Banjoverse: The Full Epic
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Fallen: 5. One of Us
"…rode with the coming of the dawn…"
"…and I saw it—dark smoke rising…"
"…black ships at Pelargir, at my home…"
The Houses had never been this crowded. Everywhere I turned, there were voices and standing bodies. Our soldiers and guardsmen and message-lads were there; new arrivals, fair-haired men from the Mark, were also to be seen, as were a few who'd come from the coast, downriver. A murmur, low and urgent and edged with hope, was passing through the crowd.
"…slew the Black Captain…"
"…army of dead men at the docks, grey and fell, and I saw it…"
"…healed him, though he was dying…"
I stood on my toes and tried to peer over the forest of heads and shoulders that had suddenly grown up in the north ward. The tightest knot of people seemed to be wound around a tall, dark man whose face I could not see. Our Warden was making his way through the crowd to stand near him, speaking above the others' voices, trying to enforce some semblance of order; it was unusual to see him like this, for he seldom ever shouted or spoke very loudly—but then again, he seldom had need to. I returned to the flats of my feet, then went up again. There were no other staff members in sight. The Warden's gaze finally lighted on me, and he beckoned me over with a motion that told me I should be quick about it.
By the time I had shouldered my way through the crowd to stand before the Warden, the tall man was gone. In his place was another, who stood serenely as the Warden spoke to him. The Warden turned to me and placed a heavy hand on my shoulder. He looked exhausted, but there was a strange sort of light in his eyes.
"Listen carefully," he said, speaking rapidly and firmly. "A man from the North, a Ranger who came to the battle, has come to the Houses. He has healed the Lord Faramir, and two others who were grievous near to death, and he will yet heal many more of our men." He paused and glanced at the one beside him. "And this is the Lord Elladan, his…" He lingered on a note of uncertainty.
"Kinsman," Lord Elladan put in gracefully. His voice was deep but oddly sweet-sounding. His face was unlined, though he did not seem young to me.
"…kinsman," the Warden repeated, although his countenance betrayed a moment's puzzled skepticism. "Lord Elladan and his brother are healers in the way of their own people, and they have most kindly offered their aid, as well." He stepped to the side to avoid further jostling by the crowd, and his grip on my shoulder tightened. "You will take him first to the ones whom we cannot save, for those are the ones in greatest need of gifts such as his. Stay in the north ward; the others have already gone to the south, and to the surgery corridor. Understand?"
I nodded, although my eyes were now on Lord Elladan. …in the way of their own people… So he was not a Man, at all—a strange, nervous thrill passed through my heart. The Elf smiled at me, and I realized I was staring very rudely.
"Good," said the Warden, releasing me. He gave me a final glance, then looked at Elladan, and then he straightened his spine before disappearing into the throng once more, as if steeling himself to face the unfamiliar street-scene that had once been our Houses.
So I led Lord Elladan to the dying men. They were easy enough to find, for we had tied our little black markers to the posts of their beds. Long before he had finished, I realized that the Elf could have found them by himself, without such crude signs affixed; but he was a foreigner, and someone important, as well, and the Warden most likely thought it would have been poor manners to let him go to work completely unaided, even if the only available escort was a callow young slip of a healer-girl.
I could scarcely take my gaze off of him. He moved with an unnerving silence. His eyes were grey, like my people's, but wholly dissimilar. Our eyes are the shade of storm clouds, and shadows on white stone. His eyes were the color of rain. He would shut them for long moments as he tended to the men, as if he were trying to recall something from long ago. He laid his slender fingers upon pale foreheads and spoke words in his own language. Occasionally he would ask to use an instrument or a bit of herb from my kit, but mostly he worked empty-handed; to this very day I cannot explain exactly what it was that he did. It seemed to me as though he were conducting a private transaction with each patient, building up a tale with his hands and voice, until it all changed, and the dying man returned and opened his eyes because he realized that the story had been his all along, and it was not yet finished as he had first supposed. But those were most likely my own personal fancies, for I was both tired and astonished.
A few times that night he would look over at me from the bedside where he was seated, and slowly shake his head; this signal I understood well enough. But even the ones he could not save seemed to relax under his touch, and their breathing would ease. I had begun by leading him down the center aisle in the north ward, but eventually I simply followed in his wake, quietly watching him and slipping the black cloths one after the other from the bedposts.
Finally we arrived at the far end of the ward. The Elf looked out over the rows of beds and men.
"And that is all, for the time?" he asked quietly. His tone held an edge of weariness—if indeed his people ever wearied, at all.
I glanced around rather stupidly. "Yes…I suppose it is."
"Then I will go and seek my brothers." He turned to me once more. "My thanks. It is no easy station you hold."
I could think of nothing to say in reply to that, so I merely curtsied as deeply as I could manage. Perhaps it is only another of my time-blurred fancies, but I thought I caught an instant's bemused surprise in those rain-colored eyes. Lord Elladan smiled again, bowing gracefully, and then he turned and was gone.
Afterwards I walked unthinking to the northeast gardens and sat on the ground with my back against an old tree. I had not slept for nearly an entire day and night, but I felt light, as if my bones were hollow and my thoughts were spun of air. Several minutes passed before I realized I still had all the black cloth markers looped over my left arm. I slipped them from my sleeve and counted them, laid them on the ground beside me, and counted them again.
He had done what we could not. I closed my eyes, and the evening air burned its sweetness into my chest with every breath I took.
I blinked. My back was ridged with soreness and my head felt like a metal weight.
"I'm sorry! I didn't think you were sleeping."
"I was not asleep," I protested, rubbing a hand over my face. Crouched before me on the grass was the young soldier. The first thing I noticed was that he had removed the dressings from his forehead.
"All right," he smiled.
He settled himself beside me, sitting with his knees drawn up against his chest, a position that made him look very much like a small boy. "You must like gardens. Every time I meet you, you seem to be sitting in one."
"Only twice." I stood up to shake the stiffness from my legs and to rub at my lower back. For some odd reason, I did not wish him to know quite how glad I was to see him. I had learned to guard my grief, and so perhaps it felt only natural to shield my joy, as well.
"You must like gardens," he repeated, a gleam in his eye. "For you are a healer, and surely you love to care for all things, and watch them grow."
"You must have some very strange notions about healers, sir," I replied with a lift of my brow. He laughed—that short, peculiar bark of a laugh that he seemed to carry with him. "And because you are a soldier, I suppose you like to cut things down, and that you love everything that is sharp and bloody?" He did not laugh at that.
"I'm sorry," I began. "I should not have—"
"It's all right. Your meaning is well taken—never judge a healer."
It was quiet for a moment, and then I sat down before him. "And I will never judge a soldier. Agreed?"
He nodded slowly. "Very well." He busied himself with his leather bag. "Have you heard?" he asked, rather offhandedly.
"Heard about what?"
"About everything. All of it."
"Most likely not," I admitted.
"Then I have a great many stories to tell you, if you would like to hear."
"Very well; and I have some stories for you, as well." I was relieved that he did not seem angry with me.
I leaned back against the tree, and he told me first of Mordor's great beasts and war-engines, and of the monstrous battering-ram that had broken down the gates, and of the ride of the Rohirrim, and the death of King Théoden by the hands of the Black Captain. Then he told me of the woman who had ridden to the battle as a man, and the strange little creature from the North whom she had brought with her.
"They are in the Houses at this very moment, I think!" I put in. "Ioreth has told me about them."
"Yes, they are here in the Sixth Circle." Last of all he told me of the army of pale specters who came to the aid of the West. I marveled silently as the fragments and rumors I had been hearing all day began to grow and take whole, solid form. He had some bread and cheese in his bag, and he shared that with me while I told him about the new healers who had come to our City, and about the Elf-lord and how he had aided those whom the rest of us had left for dying. All told, the young soldier possessed the greater number of stories, but I held the advantage of having seen with my own eyes the ones I had told, and so we agreed that we were more or less equal on tale-telling counts.
"I can scarcely believe any of it," I admitted, "and yet all the same, it must be true."
"Aye," he agreed. "It feels like being on the ridge of some mountain, but not yet at its peak. We can see naught of the great stone mass, save for the bit on which we stand at this very moment."
"If it is like that, then we will not be able to see the entire mountain until we have come down altogether, and are very far away indeed." He nodded his concurrence, and we ate in companionable silence for a few minutes. The next time he spoke, his voice was low and hesitant.
"That Lord Elladan, whom you told me about…do you suppose he might have helped Tar', as well?"
"No." My reply was so quick that it hung in the air between us almost before he had finished his question. I should have allowed for a greater pause to show him that I had at least considered it. He bit his lip and stared at me again, that same sharp blue stare that had compelled me to lead him to the Warden the day before. But this time I matched his gaze. A "yes," or even a "perhaps" would have started him down a winding, poisonous path of might-have-beens, and I thought I should try to keep him from that road. Strange, the notion that a young girl should desire to protect a trained soldier, but the thought stood resolute in me. It must have shown on my face, as well, for at the last he did not question me further. He simply gave a slow nod and turned away to stare at some undetermined point in the distance.
Then he stood up. "I need to return to work," he said quietly.
"Me, too," I replied, finally realizing that I had lost track of time once more. We were perched on the perilous mountain ridge, after all, and there was still much to be done. "Thank you again."
"The pleasure was mine," he smiled, and turned to go. As he did, something else occurred to me.
"Wait," I said. "You'd better tell me your name. In case I see you again."
He stopped and looked thoughtful, as if this were information that he did not impart to everyone. "Very well. But promise not to laugh."
"Why would I laugh?"
"Because it's 'Beren.'"
"That's a fine name."
He made a face, and once more he seemed very young. "My mother had romantic sensibilities. You should have heard all the teasing when I was a lad; you know how boys are." He sighed, then grinned again. "Tar' was the worst, actually. He never stopped, even when all the others outgrew it."
"He was faithful, then."
"Faithful," he laughed. "I suppose so." He reached down and took my hand and pressed it tightly. I thought that if I tried hard enough, I might memorize the pattern of calluses on his palm and the way in which he curled his fingertips inward. "Take care."
"And you, as well."
After he had left, I shook my head. "Beren," I said to myself, and went off to find the Warden again.
"Lord Faramir is very kind," Elloth was saying to me. "And," she added, leaning conspiratorially over the table, "very handsome." She considered the cards in her graceful hand for a moment before making her play. "Your turn."
I blinked at my own hand for less than a second before setting down my own card of choice. I was playing mechanically, without any thought; it hardly mattered, however, because Elloth invariably beat me at cards, anyway. She seemed to have an uncanny sense for the balance of the deck, for the numbers and the workings of things. That, and a near-flawless memory for small objects. The herbalists were supposed to keep a detailed tally of every quantity of every item that entered and exited the dispensary. Most staff members made marks as they worked, but Elloth wrote down all of her notes at the end of each of her shifts, as if she were recalling the lines of a favorite poem. She never made a mistake. I had attempted, on several occasions, to slip a flask or a bit of some obscure root from the shelf while her back was turned, to see if I could throw off her perfect count, but somehow these silent subtractions always seemed to end up in her notes, as well. It was rather unnerving, and more than a little irritating.
"I was sent in to his rooms to give him his breakfast, today," she said, "only due to the absence of the maid-servants, of course. And when he thanked me, he also asked me my name, and my position, and how I had been faring here." She laid down another card. "Very courteous and soft-spoken—much more a gentleman or a scholar than a warrior, I should think."
I nodded mutely. Elloth's speaking voice was really quite pleasant, and when I stepped back from my mind and let the words blend into one another like meaningless sounds, her continuous talk was actually somewhat soothing.
It was my turn again: spades. Today a number of us had gone down to the lower circles and seen where the stone had been wrecked and crushed like bread crumbs. There were corpses everywhere, men and orcs both, tangled on the ground. We could give no white shrouds to these ones; the only courtesy we could grant our fallen soldiers was not to burn them in the same fire as their enemies.
"…it has been said that the Steward always favored his elder son over his younger, but I cannot see how that could be, myself…"
"Check them for letters," one of the captains on the Second Circle said. Some of them had small rolls of paper tucked in the folds of their clothing: In the event of my death. The bodies were bloated from heat and time, their skins stretched taut in places. The air was full of smoke, and the smell was unbearable.
When I was a little girl I had sometimes gone down with my mother to the big, crowded, noisy market on this level. I always clutched her hand tightly because I was terrified of being lost. Today the only corner I could recognize was the place where the flower seller's stand had been; now there was the body of a man. He was on his back, eyes open and staring at the sky.
Elloth made her final play, and won. She did not smile, but took it all as a matter of course.
"Let me see your hand." I showed her my cards. "You were very close," she conceded. "Next time pay more attention to diamonds."
A group of surgeons had been sent down to assess the conditions of those survivors who could not be moved all the way up to the Houses. Valacar glanced over at me as I coughed convulsively into a handkerchief I was carrying. I had been holding it over my nose and mouth, but it was not doing me any good, and later I would throw it away.
"Once," he said quietly, "when I was a boy, there was a great storm. And in the morning, after the sea had rolled back again, there was a great mass of wreckage on the shore, snarled and twisted into itself."
I coughed again. My eyes were watering from the smoke and the smell. "Were there bodies, too?"
"No. But dead things; splintered wood and snaking ropes of seaweed. This all reminds me of that, somehow." He glanced at me again and shook his head quickly. "Well, I'm sorry. You didn't need to hear that, so I don't know why I told you. Here." He handed me another handkerchief and walked away. It was not until much later that I realized I had forgotten to ask him about Lord Aradîr.
For the following shift, Elloth was sent down to the Second Circle, and I remained in the Houses. When she returned, she did not ask to play cards again.
The Rohirrim fascinated me; I had never seen so many fair-haired men in one place before. They looked strong and loose-limbed when they moved, as if they were always making ready to spring astride their mounts, for Ioreth had told me that they practically lived in the saddle. At first I was timid around them, because for some reason I had always been terrified of horses, and these warriors seemed to live and breathe the beasts. But later I liked to speak with the men from the Mark whenever I got the chance; their speech had a lovely slow lilt to it, as if their voices themselves were rolling forwards over the distant plains of their country. Even the ones who were laid low with wounds, their backs propped against pillows, maintained a lift to their chins that was proud but not haughty. Mostly they were very polite, and never glanced away from you when you spoke to them.
So it was that the Warden found me after the card game, listening to a long-haired horseman while I changed the bandage on his leg. He had a daughter about my age, he was telling me, and I reminded him of her. Her hair was lighter than mine, and she was a fair bit taller than I was, and not quite so slender (with no offense meant to me, of course—I couldn't help it). But all the same, I reminded him of her. Perhaps something about the eyes…
Smiling, the Warden stood by the head of the man's bed and asked how he was faring, and then he moved over towards me and spoke very softly.
"When you finish with this man, you will go and speak to Lord Aradîr in his offices." I tied off another section of bandage and turned round to look at the Warden; the expression on his face did not invite me to ask any questions. "He's asked for you. That is all," he said. It seemed to me to be the sort of voice that mothers revert to when small children ask them where it is that infants come from.
I went to wash my hands and face and put on a clean smock, tracing the possibilities in my mind. The soldier who had propositioned me the night before was sitting on the edge of one of the beds in the south ward. His eyes went from his carving-knife to me, but I made a point of not looking at him as I passed. As I went by one of the entryways to the surgery corridor, I saw Valacar—this was odd, because he usually worked in the rooms to the center, not on the south end.
"Valacar," I said, "I've been called out to speak to—"
"Aradîr?" he finished for me.
I nodded. "And why might that be?"
Valacar sighed. He was looking more tired than usual, standing there in his grey coat. He should not wear that color, I thought—all of our surgeons wore grey, but on some men it looked like mourning. He glanced around once, quickly, and then moved closer to me and lowered his voice.
"You've done nothing wrong," he said, "but I may have made a mistake."
"What do you mean?"
"There are laws," he said, "concerning the taking of lives under various circumstances." One of the possibilities in my mind coiled itself up tightly as I remembered the dying soldier on Valacar's bench, the knife on the whetstone. "And some men tend to differ in the…interpretations of these laws. You should just protect yourself, if it comes to that."
"From who?" I asked. "Lord Aradîr?"
Valacar stepped back. "He's a powerful man," he remarked mildly, as if he were commenting on an excess of salt in his soup or a small cloud over the horizon. "I'm very sorry for this," he said, growing grave once more. "We'll talk later." He turned to go. "I'll not keep you any longer."
"Wait!" Bits of theories and recollections were spinning between my ears, but for some reason the one that seemed to matter least was the one that leapt to my throat at that moment. He looked back at me. His eyes were a shade lighter than his tunic.
"Earlier today," I began, "you said you had seen a wreck on the shore, when you were a boy. Where was that wreck?"
His careful surgeon's hands seemed to relax at his sides, momentarily. "That was in Dol Amroth." His voice was no longer urgent, but distant. "Where I grew up. My father sent me to the City to do the second part of my apprenticeship."
"Really?" I paused to take in this fact. "I never knew that. I had always assumed that you were one of us—that you were from Minas Tirith, I mean. Of course you're one of us," I groped awkwardly to correct myself. Valacar just gave a faint smile at that.
"It's the accent, I suppose," I explained. "I've never heard you speak with a coastal accent."
"I used to," he shrugged. "Some things are easy to unlearn."
I should tell Beren about the unlearning the next time I saw him, I thought as I left the Houses and stepped out on to the flagstones of the Sixth Circle. He seemed like he would be the type of person to appreciate it. The air was warm with sunlight and smoke, but my hands were cold.
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