Banjoverse: The Full Epic
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Fallen: 3. Rations
When I awoke, Fíriel was already gone. I lay on the mattress a few moments more, and performed the little ritual I had made for myself of late: three slow, deep breaths before I went out to face the long rows of the injured men and to move among the other women as we took our tally of the living and dead. On the last breath, I pushed myself up and stood barefoot in my shift, dressing as quietly as I could among the sleeping bodies in that small room.
Ioreth looked up as I re-entered the main ward, and she stopped me and caught my hands in her motherly, insistent grip.
"Grave news, child, grave news this day," she said by way of greeting. "Lord Faramir has returned from Osgiliath, they say, but he fares poorly indeed! He has taken great hurt, and they say," and she lowered her voice, "they say he is dying. And now the City ringed round with fell armies and fell beasts, and our good Captain dying!"
I took an involuntary step backwards. I had only ever seen the Steward's younger son from afar, but I had tended some of his soldiers, and from all their talk of their commander I felt as if I almost knew the man, myself. They spoke of him as men who have weathered great storms at sea are like to speak of a safe harbor.
"'They say'?" I repeated, not quite understanding. "If the Lord Faramir is dying, then why is he not here? Have our surgeons seen him?"
"Some of the men tell me he is with his father, my girl. They say that the Lord Denethor despairs, and will have none save himself attending to his son."
"But that is folly! He cannot—"
"Perhaps the Lord Steward wishes to keep the dying close at hand," a soft voice intoned behind me. I turned and saw the same young man whose cuts I had tended, the friend of the boy with the sliced throat. He looked much the same as he had the last time I saw him, sitting at his friend's side as I walked away, save that the grey crescents beneath his eyes had darkened. "Forgive me. I could not help but overhear," he added.
I sighed and shook my head. What might this one want? I wondered. "There is nothing to forgive," I said, my tone perhaps more brisk than I had intended. "I suppose that if that is the Steward's bidding, there is naught we can do to alter it, and therefore little to discuss."
"True enough, my girl," Ioreth put in, "though I still say that it gives much to speak of, even if 'tis not ours to decide. I will see you again soon enough." She patted my hand gently and bustled off, but not before casting a curious glance at the soldier.
"Is there aught I can do for you?" I asked him. I would be expected to report to the Warden in a few minutes.
"Yes, well—I never did thank you. You were very… kind to Tarondor—to my friend."
I gave a modest bob of my head. In the beginning I had been almost afraid to speak to the men who came to us fresh from the battle; they were rough and grim, and their fear was a new kind of fear, their bitterness a new kind of bitterness. But now I was practiced, and I had words to give back to them. "It is the least we can do, for those who have risked life and limb to defend us. And it was no small kindness on your part, either, that you remained there with him."
The young man shrugged. "He's gone—they took him away but a little while ago," he said quietly, and stared at the floor.
He smiled, shaking his head quickly, as an animal might do to ward off a troublesome insect. His next words came more rapidly. "You must think me terribly strange, with what I said. I was weary indeed, and ill."
I tried to remember. "About… killing someone without seeing him?"
He nodded. "The day one man can slay another, sight unseen, would be the ending of the world, indeed. We do not wish for a different sort of war; a just end to our current one would be more than sufficient, I think."
"Yes, I should think so." I did my best to return his smile, though my black-winged dreams were now pressing much closer into my mind. "And I do not think you to be terribly strange. I can see how one might desire such a thing." What were the words he had used? No skin and no blood. Yes, I realized, I could see that desire clearly, myself. We were in the thick of it here, a mire of all things torn and ruptured and broken and unclean, and I could only imagine what had begat them on the field of battle. The impacts of metal against flesh, the crush of the fight, the movement against one's own will. I saw it too, for a moment, in his eyes, and felt I nearly understood. "I need to go, now," I said, "and report to my station."
"Yes, that was what I would speak to you about," he said, with a hurried gesture for me to stay a moment more. "As I have been deemed… unfit to return to battle at the moment," he began, acknowledging his own injuries with a dark, scornful glance, "I wondered if I might be of service here. I am no healer, of course, but I know my field dressings well enough, and have a ready pair of hands wherever they might be needed. I cannot sit idle." He finished with a tone of uncertain hope, as if he were a new vendor painfully eager to move his wares.
In turn, I cast an appraising gaze over him like a seasoned buyer. It was true, we might well be in need of more assistance, but he was clearly spent. The blue pupils of his eyes were ringed with red, from lack of sleep and a certain number of tears, no doubt, and he still wore his torn clothes. Perhaps the Lord Steward wishes to keep the dying close at hand, he had said to me.
"The best service you could do for me—for all of us," I told him, trying to summon Fíriel's firm, gentle way of speaking, "is to go and rest yourself. I promise that you will heal more quickly if you do this, and knowing that would lighten my own burden a great deal."
He stared back at me in return and I had to struggle not to look away. "I said that I cannot sit idle, good lady," he said, and the uncertainty had suddenly vanished from his voice. "Lying abed while my friends yet fight and die will do me much more ill than good—and that I promise you, unless you truly believe that I would hinder you in your efforts."
There was a long moment of silence. Valar help me, I thought, this one might try to stare clear through to the back of my head.
"Very well, then," I sighed. "Let us go and see what the Warden would have from you."
* * *
Several hours later I was in the dispensary. There were no windows, and the rows of glass vials winked back at me from their high shelves, reflecting candle-light.
"You ask for no little amount of poppy," said Elloth, studying her inventory with a fetching frown. Elloth, who was under the tutelage of our herbalists, was undoubtedly the prettiest girl in the Houses of Healing, and consequently the prettiest girl in the entire City for the time being. And although none us were enjoying the war, I could not help but suspect that she took a certain amount of pleasure from the knowledge of this condition. But then again, perhaps I was also slightly envious.
"I know," I replied, "but Valacar wants it. Now, may I have it, please?" I folded my arms over my chest and tried to convey just the right amount of impatience.
"It really is a lot," Elloth continued, creasing her brow as she looked at me. She was, after all, the well-learned apprentice herb-mistress, and I but a lowly blood-letter. "More than the surgeons usually ask for. 'Twould kill a man, if given all at once."
"He knows that, Ell," I said wearily. "Now, can you please get it for me?"
She shook her lovely head. "I'm sorry. Supply is very short. The herb-master said we are to dispense it only for the patients who will live." She bit her lip and narrowed her eyes. "Just as well—we should be healers and naught else, I always thought."
"Perhaps…" I said, and just behind my ribs, something snapped, like a thin thread stretched beyond its limit. I only realized what I was saying after the first words had left my mouth. "Perhaps if you came to the wards, if you saw the man that Valacar was going to work on before he told me it was beyond hope, perhaps if you saw him ripped open by some orc-blade, like a carcass in the butcher's shop, perhaps if you heard him cry out for his mother, then…" I stopped to catch my breath; my hands had made themselves into fists. "Then perhaps you might think differently on what we healers should do!"
The other girl stared at me, and even in the dim light I could see the tears forming in her eyes. She was twisting her mouth in the way women do when they are making an effort to control themselves. This is not her fault, I told myself; sacrifices are necessary, in times like these…
"Valar, Ell, I'm sorry. I didn't mean—"
"No," she said, taking a quick breath through her nose, her voice noticeably higher. "It must be terrible for you, that you would speak so. Please tell Valacar that I apologize." She blinked, and though a single droplet trailed down her fair cheek, she managed to raise her chin as her eyes met mine.
Better to apologize to the man who will now spend a longer time dying, I thought, but I merely uttered a clumsy farewell. When I left, Elloth's face was such a beautiful picture of noble suffering that I did not feel half so sorry.
* * *
"Elloth sends you her apologies," I said to Valacar when I returned to him empty-handed, "but nothing useful."
"Oh?" Valacar was among our best surgeons. He never talked down to the women in the Houses, and for that reason he was one of my favorites. Today his apprentice had been laid low with a fever, and Valacar had called me away from the main ward to help him on his rotation. At any other time his asking for me would have made me quite proud, but now I saw only the stark necessity of the situation. We had reached a point, I think, when endurance was valued higher than skill.
"They're rationing it out now. Surgeries only. Elloth told me, only for the ones who will not—" I glanced over Valacar's shoulder at the pale man lying on his surgeon's bench, then quickly looked away. He had passed out, I was relieved to note, but then, Valacar had told me that he had been going in an out of wakefulness for nearly an hour.
Valacar nodded. I had never seen him looking so tired, and it unsettled me. We were all a sight grimmer now, as if a slow poison were leaching into our veins.
"I understand the idea of it," I went on, trying to pull my thoughts together, "but it seemed as though we had so much, in the beginning. I mean, how many more days—"
"We'll find a way."
"And Elloth is such a stupid biddy, anyway, she wouldn't know about it at—"
He raised his hand slightly. "You're shouting."
I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose. He was a surgeon, after all, not some gossipy old goodwife, and had no need for a burst of girlish spite. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to." Whatever had snapped in my chest was now aching. A rushing noise filled my ears.
"You look tired," he said, not unkindly, though his voice sounded distant to me.
"No more than you."
"I suppose you're right," he smiled. He grew grave again and looked at our patient. "We'll find a way," he repeated, and he went over to the small table that held his surgeon's tools. He selected a large knife and very deliberately began to hone it with a small whetstone that was also there.
"There is a spot in the north garden," he said, without looking up from his work, his words undercut by the scrape of metal on rock, "a little circle of young trees, with a white stone fountain at its center and a small bench. You may not have seen it, yet."
"I think I know it."
"Good. Pleasant, is it not? I want you to go and sit there and rest, and come back in ten minutes."
He looked up at me, his face neutral. "Ten minutes. I promise I'll be here when you return." Then he turned his attention back to the blade in his hands.
* * *
When I went out to the gardens, I did not find Valacar's little circle. I simply rounded the corner of a high green hedge, and a moment later I found myself on my knees next to a flower-bed, retching. Breathing hard, I shifted myself so that I was sitting upon the grass with my legs tucked under me, face to face with a small white statue of a lovely maiden. I stared at her blank, round eyes until the world ceased spinning. She looked very solemn, but enviable in her pale stone serenity.
"Are you all right?" I turned around and saw a well-worn pair of boots on the ground beside me. Looking up, I saw that they belonged to my insistent soldier friend, standing above me with an expression of mild concern. Had he been witness to that whole pitiable performance?
"Fine—fine, thank you," I stammered. He offered me a callused hand and helped me up. I sat down on a small bench near the statue. He sat down as well, at a respectful distance—there was already some impropriety to it, of course, a girl and a young man alone together like this. He was wearing a clean shirt, and his dark hair fell more neatly about his face.
"It seems like it would take a great deal to upset you," he said quietly. I gave a mute shrug in reply. "I'm sorry if I was rude to you, before," he continued, after a pause. "It was not my intent."
"There was no harm done," I said, tonelessly.
"This is quite a place," he observed. Then he was quiet again, facing my silence for the second time in as many days. "Do you want…would you like me to leave?"
I looked at him, and wondered what he knew of these gardens. During my lifetime, entire portions of Minas Tirith had been left empty and silent, the streets and buildings falling into disrepair. Through all this, however, the Houses and their beloved gardens had remained well-kempt—this was no small source of pride for our Warden. The hedges were trimmed back nicely, the flowers well-tended, the fountains and statues kept free of cracks, all for the benefit of those who came seeking healing and respite. But now the sky was a murky, opaque shade of brown, and the loudest clashes from the battles below us reached even to the sixth circle. All our meticulous care seemed to be a mere trifle, a quaint little joke when set against the chaos that was now beginning to consume us, and I realized I did not care to be alone here.
"No. No, please, stay if you like." I noticed that the leather bag of a courier had taken the place of the sword he had worn when I treated him. "Tell me, did the Warden set you to work?"
"Yes, and I am grateful that you took me to him." He gave a short bark of laughter. "Although I must say, I am certainly the oldest errand-boy in the entire City. The moment I saw your Warden, I should have known he would not be one to let a simple man-at-arms lay hands on his patients!"
"Message-taking is an important duty," I assured him, and he gave a conceding shrug. "And how are those cuts?"
"Mending, thanks to you. And what have you done, since we parted ways?"
I went through the duties in my mind, trying to boil them down. "I helped to set a broken leg, I fetched a good deal of clean water, assisted in the surgery-rooms and…" I ventured a sidelong glance at him. "I made an apprentice herb-mistress cry."
He raised an eyebrow. "Really? Was it that very pretty one?"
I straightened up on the bench. "There are no very pretty apprentice herbalists in Minas Tirith. They're all plain as cows."
He snorted, and laughed again. "Then you must have some very comely cattle." I smiled in spite of myself.
At that moment, a high unearthly shriek pierced the air. It was as if the sound of Valacar's knife scraping against the whetstone had been enlarged a thousand-fold, but there was a new malicious depth to it, as well. There was death and rot and dark triumph in that noise, and I felt as though it might stop my heart beating within my breast. We both covered our ears.
"What was that?" I whispered when the abominable utterance had passed. I shuddered at the chill that had suddenly come over me; it was as if the coldness were lodged within my own body, as if there were some icy mass at my center.
"That was the Black Captain or one of his ilk, most likely," he replied, clasping his hands together. His breathing was audible as he looked around quickly, as though said Captain were lurking behind the trees and hedges at this very second; I could have believed that, so closely had the noise rattled inside my ears.
"Have you heard the stories?" he finally asked. I nodded. "They have come on winged steeds, horrible creatures—it is said that the Dark Lord himself horsed them so."
"The Dark Lord," I repeated, closing my eyes. "Tell me," I said slowly, "what other news of the battle?" We had changed places, I realized, for now I sounded very much like he had when he inquired about the chances of his wounded friend.
He drew a deep breath, and leaned back on the bench, resting his weight upon the heels of his hands. "As your good dame Ioreth said, the City is now besieged. There is a great host, more orcs and men than anyone can count." As he laid out the statements, one after another, it became clear to me that this was a message he had delivered before, or else had heard spoken often. "And trolls, and all manner of fell creatures under the hold of Mordor. They have brought great towers and engines with them, and will not rest until the outer wall has been breached. Shall I go on?"
My stomach tightened, but I nodded. "It would take a great deal to upset me, sir," I said, giving his phrase back to him as evenly as I could manage.
He gave another smile, which vanished almost as soon as it formed on his lips. "Fair enough," he assented, and stared up into the darkened sky. "Rohan has been summoned to our aid, but there has been no sign yet of King Théoden's men, and we know not what numbers he has at his disposal… By the time they arrive… if they arrive, it may be too late for Minas Tirith."
I dug my fingers into the edge of the bench. It was one thing to toil under a cloud of dread, another thing entirely to hear the long-feared news in plain words from the mouth of someone else. "So we come to the end, then?" I thought of my mother, and realized I would never see her again.
"Aye, perhaps," he nodded. "But nothing yet is cer—" He was interrupted by another dreadful screech. The same wave of ice washed over me, and to my ears, at least, this call seemed even closer than the first. I shut my eyes, and even after the cry was finished, I kept my hands clamped to the sides of my head, for I could have sworn that I heard its echoes rebounding off the white stones of our City, or else it had merely left its black mark vivid upon my mind.
After some moments I felt another hand over one of mine, and I opened my eyes. He gently pulled my hand away from my ear, and held my fingers between his palms. I let my other hand drop. His grip was rough but warm.
"But nothing yet is certain," he finished.
No, nothing yet is certain, I wanted to say. Except that we will soon run out of pain-draughts, and that my favorite surgeon has no doubt finished driving his knife through his patient's heart. Nothing yet is certain, save for that hideous death-call, which seems now more real to me than all the bread and water I have tasted in my life…
But I said nothing. I simply let him hold my hand until I felt warm again, and then for several moments more. I looked down at our fingers, pressed together over the cool stone of the bench. We were only sitting in a garden, that was all, and for the time we were safe.
"Bold of you," I remarked dryly, but made no move to pull away.
"You took care of me, once," he replied. "And Tarondor." He carefully released my hand, depositing it into my lap as if it were some breakable object. He stood up. "Thank you for your company. Mayhap I will see you later."
"Mayhap." I watched him go through the arched doorway that led back into the Houses. My legs felt stiff as I rose, as if I had been sitting for hours instead of minutes. I dusted off the front of my skirt once more, and went back inside through those same doors, because Valacar would surely need me again.
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