Banjoverse: The Full Epic
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Fallen: 21. Civilians
Over the following days, riders did indeed approach from the northeast. Although King Elessar and his party were still camped at Cormallen, we received word that many of the companies had been granted leave to return to Minas Tirith. And so they came walking and riding back through the ruined gates of the City bearing their standards, looking tired and dazed, but proud. And, most importantly, alive.
As the Warden had predicted, the Houses became busier, as men reported to the wards with such injuries that had not posed a hindrance to their return journey but which still wanted attention. The other apprentices from our Houses who'd accompanied the host to the Black Gates returned, too. It made me ache all the more that Laeron was not among them.
And the work went on, and I waited and wondered, until one afternoon I was making rounds in the south ward when someone called my name. I turned around.
He was standing near the entrance to the ward, just beyond the last row of beds. He had a faint black eye, but he was standing up straight enough. I crossed the space between us and he caught me up in his arms, laughing.
"Well, I'm back," he said.
For a few moments we were shy with one another, as if he were a new suitor coming to pay a first call. For the first time in as long as I could remember, I felt fortunate.
"How are you?" he asked.
"Well enough, and you?"
"I hardly know," he said, but he was smiling.
"More good than bad, I hope." I rested my hands on his elbows and looked up at him.
"It's over. It's done."
"I know," I said.
"I still can't believe it."
"Neither can I."
And he sank to his knees in front of me, there between the rows of beds in the south ward, and he began to cry.
"Beren," I said. I sat down on the nearest bed and put my hand on his head. His hair was short; he must have cut it when he was at Cormallen. I rested my other hand on his shoulder.
He swore. "I'm sorry. I just didn't think I would ever come here, again. I didn't think I would see you again."
I hesitated, and then I said, "I didn't think I would see you again, either." From this side of events, it seemed almost an admission of failure; I was glad that we were able to confess at the same time.
"It's all right," I said. I put my hand against the unbruised side of his face and remembered what Valacar had said to me the other day. "We won."
He looked up at me. "Yes," he said, "we did." And all of a sudden he was laughing again, even as he still wiped tears from his eyes. He turned his head and kissed my palm. "You must think I'm mad."
I smiled. "Even if you are, you're no more so than I am, or anyone else in this city."
He got to his feet and brushed himself off. His movements were stiff and tentative.
"I'm wanted by my captain soon, but my company is camped on the Pelennor tonight and we are at our leisure to entertain guests. Will you come down and take supper with us?"
That evening, Elloth and I made our way down to the First Circle and through the gaping maw in the main wall that had once been the Great Gate. Already there was scaffolding there to begin its rebuilding.
I had had to work hard to convince her to come with me. Normally it would have been the other way around, with Elloth eager to spend time with the young soldiers, and me hanging back. But ever since learning of Laeron's death, she had grown quiet and sullen, even beyond the measure of grief that most of us harbored. Of course, I knew something of that, myself. She had always had a vein of steel just beneath the surface of her, I thought; now it was simply bared to the outside once enough of her had been worn away. I thought it would do her some good to be out under the sky and outside of the City walls. She had finally relented when I had told her I did not think it would be proper for me to go down to the camps by myself.
The Pelennor was dotted with bonfires and tents; most of the captains were camped here, with their men, rather than taking up quarters in the City. Company banners were planted in the ground, and they stirred in the light breeze. Even in the darkness I could make out the green of Rohan, the blue of Dol Amroth, and the new black of the King, so different from the Stewards' plain white. To make their camps, the men had had to clear away yet more battle debris, which lay in ashy mounds at odd intervals.
Beren had given me directions on how to find his company's encampment, and we were able to reach it quickly. The unit had a large fire going a ways away from their simple canvas tents; a large one that had to belong to the officers, and several smaller ones for the men. The fire was ringed with a few makeshift seats of planks and discarded masonry blocks, but most of the men sat on the ground, balancing bowls and water-skins in their laps.
Beren stood up to greet us as soon as he saw us.
"It's good to see you again," he said to Elloth.
"And you," she replied politely.
The men promptly moved to offer us the best spots beside the fire. I could see them adjusting their postures, as if they had to reacquaint themselves with the notion of having women in their midst. Beren introduced us to his friends, Minas Tirith boys all. They were kind and a bit grave like he was, with hard edges of humor creeping into their speech now and then. The scrapes and bruises on their faces were fresh, and a few of them had their arms in slings, but their clothes were clean, and like Beren, many of them looked to have had their hair newly cropped. Supper was a stew made from some wild pheasants that one of the men had managed to bag on the road back through Ithilien, sopped up with thick crusty bread.
"This is good," I said. "Thank you."
"It's Beren's," said one of his friends, grinning at me. "He's a tolerable cook when the need arises." At this Beren smiled and tilted his head to one side.
"He also slew an orc-captain," his friend added.
"Did you, now?" I asked.
"I had help with that," Beren said. "The stew, however, I made by myself."
"Tell me about the Black Gate," Elloth said after we had finished the meal. The men were passing around a flask of something strong. I looked at Elloth. Firelight reflected on her hair and in her grey eyes, and she was beautiful and still.
The men exchanged glances.
"We fought in two circles," one of them, Relion, began slowly. "We were in the circle with the King. There was a lot of smoke, and ash. The air was so thick, even before it began. I thought I would choke."
"And the Riders and the beasts, overhead—the hellhawks, as we took to calling them. But you know of those. And their cries."
"And before that, don't forget. There was an awful man come to have words with the King—at least, I think he was a man."
"I thought we were all set to perish there. We were ready to fight to the last man," Beren said. He looked at his friends for confirmation, and received scattered nods in return. "I thought that those slag hills would be our grave, until…they weren't," he finished.
No one spoke for a few moments after that.
"And what else?" Elloth persisted. I nudged her with my elbow, but she ignored me.
"Maybe some other time," one of the men said, not unkindly. Elloth lifted her chin, but then she nodded.
"And what about you ladies?" Relion asked.
"What about us?" I asked, smiling.
"Have you nothing of import to tell us?"
Elloth and I exchanged a glance. "Nothing that you've not yet heard, I'm sure," I replied.
"Well then," he said, "why don't you tell us something of little or no import? I, for one, am tired of hearing no one but these fools speak from sunup to sundown." He indicated his friends, a couple of whom took halfhearted swipes at him for that remark. "If there's anything we've missed, it's the sound of a woman's voice."
"Hear, hear," said Beren, taking a drink and glancing at me.
"Elloth is a wonderful storyteller," I put in.
"Let's have a story, then," said one of the men.
Elloth shook her head, but then she may have smiled for just a moment.
"Go on, Elloth," I said, and this time it was her turn to elbow me in the ribs. After several minutes of exhortation and another drink, however, she relented.
"Very well," she said. "This is a story that was told to me by Master Meriadoc from the Shire, cousin to the Ring-bearer." The men glanced at one another, seeming duly impressed at that. "And it was told to him by an old kinsman. So I may not have all of it right, in my head."
"Sounds promising, nevertheless," said Relion, lifting his hands up to warm them by the fire.
She began: "In a hole in the ground there lived a perian…"
At first, Elloth's voice was low and hesitant. She did not look at her audience, but only stared into the fire. But as the story went on, a bit of the old gleam returned to her eyes, and she would pause and look about at the right moments for dramatic effect. She spoke faster or slower, more loudly or more quietly, as the events of the tale called for, as all good storytellers are wont to do. It was clear that all the men had taken to her quite well, or at least to her story. Even in mourning, she could not resist the thrill of being at the center of attention, and I was glad for that. Like everyone else, I leaned forward and listened.
At some point, when everyone was well absorbed in the tale, Beren touched my arm and inclined his head away from the fire. I nodded, and we got up and left the circle.
We drifted to a space that was relatively empty and quiet, around the back of some of the Rohirric companies' encampments. The ground was scorched and churned up. We laid down our cloaks and sat on them. There was a spring chill in the air, bracing but not bitter.
"I like your hair," Beren said.
"My—oh," I said, and I realized that until now he had probably never seen me without my hair bound up beneath my cap. Tonight I was wearing it loose, for what seemed to be the first time in as long as I could remember. "It's all right, I suppose," I said. He laughed.
"The stars are nice," he said. "Before, in—we couldn't see them at all. The men in my company could have gone up to the barracks to stay, but we chose to camp here. Though a proper bed would have been nice, too," he added.
I stared up at the sky. "I think you chose right," I said. I glanced back in the direction of his unit's fire. "Your friends are wonderful."
"They're my brothers. In all of the good ways, and some of the bad, as well. Now all the more, for all we've seen together."
"I can't imagine."
"Oh, I think you probably could. Isn't Elloth just as much your sister?"
I thought for a moment. "Yes, I suppose she is." I paused. "And Laeron was just as much my brother."
He drew in his breath. "I didn't know if you'd want to talk about that."
"I do," I said. "Tell me what happened, please."
"We've come full circle, then," he said.
"How do you mean?"
"The first time I met you," he said. "I was asking you about Tarondor. I wanted to know. And now, you…" He trailed off. "Well, I'm sorry it's come to that, then. I wasn't there, you understand. To find someone who was there, you would have to go to the Sixth or the Third infantry, I imagine, as I think they were closer at hand. But this is what I heard."
"Go on," I said.
"First, the march was something else, even before the battle. A lot of the men quailed—and not cowardly men, either, and no few from my company; they couldn't go on. So the King released them, and dispatched them to defend Cair Andros. Laeron could have gone, then, but he didn't."
"Nor did you," I said.
"No, nor did I." He paused again. "I don't think I'm so very brave, no more than anyone else. But I'm the sort who likes to see things through to the end."
"Don't belittle yourself," I said. "You're very brave. So Laeron was brave, too. He also liked to see things through."
"And so do you, I think."
"Maybe. Go on."
"He wasn't at the front, of course. We wouldn't have done that, not even then. He was well behind the lines, helping the wounded who had managed to be borne back. And somehow—I don't know what happened, you can't really put it all together after the fact—they broke through his part of the lines, and we couldn't hold them. They just went through…" He trailed off.
"And killed him," I finished.
"Him and many others, yes." He shrugged. "I think it would have been quick. Leastwise I hope."
I nodded. My eyes stung
"We burned the bodies," he finished. "It was a wretched thing, to leave any part of them behind at all, in that place, but at least we knew they wouldn't fall prey to whatever beasts haunt that land."
Neither of us spoke for a while. I thought about the difference between a quick death and a slow one.
"Thank you for telling me," I said, finally.
"It's the least I can do," he snorted. "The absolute least. You can be angry at me; it's quite all right."
"Why would I be angry at you?"
"For living, when he did not. When I was a soldier, and he wasn't."
"And he wasn't a civilian, either. None of us were, Beren. We may not have been fighters, like you, but we weren't civilians."
"All right, then." And although he did not sound entirely convinced by this, he reached over and took my hand. His fingers were warm and rough, as I remembered them.
"He was brave," he continued. "Braver than me. I told you that I'm the sort who likes to see things through, that I didn't take the dispatch to Cair Andros. But that's not the whole of it." He paused. "At some point I'd just given myself up for dead. I'd given all of us up for dead. It was easier, that way."
"I know," I said.
"Anyway, a lot of us felt that way. You could see it in our eyes, I suppose." He paused and took a breath. "But not Laeron; he was still alive. And he helped me. He helped all of us."
I sat there for a few moments and took this in.
"Will you tell that to Valacar?" I asked. "He's the surgeon to whom Laeron was apprenticed. I think it would make him happy, to hear that."
He nodded. "Of course."
We sat in silence for a while, and then I felt myself growing anxious. I had to do it now, I thought, or not at all. Somehow it might be easier here in the dark, where we couldn't see one another's faces so well. I squeezed his fingers, and then I dropped his hand.
"I have something to tell you, now," I began. "A lot of things, actually."
"Please don't say anything until I'm finished."
"I can do that."
And so I told him everything. About Valacar and the dying man, about the Eastern River soldier with his carved figures, and about Lord Aradîr, and about that night in the rain, in the alley. I told him about Ceorth, and about the dagger that the captain had given me. I told him about the wreck on the First Circle, and that the man was dead, now, and that I knew for sure. I had thought that telling him all this would be very hard, and it was, though to my surprise it grew easier as I went on. After I stopped speaking, we both quiet for a very long time.
"I'm finished, now," I said.
He was silent for a few moments more. Then he swore, and said, "Why didn't you tell me any of this before?"
"When would I have told you?"
"Before I left."
"Why do you think?" I asked, and I could not stop a note of bitterness from creeping in to my voice. "What good would it have done either of us?"
"I would have killed him," he said.
"See?" I said. "Little good a charge of murder would have done you. Or me, for that matter."
"I still wish you'd told me," he said. "And me, asking if you'd marry me, and teasing you. It must have seemed—"
"You didn't know," I said. "It's all right." I thought of balancing on the high ramparts, and of emerging from the wreckage of the First Circle soaked in blood that was not my own. I drew myself up a bit. "But now you know what manner of woman I am."
"And what manner is that?" he asked.
"Very different from the one you first met, I should imagine."
"And yet not so much, I think." He reached out as if to touch me, but then stopped himself, as if something had put him off. As I supposed something had.
"You shouldn't have stayed, then," he said. "You should have gone to the coast with the other women—"
"No." I cut him off. "Because then, for one, I never would have met you."
He snorted. "That doesn't seem like much of a fair exchange."
"It isn't an exchange. Nothing like that. It's the past, and it still lingers terribly, but it's all the past and there's nothing we can do about it." I wiped at my eyes with the heel of my hand.
"Well, I'm sorry at any rate," he said. "I can't say how sorry I am. And angry, for you."
"Thank you," I said. "I'll have your anger, but not your pity."
"Very well," he nodded. "I do suppose you are a stronger manner of woman than I might have thought you at first. I'd heard about the collapse on the First Circle. I didn't know that was you," he smiled. "You're very brave, indeed."
"Maybe. But I did it because I had to."
After I said that, I realized that I could not explain that statement, even to myself, much less to Beren. Fortunately he didn't ask me to, because maybe he understood, after a fashion. He simply nodded again.
We sat quietly for perhaps a minute more, each of us staring into our laps.
Then he said, "And would you still have me?"
I looked up at him, startled. "I think the question is, Beren, would you still have me?"
He snorted, again. "And what manner of man do you think I am?"
"A…" I started. "A good one, I think." I paused. "Charitable."
"Not charitable," he said, and he reached out and took both of my hands between his. "Not in the least. Be assured of that. And even if I were, you wouldn't need it from me, nor would I expect you to take it. So, the question is still, would you have me?"
"I…would," I said, surprising myself. "But not right away. Not now."
He paused, and then he said, "I understand that."
"I have things I need to do. I need a lot of time."
"Well, that we have in abundance, now, thanks to the periannath."
"That we do." I laughed a little bit. "But, Beren," I continued. "If you find you can't or won't give me that time, if you want a girl who would require less of it, then…I would understand that, as well."
He put his palm against the side of my face, as I had done with him earlier that day.
"I spent all twenty-three years of my life waiting for Mordor to come knocking at the gates of Minas Tirith," he said. "And now that it did, I think I can bear to wait a few more for something good."
And then I laughed, a real laugh, this time, and so did he. I felt warm in spite of the cold ground that lay beneath my cloak.
"So be it, sir," I said. It was all so strange, to be sitting in the middle of a battle-wrecked field before the City gates. I thought that everything would be strange, from now on. And perhaps that was not such a bad thing.
I got to my feet, and so did he. And then, to my own great surprise I put my hands on his shoulders and went up on my toes just briefly, and kissed him on the mouth.
"So be it," I repeated, and even through the darkness I had some satisfaction at seeing the stunned expression on his face. And then he smiled again.
"So be it, my lady," he said.
We gathered up our cloaks and put them over our shoulders. I stared up at the stars, my mind reeling with grief and joy. And we went back to join the others around the fire, by which time Elloth had finished with her tale, and they had long since moved on to other stories.
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