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2
Fatality

Title: Fatality
Author: Dwimordene
Summary: After Osgiliath, signs of things to come. Valacar, a strange new illness, and lots of anxiety.
Warnings: You can totally tell for which paragraphs the whole story was written.
Characters: Courtesy of Aliana: Valacar, Firiel, possibly Narrator’s mom.
Rating: G-ish.
Prompts: Day 1: Judgment: “Many that die deserve death, and some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them?” (By the skin of my teeth, really); Personal Insanity Challenge: Himring’s Valarin cults challenge, Linda Hoyland’s five words challenge (I wasn’t able to get the tabby cat, though, and the calendar is sort of implied more than anything else…)


~~~

Fatality


The Enemy is coming. They will take the bridge this time, cross the river, pants the makeshift messenger, his pale face sweat-drenched and his right arm hanging useless at his side. He was lucky, Valacar judges; the bone did not pierce the skin.

“We must be ready,” the Warden says, and sends one of the boys into the warren of the Houses to call the healers and the women to their posts, and he nods at Valacar: Attend your duties.

He needs Laeron to help him hold the poor man still as he slowly, carefully – excruciatingly – sets the bone back in its line, then binds it. The man’s in a faint by then, and better for him. All his patients should be so fortunate, Valacar thinks, as he and Laeron settle the man, prepare for those who will come.

Fortune, however, is not to be trusted: what she gives with one hand, she takes with another. Though the wounded men come by the cartload from the river, the Enemy does not take the bridge; the invasion long-feared must await another day. After two days on the surgery wards, Valacar wonders dully whether that is a blessing or a curse. Not that he longs for battle or for death, but how many times can they muster themselves to face the end… and be told they must do it again another day?

That knowledge as much as any wound is wearing. One can see it in the soldiers brought to the houses.

Even the ones who escaped hale, and with the battle now well behind them, he finds sitting slumped by wounded friends on the ward – limp as boned fish they sit, undisturbed even by dreams, as if the world weighs too heavily for dreams. The women who glide about the wards in their undyed smocks seem thin and insubstantial, and the healers in their stained greys have a battered look to them. He supposes he must, too, but fortunately, Valacar has never been one to look often in mirrors. He catches Laeron yawning, and sends his apprentice off to rest, but he stays on the rounds, checking on his patients.

Their wounds are raw still and ugly, though Valacar, intent upon his duties, cannot find offense in them – men grow used to everything in the Houses. Those who cannot, leave. He sees the messenger again, wan as he was two days ago, though well-bandaged. The man sees him approaching, freezes a moment, but then rises, greets him quietly. He tries to extend a hand – habit, of course – but then winces, ceases.

“You’ll need to rest the arm for some weeks,” Valacar warns him. “That was a bad break.”

The soldier nods. “I suppose,” he says, and falters a little, “that I’m done for this war season if that’s so.”

“Likely you are,” Valacar agrees. “Rest, and you’ll recover.”

“Maybe,” the man answers, as his eyes go vague. “There were so many at the bridge!”

And here is where Valacar remembers why he is a surgeon: comfort is not his calling, as the women say. It is not his practice. He spies one of the women, beckons her with an urgent hand: help! She glides over, her dress and the smock whispering softly against each other as she moves, and her voice is low and kindly as she speaks to the man. Soon enough, she has him seated by the window that overlooks the snapdragons, and is listening to him tell a confused and confusing story about the bridge and his brother and an old rhyme about the days of the kings. By mid-afternoon, Valacar suspects, she’ll have all his childhood out of him as well. He leaves her to her work, goes gratefully to the next man to do his own.

All afternoon, he weaves in and out of the rows of beds, and the women of the wards move with him: it is a kind of a dance, the ward-keepers circulating steadily throughout, as Valacar moves at his own uneven pace, staying longer here, passing swiftly there, until at last he comes to the last bed on the ward, and looks into the next where even the women are scarce and mostly older. Here, healers do not pass often, for there is no point: every body bears a black cloth strip. Valacar hesitates – he has no business here, and the day is going down. He knows he should take himself off shift, eat something, take a few hours and sleep.

Nevertheless, he steps over the threshold.

Most often, this place is quiet – men on this ward lie senseless, from their wounds or from the draughts, but today, there is a low murmuring that will not cease. He cannot always understand the words that slip from pale lips, but the terror is always the same. Valacar passes along a row, and peels back bandages, feels for fever, frowns. For some of these wounds should not be fatal, and yet here men lie, dying.

That, most likely, is why he is here, for this is something he has not seen before. No one has seen it before.

A rider in black, the messenger had told the ward-keeper, giving voice to fear. He will come back for us who passed the bridge!

The shadow, whispers a dying man, again and again, ever more weakly, and will not wake. His brow beneath Valacar’s hand is cool – too cool, and clammy. Helpless, Valacar draws the covers up a little higher, and stands there, arms folded over his chest in feeble defense against a chill that comes not of the air within the ward. He feels his palms itch, and balls his fists, breathes in deeply. The dying man whimpers, and Valacar shuts his eyes a moment. When he opens them again, his gaze catches on the charm hanging over him: on a little scrap of rough tissue, a circle within a circle, the outer one cut by two lines that divide it into four. A poor poppy it is, made in haste and with an inexpert hand, that someone has tied to the bedpost. Estë’s sign: many bedposts today bear it. Valacar looks about, and one of the the women watching the ward lifts her chin slightly. Valacar, after a moment, returns her gesture with a nod.

It is not what the Canon says they ought to do, but little things slip here and there, between its pages. Every boy apprenticed to a healer swears by the Valar to uphold the Canon; every healer and ward-keeper calls Estë to witness and sustain their vows, and hopes indeed that she is watching, that she will finish their work and restore the wounded and the sick. And when they fail, as they must from time to time and far too often lately, there are those who say her name so that she will make the dying pass peacefully. Why not, then, hang charms today, and hope that they shall bring sleep deep enough to end the horror of hopeless men ere the end comes?

Valacar sighs. He has never been one to call to Estë – he will reach sooner for his scalpel and cut, holding his breath, no room to think of aught but what lies before him. He supposes, if ever anyone had asked him, that if he were to call to any of the Valar, it would more likely be Tulkas, though some might laugh at that. Tulkas is for the soldiers; healers are Estë’s province, or so custom holds. Perhaps it is because he is a surgeon, and not a ward-keeper or an herbalist: he does his duty with blades, too, and there is just as much blood and screaming as on any battlefield.

But Tulkas has lost these rounds – these men are all in Estë’s power now, or will be shortly, ere they come to Mandos. If that is what happens. Valacar is not one to say. But he finds he hopes that that is the way of it, looking on the poor terrified souls lying here, waiting on release from their nightmares. Whatever this malaise be that afflicts them, it undoes all his efforts and that offends him as wounds no longer can.

“Valacar?” He turns, surprised, to find Firiel standing hard by, frowning, and she looks a question at him.

In answer, he gestures to the man before him. “I’ve never seen the like.”

She looks, and her lips thin a moment. But then she breathes deeply, and her mask is back in place. “Of course not,” she says. “This is our ward, not yours. You are never here to see the like.”

He snorts. But she is likely right that he should leave; it is not his place, and it has been two long days on the surgeon’s wards. His stomach growls, reminding him that all men must eat sometime, and he think, then, of the brandy in his quarters. Maybe, he thinks, feeling weary suddenly, he will pass on the meal and simply drink the brandy. He’ll sleep sooner for it.

“You should eat something,” Firiel is saying, as if she knows his intent. And maybe she does.

“I will,” he tells her. “Later, I will.”

“I’ll make tea later,” she tells him, and he lifts a brow.

“Oh?”

She eyes him: “Yes.”

There is, then, no escape. He sighs. “Then I suppose I will eat now.”

“You should. And save me some of the brandy – it has been a long day.”

He promises he will, and leaves then, heading for the mess hall. The malaise of the last ward lingers, however, and he remembers what other men had said: that the bridge had gone down, but not before the shadow-riders had crossed. They are loose in the land, sowing whatever this deadly terror is.

Somehow, that makes the truth weigh more, or else the weight he feels seems more like truth for that knowledge: the game must open soon, and Mordor has the board.

So maybe he will have one drink until Firiel appears on his doorstep.

The light, slanting orange and low, gleams through the windows of the Houses, and the walls seem to sigh. Night is coming – Estë’s hour against the Dark Lord. There’s a little more time left in their hour glass at least, and they must all remember that. And Valacar will remember it, but he’ll remember whispers of the dying and the rumor of the shadow-riders abroad in Gondor, too, and sharpen his blades.

For war is coming; they will be needed.

~~~

Note: 1. Valacar and Firiel come from Aliana's fantastic Houses of Healing story, Fallen. She said I could borrow Valacar. It turned out Firiel sort of came along for the ride for a little while.


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