Banjoverse: The Full Epic
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Fallen: 23. To Rebuild Them (3019/3020)
The surgeon steps up to the door of the small neat house on the Fifth Circle. He stands there for what feels like a very long time before he forces himself to knock. In one of his hands is a pitifully small bundle; it contains a combination of the items that his apprentice left behind in the Houses, and the things that the Sixth Infantry soldiers took from his corpse on the ashy ground at the Black Gate. Some handkerchiefs and a deck of playing cards; a whetstone, a few spare tunics, and the grey surcoat that marked him for a surgeon, the white apprentice's stripe at the shoulder. There were letters; of course he left letters. They always do.
Anendil, the captain of the unit to which Laeron was attached, would have come to visit the family first. Valacar is mightily grateful that that responsibility did not fall to him; at the same time he reckons himself a coward for feeling that relief.
It's the mother who comes to the door. He's met her before. She was a youthful, handsome-looking woman, quick with a smile and a kind word. Now, her face is worn and lined. When she sees him, her expression goes blank with the wide-eyed emptiness that Valacar recognizes from the wounded men they lay on his table in the Houses.
He says her name, and then the only other thing that he can think to say: "I'm sorry."
She slaps him.
The shock stings more than the blow. Well, he thinks. Seems about right. It would appear that this is his season to be struck by women. He sets her son's things down at her feet, and leaves.
The next day she sends a message up to the Houses, asking to speak to him. They sit in her kitchen.
"I don't know what came over me," she says, staring into her teacup. Her skin is fair, like Laeron's was, and she is flushed now with shame and weariness. She glances up at him. "Will you forgive me?"
"Nothing to forgive."
"He always spoke well of you. He admired you very much, you know. He took great pride in his work." She smiles as much as she can manage. "Thank you for being so good to him."
Valacar nods. "He…" What could he say, that could possibly mean anything to this woman? He was a good boy? He was kind? He was brave? He did not die in vain? He wonders if that last one is true. The rest are.
"I couldn't have asked for a better apprentice," he says, finally. She closes her eyes.
With an abrupt movement, she gets up from her chair and goes into the next room. When she returns there is a familiar sheaf of folded papers in her hand.
"These were among the things you gave me," she says. "Perhaps you didn't see them. I didn't read any of them, only the one meant for me."
Tied together with string are a few letters. One of them has his name written on the front in Laeron's neat, cramped handwriting.
"Will you see to it that these go to whom they're addressed? I believe they're all in the Houses."
"Yes, of course." He glances through the names.
When he goes back up to the Sixth Circle, the girl who is to take Laeron's place as his apprentice is sitting in the kitchens, sewing and talking with a few of the other young women. They rest their elbows on the table, play with the handles of spoons and teacups. Seeing her, head bent over her needle and thread, he is struck with an odd mixture of grief and pride, both for her and for the young man who will not return.
He catches her eye and motions her over. She gets up and crosses to where he is standing, her sewing still clutched in one hand. He can see that the cloth is the same grey that he wears now: it's the surcoat that will mark her for a surgeon, a white apprentice's stripe on one shoulder. She must be hemming it up or taking it in, he thinks.
"I've been to see Laeron's mother," he says. "He left this for you." He holds out a letter, and she takes it in her free hand and stares at it. "Would you like me to read it out for you?" he asks.
She thinks for a moment, and then replies, "Thank you, no. I think I'll wait until I can read it, myself."
"Very well," he nods. He has seen her laboring over books and papers lately, quill in hand, brow furrowed in concentration. Sometimes he sits with her and helps. One of the other girls wanders over, teacup still in hand.
"Elloth," he says, and hands her a letter of her own. "That's for you. From Laeron."
"Oh." She takes it and puts it in her pocket with scarcely a look. He can't fault her, can't fault either of the girls. When he goes back to his own room, he will place his own missive, unopened, on the top of the bookcase, and pour himself a drink.
Finally, it's Coronation Day. Nearly Coronation Evening, by this time. The City smells of fresh flowers and sweet wine. Songs seem to waft from each courtyard and open window, and banners stream from the white walls on every circle. Young people drift through the revelries unchaperoned. Though at this point, Beren finds the very notion of a chaperone to be patently absurd. Insulting, even. He handled himself well enough on the City walls and at the Morannon without some doughty goodwife trailing behind him, thank you very much. With every watch and every rally, his captain trusted him with the lives of his fellows. Surely he can be trusted alone with a young lady; and she with him, for that matter.
"Did you get to see very much?" he asks the young lady in question. Her dress is the Dol Amroth blue that will prove to be most popular with the women of Minas Tirith this spring, not to mention with many of the men. This, along with the rich green of the Rohan banners, and the black and silver that Beren himself wears proudly on his dress uniform, will be most in demand when the weavers and dyers open their shop windows once more. The Season of the West, they will call it. Small white flowers are woven through her dark hair. She looks, he thinks, absolutely lovely.
"I did," she replies. "At first we were standing behind one of the éoreds, with their shields and their spears; you know how tall the Rohirrim are. But one of the young Riders took pity on us, and let us stand in front. What about you?"
"My company was fortunate—we had a fine view. Did you see Mithrandir?"
"The old man?" she smiles. "Wizard. Or, whatever he is, I suppose. Yes, I did."
"We did, too."
The sun is setting; all over the City, torches are being lit, meals laid out on tables, and the tempo of the music picks up, as if in anticipation of dancing. Beren thinks that if he does not get to sleep tonight, it will be quite all right. He wants to breathe in as much of this day as he can, hold it in his lungs for as long as possible. He smiles at the girl, and offers her his arm as they walk together. She takes it, leaning in to him slightly, and his heart speeds up a bit.
They're not exactly courting, and they're certainly not betrothed. He's not really sure what to call it. They've walked together through gardens and wreckage. They sit across from one another at tables, sipping strong tea—those long wooden tables built for healers, soldiers and kitchen girls, and all those people who keep the City safe and warm in their own small ways. He is careful with her—most of the time he won't so much as kiss her cheek without permission, spoken or implied. Sometimes he worries that his actions verge on a parody of affected chivalry, but she has never said anything.
On the Fifth Circle, where they now are, the festivities are concentrated in a series of honeycombed courtyards that branch off from the market square. They stop in one of these smaller spaces to listen to a particularly lively pair of musicians—a fiddler and a harpist. She puts her head against Beren's shoulder and drapes an arm about his waist. In response, he turns and plants a kiss on her brow. She sighs, her breath warm against his throat, and that about does it for him.
"Should we step out?" he whispers in her ear, and she nods, smiling. He likes this, too, this mixture of shyness and ardor that she seems to have.
He looks around, then leads them through a narrow archway, into the shaded corner of the next courtyard over. A low wall partially muffles the music and the chatter.
He puts his arms about her and leans in for a kiss. He can taste the honey-laced tea and the sugared cake she had at lunch time; sweetness seems to be the order of the day, at least in the kitchens. She hesitates for a moment, and then returns the kiss, twining her arms around his neck. She pulls away slightly to glance up at him, smiling, and then she stands on her toes to kiss him again.
His right hand trails down to brush her hip, and he bends his head to put his lips to her neck. She sighs again. Without thinking, he shifts his weight, backing her gently into the wall on the side of the archway.
As soon as her shoulders touch the stone, her body goes rigid and she pushes him away in one sharp movement. She stands with her arms folded tightly over her chest. The look on her face shocks him, her eyes wide with animal terror, perhaps a hint of rage lurking behind them.
Then she unfolds her arms and shuts her eyes. He thinks she is trembling.
"Sorry," she says.
"It's not your fault. It's me." She takes a breath, opens her eyes and looks at him again. "I suppose I don't like having my back to the wall," she adds, quietly.
"Oh," he says. Then: "Valar. I'm sorry." He feels ill.
She sinks down a low bench nearby. He sits beside her.
"I'm not what you'd call happy, Beren, even now." Her tone is plain, with no self-pity in it, as if she were passing on an unremarkable piece of information. "Not for more than a few hours at a time, at least."
"Me, neither, sometimes," he says. "But it's better than not at all. And you make me happy," he adds.
Her smile is wan, but, from what he knows of her, unforced. "And you, me." She pauses. They listen to the music and the noise of the crowd drifting over the wall. "Sometimes, I think I'm all in pieces," she says.
He responds, truthfully, "So do I."
She reaches for his hand. He closes both of his palms over hers, his skin roughened by sword calluses, and hers by endless soap and water.
With the fingers of her free hand she pulls down the neckline of her blue dress a little. "I've got a scar, here," she says, indicating a spot below her collarbone not far from where he kissed her a few moments ago. "Just a small one."
He leans over to look where she is pointing. It's the thinnest of marks, just paler than the rest of her skin. He wouldn't have known it was there if she hadn't told him.
"It's from a carving knife," she says.
"Valar," he repeats. He does not know what else to say, and so they are silent for a few moments. Then he says, "It's not so bad to have scars, you know."
She looks at him. "No?"
"It means you survived."
She tightens her grip on his hand. They sit quietly, and somewhere behind them the song changes, and a new one begins. A reel. Beren recognizes it; it's an old tune, but good, with a quick strong rhythm.
"Do you dance?" he asks her.
She smiles. "Not well," she admits.
"Lots of time to practice." Still holding her hand, he stands up and turns so he is facing her. She considers this for a moment, and then she rises to join him.
Spring passes into summer, and Ceorth lingers in the Houses of Healing. The people are kind enough, especially that girl, the healer, with whom he's struck an odd sort of friendship. Still, he feels out of place here; how could he not? The problem is that, somehow, he feels even more out of place among his own countrymen when they come to visit him. It is a comfort to be among his people, to slip back into the rhythms of his native tongue. But when they ask him to come back down with them to the éored-camps, he declines, for reasons he can't name to himself.
He does not presume to think that it's his grief that sets him apart; how could it be? He's far from the only one to have lost scores of kinsmen and friends, far from the only one to have given up a limb in battle. It still aches, all of it, and even when he does not look directly at the pain it is still there, like a bright thing just on the edge of his vision—but no matter. Surely they all feel that.
In a way the grief is easier to understand than what lies beyond it, an emptiness that he can't quite fathom. He is not at home, here, it's true, but neither would he be at home in Edoras, or back in the Westfold, for that matter. In all his life, there was only one small point on the map that he has ever called home. It is gone forever, now, and by all rights he should be lying in ash with it, with his brother and his wife and their little girl. With Maethwyn, for whose hand he had meant to ask, come harvest time. But he is not lying in ash. He is here, and he is alive.
The girl, his friend, has been learning to read. She tells him about the history of her people, the lists of cities and rulers, and the strange ways in which their lines diverged and came back together. When she tells these tales, her voice is formal, tentative; very different from the way the Éorlingas are given to chanting the names of their kings, the sounds rich and rolling. In many the ways the Gondorrim are a strange people to him, and yet he finds them intriguing. And he envies them, at least for the obstinacy of their stone City that withstood fire and volleys, crumbling though some parts of it may be. They know where their home is.
He is getting better on the crutches, going about the wards and careful to keep out of everyone's way as he does so. In the afternoon, he notices another one of the girls, the one who had sat beside him on the bench in the garden during the toasts. She had smelled of fresh herbs and lavender water. She's pretty—beautiful, he must admit to himself—but that is not the first thing he notices. It's her stillness, both of her body and her gaze as she stands in the dispensary, sleeves pushed up to reveal pale arms. She sees him looking, fixes him with steady grey eyes.
"Hello," she says.
There is much to do and much to prepare. Even so, the White Lady of Rohan has found time to return to the Houses of Healing now and again, particularly to the gardens. Some weeks ago, one of the surgeons here looked at her left arm one last time, pronounced it mended, and helped her slip it free of its sling. It is weak, but whole, and he assured her that it would grow strong again in time.
"Strong enough to bear a shield?" she asked him mildly. One must find a way to measure these things, after all.
To his credit, he smiled, and said, "If my lady wishes."
She visits, when she can, with the men of the Mark who yet remain in the Houses. She visits, too, with the Warden and with the surgeons and healers and herbalists who labor here. She would be a healer, she told Faramir. And so she will, after her own fashion. She is already acquainted with the uses of remedies and herbs, the necessities of splints and bandages, from her long years as lady of her uncle's house. More than that, she knows all too well the wages of battle and illness, the way they can sow rage and reap grief. What she has learned in these wards, is time.
She speaks to the healers as they work. She listens to what they have to say about the consistency of bone and the properties of a bitter draught, the blessing of patience. Of slowness. Time serves not merely to age and rot, to turn the seasons beyond our control. Time can heal, and temper. It can bring us about to the place in which we were meant to dwell. This is all good. It will all help.
She will return soon to Rohan, to lay her uncle in the earth beside his forbears. And, she hopes, to begin to help her land to heal, to aid her brother at the start of his long endeavor. There are crops to be sown, and later mares to foal, villages to rebuild. To glimpse these things, even if only their beginnings, will do her well. And then she will set forth once more.
For the time being she must say farewell, to Faramir and also to this strange City of his, which has claimed a piece of her heart in these intervening months. She sits with a young man from the Westfold; he lost his leg at the Pelennor, but is healing well. They speak in their own language.
Théoden-king's funeral party departs for Edoras in three days' time, she tells him. He may have passage with them, if he wishes.
When the young man is silent, she tries to alight on the source of his hesitation. He may very well harbor the doubts shared by many a wounded Rider.
"There is much to be done in the Mark," she says. "Be assured that you would have a place there, and work worthy of one still young and strong, if you wish it."
"Thank you, my lady," he says. "I know that's true. Forgive me," he continues, "but—I'm not yet decided." He pauses. "My heart will always be in the Mark, but there is something about this place that I like. I would see more of it, before I return to Rohan."
She thinks about this for a moment, and then she asks, "Reasons of your own?"
"Aye, my lady," he says, and then he smiles. "Reasons of my own."
"Very well," she says, and returns his smile. "You have time yet to decide. The Warden will send your message along to Éothain, should you change your mind." She pauses. "Next year I may also have need of men in Ithilien. If you think you may be willing, I will make a note of your name."
He considers this. "I may be. Thank you."
"Fare you well, Ceorth."
"And you, my lady."
Later in the afternoon, she sees the young girl who waited on her while she lingered in the Warden's rooms, facing East. Small and solemn, she seemed then. That time already seems grey and flat in her memory, now, a dream half-recalled. In April, Faramir told her about the girl's petition to the council. Later he told her about what he had found in the yellowed scrolls, about the thwarted Queen, the kingdom at war, and the rules that resulted from the Steward's choice.
"And your healers yet follow those laws, made for that time?" she asked him.
"It would seem they do," he replied. "What say you to that?"
She thought for a moment. "I say, let the maiden take up the knife, if you deem her worthy. You must change those laws and loose those bindings that constrain you for no good reason." She smiled. "You taught me that."
"And you, me." He kissed her, then. "My thoughts, exactly."
She sees now that the girl has indeed taken up the knife; she is wearing the grey of a surgeon.
"My lady," she says, dropping a curtsey. "I hear you're to take your leave of us soon."
"That's true. Though I hope soon to return, as well." She smiles. "My thanks to you and your people, for the aid and succor you have given us, here."
"And our thanks to you and your people."
She reaches into the plain cloth bag she carries at her side, draws out a small object, and gives it to the girl. "Our men and women craft them," she explains, "around the fire, and sometimes come festival-times. One of our men brought them to Éomer-king from Edoras, after the roads were made safe. We should like your people to hang them in your houses as we do ours, should it please you, to remember the friendship of the Éorlingas."
The girl looks at the item: a simple circle, woven of straw. She cannot tell where the strands begin and end. In her hand it feels light but strong. She smiles.
"Thank you. I will."
"Be you well."
"Wait—a moment, my lady?"
The girl looks to be thinking hard about something. "Might I—might I give you something, in return?"
Éowyn is surprised, but she nods. The girl reaches into the small satchel at her side, and brings out a simple knife in a leather sheath.
"It's—" She looks a bit anxious now. "It was given me by one of the men of my country, a captain, after the Siege but before the Hosts departed. He said we were to be armed, even the women. I thought it was so that we could defend ourselves, but later I learned it wasn't for that." She pauses. "We were to keep them, so that we could die by our own hands, rather than by those of the Enemy."
Éowyn is silent for a few moments. Then she says, quietly, "I have wondered what manner of people you were, at times. High and fair, yes, and proud. Your pride takes a strange form, now and again."
"Yes," says the girl, and she smiles. "But I no longer have need of it." She holds out the knife.
Éowyn raises her eyebrows. "And you think that I do?"
"I—no." The girl shakes her head. "Not like that. But I was here. I heard the cries of that fell beast. We all did. It made it seem as though the world could end, just with that sound. And then I heard—" Éowyn is studying her intently, now, and the girl shifts a bit under her gaze, but goes on. "I heard that you stopped it, my lady. I don't know that I'm explaining very well. But I would like you to have this."
Éowyn considers the girl for a few moments more: a strange people, and yet she will cross the river to dwell in their lands. Then she nods slowly, and takes the knife from her, instinctively hefting it in her palm with a warrior's judgment. A good balance.
"I will have it from you, if I may also have a promise," she tells the girl. "We should all hope for peace, with all our hearts. Yet should war ever again assail you," she goes on, "you go to your death standing up, or not at all."
The girl blinks, taken aback. But then she says, "I promise."
"Very well." The knife disappears into Éowyn's bag.
"Safe journey, my lady." The girl begins to curtsey again, but then she hesitates for a moment and straightens up. She gives a salute her in the manner of her people, right hand over her heart.
Éowyn smiles, and then places a palm over her own heart in response. "Fear no darkness," she says. "Waes thu hael."
The heat lies thick on the upper circles. Aradîr wipes his brow, loosens the collar of his surcoat. The surgery corridor is quiet, today. Valacar is alone, cleaning up. When Aradîr knocks on the doorframe, the surgeon turns around and gives a visible start—Aradîr can't say that he's sorry about that.
"Have you taken to doing rounds, now?" Valacar asks him, setting down his towel.
Aradîr does not rise to the bait. "I've only come down to make a few inquiries," he says. "How is your apprentice?"
"Doing well; she learns quickly, and she's seen her fair share of blood, already. It might not be a bad idea to start them a few years older than sixteen, from now on. They're steadier on their feet."
"That can be taken up with the Warden," Aradîr nods. "I suppose we need not ask them to begin so young, this next generation. And how do the other men treat her?"
"They know her. They're polite."
"I suppose you see to that."
Valacar shrugs. "So does she." He picks up his towel again, but Aradîr does not move. "Is there anything else?"
"I was very sorry to hear about your apprentice—Laeron, I mean. My condolences, though they are late."
A pause. "Thank you."
"Were you close, the two of you?"
The other man's grey eyes narrow, though when next he speaks his voice is still level. "I hope you aren't implying anything."
"No," Aradîr says. As a younger man, he recalls, Valacar was never one for a fight, at least not with him. Now, he's quick to the defense—not that Aradîr can fault him for that. "I am not. I always assumed you would be a good teacher, patient as you are. Not like me."
Valacar blinks. "Thank you," he repeats, surprise in his voice, this time. "I enjoy it."
"Is this what you wanted, Valacar?"
"What do you mean? This?" He opens his palms to indicate the things around him—the towels, the washbasin, the table and the knives lined up on their tray like an array of miniature weapons. Which they are, Aradîr supposes. "No, not really. You know that. But this is what I have, and so I make the best of it. And I'd thank you not to interfere with that."
Aradîr shakes his head. "No. Did you want to be as you are, now?"
"Mildly disappointed, you mean? Alone?"
"I hadn't much of a choice, there."
Aradîr smiles a little. "You had the same choice that I did." He pauses. "But I suppose you always had too much affection for women, to get married."
"Me? Too little affection, you mean."
"Too much. For if there were any woman whom you favored sufficiently to court, you would certainly befriend her. And if she were a friend to you, indeed, you would hardly care to—" He pauses, considering his choice of words, and goes ahead, anyway. "To subject her to such a union." He shakes his head. "Too much affection. I could see that about you, right away."
Valacar pauses at that, and Aradîr imagines that he is trying to work out whether or not to take that last as a compliment. He probably will not; he's always been conservative, that way. "I take it you never had that reservation?"
Aradîr shrugs. "I knew what my ambitions were. And my duties."
"And what would those be?"
"Then? To sire an heir, of course, and to sit at council, as my father had. And now, to watch over the Houses. To protect their interests, and see that those within them can go about their work, the best that they are able."
Valacar should know that this is as close to an apology as he will ever hear of him, and if he is wise he will not press it any further.
"Very well, then," he says, quietly. Wise. Then: "How is your wife, Aradîr?" If there is no particular warmth in this question, neither is there any malice.
"She's fine, thank you. Happy to be settled at home, again."
They fall silent. Valacar stares at the floor. Aradîr is able to study him at his leisure; he recalls him as a young apprentice from Dol Amroth, thin and coltish, bewildered and wide-eyed in the heat of a City summer not unlike this one. Not there by choice; a book always in his hand the only outward sign of his defiance. A memory of desire flares up in him once more, and he allows himself to hold it up to the light and examine it. But only for a moment. He submerges it, as he does with a great many things.
Valacar looks up at him again.
"Be you well," says Aradîr, and he turns and walks down the corridor to his next appointment.
Her daughter sits in the kitchen and practices writing, her hand growing steadier with each page. The mother wants to shake her head, sometimes, at the distance her girl seems to have gotten from her in this short time. Scarcely had she returned from the coast with the boys, when her daughter had announced she would be putting in for an apprenticeship as a surgeon—the only girl, and the first. She is proud for her, and a little afraid.
What's more, she sometimes seems a different girl, altogether. Her voice is lower, and there is a sharpness in her mannerisms that was not there before. At times she falls into strange half-haunted reveries. She starts easily, and seems to hope that no one will notice. Her mother notices.
But then she will shake her head in wonder and dismay at all this, and then the girl she left behind at the Great Gate will be there once more, resolute and sweet in equal measures when she needs to be. She will be twenty soon.
She goes to the kitchen and kisses the top of her daughter's dark head. She was out buying candles today, and smells, not unpleasantly, of beeswax. She peers over her shoulder at the words she is writing.
"What is it today, dear one?" she asks.
Her daughter smiles. "Nothing much. Only some things that happened today. Some things that I saw at market." She pauses. "I can teach you, if you want, Mother." It's an offer she makes often, and always with the same earnestness. "I'm teaching the boys."
The mother laughs gently, as she always does. "Thank you, but I'm quite sure I'm too old for that, now." She never learned; never needed to. "I'll leave that to younger, quicker minds."
Her daughter, as always, protests that her mother is as young and quick as anyone. After a while she goes back to her writing, lost in some world of her own.
Later she leaves the paper to dry on the table. The mother will glance at it as she starts that evening's supper; another set of signs that are beyond her knowledge.
The Dwarf watches as his crew fits stone to white stone, carefully carving and shaping. Over the past months he has been able to see it taking form before his eyes, this new birth of the City. He has grown to love this place; not only for his friend who sits on the throne, but also in its own right. Often has he been doubtful of the works of Men, at least those which he has seen in his lifetime. Many times their craftsmen don't seem to respect their materials, trying to work against their grain, building their towers too high. Insufficiently rooted to the earth, he thinks. But this Númenorean city of Aragorn's and Boromir's is different. He has come to appreciate the way it embraces the mountain, and the strength with which it withstood the onslaught. On the cracked pieces of masonry he sometimes finds intact sections of scrollwork, carved patterns and faces. He will find a way to restore them.
A young boy stands off to the side; he's been there for a while, now, watching intently. The Dwarf beckons the lad over.
"May I help you, young master?" he asks.
"I'm just watching, sir. I like to see you Dwarves work; how do you move so quickly, with those heavy stones?"
He smiles. "Practice, I imagine." He holds out a hand. "Gimli, son of Gloin. At your service."
The lad's handshake is firm. "Bergil, son of Beregond, at yours, as well."
"Bergil." Gimli searches his memory. "I know that name. A friend of Peregrin Took, I believe?" Bergil nods, grinning. "And so, a friend of mine, as well."
"Thank you, sir! I was wondering," Bergil continues. "What your plans for this courtyard might be? I have an interest in it," he adds, somewhat cryptically.
"Well, let us see." Gimli unfolds a paper upon which he has made a number of detailed sketches. "Yes. A large fountain, in the center. 'Twere up to me and my fellows," he indicates the other Dwarves with a gesture, "we'd have nothing but good solid stonework, here. However, my friend informs me that there ought to be more trees in this City. More gardens," he says, a mild edge of skepticism in his voice. "And so there will be some grass here. We'll lay sod in beds in the stone, like this. And young trees, as well, at least four or five. Though that is all under the charge of my friend and his folk, so for more say on that, you shall have to ask him." He glances at the boy. "Does that please you, Master Bergil?"
"It does. Very much!"
Gimli smiles. "I am glad of it."
And he is. A little green to break up the expanses of white cannot be so bad, after all. A few leaves and shoots among the stone. So long as there is something strong, to guard it.
There is a new crop of apprentices in the Houses. Standing before Ioreth in the atrium are four girls and two boys, each around twelve or thirteen. Too young to have stayed for the Siege—except for the boys, she supposes, who might have stayed as message runners. These two did not. So; too young to have stayed for the Siege, but more than old enough to remember the Shadow in the years preceding it. They are still war children, Ioreth think. She wonders when children will come to her free of that wide-eyed and watchful look. She hopes she will live to see that day. She should, after all—she saw the King return, and so anything is possible, now.
Kindness, she tells them. Kindness, most of all. We will need your cleverness and your bravery and your strength. But most of all your kindness. And you have that in abundance; I can tell.
The children look at one another. A couple of them smile, first at one another, and then at her.
Better, Ioreth thinks.
"So, the rumors are true," Valacar says. "You're leaving us?"
"I suppose you could put it that way," Fíriel replies. It is a bright morning and they are walking on the Second Circle, their feet crunching on fresh snow. Their breaths show in ghostly plumes before them. "Though it sounds dire, like that." She smiles. "I'm only getting married, after all."
After the Siege, one of the men she'd come to know in the Houses was an Ithilien Ranger, wounded during his company's retreat to the walls before the Black Captain. A few years older than she, and widowed when he was quite young. No children. Not much for talking; he preferred to listen, and he did so with a patience that got her attention. Fíriel is quiet, herself, and guarded in no small part. But he managed to draw her out just a bit. And then a bit more, before he had gone off to the Black Gate. His departure was a bright shard of pain in her heart among the greater worry that took her.
He fought there and survived, and came back to Minas Tirith, and back to the Houses again and again over the following months. At a certain point, in fact, he had drawn her out so much, and she him, that both realized that they were simply content to stand together from now on.
"I never thought I'd get married," she says.
Valacar smiles. "And with the trappings of aristocracy, no less."
She rolls her eyes. "Hardly. That would be embarrassing. Captain—that is, the Lord Steward, has always been uncommon close to the men under his command. Saelas still refers to him as 'Captain Faramir,'" she adds, by way of explanation. "It's not surprising that Saelas would want him to do the ceremony, like others of his fellows who will be wed, nor that the Steward would consent. That's all. You will come, won't you?" she asks.
"I don't suppose I have much of a choice?"
She gives him a little shove. "No. You really don't."
They walk a few more paces in silence. He is looking at her and smiling.
"What?" she asks.
"I'm just trying to picture you in Ithilien. In the woods. You could live in a tent; maybe a cave, if this Ranger of yours is extravagant."
"I've about had it, with you. They've got houses in Ithilien, you know. And just as much need for healers as anywhere else in Gondor, I would imagine," she adds. "Perhaps more."
"And they'll be lucky to have such a one as you."
"Thank you," she nods.
"What am I going to do without you?" he asks, rather abruptly.
"What kind of a question is that?" she replies. "You sound as if I'll be going to far Harad, not an easy ride south. But you'll do what you've always done, I imagine: work yourself to the bone. Make people angry. Also, you've your apprentice to look after."
"Or, she looks after me. I can't decide which it is." He pauses. "Where are we going, anyhow?"
"Nowhere important. You'll see." She looks around. "Ah, perhaps we're here already."
"I'll miss you," he says, looking at her. The hood of his cloak is down around his shoulders, and he's got snow in his hair. He's still rather handsome, she thinks. She can see in him a trace of the listless, funny young man who caught her eye in the dim tavern light when she was a girl. A girl old beyond her years, it was true, but a girl nevertheless.
"And I'll miss you," she replies. And she will.
"For what?" she asks, taken aback.
He shrugs. "For everything."
She takes his arm. "Then I should thank you, too. For everything." She pauses. "Yes, I believe we're here."
They're standing on a stretch of stone, bare except for its blanket of snow, near the end of an alley, close to the walls. He looks at her quizzically.
"Don't you remember?" she asks. "This was where we met. Or, rather, this was the site of that tinderbox of a tavern where we met."
He furrows his brow. "Is it, really? That was a long time ago."
"A different age, practically," she smiles, but the smile quickly fades. "Valar," she murmurs. "What a year we've had of it." She shakes her head. "At times I didn't think we'd live to see it out, that's for sure."
"No, me neither."
She stares at the clean snow, and thinks about the course of her life, surely as obscure and twisting as any warren of alleys on the lower circles. And if any part of it fills her with regret, she still cannot say that she wished it hadn't happened; for it has all brought her here, after all. And that is something remarkable.
Valacar's mind must be in the distant past, as well, for he says, "I always thought it would have been too damp to be a tinderbox, though. What a wretched place that was."
"You don't need to remind me of that," she smirks.
"I recall that it pleased me to no end to imagine what my father's reaction would have been, had he known his only son was frequenting such ill-reputed watering-holes."
"I suppose that's why you and your friends went there, to begin with."
"That, and the drinks were cheap."
She snorts. "The drinks were poison."
"Ah, well. They were both, then." He pauses. "Though I suppose it was a tinderbox, at the end, wasn't it? It must have gone up in flames, like most of the buildings in this quarter."
She tries to picture that. "Good," she says, and she takes his arm again and leads him away. Their footsteps remain for a little while, but then are covered with snow.
In winter, Elloth takes to lingering in the dispensary late into the evening. She lights the torches and spreads her mixing bowls out on the table. She can work for hours in the silence, letting the fragrances of herbs surround her as she distills and crushes and mixes. She enjoys watching things set, taking their final form. She's been trying a few new things.
One night her friend comes in—she knows where to find Elloth. The other girl's hands are freshly scrubbed, and if she was wearing a smock, she has removed it. Still, there are telltale splotches of red-brown on the front of her surcoat. Without preamble, she sits on a stool by Elloth's table and slumps forward, her arms folded on the wooden surface and her face in her arms.
"Don't upset my things," says Elloth, at which her friend reaches out and pokes blindly at the bottle nearest her. Elloth chooses to ignore this, and asks, "What was it, this time?"
"A lady in her confinement." Her friend's voice is muffled by the cloth of her sleeves. "She was bleeding something awful. The midwife frighted, and sent to the Houses for help."
"Mother and babe are resting well enough, now, though both are quite weak. Valacar says that if they make it through the next few days, they will probably be all right." She takes her face out of her arms, then, and looks up at Elloth with shadowed, red-rimmed eyes. "I am never having children."
Elloth smirks. "Never say never." She leans over to check on a mass of leaves which are soaking nearby, dipping a finger into the bowl to try their texture. "Was it a boy, or a girl?"
"Was it—oh," her friend rubs her eyes. "It was a little boy. Her first child."
Elloth is silent for a few moments, then says, "I hear that in the Riddermark, it is custom to spread out a number of objects before a baby boy when he's six months of age. Seven, for girls. The first thing that the child reaches for is said to be his interest for life."
"Really?" Her friend considers this. "Where did you hear that?"
"Ceorth," Elloth says.
"Ceorth?" The other girl straightens up, interested. "When were you talking to him?"
"We talk quite often, actually."
"Do you?" her friend says. "I like him."
Elloth nods. "So do I. I daresay I might like him more than you do."
Elloth only smiles.
"So, what was the first thing he reached for when he was six months old?"
"Oh, a little wooden horse, I think it was. Most of them do, I would imagine." She pauses. "He's been spending a good deal of time with one of the stable-masters. He says they may yet devise some way to let him ride, again."
"That's good news." Her friend smiles, and takes a clean wooden cup from the shelf and helps herself to the pitcher of fresh water that the herbalists always keep handy in the dispensary. Normally, Elloth would take her to task for this presumption, but she is in high spirits.
"Ceorth," her friend repeats, still smiling. "I wouldn't have thought…" She stops herself.
"You wouldn't have thought what?"
"No. Say it."
Her friend shrugs, apologetic. "It's just that I wouldn't have thought you would like someone like him. You always seemed to—you want things to be…"
"Perfect?" Elloth finishes for her. There is no anger in her voice, only contemplation. The friend inclines her head in tacit agreement. "I still do," Elloth continues. "But perhaps I have different ideas about the meaning of the word, now. What does it matter to me that he's missing a leg, save that maybe it will take him longer to learn how to dance once more?"
Her friend nods, her smile wider, now, though her eyes are still tired. Elloth waits for her to raise her cup to her lips.
"Besides," she adds, "I can assure you that all the rest of him is quite sound." Then she watches, pleased, as the other girl struggles mightily not to spit out her drink.
In mid-morning, an overburdened pulley rope on the Fifth Circle snaps, and a heavy block of stone falls to the pavement and cracks. No one is hurt, but the sound can be heard all the way up on the next circle, in the surgery where an apprentice is sharpening a bone-saw. She starts at the noise, and the instrument slips, the teeth catching at the underside of her left forearm. Her whetstone falls to the floor, in echo of the greater accident that has just happened.
She tends to the cut, herself; when her teacher comes in, she has wrapped her arm in a clean cloth which is quickly turning red. She braces it awkwardly against her body for pressure. With her right hand she unwinds a roll of bandages.
"Valar, what happened?" he asks.
"The saw slipped," she says.
"Sit down. Let me see." She does, pressing on the cloth with her right hand even as he unwraps the portion closest to her wrist.
"It's mostly just the skin," she says.
"You're right," he says, after a moment. "Does it need stitches?"
She leans over, peers at the wound, and shakes her head. "Not deep enough. The edges are close together, too."
"Very good." He wraps the cloth again, holds it for her to maintain the pressure; it doesn't take much effort, her arm is so small in his hands. "As your surgeon, your pulse is a bit fast for my liking. What should I tell you to do?"
She takes a breath through her nose, deep and slow. Then another one. "That's right," he says. "Where should your hand be?" She bends her elbow and puts her forearm parallel to her body, her hand facing up. Together they wait for her heart to slow and for the bleeding to stop.
"What were you doing?" he chides her after a few moments. "That was close to your wrist. You have to be careful. You know that."
"There was a noise," she says, quietly. "I started."
"I still start easily, sometimes, after all this time. Especially when I'm alone." He says nothing.
She grimaces in pain. "Am I the sort of girl you trust with a knife, Valacar?"
The heel of his hand is smudged red. Soon they can clean the wound, and tie on a proper bandage. She might want to have a sling for it, for a little while, to keep it steady. Nevertheless, it is her left arm, so she will still be able to work, if she wants to. She will want to, he thinks. Even if she does not know it yet. He thinks he can see the young woman she is already becoming: unflinching, steady of heart and hand. Brave.
"You are," he says. "Believe me."
The young woman lifts her skirts to her ankles, then to her knees, and wades into the river. The young man who's with her says, "Be careful."
"Isn't it cold?"
"It's not too bad."
The banks of the Anduin are thronged with people; they are gathered here because one year ago today, there was a day with no dawn. Now it is dusk, and when the sun sets they harbor no fear that it will not rise tomorrow.
The young man lights a candle, and then lights a second off of its flame. All around him, the people of Minas Tirith are doing the same: then slowly lowering the lights inside lanterns. They are simple paper things, stretched over light wooden frames. Most important is the base.
The sides of the lanterns both mute the candlelight and enlarge its reach. The sides glow a soft yellow, like strange square moons you can hold on your palm.
"Now?" someone asks.
"I think so. Now."
One by one, they lower their lanterns to the surface of the river. They bob in the current, but stay afloat, flimsy as they are: most important is the base. They move along the water in groups, moving apart and then coming back together, casting their reflections downwards as if sounding the depths. The young woman watches them go by her knees.
"Do you want yours, now?" the man asks her. She says she does, and he hands her a lit lantern from his place on the bank. By now this part of the river is glowing. She holds her lantern by its edges and touches it to the water, feels the current moving beneath her hands. She holds it, and then she lets it go. She watches it as it drifts away, joining the others.
"Now yours?" she asks. To her surprise, he removes his shoes, rolls up his trousers and joins her.
He curses as his feet hit the river bottom. "You said it wasn't cold."
"I said it wasn't bad."
He takes his lantern from the bank. "This one's for Tarondor," he tells her.
"He'd like that," she says. That is how it goes, today. One candle for every life that the Darkness snuffed out a year ago. For the ones who will not move forward with the turning of the year; the ones, she thinks, who will be twenty years old forever.
Someone has been sitting in rooms and courtyards, counting, making sure the numbers are adequate. She's not sure who, but it's Minas Tirith, after all. That's how things work.
He places his lantern in the river. He keeps his gaze on it as it drifts away from him, as it masses with the others. He watches it as it grows smaller and smaller, and finally until it disappears around a bend. He is pleased to see that the light does not go out. He puts his arm around the woman beside him, holds her tightly against him. She leans into him, her head against his chest, listening to his heart beat.
Recently she's taken to studying maps; there's something about them that she loves. She tries to picture the course of the Anduin, and the journey of the lights. They will travel south, she knows, past the stark ruins of Osgiliath and the hills of Emyn Arnen, and from there through the forests of South Ithilien. And though she knows that the candles will all have burned down by this time, she also images them floating west, down past Pelargir and the Poros, winding through the braided mouths of the Anduin. And perhaps, just perhaps, a few solitary lights will make it to the sea, bobbing in salt water as the tide takes them out. They will pass out of the shore's sight.
And from there, who knows?
For now, they are here on this section of the river that runs through the Pelennor, and the water is crowded with lights. The people speak in hushed tones, their voices nearly overmastered by that of the current.
The man and woman climb out of the river and sit on the bank. Slowly the crowd begins to disperse, people drifting off in couples or small groups as most of the lights go round the bend.
A few lanterns remain, yet. She sits silently, watching the last lights float away. Night is falling, now. In calmer patches the surface of the river will mirror the stars, unmoving, where the fallible little candles once floated. Still, she will wait for the last lantern to disappear into the darkness. Only then will she get up and put her shoes on, walk back across the field, now beginning to grow green once more, and through the Great Gate. Up the steps to the house she shares with her mother and her brother and cousin. And then to bed, and tomorrow, back to work, for there is still much to be done.
But for now, she waits. And Beren waits beside her.
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