1. The Making of Boys
The Making of Boys
She has always said it was a pity the Seventh Circle was so silent. The grave business of governance had made the heights a grave place, it seemed. "There ought to be children," she had often said. But lads and lasses in the high circles lose their voices soon, and become silent as their elders. Well-mannered creatures they are, who are rarely seen at play, it seems to Ioreth.
And now her wish has come to pass–from outside in the gardens of the Houses of Healing, there come the high-pitched cries of boys at play, the happy shouts and laughter. The herb master will doubtless come about soon to wail about the danger to his precious plants that boys' games pose. And the Warden then will send someone–a sister-acolyte, most likely–to go round and remind them all once again not to trample the hedges or upset the flower beds, and to please spare the dandelion patches, thank you, lads, and mind! Don't come in until you've wiped the mud from your shoes! They are, indeed, a breath of fresh air on the heights, these common-born lads, who have not yet forgot how to play. They wreak havoc with broom handles, chatter incessantly, and get underfoot, but they are a joy after all. She should be glad to hear them, and to have them here.
But today, they sadden her, and she wishes them gone. In the storerooms, Ioreth works in time to the crack of wood on wood and thinks of those twenty pairs of wide young eyes upon her, as she explained the necessity of signing out all vials. "Readiness is all," she told them, and explained the ledgers, and the sheets, and how to make a healer's kit and where to bring it. "This is ward one, and that ward two–you see, it's all laid out starting west, just like reading a map. Who knows how to read a map?" And the chorus of eager voices–West, South, East, North!–made a game of this lesson, as of all others. It's a race to deliver messages, a challenge to be the first to know the order of the storerooms, and a cause for pride to rattle off the preparation of arnica without stumbling.
A shout goes up. From the storeroom, Ioreth looks out her window and watches as one lad swings his stick–There's that missing broom!–and knocks aside his friend's, then thrusts the end against his chest. The other boy falls to the ground, limbs all aflutter, flailing ludicrously ere he lies still. The victor crows his triumph, raises his 'sword' high and receives the adulation of his fellows, standing fierce and bright-eyed above them all. Not an hour's glory does he get, nor a minute, even, ere another steps forward, eager to lay him low.
Boys should outgrow their games, but it's the game that's outgrown the boys this time.
The next day, the healers have their turn with the lads. It's down through all the levels of the city with them, and Ioreth, too must go. The mistress of the storehouses runs a tight ship, and every House must be inspected, every storehouse checked against the coming need. She'll begin in the First Circle, and work her way up, allowing old bones to rest a bit between climbs. Young legs, however, are less in need of rest, though the lads are well-behaved today, taking turns showing off who knows the passwords to the gates, trying to keep a straight line.
"Keep to the right as you go, be it up or down. Don't dawdle, and stay out of the way of the soldiers–" Master Elian instructs, and stops to let an armed patrol go by. "Be certain that you fasten the baskets shut, so that if you fall, you'll not break or spill what you've been asked to carry. At all times obey the healers and stay out of trouble."
"What if the gates are broken down?" pipes up a young voice.
"At all times obey the healers and stay out of trouble."
"But what if–?"
"At all times obey the healers and stay out of trouble. Do we understand this?"
By the time they reach the First Circle, Ioreth is glad to leave them to their instruction.
Up and down the streets of Minas Tirith run the boys to learn their routes. In and out of the Houses they come flying, and one can always tell when someone has returned by the crash of a door flung open in total disregard for the wall behind it. Sometimes two arrive at once, and then it's "I was here first!", "Nay, I was quicker!" 'til they're shushed. But by noon they're all back again to have their lunch and a wash before they scatter off to the chores assigned them. Ioreth has a few small helpers who scamper up the ladders to fetch and carry sheets and thread, splints and basins. They stand on tiptoe to put up on the proper shelves the jars of dried herbs and potions in neatly labeled bottles, and the yards and yards of bandages.
"Mistress, what's this?" asks the tallest of them, a boy named Bergil, she recalls. In his hands, he holds a dry stem and frowns at it.
"That? Oh, a harmless weed it looks. Here, give it here, child," she says. He obeys, and she inspects it. "Yes, it is a weed. Old kingsfoil–too old to be of use. Toss it out, lad."
"Old Auntie Silrien keeps some under her window," says he.
"'Tis pretty enough in bloom, and sweet-smelling. It calms the nerves for some," Ioreth says. "Off with you, now." And so he goes, smiling the while, and she knows ere long, he'll be telling his friends of his new knowledge–"On the merits of kingsfoil", doubtless, in imitation of the herb master's dull lectures. They are great mimics, these boys, and she has seen herself played out on furtive stages whenever men's backs are turned–all in good fun, no harm meant truly, which is good. Gondor needs no vicious souls.
My little lambs, she thinks of them, and worries about the future. They're none of them her sons, and yet–! On her way home, she stops to watch, anxious, as they wrestle there amid the pillars that constitute their kingdom. The stately house upon Rath Celerdain, abandoned by its owners, is now become their castle, the realm of every sort of monster that a boy's mind can conjure, and the heroes that must vanquish them. It's all a grand adventure, after all.
But the sun is setting–the lamps are being lit, and the soldiers calling curfew put an end to playtime. Another day in Gondor is gone down.
On a Mersday comes a terce of soldiers to the Houses, sent to oversee a last lesson for the healers who may see battle duty, and the lads, too. And for once, Ioreth and her sisters of the House abandon their chores to cluster by the windows and watch and listen.
"If you are sent to the field, you'll need to keep your head. That's the first thing: keep your head," says their chief, a burly man with greying hair. "You're none of you warriors–stay with the soldiers and let them protect you. It's less trouble for you and for me. But if you're alone, or your escort is slain, then it may be you'll need to fight to save your life or mayhap those of others. So today, we'll have a bit of practice, lads, and we'll start with learning a dagger..."
It is an ugly thing. There is little more unlovely in the world than a poor swordsman with a weapon in his hand, and the healers are poor–very poor–swordsmen for the most part. "Mercy on them," murmurs Mistress Lalwen.
"Quicker cut their own throats than any enemy's," opines the newest acolyte.
Ioreth says nothing, but watches the boys. Giddy with excitement they are, for they are, in fact, all sons of soldiers, and so to the bloody craft born. But blood cannot make a lad a warrior fit to face a man, however quick it runs. And it will run quick when shed...
Afterward, when the lesson is done, and the boys have all gone off to wash sweaty hands and faces, the Warden of the House comes forth to thank the soldiers. Ioreth, pretending to read the ledger she keeps with her, listens as their grey-head says: "There's naught to thank for this. You and I know, Warden, we'll save no one with such lessons. Save your thanks for later, when we come to you for stitches."
The afternoon goes slowly after that–most of what needs doing has been done. Her boys wander about the storerooms, looking into ledgers, trailing fingers over bottles, their noses wrinkling like a rabbit's at the heavy scent of herbs. Sometimes they sing a little, and that is a very sweet sound, one to drive away the clatter of metal that rings still in her ears. By three o'clock, they've all gone off to play, save Bergil. "I'm waiting for my father," he says, when she asks. "He comes off his duty early today." Then: "Can I help?"
There's so little to be done, but she sets him counting needles with her before the window. Side by side they work, and he hums to himself, while the needles chime in chilling counterpoint. He plays with them, too, nimble fingers spinning them before he drops them in the box and never manages to prick himself, either. Such hands, she thinks, could never be claws, but they may one day grow stiff enough for steel. But not tomorrow. Nor next week. You and I know, Warden, we'll save no one with such lessons.
What point, then, in trying?
What point, then, in trying? The thought lodged in her mind that day, struck something vital, and so stayed on, when even the sun failed them. Old eyes see their own death with a certain equanimity, but if swords are not for her, they're no more for boys, either. Despite their games, her lambs that would be lions shan't have the chance this time, come what may, for lions need a longer time to grow their teeth than the Enemy allows.
And so what worth, a knife in hands so small and soft as those that boys can offer? "Run along, now, there's my lads, you've quite a load to carry, and we need you. Mind that step, now!" she tells her boys, while the day grows darker. And they obey: chins up, disarming and determined, they run their errands–moving baskets, bringing words and water–in brave bewilderment. She'll not speak against that, for there's worse than dying senseless in this life, and Ioreth would keep it from them–let boys be lambs, be what they are, and not some monstrous In Between.
And never fear, she'll see them through whatever comes in her own way, which is theirs too all unawares. For although those who have not swords may still die upon them, not all those who die by swords needs must die as lions.
"Readiness is all"–Hamlet, V.2
"For while those who have not swords may still die upon them"–borrowed from Éowyn, "The Steward and the King", RoTK.
The poem behind this piece is Wilfred Owen's "Arms and the Boy":
Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
Blue with all malice, like a madman's flash;
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh
Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-heads
Which long to nuzzle in the hearts of lads,
Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth,
Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.
For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple.
There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;
And God will grow no talons at his heels,
Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.
"The Making of Boys" written April 29-May 3, 2004. Thanks to Alawa and Isabeau for their helpful commentary.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.