Banjoverse: The Full Epic
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Fallen: 19. If What They Say is True
Is it really true? everyone was asking. What happened? Someone said something about an eagle and a message.
I remember especially the older people, standing quietly while the others shouted and laughed around them. Someone told us that the armies were camped on the field of Cormallen, that the King was camped there with them. I wondered for a moment what we had done to deserve this and I thought that there must be some good among us, after all.
People were asking one another for more news, about the number of killed and wounded. Somewhere there was music, and once again the current of rumors went spreading through the Houses. And then Fìriel was beside me. She was smiling and she draped an arm around my waist; I had been avoiding her, afraid that she might be cross with me for going down to the First Circle after the Warden had taken me off the rotations. But she only kissed my forehead. I could feel her sighing against me.
"You see?" she said. "It's all right." Even though we were in the wards she had taken off her cap and sunlight was shining against her hair. She was radiant and she looked young, younger than she had ever seemed to me before, even when I was a child. "I told you, didn't I?"
"Of course I did. Everything is going to be all right."
Three days after the news had come, those of us who lived below the Sixth Circle were allowed to return to our houses. I hesitated before folding up my smock and heading to the Fifth Circle. I had not seen my house since the day my family had been evacuated, had not even set foot on the the circle save for the times I passed through on my way to work on the First or the Second. Though I had thought of the house no few times, for some reason I was reluctant to return, at least without my mother. Maybe it seemed improper not to wait for her, though I knew how pleased it would make her to see everything prepared and in its place as if she had never left.
As I turned the corner into our alleyway, I was afraid of what I might find, but I forced myself to make my way across the flagstones and under the eaves, tracing the route I had taken thousands of times before. I stopped in front of my door. I put my hand on the outer wall, then on the edge of the window, as if I could feel for something I could not see. It all looked the same as when we had left it; our entire alleyway had survived, untouched. I felt grateful, and somehow almost embarrassed. I sat down on the cobbles and did not move for what seemed like a long time.
Many of the able-bodied men who did not have homes in the City came down as well, to help us take stock. Two of the younger ones, foot soldiers from Lossarnach, arrived to help me pry the boards from the doors and windows. Many people still seemed stunned into silence at that time, as if in a surfeit of caution they were not quite able to believe our good fortune; but these two had embraced it with full appetites, singing to themselves as they worked, teasing one another and asking me question after question in their slight lilting accents. Their voices echoed against the close stone walls, making the alley seem crowded.
"Handsome little house, Miss," the taller one said to me. The bridge of his nose was dusted with freckles. "And not so much as a scratch on it, too." He stepped back to place a loose board on the growing pile behind him. "I might want to have a house like this," he added. During his time on the Sixth Circle he had been carrying on an extended flirtation with one of the other girls in the Houses, and now he seemed to be taking in everything in the alley, selecting his own house and peopling it in his mind.
"And not come back with us! First I've heard of that," said his friend.
By the time they had pulled the last of the boards from the door, both of them seemed more impatient than I was for me to unlock it.
"Well, go on," said the first one, as I stood there and hesitated for the second time that day.
"Thank you," I murmured, and I put my hand on my neck and took out the key from where it hung on a cord. My mother had given it to me after she had locked the door behind us for the last time. In the days before the Siege I had worn it around my neck, underneath my clothes the way my mother still wore her wedding rings on their chain. I would touch it occasionally when I was startled. At some point I had taken it off and tucked it in a pocket where it lived beside my bits of herbs and my handkerchiefs, but this morning I had put it on again, dropping it past the collar of my dress. As I turned it in the lock, the cord now dangling uselessly down the length of the door, I waited for the men to wish me a good day and go on. But they didn't. At first I was annoyed with the way they stood and waited, but as the door creaked I was glad for their presence.
As I stepped inside I wasn't sure what I was afraid of. Perhaps I was afraid of finding some mark or change that had grown there as a sign of our absence, some strange object. I was more afraid, I think, that I would somehow see it differently, see it as smaller or flimsier or darker than I once had. But there was nothing. All our things were folded and stowed as they should have been. The only thing that surprised me (though I should have expected it) was the absence of smells, the rooms without their usual scents of bread and chamomile, soap and candle tallow.
I moved from one room to another, touching things, peering under tables. It was not until several moments had passed that I realized that the men had not followed me. They were waiting outside, respectful as suitors who had come to pay a call. I returned to the doorway. "Come in, please, if you like," I said.
The house seemed more real when they walked in, bringing their light voices and heavy footfalls. They seemed to praise everything, from the size of our few modest rooms to the tidiness of the hearth (though it could not have been anything else, seeing as no one had cooked in it for several weeks) to the way the sunlight fell across the walls and floors when I drew open the curtains. You might have thought that they had walked in to one of the marble halls of the Citadel, and I went along with them, and for the very first time I was proud of what I had, of what my mother and I had made here. I even apologized that I had no tea or wine to offer them, as if I were a hostess caught unprepared by visitors.
"We'll have to come back some other time," the first one said. "After your mother and brothers arrive."
"Have enough food so that he can bring his girl along," said his friend. "Can't stand to be away from her more than an hour or so. He probably has to go back and see her soon."
"Have more food for him," the first one jabbed back, though he seemed very pleased at the way his friend had said his girl. "He eats twice as much as anyone else I know. And it shows, doesn't it?"
"Strong as a warhorse," shrugged his friend.
"Or fat as a pig come slaughter-time." They seemed comfortable with the rhythms of their argument, as if it were one that had been going on for a very long time. I was not sure if it was more for their benefit or for mine.
Suddenly I was lightheaded. I promised them warm bread, and cheese and perhaps even a quail or two, and a crackling fire in the hearth later on. I promised them things that I was not sure I remembered until this moment. They slung their tools easily over their shoulders and took their leave with wishes of good luck for me, and they were still squabbling happily, pleased with themselves and with one another as they disappeared down the end of the alleyway.
When they were gone I took the basin from its place beside the hearth and filled it from the public fountain in the square at the end of our alleyway. The little fountain was still flowing, miraculously, I thought. I imagined it trickling in its steady way all throughout the Siege, with nothing but the walls of the square to hear the noise of the water. I brought the basin back to the house and splashed my hands and face, the water cool and bracing against my skin as if I had woken up for the first time that day. I found a bit of soap and scrubbed the table in the main room. I dragged the straw pallets from their bed frames and into the alley one by one to beat the dust from them, and set them back in their places and made them up with their linens. I found the length of cord we used for hanging laundry and I stood on a chair outside and strung it up above the cobblestones again, one end and then the other, although I had nothing to dry on it. I swept cobwebs from the corners of rooms. I was working without thought, as automatically as I had during the most crowded and bloody days of the Siege, finding the holes in the patients and stopping them with my hands, one after the other.
Soon the sun had begun to set. My bed was ready, and I knew that I did not have to leave. I was not hungry. I could light the hearth and undress and slip beneath the blanket and stay for the night. I sat on the edge of my pallet and I thought of all these things, but then after a while I got up and left, locking the door behind me, hanging the key around my neck once again. I went back up to the Sixth Circle and returned to the Houses for the evening, as it seemed now that I had done for a lifetime.
The next day the young man from Rohan was still in his bed in the wards, but now he seemed to be sitting up straighter.
"Hello," I said.
"Would you like a cake?" I asked. I had a basket-full on one arm; the little cakes had emerged abruptly and in great excess from the kitchens that morning, with instructions to dispense them before they grew stale.
"All right." I put one in his hand and he took a bite.
"Do you like it?" I asked.
He nodded. "It's very sweet."
"That's the idea," I said. "We eat them on special occasions. At a wedding, or when a child is born."
"We have that, too. Except we drink mead." He paused. "You look better."
"Not quite as sad."
"You look better, too. Stronger."
He smiled, briefly, for the first time that I had seen.
"Are you happy?" I asked.
"I'm better. What about you?"
I thought for a moment. "I'm better," I repeated.
He eyed my basket. "Could I have another one?"
I gave him a cake.
"Thank you. You should have one, too."
"I already have."
"Have another. It's a special occasion."
I sat on the edge of his bed and took a cake for myself. "Will you go back to Rohan, now?" I asked.
"Haven't you thought about it at all?"
"I thought I was going to die."
I paused. "Did you want to?"
"No, not especially. But I didn't much want to live, either. Though now I suppose not dying wouldn't be so bad." He took another bite of his cake, then looked at the one that was still in my hand. "What are you doing? Not even one bite."
I took a small bite. "I'm not hungry," I said after I had swallowed. "You could stay here," I told him. "There's lots to be done."
"And what could I do?" he asked, resting his hand at his thigh above where his leg ended.
"I don't know. But I've seen men worse off than you, and they've lived. There must be something."
"If I can't ride, I can't do anything." It was a statement of fact; there was no self-pity in his voice, at least none that I could hear.
"So, learn to ride again."
"You've never been on a horse, have you?"
"No," I admitted.
"That's why you can say that as if it were easy."
"I didn't say it would be easy. You're right; I don't know." I brushed crumbs from the front of my smock.
"And what about you? What will you do?"
"Stay here, of course."
"Why 'of course'?"
"What else would I do?"
"You could do anything you wanted, if what they say is true. The world's cracked open."
I thought about this for a moment. "No, I need to stay here. Everything is here."
"My family. My work."
He shrugged. "You could take it with you. It's a strange place, your city."
"You can't have seen very much of it."
"I mean, the people are strange. Your people. You all seem so careful, and so quiet. Everyone here seems as though they're thinking of something else, instead of what's right before them."
"You would be like that, too, if you spent all your life with Mordor across the way."
"And who says we haven't, as well? It's our battle, too. It was, I mean."
"I'm sorry; I didn't mean--"
"Don't apologize. It's only that some of you treat it as though it were your burden alone, as if you were the only ones who really knew what it was."
"I don't think like that."
"I didn't say that you did. Anyway, it doesn't matter, anymore."
"And that's good."
"'That's good,'" he echoed. "See, you're strange, too. Even the words you use are quiet, not just your voice."
"You were right about me, you know," I said. "Sort of. That day, at the window."
"What was I right about?"
"I was waiting for someone. I am."
"And I hope he comes back."
"Would you marry him, then?"
"He wants to. He told me so, before he left."
"That isn't what I asked you."
"I don't know. And I don't know if he'll still want to, either. I'm different, now."
"He'll be different, too. War changes a man. You have to know that, by now."
"I suppose," I began. "But I hadn't known too many men who had gone away to the wars, before this year, that is. I spend most of my time in the Houses. They always told us young girls not to go hanging about the barracks."
"With good reason."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"I don't--never mind. I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry. What does that mean?"
"It means...going to war changes a man, that's what it means."
I tilted my head, as if I could somehow consider him from another angle. "Are you dangerous?"
"That depends. Are you afraid of me?"
"I don't know. Maybe."
"You shouldn't be." He paused, and then he asked, "Do you think that most Men are decent Men?"
"I don't know."
"That isn't a hard thing to answer. Either you do, or you don't."
"I don't think it's so simple as that. What do you think?"
He paused again. "I do. And I said 'most,' not 'all,' so I do think so."
We were both quiet for few moments. It would have been a good point for me to excuse myself and walk away, but for some reason I did not feel like getting up off the edge of the bed. Someone was singing again. It was a new song about the Halfling, Master Meriadoc's cousin.
I said nothing, and then he asked, "Why are you afraid of me?"
"Why?" I repeated.
"You said. You said you might be afraid of me. Why?"
I shrugged. "Because."
"Because I'm a man?"
"What about your young man who wants to marry you? Will you be afraid of him, when he comes back?"
"If he comes back."
"Don't be stupid. That's not what I said."
"I hope I won't be."
"I hope so too. For both of your sakes."
"What about you? Are you afraid of anything?"
"Nothing at all?"
"I've already lost everything I could possibly lose. What else have I got to be afraid of?"
I glanced at him.
"You could lose the other leg," I said.
"That's not funny."
"I wasn't meaning to be. I don't know how."
The music had stopped. He was eying my basket again and I handed him another cake.
"Thank you," he said. "Well, what about him, then?"
"That other man you told me about on the window ledge. The one who made you so miserable in the first place."
I looked down at my lap and thought about what to say.
"I killed him," I said.
"Well," he said. And then he smiled. "Good girl. Look, I can finish that for you if you really can't eat any more."
One of the other women asked me to come down to the Third Circle with her so that she could look at her house there. She had tried to go the day before, she admitted, but she could not bring herself to make the walk alone.
We were quiet as we set out together. She was only a little older than me; our mothers were friends and we had entered the Houses together as apprentices. She was married to a soldier in one of the City companies, though not the same as Beren's; I had asked. He had courted her only briefly when he had asked for her hand, once it became clear that one day soon he would be consigned to the barracks and then the fields on a far more permanent basis. She had agreed, and her father had assented even though they were both quite young. They were married in a short ceremony in the gardens of the Houses, his captain officiating. They had spent barely a week together in the tiny house that he had inherited from a childless uncle before they were both called away for good, first he to join his company and then she to either stay in the Houses or leave the City. These facts and the fact that she now had her own wedding rings that she wore around her neck had made her seem far older to me, and had put some measure of distance between us even though we were alike in many ways.
The Third Circle was not nearly as wrecked as the First and Second had been, although there were parts that looked nearly as bad. It did not seem as desolate as I had expected because crews of men were everywhere, laboring under the Steward's orders to try to repair what they could and to clear away the worst of what they could not in preparation for the King's return. I did not know what to expect; one row of houses would be standing with little damage, a few gouges in the boarded windows, perhaps, or part of a chimney caved in; but then we would turn the corner to see a row that was no more than splintered wood and broken stone, like the gate house on the First Circle. The other girl kept her arms folded against her chest as we walked.
"Here," she said, and stopped abruptly. "It should be here. It should have been." I looked where she was staring. It was one of the bad blocks, a mound of crumbled stone. Part of what might have been a door lay against the rubble. The slant of a roof was barely discernible.
"Are you sure?" I asked.
She nodded. "I'm sure."
We just stood looking for a while, and then she sat down on the flagstones, the way that I had when I returned to my own house.
"Well," she said. "Well."
I didn't know what to say. She didn't speak, and she didn't move, either, didn't lift her hand to wipe at her eyes. Perhaps she was thinking what I had thought before I had gone to see my own home, bracing myself for what I might find: that it would be foolish to cry over a house, when so many more of our men were already dead with not even their bones to survive them. That it would be foolish to cry when there were so many consolations, our people safe and the men soon to return, and the other women and the children.
A group of workers passed by, a few of them glancing at us before they moved on. I was ashamed to be standing beside her, especially after I had told her that my house had survived when she had asked me that morning. I was even ashamed that I had chosen not to sleep last night in the bed in which I had slept since I was a child, when she had no choice at all, no option of sleeping tonight in the bed she had shared with her husband.
I offered to help her if she wanted to step into the wreckage and see if we could salvage any of their things.
"No," she said. "Let's not do that."
We stayed by the remains of the house for a long time, and then she rose to her feet and said, "Let's go back."
"I don't know how I'll tell my husband," she said as we walked up to the Sixth Circle. "He loved that house. At first I thought it was a bit shabby, but then I liked it because he did."
"Perhaps he won't have time to mind it too much. He'll be too happy to mind."
"Perhaps," she nodded.
We were silent for several more paces, and then she said, "Why are you so quiet all of a sudden?"
"I've always been quiet."
"Yes, but not like this. Lately you hardly say a word. I've barely seen you at all this past fortnight."
"I don't know. Maybe I've run out of things to say."
"I don't know if I believe that." I did not know whether to be alarmed or pleased that she had noticed.
"When is he coming back?" I asked, trying to disprove her.
"Soon, I hope. His company is camped at Cormallen, but if some of the other men say rightly they should soon be able to come and go as they please."
"What is it like, being married?"
"It's really lovely," she said, and now she was smiling. "It's the best thing I've ever done."
We were walking through the Fourth Circle, now. There were men working here, too; they were moving so quickly to fill buckets of stone and cartloads of splintered wood that from certain angles they looked frantic.
"Why do they think they've got to work so hard?" I asked. "Why should it matter if the King sees all of this or not? He ought to see it. He ought to see just what he's inherited."
She was quiet, and then as we reached the entrance to the Fifth Circle, she said, "He will see it." She took my hand and led me to the top of the steps just before the gate. We turned around and looked outwards. Below our feet the First and Second Circles were crowded with wreckage and movement. It looked as though the City were rising out of itself, stretching up about the mountain and towards the sunlight. "He will," she repeated. "All of it."
"And what will he think, do you suppose? What will he think of all of us?"
She shook her head. "I don't know. Perhaps he wonders what we'll think of him, as well."
"And what do you think?"
"I don't know. I don't rightly know much about him, at all. Only what all the stories say he's supposed to be like."
"Me, too. Did you believe all those stories when you were a girl?"
"Of course. I had to believe something, after all." We studied the lower circles in silence for a few moments more.
"Come on," I said. "We should go back to work."
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