Banjoverse: The Full Epic
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Fallen: 24. Epilogue: Kites
In the end, of course, a true war story is never about war.
Tim O'Brien, "How to Tell a True War Story"
The woman walks along the riverbank, arms folded in front of her. She glances at the young man beside her.
"Nervous?" she asks.
"Yes," he replies. She's taken to him better than she thought she would, this apprentice of hers. He's a tanner's son from Lebennin, a serious, sharp-eyed boy.
Her previous two apprentices were girls, and good ones. The first practices in the Houses, now; the second left her apprenticeship one year in, returning to Lossarnach to care for an ailing mother. The woman hopes she will come back, but doubts it. There are still only a few girls who come to study surgery, but their numbers have grown a bit over the years. This is the first boy with which the Warden has entrusted her, and she hopes that in some way this is a sign of faith in her. It is also most likely due to her reputation for sternness and for precision; every bit of that reputation was hard won with each incision and each drop of blood on the front of her dress.
Because he is a boy, this apprentice, he is also the first one of hers to leave for the field. Tomorrow he will remove the white stripe from the shoulder of his coat. He'll set out with a party which will follow the Anduin as it winds south, to take up a post as surgeon to one of the Poros companies: a border patrol. The War is over, but war is not—not the threat of it, at the very least. She will miss him.
"That's all right," she says. "If there's only one thing I want you to remember, what do you think it is?"
"Keep everything clean."
"Yes; well, besides that?"
"And…" He looks at her, blinking. "Trust yourself," she says. "Trust your hands and your eyes. You can, now. That's how I know my work with you is finished."
"It is. You'll be fine." She pauses. "I'm proud of you."
He smiles, looks down at his feet. It's the first time he's heard that from her. "Thank you."
"It's the truth," she says. She stops and shades her eyes; it's a bright day, and the City stands like a beacon at the edge of the field. One of the figures standing further down the riverbank is waving. "Let's go see what my daughter wants."
Melieth, her oldest, is standing barefoot by the water. At ten, she's a pale, dark-haired girl, slender but strong, a gleam of mischief always in her blue eyes. She is fond of removing her shoes and scrambling up trees. She says that she wants to be a surgeon, like her mother, though privately the woman sometimes doubts that the child will have the patience for it; you can tell, even when they're this young. No matter; she will find her own way. No one will ever mistake her for anything but a Minas Tirith girl, her mother thinks with a fierce pride, born in the early years of the Fourth Age. The Age of Men, as they would call it.
Meli's younger brother is standing beside her, shifting foot to foot. A bright handsome little boy of seven, with much of his sister's restlessness: Tarondor.
A gift-name, they call it, even though the giver of the gift is usually long gone by the time the child receives it. Elloth's second-born is called Laeron. Bergil's little girl is Ioreth.
Sometimes the woman, Meli's mother, thinks it's unfair, what they've done to their children, burdening them with such names, even if they've done it out of love. At times she even worries that they are almost as weighted-down as her own generation was, only with the echo of the Darkness, rather than the thing itself. But then, she thinks, these children, too, are strong enough to bear it. And in the way of happy, stubborn children, they always come through with music and peculiarities that are all their own, unhaunted by the loss of those whose names they carry. Unknowable, in the end, as she was when she was a girl. As all children should be.
Her husband is kneeling beside the children, bent to his task, untangling strings with patient hands. She is glad to have him here; after the War, he stayed on with his company, in the only work he'd ever known. New campaigns call him away now and again, and again and again she can only kiss him goodbye and pray that he comes back once more. And she waits. Women are good at that.
And now she finds she is having a hard enough time letting go of her apprentice, though she will not tell him that. She still doesn't know where her own mother found the strength to leave her at the Great Gate that day, or how her husband's parents were able to leave their son standing in the armory when he turned seventeen. But these are ordinary occurrences, in the great scheme of things. Their mothers and fathers had broken their grips on the hands and shoulders of their children and watched them recede into the distance, both the ones who would return and the ones who would not. They are their own beings, these sons and daughters, just as she was at nineteen.
"May I try?" her apprentice asks.
"Please," Beren smiles, and he gets up and stands beside his wife, shaking out tired hands. The tanner's son from Lebennin gets down on the ground with Meli and Tarondor, good-naturedly taking directions from the children as he tries to unknot the strings on the kite. It's a graceful thing, red canvas stretched over a thin, strong frame. It was a birthday gift to Meli from her paternal grandfather, who was wise enough to recognize that the girl might enjoy yet another reason to run.
"There," says the young man, as he coils the string neatly in his hand. He stands up and gives the line to Meli.
"What should you say?" the woman asks.
"Thank you," the children chorus, and then resume their squabble as to who has the next turn.
"Thank you," Beren smiles at the apprentice, and places a hand on his shoulder. The young man shrugs, grinning.
Meli seems to have come out the victor, for she's holding up a hand to the wind, now, as her father has taught her. Without further comment, she takes off at a fierce sprint in the direction of the City.
"Be careful!" the mother calls after her. The ground is uneven in spots.
Her husband puts a hand on her arm. "Let her go."
And so she does. She watches her daughter running along the river, paying out string until she judges the tension right. And then the kite catches on the edge of the wind, and wheels and dips like a strange bird above the old battlefield. The mother watches it until it is lost in the glare of the sun, and she has to turn her eyes away for the brightness.
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