"Don't touch that," Elloth said as I leaned in to examine an odd-looking root upon the work-bench. At times the dispensary smelled like an entire garden dried and pressed into one room, sweet dark herbs and bitter pale tubers and sharp spices all crushed together in thick confusion. It made my eyes water.
"Because," she said, carefully turning her mortar in her hand, "if you touch it, you'll die. And what's worse," she added, grinding the instrument harder for emphasis, "you'll have a horrid case of boils."
I considered this statement for a moment. "I do not think I believe you," I replied, although I realized that I had placed my left hand safely in the pocket of my smock. My right hand was beginning to ache from the weight of the full water-pail I clutched.
"As you will," she said, with a brief glance at me.
I set the pail down beside the bench, and the movement sent a gentle ripple out from the center. Small things held my eye these days, strange though it might seem. "There is your water," I said.
"Thank you," she said. "And who was that young man with whom you were walking today?" she asked lightly, just as I was turning to leave.
"A soldier," I said, wiping my hands on the front of my smock. "I tended to a friend of his."
Elloth nodded, looked thoughtful for a moment. "Does he like you, then?"
"I don't know," I shrugged, although it had occurred to me earlier that young men were not inclined to ask young women whom they disliked to accompany them on walks.
"And what is his name?"
I gave a weary sigh. "Beren."
"Beren," she repeated. "Woe betides a woman who loves a man named 'Beren,'" she added in a solemn voice.
"Valar, Elloth! It was a walk. I don't love him—or at least I should hope not. I would think that that sort of thing takes a month, at the very least."
Elloth inclined her head prettily to one side and made a noise that sounded like hm.
"How often do you think about such things, anyhow?" I asked.
"As often as I do not care to think of other things," she replied tersely. I stared at her from the doorway. In the dim light her slender hands were pale against the dark leaves she was crushing in the pestle.
"Well," I said. "Fíriel is waiting on me."
"I have been thinking about her, too."
She nodded. "Does she ever seem lonely, to you?"
"No." I folded my arms over my chest. It had never occurred to me—Fíriel was always moving to fill the empty spaces and to smooth the rough edges of things. "No more lonely than any of the rest of us."
"Between the two of us," she said in a loud whisper, glancing up at me, "I always thought that she should marry Valacar. They would be well-suited."
I raised my eyebrows and opened my mouth to object, as was my habit whenever Elloth took to making such pronouncements. But I found that this time, I found that I could not disagree with my usual virulence.
"Well," said another voice. I turned and realized that Fíriel had appeared beside me in the doorway. Her own arms were folded; her mouth was unsmiling but her eyes were not unamused. "That would certainly be interesting."
But of that she said no more, as both Elloth and I were far too embarrassed to further press the subject.
* * *
I was tired. Mostly I felt chilled, and there was a heaviness behind my eyes. At times my stomach was knotted with worry, but at other times the world would fade into a grey blur and I found that I little cared about what was happening within or without our walls. The news and the rumors, both sensible and wild, persisted in every corner of the Sixth Circle, from the wide doorways of the statesmen's offices down to the dead-end cobblestone alleys where the message-lads played in their free moments. You could no more avoid hearing them than you could avoid breathing the air. But at times I yet found myself deaf to their meanings, letting the words slide away from me like water from stone.
I was tired, and I was forgetting. It no longer seemed strange to me that the streets and the corridors were dotted with soldiers only, not tradesmen or apprentices, serving-maids or vendors. It no longer seemed strange to lie down in a room that was close and crowded with women every night, instead of my bed in my own house. Many a time when I ached for sleep, my muscles were wound too tightly beneath my skin and I could not make myself be at ease in the dark. I would rest stretched out on the thin pallet and listen to the breathing of the others, and only then would the tales of the day return to me, and I would wonder, in my helpless waking, what was to become of us all.
I no longer found it remarkable to smell the smoke of the funeral-fires every time I stepped outside, nor to turn a corner in the Houses and find a new row of shrouded corpses.
And I was no longer frightened by the hollow windows of the empty houses that lined the echoing streets. I walked by indifferently, and let them stare as they might.
* * *
Elloth's dispensary records were a busy grid of marks and tallies; I thought of a map of tiny rooms, crowded with people. Rooms and beds and tables, row on row—it made me weary even to think of it.
She noticed me staring. "Are you looking for something?"
"Suppose I asked you for something, but you had no more left, or…"
"Yes, yes," she replied with a wave of her hand. "We take down everything. All of the requests. The herb-master wants precise tallies, so that we know how much of everything we need to plant, or purchase, or…"
"And what if you had it, but you refused me? Because it was the sort of thing that would kill me and give me boils," I added.
"We take down everything," Elloth repeated. "Why?"
"No reason," I murmured. I thanked her and she watched me as I left.
* * *
And then there were the men who lingered in their dying. The Siege was over and the healers were no longer needed in all places at once. I had to teach myself how to keep vigil at bedsides once more, to wait in the company of waning heartbeats and paling skin. At times my temples ached and I would reach up and slowly slip the cloth from my head and sit with my hair uncovered, though I was not supposed to.
"'Tis women's work," Ioreth said to me once in those days. "For everyone is brought into the world by a woman, you see, and so 'tis only proper that a woman should see them out, when she may. Or that was what my mother in Lossarnach said to me, at least, many years ago. But you know about these things, I should reckon, for you are a clever girl." She smiled, and her wrinkled hand was soft against my face when she patted my cheek. She had been all the same throughout all of this, not leached sober and quiet like many of us.
She left me. The man lying in the bed behind me groaned, and I turned to tend to him.
* * *
"Does it ever grow dull, when you do naught but sit like that?" Laeron asked me. We were in the kitchens again, and I was waiting for Lady Éowyn's meal. Laeron was rolling an apple back and forth on the table before him, pushing it between his hands. At the sudden ending of the Siege he had seemed disappointed, though mostly relieved and dazedly astonished as all the rest of us were.
"I like to sit," I replied. "'Tis good to have a rest now and then."
"Well, what do you think about?" he said.
"My mother said that if someone is dying, I ought to think about where he is from, and how he might have lived, and his family, as well." I remembered the days when I was younger and she had taken me by the hand and guided me. And here is the place where you now must be, dear one. "She said that no one should pass without being thought of."
"Does that take a long time, then? Thinking of all those things?" He tossed the fruit up with one hand, caught it, tossed it again.
I shrugged and leaned against the door-frame. My feet were sore. "I don't do it very often, anymore. It feels too much like inventing stories to myself."
He blinked. "There is nothing wrong with that." The apple rose and descended once more.
I held my hands out, palms open. Laeron stared at me for a moment, then threw the apple in my direction.
"Why aren't you with Valacar?" I asked as I caught it.
"He said that things are going slowly today and that I would do well not to expose myself to unnecessary tedium, because I am but nineteen years old and will have more than ample opportunity for such things when I am older." I tossed the apple back to him. He tried to catch it one-handed, then fumbled and closed both of his palms around it.
"That sounds like him."
"Aye," Laeron nodded, cleared his throat. "Although I suspect it might be more that he does not like the way I arrange his instruments for him."
"Did he say as much?"
"No. But I can tell. Sometimes he goes and fixes them after I am through."
"Is he good to you, Laeron?"
"Aye." He took a bite out of the apple, chewed slowly. "He is. Though he has been quiet, lately. More than is usual, I mean." He looked around, and said in a lower voice, "And not a word about the dealings with Aradîr, or anything of the sort. Though that is no business of mine, I suppose." He shook his head.
I looked at my feet.
"Sometimes," he went on, "when I am with someone, and they do not speak, it puts me ill at ease. As if I should speak, even if I haven't got a thing to say. But I do not mind so much when Valacar is quiet. Often I wish he would tell me more, I mean; but he has a good way of being silent."
"Like Fíriel," I put in, relieved that the subject had not lingered on the Master of the Houses.
He nodded. "Yes, like her, I suppose. A great deal, actually…"
"Elloth said—" I began with a roll of my eyes, then paused and looked around quickly. Laeron's attention had risen visibly at the mention of the name. "She said she thought them suited to one another."
His eyebrows rose slightly and he made a noise that sounded like hm. "Well, Fíriel hasn't a husband, has she?"
"No, she hasn't. And Valacar has not got a wife, I suppose?"
"He's never spoken to me of one." He paused, took another bite of his apple. "Although I am told that some of the surgeons never speak of their wives or their children when they are at the tables and the wards. So that they can keep them apart from…well…" he trailed off, swallowed.
I nodded. To labor in the Houses was to be able to conceal some things, in a way, or at least to reveal only what you chose. Maidens, wives, and widows alike all kept their heads covered, as was the proper and modest thing for ladies who worked in such a place. Men and women who had wedding rings wore them on chains about their necks, under their clothes, so as not to lose them or sully them in the blood and the mire. My mother kept up this practice, even after my father had died. When she was troubled or startled, her hand would go briefly to the spot at her chest where the small bands rested beneath the cloth of her dress.
"But then—" Laeron began, then stopped abruptly.
"Then?" I asked.
He shook his head. "Nothing. It's just—he's said some things, once or twice, and I thought perhaps—" He broke off once more, and this time his gaze went to the space in the door beside me.
I looked to where his eyes were, afraid that one of the subjects of my talk had overheard me for the second time that day, but instead I received a greater surprise.
"Hello, Master Meriadoc," Laeron said. The perian standing next to me glanced up at me with large eyes, smiling uncertainly. He barely came up to my waist. Pale bandages were apparent beneath his thin shirt, but the color in his cheeks was good. I had glimpsed the small creature now and then over the past few days, and every time I had blinked in bemusement; I was too weary to manage genuine amazement. "This is Master Meriadoc, come to us of late from the North," Laeron said for my benefit. I nodded.
"Hullo, Master Laeron," replied Master Meriadoc. I had half-expected his voice to be that of a child's, but it had the same timbre of any young man's. "Pleased to meet you, lady," he said to me.
"And you," I said. I dropped a curtsey and introduced myself. He was not wearing any shoes, I noticed. He moved between me and Laeron, leaning against the bench and casually palming a piece of bread from the tabletop with an ease that bespoke his familiarity with our kitchens, or perhaps with kitchens in general.
"I was wondering…" he began, looking first at Laeron, and then at me. "Your Warden said…that it might be good for me to sit with the Lady Éowyn while she takes her supper?"
Laeron and I exchanged glances. "Of course," I said. "Come with me in just a moment, and we will go to her together."
"Be sure to ask him about the Shire," Laeron smiled to me as one of the other girls put a full tray of food in my hands. He took another bite of his apple and looked at the perian once more. "You'll tell her about the Shire, won't you?"
* * *
Later, the songs and the stories would emerge from the fresh rubble of the War, about the journeys of the Halflings, and all their trials and their perils. We knew already of the one who had sworn himself to the service of the Tower, and of this kinsman of his who had ridden with the Rohirrim and met the Black Captain on the field. Lady Éowyn had enquired of his wellbeing no few times, but I could never offer her an adequate answer; now I was pleased that I could bring him to her in the flesh.
Later, the songs and the stories would tell us all we wished to know and more, but for now Master Meriadoc simply walked beside me and told me of some of the green places of the world. In the narrow parts of the corridor his sleeve would sometimes brush against my skirts. His step was slow from his recent hurts, and as we walked to the wing of private rooms I had ample time to hear of the warm, busy holes his countrymen built in the ground, the gardens and Bywater and the river they called the Brandywine. I could almost see Buckland, myself, or at least I thought I could. He spoke of the place as the weary men were wont to speak of sleep, and as the lonely men spoke of absent children and wives.
"That sounds lovely," I said. "The fields and forests especially, I think."
He nodded, craned his neck to look up at me. "That is what many of your people say. You all seem to be in terrible want of trees and grass and things."
"Aye," I laughed. "A terrible want. But please, forgive me. I am sure you must weary of telling the same tale to all of us, here."
"No." He shook his curly head. "No, I do not mind it at all."
He spoke, too, of his young cousin Peregrin, and of another cousin and his servant who had journeyed with them for a ways. But of those last two he said little.
* * *
I had planned to sit with the Lady Éowyn and wait on her as I usually did, but then I watched her and the Halfling greet one another in the quiet chamber. She was at first reserved, and he seemed wary and shy. But he went and sat on the edge of her bed and they spoke as I arranged the food upon the table, and there seemed to pass between them something very like that which passed between the soldiers in the wards. A peculiar sort of understanding. I decided to let them alone, and I shut the door behind me and returned to the corridor.
* * *
I tended to one of the black-tagged men. Part of his face had been wrecked; part of his shoulder was gone. I did not know how he was yet alive.
I was thinking back to my talk with Laeron. As I changed the bandages over the oozing flesh, I leaned in to whisper to the man that the King was returned to us. I whispered to him that his struggle had not been in vain. I was close and I could smell him; my breath stirred what was left of his hair. Outside, the sky was gray once again, and the air was heavy.
I tied off the last of the bandages. I did not know if he had heard me; perhaps I was grown still more selfish, I thought, and my murmurings were more for my own benefit than for his.
"You would not rob him of that, then?" said a quiet voice behind me after I had gotten up from my crouch. I turned around and started. It was the wounded soldier, standing now; he leaned easily against the wall, carving knife once more in his right hand. Perhaps he slept clutching it, as well, I thought. In his left hand was another blunt scrap of wood. His eyelids were heavy but the glare beneath them was now sharp. "Rob him of his last hours, no matter how cruel they be?"
I wiped my hands slowly on the front of my smock, pressed them against the cloth. "What do you mean?"
"No, of course you would not," he went on, unheeding of my query. Again, that private, self-satisfied smirk. "There are too many others, about, are there not? Someone might see."
"This is no concern of mine, sir. Now, my business lies elsewhere…" I had half-turned to go when he lunged forward and seized me by the arm. His grip was tight. I gasped; his breath was slow and warm at my neck.
Just as quickly, he released me, smiling.
"You mind your hands, sir!" I hissed, hoping that my words were sharp enough to mask any shaking in my voice. I rubbed my arm where he had clutched at me. The man on the bed beside us stirred gently and made a low moaning noise in what remained of his throat.
"Nay, little one. 'Tis you who would do best to mind yours." The soldier paused and casually repositioned his knife in his fingers, played the edge lightly about the pale wood. "And that surgeon," he added. "He has got a look about him, you know. That is not a thing for one time only—'tis far easier than you would think."
"What do you know of it?" I demanded, regretting the question as soon as it left my lips.
He regarded me. The smile had not left his face. "Of what?" he said softly. "Of death?" The knife made a quick jab into the wood, then twisted slightly. "Much more than the likes of you, I should wager. Much more than you." All the time his gaze was on me, but as he spoke he slid the blade lower and closed his left hand into a fist, let the lines of blood bloom around the wood, in the spaces between his mottled fingers. He leaned forward again and I nearly jumped, but this time he only whispered in my ear.
* * *
The gray-haired captain who had told us to check the bodies on the Second Circle for letters had been visiting some of his wounded men in the ward, but now he sat alone on an unoccupied bed in the far corner, turning a piece of parchment in his hands, angling it towards the light. He stopped and folded the scrap when I came and stood before him.
"That man, sir," I said to him, "that man is not well. He will do himself harm." And perhaps others, besides, I added silently. My heart was beating quickly and painfully.
The captain glanced up, over my shoulder. "There, against the wall. Over at the end, in the dark jacket," I said. I did not look behind me.
"And why think you this, good lady?"
"I—he spoke to me, just now, and his words seemed most unsettling, and—"
"Valar," the captain murmured, still gazing beyond me. "I thought them all lost."
"The markings on his shirt—that is the livery of the eastern river company, if I am not mistaken," he marveled. "It was their position that took the greatest losses when the forts fell. My men told me that few or none had escaped with their lives, that they were all but swept away. Slaughtered. The numbers of the Enemy were too great." He looked at me once more, and his face was weary and grave. "Men like that," he said, "rarely fail to say things that are most unsettling, good lady. They are best left to themselves, at least for a time."
* * *
The soldier, left hand bright with iron-smelling blood, had leaned in close to me once more, leaned in close to whisper. And yet, little one, you still do well to confide in men who are soon to be no more.