Banjoverse: The Full Epic
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Fallen: 4. Kindness
“Do you always give your dead to the fire?” one of the soldiers asked me. His faint accent told me he was from Lossarnach; the gentle lilt in his tone was not unlike Ioreth’s.
“No,” I replied. “There are tombs, usually.”
He considered this for a moment. “That sits ill with me, the thought of lying between the stones.” He shook his head. “When I die, I want to be covered in earth. It seems the more natural way of things.” He closed another pair of glassy eyes with a gentle pass of his hand. “Meaning no offense to your Minas Tirith customs, of course,” he quickly added.
“We might all have a tomb of stone, soon,” one of the other men put in, “whether we wish it or not.”
The man from Lossarnach shot a sharp glance at the other soldier. “Hush!”
We went back to work.
I had never been a particularly imaginative girl, but now that I was finally removed from childhood, my mind began to bloom with subterfuges and fantasies. These men had never been alive, I convinced myself, and if I followed far enough along that route, then the next natural conclusion was that they were not men, at all. The dead were nothing but weights that pinned the living to the earth.
But at night, I dreamt that the corpses sat up from their shrouds and spoke to me. I was not frightened during the dream, but when I awoke I could not go back to sleep. I lay staring into the darkness, and then I got up and went to the kitchens to make sweet rolls.
The dough was solid comfort in my fingers, and I savored the graininess of the flour on my palms. In the silence of the empty kitchens, I tried my best to slap the soft mass down to the tabletop with impressive, authoritative smacks the way that Cook used to, but I could not get the rhythm quite right. Had Cook been there, she would have scolded me, then brushed her thick fingers gently against my cheek in that peculiar manner of hers, marking me with the lightest trace of flour. But she was gone from the Houses, now, along with all the kitchen-staff, cleaning-men and serving-maids.
I had known, of course, that everyone not needed directly for the war would have to be cleared out. Still, I had felt a pang of shock on that morning after the last evacuations when I came into the kitchens and found her gone, for she had ruled over these large, warm rooms as surely as the Steward himself governed Minas Tirith. She was a formidable woman with big hands, and no one really seemed to know what her name was, or if indeed she had one to begin with. She moved about swiftly with sharp orders on her tongue, always accompanied by the clang of pots and pans, and no one dared contradict her.
But children were her weakness, particularly the nervous, shy young boys and girls who arrived at the Houses to begin their apprenticeships. She would wink conspiratorially at us, and press an apple or a bit of honey cake into our hands, and we adored her in turn. The group of apprentices with which I had entered had been the last one of normal size to come to the Houses. In the years that followed, the numbers declined rapidly, although in truth they had been steadily dwindling since my own mother had been a girl. There were no questions about the boys, for more and more were going for soldiers with each passing season, but the dearth of girls was a small mystery. With the marked lack of children in the Houses, my peers and I had been destined to remain always as Cook’s “babes,” even if by now we were nineteen and twenty and twenty-one.
Now I sighed, because the kitchens were empty, and because I knew my dough wouldn’t be quite right. It never was, really, but I was resolved to die with sweet rolls in my stomach. At the sound of footfalls, I looked up to see one of my fellow “babes” enter the room—Valacar’s apprentice.
“Oh—hello,” he replied, looking startled to see me. In the years we had known one another, Laeron had grown from a nervous, lanky young boy to a nervous, lanky young man. I suspected that the Warden had paired him with Valacar in hopes that Laeron might absorb some of that surgeon’s calm, decisive nature for himself—though if that were the case, it did not seem to have worked very well thus far.
“How is your fever?”
“Ah…finally broken, thank you.” He walked over to a set of small cabinets that stood against the wall and began to rummage around. “I’m going back to work, soon. Just making some tea, to be sure that the sickness stays away for good.”
“An excellent idea.”
“Mm…” he nodded quickly and flicked his gaze over to me. “Would you like some, too, then?”
“No, thank you. Do you want a sweet roll when they’re finished?”
“That’s sweet rolls?” he said, turning around to eye the dough in my hands. “Yes, please, of course.” And then he dropped the tea-kettle lid, which fell to the floor with a resounding clatter.
When his tea had finished brewing, he sat across from me, hunched over the steaming cup while I formed the dough into rolls.
“You were with Valacar this afternoon, were you not?” he asked cautiously after several silent minutes.
“Yes, I was.” I set down another finished roll.
“Nothing…happened, did it?” I could see his fingers twitch as they gripped the mug.
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing out of sorts, say.”
“No,” I swallowed, and pinched the next handful of dough so tightly that it was good as ruined, and I had to start over again. “Nothing out of sorts. Why?”
“Because, well…he was called up to speak with Lord Aradîr today. In the Master’s offices.” He took a hurried sip of tea. “Aradîr seldom calls anyone up to meet with him like that. And even when he comes down to make a visit to the Houses, he rarely speaks to Valacar. If ever there’s a problem with the staff, it’s the business of the Warden. Everyone knows that.”
“And Valacar did not say why he was summoned?”
“No. It sounded as though he might not know, himself. Although he never tells me anything, anyway.” He took another sip. “At any rate, he might have been more likely to tell you. He likes you better, I think,” he added quickly.
“That can’t be true, Laeron.”
“Today he said that you could be argumentative, at times…”
I set down another roll. “I am not argumentative!”
“…but he was smiling a bit, when he said it.” Laeron rotated the cup in his thin anxious hands. So different from his teacher. I remembered the way Valacar had looked as he dragged his knife over the whetstone this afternoon. A model surgeon, calm and decisive. Had those qualities served him poorly today? “Keep that close, will you? The business with Aradîr.”
“Yes. Yes, of course.” When I had returned to the surgery corridor after sitting in the gardens, the man was dead and Valacar was pulling a sheet over him. We avoided one another’s eyes for a long time after that.
Naturally, the rolls came out burnt. Laeron was polite about it.
“Well, it’s not so bad, really,” he said. “They’re warm, that’s the thing. Much better than all that dry bread.” Somewhere below us, through layers of stone, a low rumble drifted up from the battle.
“And much blacker,” I replied. I took another bite. It was the aftertaste, more than the actual flavor, that was a problem. Just a hint of charred bitterness, which was like a sweetness that had tried too hard and ruined itself. That was fitting, I decided.
“I might go down,” he said abruptly. “Down to the battle, I mean.”
I stopped mid-chew. “What? To fight?”
“Well, why else?”
“But you are needed here.”
“They also need men on the walls. Maybe even more than we need surgeons.”
His fingers drummed lightly against the table top. I wondered if he had ever even held a sword. “Laeron…would you send me down to the battle?”
“You? Of course not!” he snorted. But then my meaning fell into place, and he stared into his mug. “That’s not the same.”
“Well, forgive me, but you’re no more a warrior than I am!”
He looked up at me again. “Well, I think that…well, there’s a choice, you see. And I think I would rather at least try to help, in the end, than wait here and…” He trailed off.
“And be slaughtered, you mean?” I stared at him.
“That wasn’t what I meant!” Another rumble came up from the battle, and then we were both silent. His hands still clutched nervously at his cup of tea, as if seeking a point of anchor there. For the Valar’s sake, Laeron, I thought, just be still for a moment. Just one moment. The wish was as bitter and urgent as the burnt taste in my mouth.
Strange, the things I wanted. Before all of this, I could see all my desires spooled out before me for miles and miles, the languid wants of someone who believed firmly in the coming year, and the year after that, and the year after that. I had wanted a dress like the elegant red gown I had glimpsed in the milliner’s shop; I wanted my brothers and cousins to be old enough so that they would cease running wildly through the house; and I wanted, one day, to have a baby girl who would fall asleep in my arms. But now life was as narrow as the aisle between the sickbeds, and if the things I currently wished for had shrunk to match that proportion, then the wishes themselves had doubled in force and clarity. I wanted to work my hands in the dough until my fingers cramped and I forgot the warmth of fresh blood. Lying in the darkness beside Fíriel, I wanted to roll over and bury my face in the back of her neck and breathe chamomile all night. I wanted to go back and find that injured soldier in the gardens once more. And more than anything else I wanted my mother to be here. Just to see her again.
But I was greedy, and I knew it.
“If I do go,” Laeron began quietly, “do you think you might… Well… Would you tell Elloth goodbye, for me?”
I put my elbows up on the table so that I could rest my head between the heels of my hands. “You tell her, Laeron. Tell her, yourself.”
“Or…” he said, and his mouth might have twitched a little, “I could just give her one of these sweet rolls.”
“Yes,” I replied. “And she’d love you forever.”
Even in the dark I knew the southeast gardens well, and after leaving the kitchens I cut through them to go to the south ward. Picture a rough cross within a circle, and you have the shape of the Houses of Healing; the buildings form the cross’s arms, branching out from the center atrium, and the gardens, in turn, fill out the circle in the spaces between. No few Wardens and healers have questioned the efficiency of this design over the years, but so many parts of the White City are set in stone, in both theory and in fact, and so the Houses stand more or less as they always have.
A man was sitting on the ground by the nearest entrance to the south ward, and as I came closer I recognized him. He had been brought in with a foot wound two days ago, and now he was seated with his back against the wall with his legs stretched out before him. As soon as he had been able, he had sat up in bed with a knife and began to silently whittle little figures out of odd scraps of wood he had somehow procured, one after the other, his face blank as he worked. The figures themselves had no faces at all. They were plain and crude, all more or less the size of a child’s palm. They did not have any sort of balance to them, and so could not stand up by themselves; he set row after row of them lying either on their backs or their fronts. Because they had no faces, it was impossible to tell which.
He appeared to be carving at this very moment, though I could not think how he could manage it in this lack of light. He looked up as I approached.
“Would you like a sweet roll?” I asked him. I was carrying the more salvageable specimens in a knotted-up cloth bundle. “They’re burnt, but only a little.”
“Well, that’s good of you,” he replied. His voice was slow and rough, as if he had just woken up from a long sleep. He put down the knife and the wood scrap. “Come over here.” I did, and he looked up at me through the darkness. “I know you. Don’t I?”
“I was working in the wards when you came in.”
“Well, perhaps there was some other time, as well. Busy girl, are you?"
"I suppose so."
"And you were born here?"
"Busy Minas Tirith girl," he nodded, as if he had just discovered something important. "And did they make you stay here?"
"No. No, I wanted to."
"A brave one, then." He gave one more strange, self-congratulatory nod. "Does what needs to be done." He inclined his head to one side. "May I ask you one more thing?”
“All right.” This was getting tiresome.
I had to lean in because his voice was low. As he spoke, he took a bit of the cloth at the hem of my skirt and pinched it between his thumb and forefinger.
“No, I don’t think so,” I replied when he was finished. I stepped backwards and pulled my skirt from his grip. This was not the first time I had been propositioned.
“With some of them, it’s not really their fault,” Fíriel had told me. “Men are lonelier creatures than women.” She gave me a meaningful look. “Depending on how many you get, you can afford to be selective.” She had smiled slyly while she watched my face as I tried to determine whether or not she was being serious, and then she had walked away.
The man sitting below me did not change his expression at all, but simply picked up the knife and figure and went back to work.
“Did you know that the Gates have been breached?” he said. I stared at him. “So I don’t see what you’re holding out for.”
I dug my fingernails into my palms and turned to go inside the ward, but his next words froze me.
“You don’t know kindness, little one. You can’t tell kindness from killing.”
I drew a sharp breath and turned back towards him, which was, of course, what he had wanted. He smiled horribly and pressed the tip of his knife into the little piece of wood in his fingers. Whatever he knew and however he knew it, it meant little if we were all to die soon, anyway. But now I realized I could see him more clearly; I could see that his hands were strangely mottled, and that his face was drawn, and I realized, too, that I felt warmer than I had in days. There was the sound of horns, distant but unmistakable. I turned away swiftly and passed through the south ward, and from there I ran to the eastern walls, where a score of others had already gathered: The Sun had risen, and Rohan had come at last.
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