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In the Caverns
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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1
In the Caverns

I do not weep when they come for my son. It is not the way of the women of Rohan to send our men into battle with the memory of tear-stained faces. Instead, I straighten his wrinkled tunic and smooth the hair back from his round, still soft, face. “Make me proud, my son.”

He draws himself up proud and tall. “I will, mama.” His bony wrists and ankles stick out from clothes grown suddenly small just this last season. I had been working on a new tunic when we were told to flee our home. And how is it that I have never seen before this moment the fine, gold fuzz that covers his upper lip, so like the hair that once crowned his infant head? I hold his slender hands, trying to picture them holding the wildflowers he brought me for my last birthing-day, rather than gripping the hilt of a sword much too large for him to wield. I let every detail of him etch itself in my mind, there to rest with his first steps, his first babbling words, the crow of his baby laughter.

“It’s time, lad,” I hear Gamling say softly. “We must go.” I want to snatch my boy away from him, refuse to let him be part of this horror that women never created, nor asked for. Instead, I lay my hand over his heart, to feel once more that which I did create. Another moment passes and then Gamling leads him away, in search of other mothers’ sons.

Only when he is out of sight do a few silent tears escape, tears both fierce with pride and bitter with sorrow. It is ever so with the women of Rohan. With glad hearts, we raise our sons to be warriors in defense of our lands, yet no mother ever truly wishes to send her son into battle. I remember feeling thus when my son was born. My husband could not understand why I was so inconsolably sad when our son was born, strong and healthy. But he had never carried a babe and could not know the joy of that precious union and the pain when that union is sundered with the babe’s birth. In time, the sweet reality of my babe eased the pain of my suddenly-empty womb.

But I fear nothing will cure this emptiness I feel watching my son disappear into the caverns beneath Helm’s Deep.

Then I feel a small, warm body press against me. My daughter, frightened and confused. “Where is brother going, mama?” I lift her onto my lap and she nestles against me, where just a day past she would have struggled to be let down. I bury my nose in her fair hair and inhale deeply of her child-scent—grass, dirt, sweat, fresh milk and that which is uniquely and indefinably her.

“He is going to defend us, lamb. He will keep us safe from those who would do us harm.” I wish with everything in me that I speak the truth. That, even if my son should fall, his sister should be spared. For myself, I care not. I have buried my father, my brothers and my husband. Should it be needful to bury my son, I will live. Yes, I will live for my daughter, though I foresee no joy in the living. I remember my own mother’s face when we laid my brothers to rest, both fallen in the same battle. Her own merry expression hardened into a grim solemnity that never left her, even when at last death came for her. I did not understand why she was so changed, then.

It is a grace that my daughter is too young to feel this pain. Would that the spirits of my ancestors grant she will never have to. Still, she is frightened and to ease her, I hold her close and sing to her. Songs of valor and bravery, songs of hope and triumph to drown out the terrible clamor from above. I sing until I am hoarse and then I tell her stories. Stories of Helm and his courage. Stories of the Mearas, running wild and free across the plains. I tell her these tales until there is finally silence in the caverns, until the King himself comes to stand before us, head bowed in wordless sorrow.

I do not need to hear his words to know what has passed, but still he speaks. “I, too, know what it is to lose a son.” Even as I grasp his careworn hands and murmur the appropriate response, I think that he does not know. His queen, who had been lulled to sleep by the sound of her son’s heart beating beneath hers, would have understood this exquisite agony. But not the King, nor any man of Rohan who yet lived.

He passes down the caverns, pausing to speak with other women. Their stoic faces must be the mirror of my own. They hold their living children to their breasts as I hold my daughter and, oh, I grieve for those who arms are forever empty. But I do not weep. Nay, I am a woman of Rohan and I do not weep.

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