Banjoverse: The Full Epic
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Fallen: 7. Uneasy Peace
When we had finished with the towels, Fíriel placed a basket's worth in my arms and told me to bring them to the south ward and the surgery corridor, and that after that I should go and rest.
The south ward was full, as it had been for the past several days, the Gondorian soldiers and the Rohirric cavalrymen perched and propped on the low, narrow beds. After the battle, the uninjured men would come to visit their friends. They trailed in and out of the wards between their shifts at feeding the funeral fires, and at all the other duties that had to be attended to in our half-crumbled City. The Houses were by far some of the cleanest places left in Minas Tirith, and there were women there, and the air within them was not nearly so foul as the air without. Therefore certain corners of the south ward had become unofficial gathering places for some of the companies. It was not unusual to pass loose clusters of soldiers, conversing and sharing their bread and meat, occasionally passing around a small flask. I liked the sound their talk made within the walls, their low voices mingling together like the constant noise of a fountain or a running stream.
I counted out stacks of towels to place on the small, squat wooden tables that stood among the beds at intervals. I exchanged the occasional greeting with this Rider or that Guardsman, for all of the healers had made the acquaintance of a great many men over this past week.
"Thank you, Miss," a man in ranger's garb said. His face was kindly and weather-worn.
"You're most welcome…Mablung, is it?"
"Aye. You see, Damrod?" He put a gentle elbow to the ribs of his friend, who was sitting beside him. "She remembers me."
"'Tis most likely because you're the greatest oaf she's ever met," said Damrod, without looking up.
* * *
Before, I had never imagined that I could envy a soldier, but now at times I would watch them together like this and feel a strange longing. There was something about the way they spoke with one another, their movements as they clapped their friends on the back or clasped hands in salutation. Even the ones who would often quarrel, the ones who were not the fastest of friends within their unit, still seemed to carry that sort of easy, knowing closeness between them. I had always loved to sit and talk with the other girls in the Houses when we had time to spare, but it did not seem the same; I decided there must be a different sort of blessing conferred to those who had drawn and shed blood on the same field.
I was thinking of this when I came to the surgery corridor. I set a few towels outside of each room. When I came to the last in the row, I knocked on the door.
Valacar opened it and looked at me, one hand on the wooden frame. "Well, come in," he said.
I stepped inside and he looked quickly around before shutting the door behind me. The small room looked as it always did when Valacar was not at work on a patient; it was clean and orderly, all the edges of the tables squared to one another.
"I brought you some towels."
"As I can see. Thank you."
I gave the basket a small toss upwards, then caught it.
"But now they've all come unfolded." I sat down on a chair against the wall and placed the basket in front of me. "So I need to make them tidy again."
He stared at me for a moment. The first few ties at the neck of his coat had come undone. He snorted, then smiled. "As you wish."
I pulled out one of the white cloth squares and put it into my lap. It was a few minutes before I decided what I should say. For his part, Valacar was silent as well. He leaned against the opposite wall, arms folded over his chest.
"I'm not entirely sure what he wanted," I finally said. I remembered the endless stacks of papers, the books against the wall of the office, Aradîr's low whisper in my ear. "He was not forward with me. He wished to know if I had done any work in the surgery corridor, if I had ever aided you. And he said that it went against Canon for a woman to do surgery work."
Valacar raised his eyebrows. "Oh?"
"Though I don't think he is angry with me for that."
"No, I doubt he would be, in truth."
"And he kept going on about the Canon, and all of the laws. He said that the smaller violations could lead to the larger. I don't understand why he did not just ask me about…if he wanted, I mean…" I trailed off.
"And what do you think?" Valacar asked softly.
"Do you think that it was the right thing for me to do?"
I looked down and ran my hands over the coarse cloth in my lap. I liked neither the question, nor the way in which he had asked it.
"Of course it was," I said quickly. I had never spoken of it with anyone—I had only played timidly about its edges. "It had to be. I—I mean, I saw him. I saw that man." I threw a glance towards the high surgery table. "'Tis a cursed thing, to let a man linger in such pain, is it not? Especially when his end is already certain." I closed my eyes. "I didn't like it," I continued, and my voice rose slightly. "I hated it. It made me ill to think of it, even after everything else. But it had to be done." I opened my eyes to look at Valacar. "It needed to be done, did it not?"
He shook his head slowly. "I don't know."
My stomach turned.
"What do you mean? You cannot do such a thing and not be sure of it." Valacar was one of our best surgeons; he had always seemed to know what to do. When the surgeons stood in the corridor to argue or debate some matter, they always heeded his words, even when his voice was the quietest. There was no sense in him asking me such a thing. I pulled the towel from my lap, tossed it back into the basket.
"And besides that," I went on, my tone softer now, "what can it mean, one more body? When there are yet so many lying on the field?"
"I suppose it means that one body carries the same weight as any other, and that we cannot always find a gentle way around things, and that those in our place must not make presumptions."
"What are you saying, then? What will you do?"
"I do not know. It was wrong of me to undertake such a thing while you were aiding at the surgery. It was thoughtless, and I wish no ill to come to you for it."
"'Twas but a brief talk I was called for, in the end." I paused, knotting and twisting my fingers into the loose folds of my smock. "But I still do not understand, Valacar; how could Lord Aradîr know of all this? It was during the fighting, was it not? Everyone was hard at work—and you were behind a closed door. And I—" I stopped in a panic of memory. Then I took a deep breath. "No. I said nothing," I finished, fairly sure of myself.
"But I sent you for the herbs."
"Oh." And then I remembered: Elloth's perfect records. Was it the job of the herbalists to record denials as well, now that the rationing was underway? "And I asked for them in your name."
Valacar nodded. "And soon after there was a corpse borne away from my part of the corridor."
"But I still do not understand. Who would watch those things so well, especially when there is a battle at our doorstep?"
Valacar moved away from the wall and leaned over the table that stood between us, resting his weight on his elbows. "You seem like a good girl. You pay little heed to wagging tongues, I suppose?"
"Well… I…" The truth of the matter was that I enjoyed a good morsel of harmless gossip as much as any young lady, and there were often plenty to be had in the close space of the Houses. The reason that I was not of ill repute in this sense was that I did not simper and giggle like many of the other girls.
Valacar gave a weary smile. "That is well. I would have you know that grown men partake in their fair share of rumor as well."
Suddenly I recalled the barest shred of something—a few words, perhaps, that I had overheard nearly one year ago.
"You would be the next Warden, would you not?"
He nodded. "There has been talk, although I am not the only one under such consideration." He smiled again. "And our own Warden is yet quite hale, and I do not know if I should even like to inherit his position if ever it comes to that. I am no great lover of bureaucracy." His smile faded as he went on. "Such a thing does seem to mean that some men can nonetheless be watched more closely than others. That some cases can be handled less forwardly than others."
"Even in times of war?"
"Even in times of war. Perhaps even more than in the uneasy peace in which the City has dwelt for all these years."
"And what would become of you, Valacar? If…"
"Most likely I would be removed from the Houses. And perhaps there would be other consequences brought to bear; the ones for the taking of a life, outside of war."
I shook my head. "No."
His face softened. "But it may not come to that. I do not wish you to trouble yourself with this."
"I will, whether you wish it or not."
He crossed to the other side of the table to stand directly before me. "Take heart at this, then: the tides have turned, and Ioreth tells me that the King has come back to us."
I stared at him.
"'Tis often true that Ioreth prates more than is becoming," he went on, "but never in my memory has she spoken false."
"And what thinks the Lord Denethor of this?" I asked when my voice had returned.
It was his turn to stare.
"You do not know, then?"
"The Steward is dead. There was a fire."
I bent my head and took a slow breath. Surely that could not be.
"The Lord Faramir will be Steward, now," Valacar continued. "And by all accounts he is a wise man."
"And a just man, as well?"
"Aye. A fair man."
"Then that is well, I suppose," I said, and any strength that was in my voice had long fled. I glanced up at Valacar once more. He looked tired and calm, as he always did. I could not see how he could be so serene. Before, speaking with him had never failed to settle my mind, if only just a little; now, our talk had hopelessly roiled my thoughts.
"Valacar, Laeron wants to go and fight!" I blurted suddenly. The memory of the apprentice in the kitchens had sprung to my mind unbidden.
"I know," Valacar sighed. "I believe that many of the young men in the Houses had such a desire. It was well for us all that the battle was ended before any had fully resolved to go."
"'Twould be folly."
"It might well be, but I can understand why Laeron and the others would wish to go. Though Laeron's parents sent him to be apprenticed to the Houses so that they would not have to send their son to war."
"And much good it did him. We have all been sent to war, in the end." I remembered Aradîr's words. 'Twas good of her to spare one of her children, then.
"We chose to stay, did we not?"
"Aye, that is true," I conceded. I paused once more, and then resumed: "And he's in love with Elloth, Valacar!"
"Oh." He considered this new revelation for a moment. "And is there anything you would like me to do about that?"
"I don't know, it's just—it's Elloth!"
"Well, she is very pretty." He must have noted the look on my face, for he quickly added, "You're very pretty, too, of course." He paused, and stared at me. "Youdon't fancy him, do you?"
"What? Laeron? Valar, no."
"Well, then. You would do well not to add to your own troubles, my good lady."
I nodded quickly, embarrassed. Even at the end of it all I was still a rather silly girl, it seemed. "I should be going."
"One last thing: you should not tell anyone of the manner of the lord Steward's death. The Warden says that the news must not reach the lord Faramir's ears at the present time."
"I assume it is because he has been gravely ill, and because he has more than enough to fill his thoughts in these days, even without word of his father's demise."
"I'll not tell anyone."
"I suppose you must keep secrets well enough—when it matters."
Valacar nodded, satisfied. "You seem so. Quiet girls usually do. I believe I could tell that the first time I saw you, in fact."
"And when was that?"
"It must have been…nigh on twenty years ago, I suppose."
I folded my arms. "Don't tease me, Valacar. I would have been naught but a babe."
"So you were. I had just arrived in the City for my surgical apprenticeship, and your mother came with you to visit the others in the Houses. I remember she said that you were a very good and sweet child, though you did not smile as much as you might have. You sat in her arms very quietly and took in everything around you. I fancied that you looked like a wise little owl."
"That was a long time ago. Why would you recall a thing like that?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. Why do we remember some things and forget others?"
"A wise little owl," I repeated. "That is good to know, I suppose."
He smiled. "I am glad of it."
I stood up and made ready to leave. "Goodbye, Valacar. And thank you."
"Thanks to you, as well," he replied. "And do try to be at ease with this, if you can. You young ones must keep the hope for us all." He shut the door behind me and I left, clutching the empty basket.
* * *
As I moved down the corridor that led to a wing of private rooms, the men seated with their backs against the wall threw me several longing looks. Or rather, they threw longing looks at the tray of food I was balancing in both hands. It was a good meal, to be sure; not an extravagant repast, but certainly much better than the plain bread and tough dried meat on which most of the men had been living for the past few weeks. As soon as the sons and daughters of nobles had come to the Houses, stuffed roasted game hen, good cheese, cured olives, and even a few delicately-crusted pastries had miraculously appeared in the kitchens.
"How nice of her, boys! She's brought us a proper supper."
"'Tis very sweet of you, missy, to remember the lowly warriors."
"This," I said, without breaking my stride, "is for the Lady Éowyn."
A chorus of groans and mock exhortations went up. It did smell good.
"Ah, too good for the likes of us, I see!"
"Aye…playing lady's-maid to the Wraithbane, she is."
Lady's-maid, indeed, I thought.
"You will take the Lady her midday meal, and you will sit with her and wait on her until she is finished or dismisses you," the Warden had said to me earlier. I immediately opened my mouth to protest: I was a healer, after all, and not a maidservant—this was a distinction that the girls of the Houses took quite seriously. But the Warden did not look as though he was in any mood to debate this matter, and besides that, I realized that I was intrigued at the prospect of finally seeing the storied woman up close. So I had swallowed my objections and gone to fetch the food.
Now I tapped at the door with the toe of my shoe. The voice from within bade me enter, and I shouldered the door open and went inside.
"My lady," I said, and dropped a curtsey.
The tales that had been going around the Houses were numerous, and some were more fanciful than others. So perhaps I had expected to see some wild-woman with beads and feathers woven through straw-colored hair; or perhaps I fancied I would see some dark-eyed lady of death, swathed in robes of crimson and black.
I saw neither, however. The woman by the window stood slender and tall in a tidy white gown. Her fair hair hung loose down her back, shining dully in the muted slats of light that streamed through the glass. When she turned around I saw that her face was pale, and very, very pretty. I was reminded for a moment of the statue of the solemn young maiden I had seen in the gardens.
I carefully set the tray on the small table beside the bed. The fine covers looked barely disturbed. I cleared my throat nervously.
"With all respect, my lady, the Warden has said that you are to be abed as much as possible," I ventured.
She nodded slowly, but did not move. "I doubt not that that is what he said." Her accent was not so pronounced as those of many of the other Rohirrim, but there was yet a low, insistent thread of it running through her voice. No matter what else each of the different tales had said, they had all agreed that she was formidable.
I looked at her, and then I looked at the bed and at the food. I lifted the tray from the small bedside stand and placed it upon the regular table towards the center of the room. I pulled out the chair.
She nodded to me. "Thank you."
* * *
Even today, people still ask me now and then what it was like to attend to the Lady of Rohan, and so soon after the Battle of the Pelennor. I always begin by telling them that she was a very poor eater in those days, and they swiftly lose interest.
It was true, nonetheless: I would watch her as she picked at her meals in disinterested silence, and marveled at how one with such a bad appetite could possibly have had the strength to ride to battle, let alone perform any great deeds upon arrival there. And then in all fairness I would remember that there had been many hours in these past days in which my own stomach had been empty, and yet I would sooner have died than made myself take a bite of food. In those hours it would be all torn skin, cracked bones, the warm iron flavor of blood.
I like to think that we were perhaps companionable. I was sent to her room with her meals many times over the next several days; while I was certain that while she had not requested my return, at the very least she did not find me objectionable. I believe that we were all little more than shadows to her at that time. She did not speak to me much, nor I to her. Sometimes she would ask me a question about the Houses or the City, and I would reply as best I could. Though she was nothing if not mirthless, she still seemed to possess an odd sort of humor, which occasionally bared itself in sharp, dry splinters.
Once she asked me if there were a great many ladies working here.
There were a fair few, I replied. Though not so many as before the Siege.
"I suppose I have met several of them," she said. Then there was a long pause. "You do not say a great deal," she told me.
"I could speak more, if my lady wishes."
She gazed out the window for a moment before looking back at me. "'Twas a compliment."
* * *
On that first day with Éowyn, I returned the supper tray to the kitchens and walked back through the north ward. Beren was standing near a corner, talking to two other soldiers who wore the same dark livery as he did. Their faces were quite different from one another, save that they shared that peculiar sternness of countenance that seemed to attach itself to all of our menfolk from the age of fifteen or so; and yet at the same time they seemed to me as alike as three brothers. Beren saw me staring at him, and I looked away reflexively.
But a moment later he was at my side. "Hello again," he said.
"Hello. Are those your friends?"
"And how do they fare?"
"Well enough, I think. 'Tis good of you to ask."
"It is my business to ask." I inclined my head slightly to one side. He watched me with raised eyebrows.
"Then I will not praise you so if 'tis merely your job. After all," he went on lightly, "my uncle oft says that to feed a woman too much praise is like feeding a mare too many oats—it makes her spoiled and useless, you see." He smiled at me. I opened my mouth, but then he continued: "I think that you should take a walk with me."
"Why don't you find a mare? Perhaps she would be better company for you."
It took him a moment to recover. "I looked for one," he finally said, smiling once more, "but the stables were empty."
"Well, that's a terrible pity. She would have found your conversation far more charming."
He laughed, put his hands up to signal a truce. "Very well, then. You need not forgive me if you do not wish to. But you should come and take a walk with me."
I considered him for a moment, then nodded curtly. "A short one."
"Aye, and not in the gardens, since you insist you dislike them so."
"I never said that."
"Of course not."
We left the Houses and walked slowly round the Sixth Circle. I kept my arms folded across my chest. Our dragging feet were in marked contrast to the men and women who moved about briskly on some piece of business or other. We stayed close to the inside edge of the Circle, but here and there my gaze was drawn briefly outward and downward and a glimpse of the ruined Pelennor filled the corner of my eye. Perhaps it had been a mistake to go out, I thought, for the lightness of our previous talk seemed to drain from us with each step.
"May I ask you something, Beren?"
"Have you ever killed a man?"
He nodded, and his face was blank. "Aye, some. I once kept a sure count of all the foes I had felled, but I no longer care to do so. To slay a man is far more loathsome than slaying orcs, I think, but such was the way of the battles." He paused and looked at me. "Does that trouble you?"
"I don't know. It should not, I suppose." I cleared my throat. "For I am scarce more a virgin than you, when it comes to it."
I watched as his expression turned to one of utter shock, and he stared at me for a moment. Then he laughed, for he understood: I was not speaking of love and maidenhood, but of carnage and blood. When the men talked of being a virgin, they spoke not of lying with women, but of the difference between those who had not yet been to battle and kept company with death, and those who had.
"True that may be," he murmured, still smiling. "True that may be. The folk of the Houses keep a grim station, indeed." Then he grew grave. "A woeful day it is for our City, when our women speak as if they too are at war."
"We are," I said. "But unlike to you, our lives have not yet been in close peril, for our men have done well in keeping our foes at bay."
"Rohan has done well, you mean," he sighed. "And the men of the North, and the dead oathbreakers. Woeful, too, is the day when Gondor cannot defend herself by her own hand alone."
"But joyful is the day that she finds her friends in her greatest hour of need, Beren!" I said. "You speak as though any fault lies with you. None of this is your doing."
"I know," he said, and stopped walking: we had come to the eastern side of the Circle. We both fell silent as we gazed at the shadow that yet glowered in the distance, blurring the line of the horizon. Still far off, and yet so near. On an impulse, I stepped away from Beren and moved forward to the battlements. I stood there and gripped the railing with both hands, and the white stone was smooth and cool beneath my fingers. Another moment, and Beren was beside me once more. We were silent for a time, both of us staring East.
"I hate it," he finally said. "To look upon it is to hate it, and yet it has always been there, as long as I can remember." He shook his head.
"Ioreth once told me," I said quietly, "that those people who have lived all their lives in the City, those who have been children here, are a peculiar sort. That it comes from growing up beneath the Shadow, so that we are like animals whose eyes are shaped to the darkness, and that we cannot abide too much light at once."
"Think you that that is the truth?" Beren asked.
"I cannot say." I looked at him and smiled. "I do not think that I am peculiar, of course. And 'tis true that Ioreth is different—she is from Lossarnach—but it could be that she is different from all the folk there, as well, for Ioreth is Ioreth. And Lady Éowyn and the Rohirrim are different from us, too, but they are simply from another land with other ways, and no better and no worse, I think. And Valacar…" I trailed off for a moment, and found myself staring in the direction of Mordor again.
"Who is Valacar?" Beren asked.
"He's a surgeon. From Amroth. And he is different, too. He looks at things in a different way." I sighed and braced my weight against the railing. Beren was watching me. "And he does not hold the City very close to his heart, I think."
"Nor should he, if Minas Tirith be not his home."
"No. He should not have to, I suppose."
I turned and leaned back against the stone so that I could face Beren. He was standing straight-backed and silent, this young soldier. He stared out to the East, as if trying to fathom the distance between himself and the Black Lands. I remembered what Valacar had said to me, about the young ones keeping up the hope. For a moment I was sorely tempted to tell Beren everything: about Valacar and Aradîr, and Laeron, and the dead man, and the wounded soldier with his eerie little wooden figures, and the way in which the only Steward we had ever known had passed away, taken by the flames. Things I might not have even told to my mother, had she been here.
Instead I held my tongue.
"I think that Ioreth is right," Beren said.
"But only part of the way," he continued. "We may have grown so that our eyes are shaped to darkness, but this has only made us to seek light more fervently." He smiled. "So we are peculiar, after all."
His eyes were kind, but for some reason I looked away from them and turned back towards Mordor and the depthless murk that lay there. None of this is your doing, I had said to him. Nor was it mine, nor any of ours.
"It is out of our hands," I said, and shook my head. I did not know whether I was speaking more to Beren or to myself. "I need—"
"I know," he finished for me. "You need to go back to work."
I nodded and left it at that.
"Very well," he sighed. "So do I." He turned to go, and I followed after.
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