In all the days and the years to follow, there were tales, of course, and songs. Hours upon hours of songs; a few very good ones, and more very poor ones, and all the rest fair to middling. There were speeches and there was drinking and there were all manner of things to celebrate, to assure us that we were safe at last, but that one moment of impact, and the sudden weight against me, and the tangled tumble to the grass of the northeast gardens: that was the moment I would remember the most, the one that told me more than any other that it was, indeed, over.
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