Banjoverse: The Full Epic
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Fallen: 22. In Minas Anor
Finally, the women and the children were coming back from the coast. One warm morning, my own family returned. My mother came to meet me in the Houses, as Beren had; she knew well enough where to find me. There she was, my mother, to my unspeakable relief, looking just the same as she always had; worn out from the wait and the journey and from watching over two young boys, certainly, but no more worn out than usual.
"My dear one," she said, hugging me close. She cupped my face in her hands. "You're so thin."
"Mama," I said, and burst into tears.
Almost right away after that, I fell ill despite the mild spring weather. It was only a fever, and it was really nothing at all compared to everything else. Still, my mother took me back to our house with my brother and my cousin and looked after me, and I did not argue with her. Much as I tried to hide it, there was probably something in my eyes that frightened her. She laid her cool, rough hands on my forehead and made me take my meals in bed. We did not talk very much; rather, I did not, but the very thought of her and the boys just in the next room made me so grateful that my body ached.
On the third day of my illness, my brother brought me my tea. He put the mug on the table and sat on top of the covers beside me.
"Be careful," I said, even as I shifted to make room for him. "You'll catch this fever from me."
"It's all right," he replied. "Mother says you're already on the mend." He touched my brow and nodded. He wore a look of concern and competency that so mimicked our mother's that my heart nearly broke. "Yes, you are."
"I came in earlier, but you were sleeping. Not easily. Were you having a nightmare?"
"Do you remember what about?"
"No," I lied.
He nodded. "I have bad dreams, too, sometimes."
"Yes," he said, and paused, staring out the window. I thought it was an odd moment of thoughtfulness for him; most of the time, you couldn't pay him all the coin in the City to keep still. "Where there's a big crowd, and I'm searching for Mother, or for you or Bren"—that was our cousin—"but I can't find any of you."
My mother was unchanged, it was true; but I could have sworn that my brother had grown quite a bit taller. Already I could see in him signs of the handsome young man he would soon become. There were traces of our father in his looks; I favored our mother more in that regard.
He took off his shoes and put his feet up on the bed. "Tell me about the Siege," he said. "What was it like?"
I closed my eyes. "Ask Bergil," I said.
"I looked for him yesterday, but I think he was going about on the fields with his uncle. Anyway, why should I have to ask him? You're my sister, after all."
"I'll tell you later."
"I'm ill, you pest." I burrowed deeper under the covers.
"Fine." He folded his arms. "It must have been really bad," he ventured.
"When you do tell me, don't leave out any of the really bad parts. I'm old enough to hear them."
"Well, that's right." I pushed the covers away and reached up to ruffle his hair. It was soft, and long dark strands of it fell in front of his eyes. "You're eleven, now. I missed your birthday, didn't I?"
"That's all right. Soon I'll be old enough to be a 'prentice, like you were. Mother thinks I ought to go to the carpenters. Or the wheelwrights."
"Not the Houses?"
He shrugged. "That doesn't sound like much fun. I might also like to be a Guardsman, though."
"You should be a 'prentice," I said.
"Can Mother pay for that, do you think?"
"Of course she can. I can help, too. Those of us who stayed on are due a hefty bonus, you know."
He shook his head. "No, you have to keep that for yourself. Girls need to save up for their dowries."
"And who told you that?" I asked, surprised at this bit of adult information that he had acquired.
"Romnir says that's what his mother told him."
"Ah. Well, don't worry about that. We will have more than enough for your apprenticeship, and for Bren's, and for anything else we need."
He looked skeptical. "Are you sure?"
"I am. Anyway," I added. "I don't need a dowry."
"Of course," I smiled. "I'm so pretty I won't have to have one."
"Not with your hair like that," he laughed.
"Pest," I repeated, and smacked him with the extra pillow.
On the fourth day my fever broke, and I got out of bed and helped my mother with the chores. I kissed her cheek as I went by. Sometimes she sang as she worked, and sometimes we talked, but I was careful around her. She must have seen that something was changed about me; she was my mother, after all. But she did not ask, at least not directly. That was not her way, and I was grateful for that. I knew that if I told her everything, she would most likely blame herself for not making me leave the City with her, and I did not want that at all.
Over the next few weeks there was still much work to be done in our house and everywhere else. The King would arrive in the City in May to be officially crowned, and people hurried to plant flowers and restock pantries and cellars, and of course to clear the last of the rubble away.
As I took my shifts on the work details, my mind was far away from all of the cleaning and provisioning at hand. I was thinking about the King, of course, and wondering what sort of ruler he would be, and how our lives would be changed with his coming.
But apart from these expected things, there was something else. It was a seed of an idea, really, and I could not say exactly when it had taken root in my mind. It might have been the moment when I tucked up my sleeves and held my breath and crawled into the wreckage of the gatehouse on the First Circle. It might have been before then, on one of the long grim days I had spent on the wards. Whenever it had been, the notion had been in the back of my mind for quite some time, now. It had been growing stronger and more insistent by the day, especially as I lay feverish in bed. I knew that I had at least to try to honor it.
What's more, I was thinking of Laeron.
"Valacar," I said. "This is Beren."
"Sir," Beren nodded, as the two men clasped hands. I had asked Beren to come up to the Sixth Circle again, and now we were gathered at one of the long tables in the kitchens.
"Well met, Beren," Valacar replied.
"Beren's company recently returned from Cormallen," I said. "He--" I glanced at Beren, who nodded. "He was able to spend some time with Laeron. On the march to the Morannon."
"Oh?" Valacar said quietly, looking to Beren for confirmation.
"Yes, sir. I—we thought you might like to hear something about that, if you haven't yet."
"I—" Valacar said, looking back over at me again. "No, I haven't." His gaze shifted back to Beren. "That's very good of you. Something to drink?"
"That would be nice."
They settled down, both of them dark-haired and lean, Beren in black and Valacar in grey. I left them sitting across the table from one another as Beren got to talking.
When I came back, Beren had already departed, but Valacar was still sitting at the table. I couldn't read the expression on his face; he'd gone blank once again. I sat across from him, where Beren had been.
"Is that the one you're not going to marry?" he asked me.
"I'll not make any decisions as quickly as I thought I would," I replied, and he smiled at that. "What do you think of him, then?" I asked.
"What do I think?" He furrowed his brow a bit. "I certainly hope you're not asking my approval."
"Never fear," I said, and he snorted.
"In that case," he said, "he seems very courteous and well-spoken. And kind. As I said, it was good of him to come and speak to me about Laeron. All in all, a good lad, I should think."
"I think so, too," I said. I paused, and then said, "What about you, Valacar? When will you get your post back? Have you heard anything, yet?"
"No," he said, and his voice was low, and surprisingly free of bitterness. "And not when, but rather if. You would have to ask Lord Aradîr, I suppose, and he is probably busy with more pressing affairs than that at the moment. And far be it from me to take the matter up with him, myself."
"Oh," I said.
"At any rate, I suppose it matters little, at this point."
"What reason have I to remain here?"
"What reason, indeed?" I said, taken aback. "We need you. The Houses need you."
"Why?" he asked, his voice a bit sharper, now.
"Why? You're the best we have. And not yet forty, even," I added, though in truth even thirty-six seemed terribly old to me, no matter what anyone else said. "Everyone knows it. All of the time you've spent here, all of the work."
He shook his head. "There are always others who can do just as well. Better, perhaps. I'm not so important."
"Don't you ever decide anything for yourself?" I demanded, surprised at my own anger. It had been lurking to the side of me, but now it met me head on and I embraced it.
"As I recall, you accused me of not doing what I was supposed to, not so long ago," he smiled, refusing to rise to the bait.
"What about your father?" I asked. "You said that he sent you here, against your will. And now, you'll allow yourself to be sent away? You'll allow him to send you away?"
"I never said that."
"You told me not to give up," I continued. "All of those times, when I—" I swallowed. "When I thought that we would all die, and when I thought that perhaps I might want to, myself." I thought of all my sleepless nights, and all of the food set before me that I had pushed away, untouched. "You wanted to see me well. And I'm not. Not entirely, and not for a very long time. But I haven't given up. Don't tell me to do one thing, and then do the opposite, yourself."
"I'm your elder," he said. "That's my prerogative."
"I'm old for my age," I said, and I got up and walked away without a backwards glance.
When I went to the Warden's office the following week, he was busy with a profusion of papers and lists, and he was writing something out very quickly.
"Come in," he said, absently but not unkindly, when he saw me standing in the open doorway. "How may I help you?"
"If you have a moment, Sir, I'd like to make a request of you."
"And what might that be?"
"I wish to be released from my post as a healer."
At that, he stopped writing and looked up at me with the tip of his quill raised just above the paper.
"Is that so?" he asked, putting down the quill and pushing the page aside. "It grieves me to hear that. Though I suppose you're leaving us to be married, then, which is of course cause for congratulations."
I hesitated, and then I told him my idea. I explained what I wanted. I was more nervous than I had supposed I would be, for if he laughed or dismissed me, then it would all be over.
But he neither laughed at me nor asked me to leave. When I was finished, he simply regarded me for what seemed like a very long time, his elbows on his desk and his fingers steepled in front of him.
"Truly?" he asked.
"I understand, though," he said, "that you've not been well, lately." And as small a thing as it was, my heart leapt that this was the point of objection that came to his mind before any other.
"I had a fever this past week, but I'm better, now."
"You know what I mean." His voice was gentle but insistent.
"I have not been well, sir, nor have many of us here. But I've been much improved these past weeks, especially after the news of victory." He nodded at that. "I think that I'll have all my strength back very soon."
"Well," he said, and he was quiet for what seemed like a very long time after that. "If your assurances are true, which I will trust that they are, I suppose I have no objections."
I had to pause for a moment so that I could be sure that he had really said that. Then I smiled.
"Thank you, sir!"
"However," he continued. "I have not the authority on my own to approve your request. For that, you'll have to petition Lord Aradîr."
"Oh." For the moment, I could not think of anything else to say.
"I will put your request through to him, with my recommendation, and then I imagine he will want to speak to you, himself."
Several days later, I found myself again walking the halls of the Citadel, though this time, the corridors were crowded and busy. Once again, an attendant showed me to Lord Aradîr's chamber, which was nearly as I had found it the first time I had spoken to him.
"Good day. Please, sit," he said when he saw me. I curtseyed, and then sat down in the chair opposite him.
"Good day, my lord," I said, folding my hands in my lap.
"Are you well?" he asked. "You look better than you did when last I saw you."
"I am, thank you, sir. I hope we should all look better than we did since then."
He smiled a little at that. "Indeed. Is your family returned from the coast?"
"They are, safe and sound." I paused, and then I ventured, "And yours, sir?"
"My wife and children returned last week, thank you. Now," he continued, "if the Warden tells me correctly, I understand you have a rather unusual petition."
He clasped his hands on the desk before him. "You're aware," he said, "that there have never been any women taken on as surgeons' apprentices in the history of the Houses."
"I know, my lord." I shifted in my chair. For some reason I felt the urge to apologize for myself, as if the nature of my request were somehow indecent. But I did not. It would probably not help my case.
"And you are also aware that this is so because there is a direct injunction in the Healer's Canon against such."
"Yes," I said, and recited: "And of those women who tend to the wounded and the infirm just as they shall not wield sword in war, neither shall they take a blade to the bodies of those who lie in their care, for their work shall be for the giving of life, and not for the wounding."
"A fair turn of phrase, and comforting in its way. As are a great many traditions." He nodded. "Of course you remember."
I hesitated, and then I said, "I also remember because I broke that rule."
He smiled faintly. "And with some skill, at that."
"It is common knowledge that laws are often bent or broken in times of dire need, and that this should pass unremarked. I think our reputation abroad is one of severity, especially for this city. Still, we are not so far gone yet that we don't recognize that necessity, thank the Valar."
"However," he continued, "it's one thing for a woman to take out a scalpel now and again when the wards are overflowing. It would be quite another thing, with respect to the law, to install a woman in a position in which she takes up the knife as her sole vocation. That would require a change in the law itself."
"I see," I said. I looked at him for a few moments, but he seemed to be waiting for some further response from me. "May I ask my lord a question?"
"What's the origin of that law?"
"In all honesty, I don't know. I would assume, though, that it has its roots in the old Númenorean codes. Perhaps as a safeguard to protect women from the exigency of doing any sort of violence, or even anything that might be interpreted as such. To keep them unsullied, from a certain point of view."
"Oh." I considered this for a moment.
"Whatever the reason, it does not seem to have been particularly effective."
"And, sir," I said, suddenly, though I was afraid now that I was getting out of my place. "Why do we follow laws whose reasons we don't know, or can't explain?"
He smiled. "Of what is Minas Tirith built?"
"Stone?" I ventured.
"Yes. And also laws. Laws, and codes, and edicts, that reach back to the time of our earliest forefathers. You might say that all these things hold the City together, as surely as does the mortar between the stones, as I believe I told you before. Perhaps even more surely now, having seen the lower circles."
"Is that a good thing, my lord?"
He sat back. "It is what it is," he said. "Although," he added, "with the City very nearly broken, of late, I would not be so surprised to see some of these laws more susceptible to change."
I leaned forward slightly in my chair. "And is there nothing that you would like to change about the laws, sir?"
"That I would like to change?" He raised his eyebrows in mild surprise at that. Then he looked thoughtful for a few moments. "Not for myself, no," he replied quietly. He straightened a stack of papers on his desk. "But for others, perhaps, who would see the City rebuilt a better place than she was ere the War." He paused. "Which is why I support your petition."
I took a breath. "May I ask my lord…why?"
He smiled. "Not all traditions need be revered as though they were a matter of life and death. Because often, in fact, they are not." I waited for him to elaborate on that, but he did not. "Also, your Warden speaks very well of you."
"Thank you, sir, very much."
He held up a hand. "But now you will have a lesson in City bureaucracy," he said, and his smile grew rueful. "The Warden has sent you up to me, and now I am bound to take up the matter with the Steward's council, for it would entail a change to City laws. I have passed your request up to the Citadel. The final ruling belongs to the Steward and the councilors, and I will make a case for your request to them."
"And you," he said, setting down his stack of paper, "will accompany me when I do."
"In about a quarter-hour's time," he finished, standing up. He was not smiling, now, but something told me he might as well have been. "Come along, then."
"This way," Aradîr said as we walked down the corridor, our footsteps echoing.
"Sir," I began, picking up my pace to keep up with him. "Will they listen to me? The councilors, I mean. And the Steward?"
"Of course he will. At least as much as he would listen to me, at any rate. I am, in the end, only minor aristocracy." His tone was light, but I could not tell whether or not he was in jest.
"With all due respect," I said, "what does that make me?"
He stopped then, and so I stopped as well, and he looked me in the eye. He ran a hand through his hair, and his wedding rings gleamed briefly in the afternoon light. "Whatever you want," he said.
"I'm afraid I don't understand, my lord."
"You will," he said. "One day. Now, come along."
I had imagined myself staring down a long table full of grim-faced men in the Hall of Kings. However, to my relief, the Steward had set up his operations in a small anteroom off the Hall, and there were but a few men sitting with him when the esquire ushered me and Aradîr inside. A pair of attendants were leaving as we arrived, and they briefly acknowledged Aradîr. Faramir and the men who were with him—the councilors, I assumed—were seated at one end of a broad table. I recognized among them Lord Tarnion, who had lost his son to an orc-spear on the walls during the Siege. The table's surface was almost indiscernible under many stacks of papers of various shapes and sizes, along with a few books.
The Steward was in close conference with a young man who stood next to him, their heads bent over a particularly large sheet of paper. The young man was nodding and making notes.
"No," Faramir was saying, "even with that, I should think the bulk of your crews would best be diverted to the Gate, and to the southeast section of the Second Circle." He pointed to a spot on the paper. "And be sure the men bearing supplies are given free passage up and down the higher circles."
"Very good, sir," said the young man.
"My thanks, Herion" said Faramir. "You're free to go." As the young man got up to leave, the Steward glanced up. He looked tired, but almost pleasantly so, as if he were in the midst of taking much-needed exercise.
"Lord Aradîr," he nodded. "What news from the Houses?"
"My lord," Aradîr said, bowing briefly before handing him a paper of his own. "As you know, the Houses are still well-provisioned. The herb stores, however, are all but depleted, and the gardens yield little at this time. The Warden has dispatched gathering-parties with leave to go as far afield as they see fit. Meanwhile, staff are being lent to fill out work details as they are able, and all workers have been given leave to return to their homes, provided that they are habitable."
Faramir scanned the paper before giving it back to Aradîr. "Very good. Thank you." He looked at me. "I take it that this is the young lady you mentioned at your last report?"
"It is, my lord."
I dropped a curtsey, and said, "My liege."
He nodded, and said, "I know your face from the Houses. One of Ioreth's pupils, are you not?"
"I understand you have a point of contention, as it were, with your healer's oath."
I was not sure what to say to that, so I looked at Aradîr, who nodded. "That she does."
"And you wish to be apprenticed as a surgeon?" asked the Steward.
I curtseyed again.
He said, "Please, both of you, be seated." Aradîr and I did as we were told, taking chairs directly opposite the Steward and councilors. "Do you know the history of the Healer's Canon?" Faramir asked.
"Not really, sir, no," I admitted.
"Nor did I, until yesterday, when I bade one of my esquires look into it. The library has just recently been unlocked. He spent the better part of the day with only dust and scrolls for company, poor man, but he emerged successful." He reached for a particularly yellowed looking roll of parchment behind a high stack of papers that sat to his right. With a careful, practiced movement he unrolled it and laid it on the table, weighting its curling edges with a book at one end and an inkwell at the other. The men seated nearest him glanced over at it. From where I sat, I could see that the ink was faded and the writing was thin and ornate.
"It is a most interesting history," the Steward continued. "Even its current form is a relic from our distant past, from the days of Arvedui and Fíriel."
"The old Kings?" I remembered that Fíriel was indeed a queen's name, and that perhaps the mother of our own Fíriel in the Houses had seen something regal about her at her birth; she was lovely and strong, after all.
"Yes. It was Arvedui's marriage to Fíriel that united the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. It was also through this marriage that Arvedui laid claim to Gondor's throne, for under the old law of Númenor, Fíriel could have been a Ruling Queen."
I was surprised at the thought of a Ruling Queen; I could not remember if I had ever heard of such a thing. And while I liked hearing the Steward speak about these matters, I wondered what they might have to do with our Canon.
"But this claim was denied by Pelendur. You have heard that name, before?"
"Yes, my lord. But he was not a King, was he?"
"No, indeed. He was one of my predecessors. Not a Ruling Steward, but a King's Steward." And here he paused, and smiled a little. "A King's Steward, like me. While surely he had many reasons for denying the claim of Arvedui and Fíriel, the one upon which he chose to lean most heavily was the fact that Gondor was a kingdom at war. And a kingdom at war, he said, would fare poorly under the hand of a woman; it needed the rule of a King, and not a Queen."
He placed a few fingers lightly over the parchment before him. "And that, gentlemen and lady," he continued, looking at me and Aradîr and at his few councilors in turn, "seems to be where we find this strange under-note in our history. For it was shortly after Pelendur's choice that the Healer's Canon was set to paper in its current form, with an odd injunction that appears nowhere before, forbidding women healers from taking up the knife, as if forbidding them from going to battle. And though Arvedui and Fíriel are nowhere mentioned by name, we might best infer that here is an echo, a warning meant to remind us that we are indeed the citizens of a warring kingdom. A man's kingdom, and not a woman's," he added, with a pointed glance at me. "I would not be surprised to find any number of other like-minded amendments to our codes around this period, in similar language. If one were not lacking in time, it would be interesting to make a study of it," he said.
"However," he continued, placing his palm over the scroll as if to obscure its contents, "this is but prelude and history to the matter at hand." Once more he looked at me, as did the men seated beside him. "So tell us, please, why it is that you wish to be a surgeon." There was perhaps a hint of a challenge in that request, but no scorn or mocking.
I returned his gaze, which was steady but not fierce, and then I glanced at Aradîr and at the councilors and at the ancient parchment on the table. I took a breath, and began.
"I see the need of it, my lord. Gondor has lost so many young men, and most of those that yet remain are more skilled in battle and defense than in healing, I think."
Faramir nodded, but said nothing, and I went on. "I think it's the best thing I can do to serve my City. I saw so much, during the Siege and after; I worked on the wards, and also in the surgery, for a great many hours. I think I would do well."
"The Warden seems to agree with you on that count. He speaks highly of you, as does the Master of the Houses," said the Steward, though the tone of his voice betrayed no decision as yet. Once again he glanced at Aradîr.
"That's true," Aradîr said.
"And your devotion to our City makes me glad," the Steward continued. "Have you no other reasons, then?"
In fact, I had, but I did not know how I ought to say them, or if I should say them, at all. There was the logic of flesh and bones, the way joint fit to joint and tendon to muscle, and the way I had come to appreciate this above many other, thinner, kinds of reason. There was the weight and the balance of the knife in my hand, and I liked that too, although I sometimes found the thought of it frightening. I liked the thought of having the capacity to control, as well as to comfort, and to close up the things that had been split apart and to stare into the stark mystery of blood as if staring down a deep well.
The War had bruised me, too, of course. I had shed my own blood, and I had the scar to prove it where the stitches once had been. And all the others, as well, not so easily visible. I would never understand why, but perhaps I could better understand how.
I still wanted the things I had wanted before all of this--quiet, comfort; the smell of baking bread, a small house, and maybe a husband and children. Before, I might have thought that walking open-eyed through a war would have sent me running into the arms of those desires, but now they were blunted. They were still there, but not so urgent. I would wait for them, as I had told Beren. Before I had any of these things, I wanted a scalpel between my fingers. There was a pleasure to that weight, strange but sure, and it was the only way I could see myself going forward.
And of course there was Laeron.
I thought of all these things, but then I said, "Our country, our City--it's been broken, my lord, but not destroyed. I think that now we must all have a hand in building it back up, of old stones but also of new. And for me, to heal and help its people, in a way that I see fit for myself—I think that that will be my own small part in the building, though I had not the good fortune to be born a boy." Here I glanced at Aradîr, and then looked back at the Steward. "The lore of surgeons is not that of warfare, and I think that a woman may learn it just as well as a man, provided that she has a steady hand and a sound mind. Which I do. And I don't want to stop learning, sir."
And this was also the truth.
The Steward considered me, and though he could not have looked at me for more than a few moments, it felt like several years' time. His eyes were sharp and searching, but not unkind, and I did not feel compelled to look away.
Finally, he said, "And so you shan't." He looked at each of his councilors in turn, and then back at me and Aradîr. "You know very well," he said, "that you would be the only woman among a great many men. Would you be ready to hold your own among them?"
"I would, sir," I replied.
Then he removed his palm from the parchment and considered it once again. "The rest of the tale is as follows: Gondor did indeed have the King that Pelendur deemed it should, and this was Eärnil, sire to Eärnur."
"The last King," I said.
"Yes. And because he cared only for the battles that so harried our land, he never took a wife, and died without an heir. So it fell to my house to watch over a kingdom with no king." And here he paused, and smiled. "But the line of Arvedui and Fíriel continued in the North, and now, nearly a thousand years hence, one of that line comes again to claim the throne of Gondor. And I daresay that this time, no one disputes his claim, at the very least not the current Steward."
"Nor his council," said one of the men seated next to Faramir, speaking up for the first time.
"Indeed," said the Steward, and then he looked at me once more. "Which is all a rather lengthy way of saying that I have good reason to deem this injunction obsolete. For there is no longer any reason to season our laws with tokens intended to warn away claimants descended from one who would have been a Queen. And more than that, Gondor is no longer a warring kingdom. We sit not in Minas Tirith, but in Minas Anor."
"Minas Anor, my lord?" I asked.
"The old name for the City, before Osgiliath fell," Lord Tarnion put in. "The Tower of the Sun."
"'Minas Tirith' means 'the Guard Tower,' and we no longer need serve as unwilling sentries against the strength of Mordor," said the Steward. "I hope that the City will regain its glory of old, with the strength of that which is new, and young. It will be a different City, with need for all manner of Men. And all manner of women," he added, smiling. "The council has heard the petition. Have you any objections?" he asked the men seated on his side of the table. They glanced at me, and then at one another. Tarnion murmured something in his neighbor's ear.
"We have not, my lord," said the man sitting to the Steward's right.
"Very well. So, lady, if this is the manner in which you would stand in the sunlight, then far be it from us to stand in your way."
"My lord?" I asked.
"The council approves your petition," said Aradîr. I looked at him and he was smiling.
"Thank you, sir, my lords," I said. A strange feeling, dizzying and warm, spread through me.
"You are most welcome," said Faramir. He drew a blank piece of paper from a nearby stack and dipped a quill in the inkwell that still weighted down the yellow parchment. He began to write. "I will declare the Healer's Canon to be amended, in reflection of the changes we have discussed. Therefore, you may be taken on as a surgeon's apprentice, as may any other woman who wishes and who is seen fit." He paused, and looked at me again; I had been looking at what he was writing. "You are lettered, I assume."
My stomach knotted up a bit. "No, not really, sir," I admitted. "Is that a problem?"
"It is," he said, "but far from an insurmountable one. Is there anyone amongst your fellows who can help you learn to read and write?"
"There is, I am sure," Aradîr said, nodding at me.
"That's well," said Faramir. "This will be one of the conditions of your apprenticeship," he said to me. "Lord Aradîr and your Warden will decide on the others," he said, looking at Aradîr.
Aradîr nodded. "You will start with a twelve-months' trial," he said to me, "and continue as your master sees fit."
"And is there a surgeon who will be amenable to taking her on?" asked one of the councilors.
"There will be, surely," Aradîr replied.
Something else that I had been keeping in my mind now came to the forefront. In a very few seconds, I weighed up my chances, and then I made my gamble.
"I'd like to have Valacar," I said. Aradîr looked at me, and I met his eyes. "He lost his apprentice at the Morannon."
"I know the name," said the Steward, finishing what he was writing. "The Warden speaks highly of him, too, I believe."
"As do we all, my lord," I put in. My voice was perhaps a bit too urgent, for the Steward stopped writing and looked at me then.
"You spoke to me about him briefly, did you not, Aradîr?" he asked, looking over his paper.
"I did, sir," said Aradîr, looking at me. I stared back at him, hoping that my face was impassive. "There was a matter of disagreement."
"Everyone speaks very highly of him," I repeated. "He was of great help during the Siege. And after." A few of the councilors were looking at us now; Tarnion seemed to be eyeing Aradîr with particular interest. I held my hands folded in my lap, and my palms prickled with sweat.
Aradîr's expression did not change, but he took a breath, and said, "So he was."
"And this matter of disagreement," the Steward said, looking at us once more. "It is not something the council ought to concern itself with, is it?"
"No, it is not," Aradîr said, after a moment. "A misunderstanding only. Valacar will take you on as his apprentice," he said to me, "if both he and the Warden agree to it. If not, other arrangements will be made."
Faramir considered both me and Aradîr for a few long moments. My heart felt as though it was going to beat its way out of my chest, and I hoped I did not show it. Then the Steward said, "Very well. The council thanks you for bringing this matter to its attention." He picked up a stick of sealing wax and held it to a candle's flame above the document he had just written, letting a small amount of it drip carefully on to the paper near the bottom edge. "The last thing remaining is to send your petition up to the King for his ultimate approval. Of course, he will have a great deal to do upon his entrance to the City; still, I expect you will see his answer in no more than two or three years' time."
"My lord?" Aradîr and I both said, nearly in unison.
"Joke," said Faramir, and he smiled and pressed his ring into the soft wax, marking the paper with the Steward's seal. "You may begin your apprenticeship pending further approval, and as your Warden sees fit. My thanks. You're free to go."
Outside the anteroom, Aradîr said, "Take a walk with me." We went down one of the Citadel corridors that led out to the courtyard.
"That was well done," he said. "In another life, you would have made a fine councilor."
I said nothing, not sure of how to respond. My palms were still cool with sweat.
"You like Valacar very well, don't you?" he asked.
"A great many people do, my lord," I said.
"Yes, a great many people do," he said, stopping. We were alone at a juncture of two hallways. "And it is true that this War and its ending have laid to waste any number of cares that seemed grave before it. But still, there are some that may know more than they should," he added, looking me in the eye.
"I don't know what you mean, sir." It was true that I did have more knowledge than I should, about a great many things. But I was not sure which of these things he was referring to, if any, at all.
"No, I'm sure you don't," he said, and he smiled. It was a wan expression, different from the way he had looked when he had told me the petition had been approved. "At any rate, accept that as a favor from me. And now you owe me a favor, as well."
"What would that be, my lord?"
"I'll show you."
We made our way down the corridor, and out to the courtyard. There, we—or rather, Aradîr—were greeted with cries of "Father!" and the frantic pounding of feet on ancient flagstones. Aradîr knelt down to gather up the little boy and girl who flung themselves at him, laughing and chattering. Their voices echoed against the high walls.
"Father, we got to see the Swan Knights, and Níneth's cousin, all in their armor—"
"What will have for supper?"
"—their horses were so big, and the banners—"
"I'm very hungry already!"
He embraced and kissed them, and ruffled their hair the way that I did with my own brother. His smile seemed to have become real, again.
Behind the children, a tall and very lovely woman in a green dress approached. She walked with her arms folded, and there was a calmness and self-possession in her movements that bespoke nobility, as if she could be compelled to hurry for no one but herself. Standing beside her was a slender girl about my age—a nursemaid, I supposed.
"Not so loud in the Citadel, children," the woman admonished, and her voice was gentle and commanding at once. She glanced at me, an expression of mild curiosity on her face.
Aradîr stood up with the smaller of the two children in his arms. The other one leaned against his leg and stared openly at me, his fingers in his mouth. "I am sorry to have kept you waiting," he said to his wife. "The meeting with the council was longer than I had expected."
"It's quite all right," she replied. "We had Níneth for company," she added, nodding towards the girl, who gave a shy smile. "Your petition?" she asked, looking again at me.
"Success," he replied.
"Congratulations," she said, and nodded in my direction. The nursemaid raised her eyebrows and smiled at me, not quite so shyly this time.
"Thank you, my lady," I said, and dropped a curtsey. When she turned back to her husband, I shrugged and returned Níneth's smile.
Aradîr looked at me, and said, "Will you please show my wife to the guest quarters near the houses? She and the children returned to our home but have since found it ill-prepared as yet."
"Of course, sir."
"She will meet you at the Sixth Circle," he said to his wife. "You may go there now, if you like. We have some business yet to discuss."
"Very well," she nodded, throwing another glance at me, with the same curiosity as before. "Come along, we'll see Father again, soon," she said to the children. The nursemaid took them by the hand. "My thanks," she said to me, and Aradîr and I watched them as they left the courtyard.
"Is that the favor you would have of me, sir?" I asked, once again confused.
He smiled, shaking his head. "Mark this," he said, lowering his voice. "This," he continued, gesturing towards the spot where his wife and children and their nurse had stood a moment before, "is my life, now, regardless of what may lie in the past. I intend to be Master of the Houses of Healing for a very long time. It is a new City, as the Steward said, and we are all of us in need of allies. Do I have one in you?"
"I would hardly think that you would need an ally in the likes of me, sir," I said, surprised.
"That may be true. But I would like to have your assurances, all the same."
"I…" I looked at him. "You have them, sir."
We were both quiet for a few moments. I wondered what we had both just agreed to.
"Sir?" I asked.
"You said you had done me a favor. What was the favor: supporting my petition, or letting Valacar…allowing me to be his apprentice?"
"A bit of both, I suppose." He looked at me. "You're not satisfied with that answer."
"Maybe not, my lord."
"Allow me to put your mind at ease, then. Supporting your petition was just as much a favor to me as it was to you. And to the Houses, as well. You spoke true: there are needs that must be filled, lest the Houses suffer." I said nothing, and he continued. "What's more, you have talent. As does Valacar, in abundance. I may be neither healer nor surgeon, as your goodwives would have it, but I'm not blind to that.
"But more than that, you have some ambition in you. I can see that plainly. I can see it even in those of you women who have it, though you may hide it behind your smiles and bury it beneath your embroidery, as you are taught. And stifle it though you may, it will always have out, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. As often it is in men, though women have their own ways. A good lord or a good captain knows to train that ambition, and, if need be to temper it in doing so, no matter how lowly the quarter from which it arises. He does this, so that he is not overmastered by it later when it grows beyond his watch." He paused. "Do we understand one another?"
I swallowed, taken aback. "Yes, I think so, sir."
"Good." He paused. "My wife is very clever. You'll find her good company, I'm sure."
"I'm…sure I will, my lord."
"You should rest up. You have a very trying year ahead of you."
"I'm sure that is true, though most likely not more trying than the previous one."
He smiled. "No, most likely not." He looked away from then, and towards the dead tree in the center of the courtyard. "They say it will bloom, again. What do you think of that?"
"I suppose we can only hope that's true, sir."
"'Seven stars, and seven stones…'" he recited.
"…and one white tree," I finished, not even aware that I was interrupting until a moment later.
Aradîr, however, seemed to take no offense. He only smiled. "Yes, I suppose we can only hope. Remember our talk. Be you well," he said, and he turned to walk back inside the corridors of the Citadel through which we had come.
"And you, my lord," I said, and dropped a curtsey.
He went back inside. I lingered, staring at the tree, its white limbs curling upwards, as if to cradle sun and sky between their branches.
"Minas Anor," I said, to no one in particular. And then I smiled, and ran all the way back down to the Sixth Circle to tell Valacar.
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